When I get asked where I went on my most recent European trip, people often expect to hear something like France or UK, destinations that are obvious and well-traversed by Americans when they splurge on a cross-Atlantic flight (these certainly don’t come cheap these days). My answer – Poland – led to many raised eyebrows followed by a gradual recognition. I must have relatives there, they assume, or at least some kind of ancestry I want to research. Why else would anyone go there, right? No, wrong. Poland, and specifically Kraków where I went, is often overlooked by Western tourists, incorrectly mistaken for eastern Europe where travel can be strenuous due to lack of spoken English, inferior services, and general lack of interest. Although I can’t speak for the entire country, Kraków was definitely none of these things. In fact, Kraków in late November turned out to be a delight! Despite cloudy, grey skies and freezing temperatures, the city felt very cozy, like an old, familiar cashmere sweater that makes you feel at home.
Just like majority of old European cities, Kraków has a historic center with admittedly predictable set of attributes – cobblestoned streets, a large cathedral on the main square, a trendy shopping street, and an old castle on a hill. Some additional perks include pretty horse-drawn carriages, streets with low density of cars, bicycles, and tourists (!), and very affordable prices everywhere, including places that are just few steps away from the main square. Add to that comfortable level of English and a traditional Christmas market and you’ve just found a perfect destination to experience a good old Europe in late November and December. If you are like me and generally stay in cheaper places away from city centre, Kraków is the place where you should make an exception and stay in the old town – it will be inexpensive and still very authentic, eliminating the need to use public transport since all sights are within walking distance. Another unexpected perk of travel in November? Free entrance to Wawel Castle and potentially other museums, an incentive to attract visitors in low season.
If you are not sure where to start your exploration of Polish cuisine, go for a dinner at U Babci Maliny (Sławkowska 17). Located in the old town, this quirky and budget-friendly establishment is surprisingly hard to find. Read this article to get directions before you go or else you’ll risk not finding it. The obvious thing to order here is pierogi – the iconic polish dumplings with various fillings, potatoes and cabbage being the most common choices. Don’t skip the sides – the grated carrot or beet salads served there are refreshing and a nice complement to the otherwise heavy meal. A word of caution: don’t be shocked if you spot a man lurking between tables, waiting for people to finish eating so he can collect their leftovers. Although I am a huge supporter of recycling and composting, I found it oddly uncomfortable to have a large dude ask me if I am done with my meal (I wasn’t), and then proceed to hovering at a table nearby until I finished eating. As I was getting up to leave, he quickly jumped over and shoveled my uneaten pierogies into his bag before the plate could be taken away. Outside the restaurant, he thanked me for his meal while stuffing himself on my leftovers. I am all for feeding people but in this case I would have preferred that the restaurant collected the leftovers in the kitchen and donated it to hungry people rather have a hungry person walk over to your table and grab the food directly off your plate. With that being said, I still think the restaurant is worth visiting at least once.
If you’re fortunate enough to be in Kraków during Christmas season, you’re in for a treat, because the market on the main square is full of comfort food for vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. There are the usual delicacies such as sweet crêpes, sausages, potatoes, and mulled wine that can be found at most Christmas markets in Germany or Czech Republic. Some of rather unique offerings included smoked cheese (oscypek), freshly made baklava soaked with honey, a wide variety of traditional soups (try the mushroom one) and chocolate ‘tools’ (scissors for desert, anyone?). Apart from edible things, you can also buy warm mittens, socks, christmas decorations and other handmade crafts at very decent prices.
Few other suggestions for eating out:
- Camelot (Świętego Tomasza 17) – a perfect place to start your day with tiny croissants and freshly squeezed juices for breakfast.
- Restauracja Morela (Stolarska 13) – a cozy restaurant behind the main square with an extensive menu of buckwheat dishes. If you’ve never tried this popular eastern european grain-like seed (aka Kasha), this is the place to try it.
- Cafe Botanica (Bracka 9) – as the name suggests, you’ll find a lot of plants in this popular cafe along with hot drinks including wine and mead and a wide selection of snacks.
- Nowa Prowincja (Bracka 3-5) – located on the same street as the cafe above, another great spot for a quick glass of mulled wine or coffee.
- Piwnica Pod Baranami (Rynek Główny 27) – situated directly on the main square, this place is full of history and character, and is perfect place for a drink after dinner. Read more description here.
- Hamsa (Szeroka 2) – if you’re going to venture beyond the old town, the most likely place you’ll end up is Kazimierz, the Jewish district in Kraków. Once you’re there, you’ll most certainly going to stumble upon a pretty historic street with this restaurant waiting for you at the end. Try the traditional Israeli dishes served in bright, friendly interior.
Why do we travel? I think we do it mostly as a self-indulgence. We travel to take a ‘break’ from our daily lives, to try different food, to post ‘cool’ photos on social media, and to have a chance to drop casually a line in office conversations ‘Oh, there is a very nice Crêperie on Rue de Seine if you’re ever in Paris (no, not the one in Texas).’ Why should we travel? To grow. To be better educated, open-minded and sensitive people. To understand better the world we live in today so we can be less judgmental towards people that have vastly different backgrounds from our own. I often mention in my articles the importance of coming face-to-face with people who live in a different environment from our own and embracing interaction instead of hiding in hotels and eating at KFC or McDonald’s. It’s also important to put yourself in places of historical significance and learn about the past, especially when that past is not so distant, because some things should never be allowed to be repeated and awareness is the key in accomplishing that.
Only a short 1.5 hour drive from Kraków, lies a place of tremendous significance in history, a witness and a scene of humanity’s horrifc crime, a place that’s easy to avoid because going there is too heart-wrenching. There are very few places in the world where history can be experienced and felt with so much emotion and so much sadness. Regardless of how much you know or care about history of WWII or history in general, you can’t leave Kraków without paying your respects at Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial sites where more than a million people were killed during Nazi’s occupation of Poland in 1940s. No matter how much you heard about Holocaust, nothing can prepare you for the ghastly evidence displayed in the Auschwitz museum. Then there is the place itself, with its barbed wire fencing, watchtowers, barracks, and rail tracks – all vivid reminders of its grim past. What is not easily visible is human ash, scattered everywhere in this massive graveyard, so be respectful during your visit and don’t treat these sites as tourist attractions. Allow yourself a full day for a visit and it’s best to go with a local guide.
Kraków ended up being a delightful surprise – a beautiful old city with a warm atmosphere despite chilly weather and short winter days, somewhat slow-paced but not boring. The old town’s numerous cafes and restaurants are consistently cozy and offer something satisfying even for the pickiest eaters. Of course Christmas market adds a magical touch even to darkest of evenings with warmly-lit huts selling traditional sweets and decorations. It’s also exciting to imagine how the city transforms during summer when cafes move tables outside and people hang out in city’s many parks and squares. I hope to see that some day!