Sometimes you leave a city and your biggest memories of that place are the food. And the eating. And the drinking. It happens. Krakow was one of those places.
We got into Krakow late at night (sensing a pattern?) after a day full of train rides from Budapest into Brno, Czech Republic, a BlaBla car to Gliwice, Poland, and then trains all the way to Krakow.
Undeterred and obviously determined to soak in all of Poland, we headed right out after checking into the hostel and ended up at a Pijalnia Wódki i Piwa in the Old Town. I’ll say right away this place was probably one of my favorite parts of the entire trip – including the ones in Warsaw. From the second you walk in, it’s like walking into a Russian bar and old-style American diner, blended into one. White tile, swivel bar stools, and 2 chalkboards – 1 for food, at 8 zl each (about $2), 1 for drinks (4 zl each). Old communist posters and advertisements cover the walls, and people – young, old, and everywhere in between, keel over laughing, drunk, red-faced, and enjoying life. It’s a crazy scene. It’s sadly also somewhere I knew right away I never would have ended up had I been alone or with someone other than a Polish person.
The next day, we wandered over towards the Wawel Castle, stopping into a church I’m now able to figure out was the Church of Saint Bernardino on the way. Determined to eat and try as much Polish food as I could (me) and determined to show off the best of Polish food (him), we first stopped into a Bar Mleczny (“Milk Bar”), a minimalist, cheap, student-style cafeteria and stuffed ourselves with pierogies and zurek (a soup made of soured rye flour and meat, with a hard boiled egg thrown in). I still miss that soup. These cafeterias became popular after the Second World War, when these milk bars became subsidized by the state and provided a filling, inexpensive meal. Food is still cheap – roughly 4 Zloty (or $1) for Zurek and 8 zloty for a plate of pierogi. As you might quickly learn in Poland, too, there’s just too much good food to try even in 1 week – hence the importance of jesc oczami (eat with your eyes). If you’re looking for a quick, cheap meal with traditional Polish food cooked up and served quickly, stop by a Bar Mleczny. It’s an experience you need to do at least once while in Poland.
Once we got to the Wawel Castle, we spotted one of the orange flags for Free Walking Tours and happily jumped on board. We got some more history of the castle. Most interesting: in the 16th century, the King Sigismund I the Old’s wife, who was “imported” from Italy, brought in Italian architects and sculptors to refurbish the castle and give it more of a Renaissance style. Unlike in Italy, though, where galleries are on the lower floors, the galleries of the Wawel Castle are up higher because of the more limited sunlight in Poland during the winter. Also interesting: in 1595, it’s the fire that supposedly started from one of the King’s science experiments gone wrong that burned down part of the castle. The capital was moved to Warsaw in 1609. A piece of the Wawel Castle was actually incorporated into Chicago’s Tribune Tower, a visual tribute to the Polish population in Chicago, the biggest outside of Poland.
The tour ended at the Dragon Statue just outside the castle. When I heard there was a fire-breathing dragon, I thought it was sarcastic. Instead, our group stood just long enough to see real fire come out of the dragon statue’s mouth. If you’re looking to get a picture, act quickly since it only lasts about 10 seconds, but it’s still worth it. Legend has it that the dragon used to live in a cave near Krakow and eat virgins. The mythical King Krakus, worried about his daughter, offers her hand to anyone who can defeat the dragon. So, a cobbler cleverly takes a lamb, stuffs it with sulphur, and leaves it outside the dragon’s cave door. After devouring the lamb, the dragon becomes so thirsty he races to the Vistula River and drinks so much water that he explodes. Our tour guide joked that if the dragon were around today, he would starve. Around since 1969, the statue was apparently modernized in 2012 to be able to breathe fire by SMS trigger. The service was so popular that over 2,500 requests were received in just one day. Trust me, this dragon figure is definitely important here.
By the end of the tour, we’d built up an appetite again, so headed to the main square, where we stopped into a little place called Dobra Kasza Nasza. A bit pricier for Poland (though that’s still all relative when coming from the States, and San Francisco in particular), but really cozy decor with books on every shelf and cushioned booths. Did you know that hot beer is a thing in Poland? Well it is, and it’s amazing. Since the eating adventure was clearly far from over, we ordered some soup, lard spread (yes, lard – if you’re my doctor, please stop reading ASAP), and of course hot wine and hot beer. The lard spread (“smalec” in Polish) is served on bread with pickles that you put on top. I liked it both with and without pickles. The hot beer, grzane piwo, is beer heated with honey and spices. Supposedly it’s good for sore throats and for your health in general, but health benefits or not, it’s absolutely worth trying, especially if it’s cold when you’re there.
The Rynek Główny (Main Square) is fun to wander around and people-watch. And if you know me, you know I was ecstatic about the portable toilets right in the middle, especially with all the hot wine and beer flowing. Every hour, from the top of St. Mary’s Church right on the square, you’ll hear a trumpet call – or most of a trumpet call that is. The Hejnał mariacki cuts off midway through to honor the trumpeter who was playing the same trumpet call to close the city gates during the 1241 Mongol invasion before he was shot in the throat.
The Krakow Cloth Hall in the middle of the Main Square also provides a fun place to browse around and reminded me of the galleries in Diocletian’s Palace in Split, with vendor stalls set up all along the narrow covered hall. There’s tons of amber and other jewelry, and of course the building itself is a gorgeous example of Baroque architecture, especially from the outside.
That day ended without much more fanfare as we jumped on a bus to go stay with family further south, but not before stopping at Karmello for some chocolates for the road. Melt-in-your-mouth, and the perfect end to a quick trip to Krakow.
Some things I would definitely do if I went back and had more time:
- The Schindler’s Factory tour: Since I couldn’t make it this time, check out Katie and Geoff’s post about their visit there.
- The Wieliczka Salt Mines: These salt mines are some of the oldest ones in the world, and are just outside of Krakow. We both really wanted to go and debated going but unfortunately didn’t have enough time since you have to take a tour to visit the mines and that tour takes about 3 hours. Plan ahead if you do want to go visit.
- The Jewish Old Town tour: Jewish history is of course especially relevant and pertinent in Poland, so next time I’m back I would definitely like to explore more of this area.
- The Communist tour: OK, mostly because I’m still fascinated by communist history anywhere I go, but I especially wanted to do it here after seeing the pijalnia bars at night.
Where I stayed
B Movie Hostel, near Old Town. I wouldn’t recommend it except for its location. It’s in an unmarked building, hard to find. The staff was friendly enough, but seemed exhausted by work and by life. They didn’t hesitate to remind us of all the rules and fees associated with different little infractions, as did a sign in the lobby. Not the happiest or most welcoming vibe. I do appreciate one woman meeting us for our late arrival time and checking us in. Breakfast was literally out of a closet since there was construction in the other, main building.
Would I go back?
There are absolutely still things left to explore in Krakow, and I may have missed out on the “charm” so many people talk about, but I was personally more enamored with Warsaw, and am excited about making it to Gdansk, Poznan, and Wroclaw next time I’m in Poland.