Sauntering through the old world grandeur of central Krakow it’s almost hard not to get lost in the maze of cobbled streets, medieval architecture and pavement cafés which weave together at the heart of this Unesco World heritage site. But it’s not all about the history, with Poland’s second city home to a buzzing nightlife scene with myriad restaurants, bars and clubs which attract travellers from across the globe.
The epicentre of the old town is the magnificent Main Market Square (Rynek Główny). Krakow escaped the Second World War bombing and destruction which beset so much of the country, leaving Europe’s biggest medieval town square unscathed. Dominated by the Renaissance Cloth Hall at its centre it really comes alive during the festive period when the traditional Christmas market takes over, with festooned stalls and huts throughout the square,
It’s well worth a trip down below the square to experience the Rynek Underground museum which is accessed by lifts at the Cloth Hall and provides a historical story of the city through a range of multimedia exhibits.
Although guided tours can be a mixed bag, they are worth it here to make sense of the atmospheric old town with its sundry historic monuments and cultural hotspots. The majestic Gothic-style Barbican was the heart of the city’s former Defence Walls which have otherwise disappeared. It’s an impressive structure ringed by turrets and defensive slots which still exude an air of menace. Today it operates as a museum, but also hosts events such as jousts and medieval pageants throughout the year.
Krakow’s Collegium Maius, where Copernicus once studied is another landmark worth checking out, with tours also dedicated to the late Pope John Paul II, who studied here and is more closely associated with the town than anywhere else. Its status as a major university town lends the place a real sense of vibrancy – I even find my tour of the Old Town interrupted by a good-natured student protest against government energy policy.
But the crowning glory of central Krakow is the Wawel Royal Castle and Gothic cathedral which dominate the town from their perch on Wawel Hill just to the south of the old town on the banks of the Vistula River. As the home of the monarchy until the end of the 16th century, the city was effectively the Polish capital, and that is all captured in the grandeur of these stunning grounds. Visitors can roam free of charge or buy tickets at the visitor centre for Royal Private Apartments and State Rooms. It’s worth checking out the Cathedral, the resting place of many Polish kings and leaders.
The panoply of restaurants peppered around the Old Town leave you spoiled for choice as lunchtime beckons. If you want to sample a spot of Polish fare, then Morskie Oko on Plazy Szczepanski is the place to go. The portions are generous to say the least – and the friendly staff kitted out in traditional costumes give the premises a warm and authentic feel. The dumplings are a speciality and four of us struggle to get halfway through a huge plate for a starter. I then try the boar loin in mushroom sauce for a hearty and delicious main which leaves me primed to see more of the city.
As a visitor of a certain vintage, I fancy a spot of Cold War nostalgia and take a tram trip out to the district of Nowa Huta. It was dreamt up as an urban socialist utopia, designed in a Soviet “realism” style of architecture to provide an alternative to the free-thinking reputation Krakow had as a centuries-old seat of learning. The communist years are not remembered fondly by Poles and the main square here has since been renamed in honour of Ronald Reagan, replacing Stalin. I don’t take the guided tours available in a Soviet Trabant car, but wandering along the grand almost Parisienne-style boulevards past elegant apartment blocks, there is a sense of trying to do something different in this area which was constructed for one of the biggest steelworks in east Europe. Like communism here, it’s now long gone.
I’m travelling with easyJet holidays which now provide the full budget experience for travellers and a stay at Hotel Indigo on the edge of the Old Town, a stunningly restored boutique residence. The building was once home to one of Poland’s greatest artists, Jan Matejko, and that fusion of the old masters and modern art have given the place a classic contemporary feel. For breakfast there is a wide buffet range and cooked meals on offer. All of the main attractions are just a ten-minute walk away.
The darker side of Krakow’s history is never forgotten. It serves as a the base for visits to Auschwitz, just an hour and a half away, and was home to Oskar Schindler’s factory during the war. Steven Spielberg shot the movie which immortalised his story, Schindler’s List, in and around the Old Town and the factory itself remains as a museum and visitor attraction. The Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, just south of the Old Town, is also well worth a visit, although it may be best to hook up with one of the guided tours, many of which are free, for a fuller picture. Neglected during the Soviet era, it has enjoyed a rebirth in recent years and now hosts some of Krakow’s coolest bars and restaurants.
Spurred on by my earlier taste of Poland, I head to Kogel Mogel restaurant, just a few minutes from the main Square in the Old Town for dinner. It’s an elegant, cavernous setting with a maze of rooms providing an intimate feel for such a sizeable place. The Zurek Soup starter is served inside a hollowed out bread roll which is both unique and delicious, while the beef cheeks with mash and sprouts provide another hearty main.
Just a few hours’ flight from Edinburgh, Krakow is now a staple of any city break tick list, ideal for a weekend or longer to experience an ancient European centre of dramatic history and contrasts.
easyJet holidays (www.easyjet.com/en/holidays) offers a two-night trip to Krakow from £322 per person, staying at Hotel Indigo Old Town Krakow. Includes flights from Edinburgh and 23kg luggage