By all means, do the touristy things – but you should also check out the stuff a little off the beaten track…
Not that anyone needs a guide on what to do in Krakow (you’ll want to set aside several days to a week), but there’s plenty of things to do that they don’t have in the guidebooks. From a vodka bar teeming with various types of completely bizarre takes on the Polish drink of choice, to a walking tour with the sole purpose to scare the shit out of you, we’ve got the tips and bits they don’t say in the guidebooks sorted.
Alllll of the walking tours: We love a walking tour, okay? And the guys at freewalkingtour.com in Krakow make us love them even more. The Old Town tour is the history and navigational base you need when you first arrive in the city, and is a good place to get an overview of all the best parts. You’ll end up at Wavel Castle at the end too, giving you a bit more time to take in the place.
Macabre Krakow is a great spin on your average walking tour. Full of grim tidbits of the town, and underlying themes of death and ghouls, this is one for those tired of the standard buildings and history tour. It takes place at each night at 9pm, in the pitch black, and while we won’t ruin the surprise for you at the end – it’s fair to say they cover all their bases.
Jewish District: You’ll cover it on your walking tour, but this is a really incredible part of Krakow that not enough people visit. The former ghetto is awash with bleak history and places steeped in historical significance. The most poignant is by far Ghetto Heroes Square – just for the love of God, please don’t take selfies or sit in one of the chairs.
Main market square: You’ll see it on the walking tour, but this is the ebbing heart of Krakow and worth a bit more of a walkabout. There’s overpriced cafes galore, ornate buildings, and the imposing Church of the Virgin Mary. It’s a great place to just get lost in for a bit – unless of course, you’re there in high season on a weekend and it’s so full of screaming small children you’re at risk of pushing one of them over. On purpose.
Schindler’s Factory: And not the place where those crafty guys who make lifts, make lifts (whoever coined Schindler’s Lifts needs a raise). Oskar Schindler’s factory is in the Jewish District, and while it’s one of those rare things we pay for to experience – it was well worth every meager cent. Filled with testimonials from those he saved, memorabilia and a theatre, it’s easy to go through here at your own pace rather than on a guided tour.
Milkbar Tomasza: Believe it or not, the most touristy spot in Poland still boasts milk bars – and some in the centre of town, no less. At risk of turning this entire site into an ode to the milk bar, we have to stop for a moment to wax lyrical about this place. This slightly upscale take on the humble communist favourite is bordering on hipster, and we mean that in the best possible way. The space is light and airy, the food is great, and it’s near enough to our favourite vodka bar. Win.
Moaburger: At the risk of coming across overly patriotic, these are some of the best patties stuffed between two buns you’re going to find in Eastern Europe. As well as GBK has punctuated the luxury burger market (is that a thing?!) with its Kiwi spin on burgers, we feel the same is about to happen for Moaburger in the east of Europe. With plenty of cringeworthy New Zealand paraphernalia adorning the walls (Maori Mickey Mouse, anyone?), and food that well and truly cements New Zealand’s presence on the international burger stage (optimistic, but a solid call we think), head here if you’re taking a sabbatical from pierogi – wishful thinking if we ever heard it.
We are now also left questioning why New Zealand’s sole offering to the international culinary world seems to be just fancied-up versions of the thing McDonald’s has been palming off to people for decades.
Zapiekanki: HOLD THE PHONE. STOP THE PRESS. If you haven’t tried Krakowian bread topped with cheese topped with sauce yet, you have not lived. This is no ordinary cheese toastie, no, this is street food to rival the Italian pizza, the Greek gyro, and the British fish ‘n chips. The BEST place to get them in Krakow, let alone the whole of Poland or the entire world, is the historic round building in the heart of Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter. This unassuming rotunda looks like an abandoned circus ticket booth, until you seem the streams of people holding complex-carbohydrate, cheesy morsels of heaven. Basically, it’s a baguette cut in half, topped to the point of overflowing with molten cheese, your choice of sauces and your choice of toppings. Do I hear you question the validity of this entry – asserting you can easily do it yourself? No, no my friend. Magic happens in those kiosks – and there’s no way to replicate that at home.
Wodka Cafe Bar: If daytime drinking is your thing (or nighttime we suppose, but swilling back vodka with your lunchtime sub just seems so much more Polish), look no further than this gem located on the side streets, just off the main part of town. With everything from chocolate vodka, to chilli, to grapefruit and strawberry, our best advice is to order a flight of shots and get stuck in. Then, if you’re anything like us you’ll go searching the streets for a place to take home several bottles of the stuff.
Auschwitz: No trip to Krakow, or Poland as a whole really, is complete without a trip to the most harrowing concentration camps of them all. Auschwitz is undoubtedly the highlight (if you can use that word to describe it, since our trip we’ve been constantly at odds with descriptive words and their positive connotations) of our trip to Poland as a whole, but there’s plenty people don’t know about it. For instance, entry is completely free. That is, if you’re happy to wander around unguided.
Between 10am and 4pm in high season, April 1 to October 31, you can only enter if you’re on a guided tour. They leave every 15 or 30 minutes, and you can buy tickets very easily from the kiosk out the front. We chose to take a guided tour, but I can definitely see the virtues of going without. In fact, if I was to do it again I would wander through without a guide – there are plenty of hugely informative signs and info boards dotted throughout, and I found that most of the time I was trying to listen and read things at the same time (not conducive to taking absolutely anything in). The Auschwitz II-Birkenau site is open for visitors without a guide, but most tours end there so you can have a look around at your leisure.
Beware, you will encounter people you want to punch in the teeth, e.g. the woman who waits for the guide to turn her back so she can photograph the collection of human hair, ignoring the unignorable giant “no photos” sign, or the lads taking selfies infront of buildings where thousands of people were gassed. Do us all a favour and just put your phones down; we all know what this place looks like, and you telling us your stories afterwards is enough for us to know you’ve been there.
Tours are 45 zloty for non-Polish (about 10 euro) and take about three hours.
Get there: A slew of buses from Krakow leave very frequently, and cost about 13 zloty (3 euro). There’s also a bunch of family-owned minibuses. Take note of the return times from your driver.