Destination Guide to Krakow, Poland
GoNOMAD DESTINATION MINI GUIDE
By Melody Moser
Krakow, home of Polish kings and queens for half of millennium, is a city rich in historic details, art and architecture, whose history blends flawlessly with the present, allowing the city’s legends and tradition to carry on to this day.
Vibrant with youth and energy, Krakow is the heart and soul of Poland, an atmosphere that can be felt in every one of the city’s most visited sites, from it’s splendid Royal Renaissance Castle perched upon a hilltop to it’s esteemed 14th century Jagiellonian University.
Designated as one of the European Cities of Culture for the year 2000, Krakow’s numerous historic buildings and monuments contain more than 2.5 million works of art, which miraculously weren’t destroyed during World War II.
In addition to history, art and culture, Krakow is geographically rich, situated on the Vistula River, and not far from the beautiful Tatra and Pieniny Mountains of the South.
WHEN TO GO
Krakow’s climate is transitional, so there can always be unexpected surprises. The best time to visit is while it is pleasantly warm, mid-May to mid-June and mid-Sept. to mid-Oct. From mid-Autumn until mid-Spring it is colder and darker, however, cultural life in Krakow remains active throughout the year and you can still enjoy the city’s sites. Winter, with short and long periods of snow, is a good time to go if you plan to ski in the Tatras, whose peaks stay snow-covered well into May.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
LOT Polish Airlines has a non-stop flight to Krakow from Newark, NJ. Fares usually start around $666, but watch for special fare deals. Call (800) 223-0593. Krakow’s Balice Airport is about 15 km. west of Krakow. Bus number 152 will take you to the train station. You need a bus ticket for yourself and one for each large suitcase you have (60 x 40 x 20 cm). Make sure that you stamp both ends of your bus tickets in the little machine attached to a pole on the bus. Ticket inspectors do target tourists, and the fines are high compared to the price of the tickets.
Tickets can be purchased from kiosks and other establishments -- look for "MPK bilety" (ticket). They can also be bought from the driver for exact change, but there will be a surcharge of approximately 20%. Ticket prices: For one trip, any duration, about $0.40; for a one-hour trip that allows vehicle changes, about $0.50.
Buses and trams are the best way to get around after walking. If you need to take a taxi, they are easy to find, and it is cheaper to seek one out yourself than have your hotel call one for you.
The central train station, Krakow Glowny, is a simple ten-minute walk from the Main Market Square.
The Old Town of Krakow is surrounded by a tranquil green park called the Planty. Best explored on foot, the old town’s 13th century quarter, called the Main Market Square (Rynek Glowny), is one of the largest medieval squares in Europe and has survived undamaged to the present day.
In the center of the square is the 14th century Cloth Hall, originally built for the sale of cloth, where craftspeople sell their work and souvenirs from wooden stalls.
Also in the Main Square is the Gothic St. Mary’s Church, with an incredibly beautiful wooden altar carved by Weit Stoss. Allow some time to explore the church -- there are a lot of exquisite details to take in. (St. Mary’s Church, Rynek Glowny 4, Admission: 2.50 zl. Open 11:30 AM to 6:00 PM, Sunday 2:00 PM to 6:00 PM).Krakow’s old town boasts numerous other outstanding churches, most of which can be visited for free. I wandered into a couple of churches during services and was surprised to see that not only were they beautiful, they were packed with young people.
The town also has many monuments and interesting buildings, such as the opulent Slowacki Theatre built in 1893, which has a 900-seat auditorium. There are plenty of fascinating museums to visit, too, such as the National Gallery and the Czartoryski Museum which contains Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Lady with an Ermine. (National Gallery, 3 Maja 1, 5 zl. Open Tuesday and Thursday to Sunday 10:00 AM to 3:30 PM, Wed. 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Closed Monday; Czartoryski Museum, ul. Sw. Jana 19, 5 zl. Open 10:00 AM to 3:30 PM, Friday 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Closed Monday).
Kazimierz is Europe’s most culturally and architecturally important Jewish quarter after Venice. Founded by Kazimierz the Great across the river from Krakow in 1335, it is where Oscar Schindler had his home and factory, at ul. Lipowa 4, which can be looked in if you can persuade the guard (for about 5 zl).
Wawel Castle, the seat of Royalty for 500 years, and probably the most important historical site in Poland, is built atop a limestone hill on the bend of the Vistula River.Tour the Royal Chambers and you will be richly rewarded with astonishing detail. On the ceiling are the carved faces of 30 of Krakow’s townspeople from the Renaissance era, which are said to represent the voices of the people. The Baroque and Renaissance furnishings, and the famous 13th century Flemish tapestries decorating the walls are remarkable and are the finest examples of Renaissance art in Poland.
