Krakow was the first stop on my one week train travel in Poland. With only two full days to spare in this wonderful city, my quest was to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau and see as much as possible of the historic sites without stress.
MISSION: SEE KRAKOW IN TWO DAYS
I arrived Krakow in the evening, and my pre-ordered taxi took me directly to my hotel in Kazimierz. Checked in, left my luggage and went out in the lively streets. It was Saturday night and Kazimierz, originally the Jewish part of town, was buzzing. Tourists and locals alike were out in the streets, sitting on the street restaurants and bars, in beer gardens and whole in the wall bars. I found a table ordered a pizza and my first Polish beer and knew that I had ended up in the perfect Krakow neighbourhood.
A WALK FROM KAZIMIERZ TO THE GHETTO
Early morning on my first full day I went on my first mission of the trip; could I see Krakow in a day? I headed from the old Jewish quarter to the Jewish ghetto. Passing numerous of stolpersteins (stumble stones), signs on houses telling who had lived there until World War 2 and several murals portraying the lives of those who had lived in the buildings. Hefty things to take in before coffee. I walked straight on the Plac Bohaterow Getta (Ghetto Heroes Square) after crossing the Wisla river. This was the largest square in the ghetto were all Jews in Krakow was resettled to during the first years of war. It was a place for socialising, but also a place of some of the worst horrors imaginable. The 70 chairs made of iron and bronze on the square today are permanent street art symbolizing the tragedy of the victims of holocaust.
On one corner I noticed the Eagle Pharmacy. Owner of the pharmacy was a Pole who refused to leave, and became important both for selling medicine, but also for conspiracy against the Nazi rulers. Today a museum, but not open yet when I walked by. Same with Schindlers factory close by. I took my time to find it, but not to wait for it to open. And I probably should have booked tickets in advance anyway. Should you see Schindler’s List before travelling to Krakow? Yes, definitely. I am really glad I did, seeing it at 30-something years was something else than at 15.
WISLA AND WAWEL CASTLE
Next main stop was the massive medieval Wawel Castle by the riverbank of Wisla in the old town. Walking long the river, I suddenly noticed something on a walking bridge which needed a closer look. The beautiful Father Bernatek Footbridge is decorated with nine realistic sculptures of acrobats.
Having only a day to spare, I did not take the time to purchase a ticket. Another thing to come back for, I guess. I did, however, have a very needed first coffee of the day and some breakfast in a cafè on the castle square. I left the noisy and crowded castle square and headed towards the river beneath instead, where the Wawel dragon used to live according to Polish folklore. No other dragon than the sculpture showed itself, instead I noticed the park by the riverbank and the boats with restaurants and bars on deck.
THE ROYAL ROUTE TO THE MARKET SQUARE
I continued to conquer my quest to explore Krakow in a day by walking up the large avenue Grodzka. One of the oldest streets in Krakow, originally a trade route between north and souths and also part of the Royal Route to the castle. Grodzka took me directly to the old market square. Did you know that Krakow’s medieval square is one of the largest in Europe? Just like it was large, it was also packed with people and horses with carriages that day.
The market square is the heart of Krakow’s old town, and you can easily spend hours exploring it and its many attractions. I started with the Cloth Hall, a 13th century market building filled with souvenir stalls in the middle of the square. The items for sale was not really my cup of tea, but it was fun to experience the historic building. Back out on the square I studied the St. Mary’s Church, the Town Hall Tower and the Church of St. Wojciech from the outside. It was just to busy and warm for me to bother queuing to get in.
Continuing up Florianska street, I walked into St. Florian Gate and the Barbican. Remnants of a fortification from 1500. By this time, I had really had enough of crowds of other tourists and wanted to head back to the chill atmosphere in Kazimierz. My inner gps is usually trustable, unfortunately not that day. Not my phone’s gps either for that matter… I kept getting lost again and again.
ABSINTH AND A SUN DOWNER
Two hours later I finally saw a familiar street. Back in Kazimierz I bumped right into the very cool Absynt Bar and was lucky enough to find a free chair outside. A beer later – mind, not absinth – my mood was lifting, and I continued my walk. Now looking for more street art.
Did I by the way mention I only had 2 days in Krakow? 2 hours of them spent being lost in not interesting areas of the city was not part of the plan.
Back in my hotel room, I made sure I had a close look on the map. It did not take me long to find a much better route to old town. A much more picturesque walk later, I sat on the top deck on one of the river boats I had seen from Wawel Castle earlier that day watching the sun set behind the castle.
A DISSAPOINTING TOUR TO AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU
I had booked a half day trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau for my second day. Initially I had planned an excursion including both the former concentration camp and the salt mines, but that would take the whole day. I met at the advised bus stop close by the castle at 08:00 and was relieved I now knew my way there; found my seat in the minibus and met the people I was about to spend the next hours with. They were three Spanish students and two lovely couples from Ireland and England.
Just over an hour later we were entering the horrible place I had heard and read so much about. Headphones were handed out in order for us to hear our guide while walking around the camp. Please take note; July was crowded in Krakow’s old town. It was crowded in Auschwitz too.
We followed the guide around the exhibitions together with what felt like hundreds of other people and their guides. No time for stopping to read the interpretation signs nor take in what had happened in the different rooms and houses. An hour later we were told we had about 15 minutes to find our buses and eat our packed lunches before heading over to Birkenau. Somehow the lovely Irish and English couples mistook 15 by 45 and were nowhere to be seen when our guided walk at Birkenau were about to start. The guide had left with another bus and our non-English speaking driver was panicking.
Still having a hope that the last part of this tour would be good, I did not find the couples that lovely anymore when we eventually tracked them down. But we managed to locate our guide at Birkenau and the tour continued in the same manner – him listing facts without any interest or emotions. Be sure to check ratings before booking a tour.
HUMMUS AND HAPPINES
Back in Krakow and Kazimierz it was time for lunch, and I found a place I had read good things about. Hamsa Hummus & Happines did not disappoint. It also felt good spending time at an Israeli restaurant after the stories earlier that day.
That afternoon I ventured back to the large market square, which was practically empty compared to during mid-day. I managed to pop my head into St. Mary’s Church, and the only thing I remember is the ceiling. What a ceiling!
Sat down at a street bar and got myself another sun downer as the sun set over the Cloth Hall this time. A Mexican dinner later, I strolled back to my hotel thinking of all I had managed to fill these two days with. I had seen everything I wanted to see, disappointed by the excursion to Auschwitz but had fallen in love with the Kazimierz neighbourhood. To explore Krakow in two days, you need to know what you want to see and stick to a plan. And do not spend hours getting lost in the wrong areas of town.