Previously the country’s capital, the city has plenty to offer to every type of tourist: whether your interests lie in architecture, history, food or nightlife, you’ll love your time here. Home to Pope John Paul II, those interested in history, religion or architecture will find an abundance of stunning churches, perhaps the most striking of which is in the city’s market square. From the highest window in the church, every hour a trumpet player recites an abruptly finished tune, commemorating the trumpet player who, according to popular myth, was shot dead as he used the trumpet to sound an alarm and warn the city of the Mongol invasion in 1241.
On the topic of war, it is impossible to ignore Krakow’s troubled history of invasion, occupation and war. Few people visit Krakow without paying a visit to Auschwitz, symbol of the Holocaust, and the memorial to all those who died at the hands of Nazi Germany in the labour and death camps during WW2. Whilst a visit to Auschwitz I and Aushcwitz II-Birkenau is by no means an easy day, it should be on everyone’s to do list.
Entering into the camps beneath the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign, there is a palpable sense of loss and horror in the air. Most of the buildings have been converted into museums chronicling the lives and deaths of so many who were forced into the camps during WW2. The sight of seemingly endless mounds of human hair, spectacles and perhaps most distressingly, pots and pans (which symbolise the belief amongst the victims that they might begin a new life at the camps), made for an inevitably challenging experience. Similarly, entering into the on-site prison was rather harrowing, with remnants of the terrors clear to see. Only by viewing first-hand the unimaginable living and working conditions inflicted upon so many innocent people, did the reality of the Holocaust’s horror sink in. Until then, it had been a vague thought, a well-documented but incomprehensible symbol of suffering – it would be far easier to turn away from this rather than to try to understand.
However, each visitor that passes through Auschwitz’s gates becomes an eye-witness to the terrible fate of over one million civilians; in recognising their history, in all its unthinkable horror, one seeks to understand what occurred some seventy years ago. As time passes, the number of those who lived through the period is dwindling, meaning it’s becoming more and more important that new generations remember what happened. Whilst the unimaginably awful events will never be forgiven, the most important thing is that we seek to in some way understand and commemorate the lives of so many lost. A visit to Auschwitz is a good place to start.
Whilst in Krakow, you can also visit Schindler’s factory, the ghettos where Jewish citizens were forced to live before being transported to the camps and stroll around the Jewish quarter. Other things worth spending your time on are a visit to the Salt Mines and seeing the underground city, Rynek Główny which was excavated and opened to the public in 2010: the museum traces Krakow’s history from its first settlers through to the death of Pope John Paul II on April 2, 2005, when the archaeological dig began.
It would do the city a complete injustice to overlook so much of the other wonderful things it has to offer; whilst visiting Krakow I indulged in some of the nicest food, vodka, beer and hot chocolate my soul has ever been blessed to experience. In the five days I spent there, nothing tasteless passed my lips, nor did I spend much more than a tenner on even the most extravagant of meals. My personal recommendations are to include E.Wedel in the main square. Wedel rivals Willy Wonka in his magic approach to all things chocolaty. Try the milk chocolate and toffee combination and give in to your desire to go back again and again. Stop off in any number of taverns for a local beer or a cherry wodka. For a burger the size of your head, made of delicious, fresh ingredients- you’ll want to try MOA burger. If you fancy divine, authentic Italian- Pizzeria Cyklop. My personal favourite for traditional Polish food was Restaurcja Morskie Oko, or Milkbar Tomasza. However, I’m confident that wherever your nose (or rumbling tummy) takes you, you won’t be disappointed in Krakow.
In the summer, temperatures rocket in Krakow and, the city is perhaps at its most beautiful drenched in sunshine. My March visit was great in its own right: even as temperatures dropped as low as -17, public transport ran like clockwork, and the friendly locals always had a tempting beer or wodka to warm your bones.
Given the friendly people, buzzing nightlife, cheap food and alcohol, an abundance of history and culture to engage with. Krakow should be on every Euroventurer’s to-visit list.