The stunning combination of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture of Wawel Cathedral will take your breath away. The resting place for centuries of Polish kings and queens, the current cathedral is actually the third to be built upon Wawel Hill; its construction began in 1320.
Downstairs are the Royal Tombs, where the cold hand of death is more closely felt than upstairs in the ornately decorated cathedral. In addition, on Wawel Hill there are several exhibitions (some of which are changing exhibits) in the Treasury and Armory, and the Cathedral Museum.
(Wawel Cathedral, free, Royal Tombs and Sigismund Tower, 6 zl., open 9:00 AM to 3:00 PM, Sunday 12:15 PM to 3:00 PM; Royal Chambers, 8 zl., Treasury and Armory, 8 zl, both open Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday 9:30 AM to 3:00 PM, Friday 9:30 AM to 4:00 PM, Sunday 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM. The number of visitors each day is limited, so get there early).
While at Wawel Hill, climb to the top of Sigismund’s Tower from inside the Cathedral. Duck beneath the thick wooden beams, follow the narrow stairs to touch Sigismund’s Bell, which is said to give good luck. It is the largest bell in Poland and one so heavy (18 tons) that it takes eight strong people to ring it.
Wawel is said to be one of the mystic energy centers of the world, for it contains a stone that is believed to bestow a sense of inner calm and relaxation on those who place themselves nearby. Located on the southwest wall of the inner castle courtyard, the spot was clear to me -- I saw groups of people pressing against it and the stains from years of people doing so.
Before you leave Wawel, check out the Dragon’s Den. Entering near the Thieves’ Tower, descend 135 steps into the dark, musty home of the legendary Krakow dragon. It is easy to imagine that the eerily lit cave with the sound of water dripping had once been the lair of a dragon. Emerged from the cave onto the bank of the Vistula by a fire-breathing bronze statue of the dragon.
(Sigismund Tower, see under "Major Attractions"; Dragon’s Den, open from May to September, from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM).
Wieliczka Salt Mine
An absolutely incomparable site just 14 km. southeast of the city, Wieliczka Salt Mine has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 1978. I joined a tour of this 700 year-old working salt mine, visiting three of nine levels and 20 of more than 2000 chambers, including three chapels, the most famous being the Chapel of Saint Kinga, which is entirely made of salt, including the stairs, walls, chandeliers, ceiling and floor. Anyone who doubts this can just lick the wall.
There are 378 steps down to the first level of the tour, but it is well worth it. And when it is over, you ride back up in a slightly claustrophobic miner’s elevator. Those who need to descend by elevator can arrange this ahead of time and must pay a small lift charge. (Open 7:30 AM to 6:30 PM in summer (April 16 to October 15) and 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM the rest of the year. Tel. 48-12-278-73-02, ul. Danilowicza 10, Wieliczka. Adults 26 zl., discounted tickets 14 zl.).
BEST ACTIVITIES AND TOURS
Swimming is available at several outdoor pools June through August from about 10:00 to 6:00 PM for about $1.50 to $2.00 a person all day. Try Clepardia, ul. Mackiewicza 13; Krakowianka, ul. Zywiecka Boczna, or Wisla, ul. Reymonta 22. Also, an enormous new water park with pools and slides called Park Wodny is located on ul. Dobrego Pasterza 126, Tel. 48-12-413-73-99.For free, you can try your hand at rock-climbing on cliffs right in the city, west of Wawel Hill. Hiking can be done in the Tatra Mountains, about 100 km. South of Krakow.
There is river rafting trip through the Dunajec River Gorge in the Pieniny Mountains on a traditional, wooden raft, which can be done by day tour or by going there on your own. Ticket office is open from 8:30 to 5:00 PM, Tel: 48-18-262-97-21. $8 Adults, $4.50 Children.
There are numerous historical tours in the area worth checking out. From visits to Auchwitz/Birkenau to day trips to Warsaw, these are terrific opportunities to learn about Polish and Jewish history. The following three agencies jointly operate day tours from Krakow:
Rynek Glowny 41
Tel: 48-12-422-40-35 Intercrac
Tel: 48-12-422-58-40 Jan-Pol
in the Dom Turysty PTTK
15 ul. Westerplatte
Some of the tours they offer in English are:
City sightseeing by coach, daily, 100 zl.Auchwitz-Birkenau, daily, 105 zl. Wieliczka Salt Mine, daily 110 zl.The Traces of Jewish Culture, Wednesday and Sunday, 100 zl Pieskowa Skala Castle, Thursday and Sunday, 180 zl. Zakopane, Wednesday and Saturday, 220 zl. Czestochowa, Tuesday and Friday, 220 zl. Dunajec River Gorge, Monday and Thursday, 350 zl. Warsaw, all but Monday, 380 zl.
