We visited Krakow, Poland in November, it was a little cold but bearable for a hardened Brit used to the cold weather! My friends and I were interested in visiting Krakow following on from our other trip to Berlin . During our time in Berlin, we learnt more about World War 1 and World War 2, and were particularly moved by the ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’. You can read more in my blog post ‘How to spend 3 days in Berlin’ here.
We wanted to learn more about one of the most infamous camps of this terrible era – Auschwitz. We spent a day visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau, via a full day tour with Viator. The day tour was as you would imagine very emotional and solemn, but a very important part of history to witness. Even though Auschwitz was our main motivation for visiting Krakow, we were all, however, pleasantly surprised with what else was on offer in the great city of Krakow, such as the Salt Mines, Castle, Cathedral, main square and the Nightlife!
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- Visa – Most visitors will not require a visa for visiting Poland for less than 90 days, however it is best to check with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Republic of Poland for all the up to date information here.
- Immunisations – some are required – check out my go-to website for up to date information: www.nathnac.net
- Safety – always keep up to date with your local foreign travel advice service for relevant news and information. I felt completely safe in Krakow, although adopted usual common sense when in any major city, being mindful of my belongings and whereabouts.
- Currency – