A FORMER POLISH CAPITAL
WHAT TO DO? MY JOURNEY
THE OLD TOWN OF KRAKOW
St. Mary’s Basilica
The Wawel Cathedral
The cloth hall
The Wawel royal castle
Krakow is a former capital of Poland. There are lots of activities to do and beautiful district to see. Starting with the old town. While walking in the streets, you will not be able to miss the main square (Rynek Główny) of the city. This huge square has kept the same size since its creation. From here you can see the Old Town Hall (Wieża ratuszowa), St. Mary’s Basilica (Kościół Mariacki) and the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice). In this hall you have several small stalls where you can buy souvenirs and jewelry. It’s pretty cool and cute. And if you look up, you will be able to observe the different emblems of the cities of Poland. Then, you have the Basilica of St. Mary which is quite impressive in this square. I can’t give you my opinion too much about the interior as it was under reconstruction, but it looked quite nice. Every hour in this square, if you listen well, you will hear a melody. This comes from the top floor of the basilica tower. One person is playing the trumpet every hour, even at night. I found that it is part of the charm of the city.
Walk through the small streets not far from this square. You will dp beautiful architectural discoveries there. You can even see a window with Pope John Paul II on it. When he came to Krakow, he used to sit at this window to talk to the people. And not far from this building, go take a look at the church which is on the same square. The interior is very dark but thanks to the light coming in through the stained-glass windows, it makes the atmosphere really unique. A little hungry during your visits? I have the perfect address to taste Pierogis. It was recommended to me by a Polish friend, and I confirm. Go to U Babci Maliny restaurant. You will see, you will feel right at home. A good price-performance ratio. Once the meal is finished, take the royal road which goes from St. Florian’s Gate (Brama Floriańska) to Wawel Castle, passing of course through the main square.
Speaking of the Wawel Royal Castle (Zamek Królewski na Wawelu), the guide of the free guided tour (by the way I recommend it because I learned a lot about the history of the city and its many legends) told me a famous legend of Krakow. The castle was built on the cave of a dragon which was harmless. But one day he began to eat humans, especially virgins. The king, worried about his daughters, offered to kill the dragon in exchange for the hand of one of his daughters. Many knights have tried without any success. Until one day a man put down a sheepskin full of sulfur. The dragon fell into the trap and ate the skin. His throat started to burn, and he drank the water from the river until he exploded. The man was rewarded as promised. Do you believe in this legend? Not really? Well, there is a proof. If you look closely at the entrance to the Cathedral, to the left of the door, you can see a huge bone. Pretty cool isn’t it? I wonder where this legend comes from, but I found it nice and different. You can even visit the dragon cave, but I found it a bit too touristy. Like I said, near the castle, there is the Wawel Cathedral (Bazylika archikatedralna św. Stanisława i św. Wacława w Krakowie). The interior is very beautiful. Many works can be found there as well as tombs of the royal family. You can also visit the royal castle. For my part, I did the private apartments and the state rooms. I preferred the private apartments because there was more explanation of the provenance of the objects and the purpose of the rooms. There are some very beautiful wall tapestries. A little advice, go to the Most Dębnicki bridge to have a good view of the castle.
To visit the old town with the royal castle, I would say that a good half day is enough. After all, it depends on how many museums you do.
Entrance fee to private royal apartments: 25 PLN / 5.50 €
Entrance fee to state rooms: 25 PLN / 5.50 €
AROUND THE OLD TOWN
Main square in the Kazimierz district
Little shops in the street
Oskar Schindler’s factory
When I arrived in Krakow, I immediately went to visit Oskar Schindler’s factory (Deutsche Emailwarenfabrik). I had never seen the movie before and I’m glad I watched it afterwards because it doesn’t show the full story. The museum is large and very well done. Some pieces are well staged. In the museum, you will learn more about the life of Oskar Schindler but also how, thanks to his factory, he saved the lives of many people, mostly Jews. Testimonies in the museum allow us to learn a little bit more about this factory. And there are also some testimonies on daily life during the Second World War. It’s interesting because the museum is not another museum during this period but tells more details about the city and what happened. I have learned a lot of things. It is a museum that is definitely worth seeing. It takes about 3 hours to visit everything.
A few steps from the city center you have the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz. A small, fairly lively area with many restaurants and bars. You can visit some synagogues. There are signs around town that show you the best way to retrace the history of this district. To go around without visiting a museum, a good hour is enough. And don’t forget to eat a Zapiekanka in the market square.
Entrance fee to the Oskar Schindler factory: PLN 24 / € 5.50
AUSCHWITZ CONCENTRATION CAMPS
Main gate in Auschwitz I
Main gate in Auschwitz II
Buildings in Auschwitz I
An old wagon
Building’s door in Auschwitz I
Inside a barrack
Before I start talking about it, I have some advice to give you that will help you prepare for your visit. So yes, at school we study the Second World War and what happened but, honestly we do not see everything in detail and before coming to Poland, I was not really aware of all the atrocities that took place there. It was while visiting the Uprising Museum in Warsaw that I began to understand and see everything that was going on there. So, when I visited the Auschwitz concentration camps, I knew what to expect. However, many people go to visit the camps without having been in a museum or in another concentration camp and come back from this visit very shocked. Mentally prepare yourself and take another WWII-related visit before.
To visit the two concentration camps (the third camp no longer exists, there is a monument), I went through Get Your Guide to take advantage of a promotion. I took with transfer and guide, and I did well because to go there is not easy and it seems to me that there is one of the two camps that we cannot visit alone but to verify. Try to take a tour that is available early in the day as this is a place that is heavily visited.
When the shuttle picked up everyone, we watched a short presentation film on the liberation of the concentration camps. Once there, we meet our guide who shows us around the two concentration camps. I found it interesting to have a guide because she focused on what happened in these places.
We started by visiting the Auschwitz I concentration camp. We went through the main gate with the famous German inscriptions “Arbeit Macht Frei” which means “work makes free”. And there begins a whole series of lies told to the prisoners so that there is no commotion. Obviously that work did not make them free, these places killed people, either killed by gas chambers or weapons, or by famine or disease. Do you know what they used to tell them to get them into the gas chambers calmly? They told them they were going to take showers. And did everything to make them believe it. In fact, in the first concentration camp, you enter a gas chamber. Imagine yourself in their place. It sends shivers down your spine! The buildings of Auschwitz I are original. Some interiors have been modified a bit for the museum, but you can see original pieces and furnishings such as mattresses or desks. You can see that the concentration camps are surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers, impossible to escape.
Next, we visited the Auschwitz II second concentration camp, also called Auschwitz-Birkenau. This camp is huge, and entry through the main gate was usually by the train that stopped in the middle of the camp. You can still see the rails in the camp. People came from many countries and took a journey of several days compressed into a wagon. Then the Nazis would sort out the weak and the still useful. The weak went straight to the gas chambers and the useful people in the concentration camps to work there and in general die. You can see a few buildings and see the living conditions there.
The visit to the concentration camps lasted 4 hours and 3 hours round trip, without lunch break. Even though it’s not a very fun visit, it’s important to do it because this part of history must not be forgotten so it won’t happen again!
Price of guided tour with transport to the Auschwitz concentration camps: PLN 93 / € 21
THE WIELICZKA SALT MINE
The underground Cathedral
Lake inside the salt mine
The salt mine Cathedral
Not far from Krakow you can visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine (Kopalnia soli Wieliczka). To get there it’s very simple, you have a bus that drops you off next to the entrance (for the bus ticket, you need a Zone I and II ticket). Their website is really well done and will let you know how to get there.
When you arrive, groups are formed according to the guide’s language. Then, you enter the mine at specific times, always accompanied by a guide. That’s why I don’t recommend you take this tour via an organized one, it’s easy to go and on top of that you have a compulsory guide on site.
The salt mine was discovered around the Middle Ages with the arrival of the Hungarian Princess Kinga. The Poles have linked these two events together and you can see Saint Kinga all over the salt mine. During your visit you will see various rooms dating back several centuries. All the decorations are made from stones from the salt mine, and the rendering is incredible. The salt mine is huge, you can visit 3.5 km of the existing 300 km. Some rooms are decorated and there is a staging to explain the history of the mine or the techniques used to extract the salt. And during the visit, we can admire the largest underground cathedral in the world, which is just magnificent. It is really impressive! There are also different lakes that we can visit. The salt mine is not at all like the one in Turda, Romania. The two have been rearranged very differently. The total duration of the visit lasts about 1h30 and it is really well organized. At the end of this visit, they also offer another museum in the salt mine which contains more precise information on the history and the techniques used. Do it, the guided tour lasts about 30min. In my group I was the only one to do it but it’s totally worth it. And one last thing, dress warmly, it’s a bit cold in the salt mine.
After your visit, for a few extra zlotys, you can take a tour on the graduation tower. It’s a short ride on a tower that allows you to breathe the salty air. To purify the lungs, they advise you to stay there for 30 minutes. Then, why not take a short stroll in the city center of Wieliczka. It’s not very tall but quite cute. And in the main square, you can see a painting on the ground (not in very good condition but we can guess what it is).
Entrance fee to the Wieliczka salt mine: PLN 93 / € 21
WHEN TO GO?
I visited Krakow during the month of August. It was very hot, but it was bearable because many activities are indoors.
To visit Krakow and its surroundings, 4 days would be sufficient. This allows you to quietly visit some neighborhoods, museums, and around the city.
WHERE TO SLEEP? MY ACCOMMODATION
31-039 Kraków, Poland
Price: PLN 24 – € 5,40 / person / night in a mixed dormitory with 10 beds
Hostel website: click here
A large and clean hostel. It is a few minutes’ walk from the city center and the Jewish quarter.
MY 3 TIPS
- Before going to the concentration camps, I advise you to visit a museum related to the Second World War or another concentration camp, to prepare yourself psychologically
- Go to a “free guided tour” to learn more about the city’s history and legends. The meeting point is in front of the St. Mary’s Basilica. Don’t forget the tip at the end
- Keep some change, you have to pay for every activity, even the toilets