Discounts of 25% are given to students on the Wieliczka and Auchwitz tours. Children’s discounts are 50% off, and a 10% discount is given for taking a second tour (except for students and children). Often these tour companies will pick you up at your hotel or at one of several convenient locations.
Another unique option is to visit The Jarden Jewish Book Shop in Kazimierz's Jewish quarter at ul. Szeroka 2. They offer Jewish heritage tours, including the Schindler's List Tour, which, for $15 per person includes the film's locations and other significant Jewish sites, and are operated daily in summer and at other times by request. Touring these places gave me a better sense of such an important part of Krakow’s history.If you prefer, this tour can be done independently by buying the Schindler's List Guidebook in the bookstore and touring on your own.
Language and Culture Courses
For Polish language courses, a great place to go is the highly esteemed Jagiellonian University, which offers a Summer School of Polish Language and Culture as well as one and two semester programs. Founded in 1364, it is the oldest University in Poland.
Jagiellonian University, Polonia Institute, Summer School of Polish Language and Culture
31-131 Krakow, ul. Garbarska 7a
In July and August, contact them at 30-067 Krakow, ul. Piastowska 47.
As Poland’s largest tourist destination, Krakow has many different lodging choices. In high season (May to September) it could be more difficult to find a room with a reasonable rate, so I highly recommend advance reservations. Most rooms can be booked by phone, fax or online.
Travelers of all budgets can find something they will like. One of the nicest places to stay is in the atmospheric Old Town, where traffic is minimal and most sites are only a few steps from your door.
The Jagiellonian University Guest House
ul. Florianska 49
(Single $46, Double $70). Often full but very nice
The Hotel Saski
One block off the Main Square at ul. Slawkowska 3.
Located in a historic townhouse, is pleasant and comfortable. Rooms $35-$50.
ul. Basztowa 25
Slightly faded and traffic is a problem, but conveniently located by the train station. Rooms $40-$85.
Some other suggestions: Upper Price Range (more than $60):
ul Sw Gertrudy 26
Rynek Glowny 14
ul. Pijarska 13
Fax: 48-12-422-52-70 Middle Price Range ($30 to $50, usually with bath in the hallway, prices might be a little higher for a private bath):
ul Lubicz 5
ul. Pawia 6
Tel/Fax: 48-12-422-06-22 Budget (less than $30)
Letni Hotel AWF
Jana Pawla 11 82
PTSM Youth Hostel
ul. Oleandry 4
Another option is to arrange for a private room through Waweltur, ul. Pawia 8, (Tel. 48-12-422-16-40, Tel./Fax 48-12-422-19-21), next door to the tourist office. Open Monday to Friday from 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM, Saturday 8:00 AM to 2:00 PM.
Polish food is very good, though it tends to be heavy with cream and focused on meat and dumplings. Krakow is loaded with good eating establishments, about 350 of them to be exact. For traditional Polish cuisine, and to feast where royalty once did, go to Wierzynek. Located on the Main Market Square at Rynek Glowny 15, it dates back to 1364 when Mikolaj Wierzynek prepared a sumptuous wedding feast for the granddaughter of King Kazimierz the Great. (Tel. 48-12-422-10-35. Open 11:00 - 23:00, Summer 12:00 to midnight.) For lighter fare, or for those on a tighter budget, there are many cafés, pizzerias and restaurants that serve a variety of food very inexpensively. At Restauracja U Pollera, at the Hotel Pollera, ul. Szpitalna 30, (Tel. 48-12-421-80-61) you can fill up on a heaping plate full of delicious Polish potato pancakes with mushrooms, grapefruit juice and tea for 20 zl. Prices on their other dishes just as good.
Vegetarians don’t despair: despite the heavy influence of meat in the Polish diet there are vegetarian dishes available.
BEST CULTURAL ENTERTAINMENT
Some examples of Krakow's regular annual events include a Festival of Sailors’ Songs in January; an Organ Music Festival in March or April and an Easter Beethoven Festival; Krakow Spring Ballet performances and the famous Lajkonik Pageant, headed by the legendary figure of Lajkonik in May and June; and the prestigious Polish and International Short Film Festival in late May and early June. In July, there is the Summer Jazz Festival, and the Summer Festival of Opera & Operetta held in the Slowacki Theatre, as well as numerous other music and theatre festivals; October brings Eastern Europe’s oldest jazz festival, the All Soul’s Day Festival. The annual Competition of Nativity Scenes is held on the first Thursday of
December each year in the main square, and the Silent Film Festival is held for one week around mid-December.
Poland has a terrific array of handicrafts made by local artisans including embroidery, hand-painted wooden boxes and chests, paintings on glass, papercuts, and tapestries. Cepelia shops located throughout central Krakow sell them, but a fun place to go is Cloth Hall in the middle of the Main Market Square. There you will find every type of Polish craft and souvenirs as well.
Baltic amber is sold in many of the jewelry stalls in Cloth Hall, art galleries and Cepelia shops. Polish music is sold on CD at any of the music shops in town. There is a wide assortment of English language books about Krakow available at several bookshops right on the main square. Poland is also world-renowned for it's Poster Art and contemporary painting, exhibited in many art galleries located throughout the town. Local artists also sell their work along the city wall on Pijarska Street, where it is fun to just walk and look at the paintings, even if you don’t buy any.
MONEY AND COMMUNICATIONS Banks and ATMs
ATM's are called "Bankomats" in Poland. Using them is a fast and easy way to get Polish currency from your ATM card or credit card, especially when the lines at the exchange windows in the banks are long. Most major banks have ATMs and there are others that are operated by Euronet, the largest ATM network in Poland. The Polish currency is called a zloty.
There are about two dozen cybercafes around the town, so you shouldn’t have a problem staying in touch. In Krakow, many of the cybercafés are actually plain rooms with computer workstations, rather than cafés that offer you something to drink or eat. Cost is usually about $1.50 to $2.00 per hour. Looz
ul. Mikolajska 13
Open 10:00 AM-midnight, Friday and Saturday all night. Easy to find, just go down the stairs. 27 computers.
Rynek Glowny 19
Conveniently located right along the Main Market Square, but only has 2 terminals. Also a center for telephone communication.
Rotunda Orlik Club
ul. Oleandry 1
Open 10:00 AM - 10:00 PM, Sunday 2:00 PM to 10:00 PM. U Louisa
Rynek Glowny 13
This cybercafé is the oldest and best known in Krakow. Set in a remarkable vaulted cellar, you can enjoy a drink while surfing on the net and listening to live music from other vaults in the café.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Basically, Krakow is a safe city. Just use your common sense, as you would at home. However, you should be extremely wary of thieves and pickpockets, especially when getting on or off public transportation. Somebody standing behind me while waiting to get off the train in Krakow furtively opened my backpack; luckily, though, I noticed and prevented him from stealing my cameras.
To prevent minor stomach upsets, avoid drinking Krakow's tap water. Even the Poles prefer bottled water, which is readily available for about $.60 US.
If you are in need of a doctor, Medicover, ul. Krotkal, Tel. 48-12-422-76-33 has an English-speaking staff of well-trained nurses and doctors. There is a list of hospitals, clinics, doctors and dentists in the bimonthly edition of Krakow in Your Pocket, or look in the phone book.
Although no vaccinations are required for Poland, the CDC advises you get vaccinated against Hepatitis A, which is still a problem in Poland due to poor sanitation. Krakow’s 220 pharmacies are called "Apteka" and they are easy to locate. For dental problems, call Dent America, Tel./Fax 48-12-421-89-48.
Polish National Tourist Office.
The online version of the guidebook Krakow In Your Pocket. Great site for destination information, weather, conversions to Polish zloty, country and language information.
Website for Wawel Castle and Cathedral.
An easy and convenient method for booking your hotels online. I used it for two hotels with no problems.
Another site for booking hotels in Poland.
The name speaks for itself.
Places to eat and drink in Krakow.
Polish National Tourist Office
275 Madison Avenue, Suite 1711
New York, NY 10016
Tel: (212) 338-9412
www.polandtour.org In Krakow, stop at the Tourist Office, Centrum Informacji Turystycznej KART, located opposite the train station on ul. Pawia 8. (Tel: 48-12-422-60-91, Fax: 48-12-422-04-71.) Open Monday to Friday from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM (and from June to September until 6:00 PM and Saturday from 9:00 to 1:00 PM). They are very helpful and will arm you with a stack of information.
In Krakow, I found additional guidebooks, such as Cracow by Jan K. Ostrowski, which is rich in information on Krakow’s history and sites, and The Golden Book of Cracow by Grzegorz Rudzinski, which has some beautiful photographs as well as information on the sites.
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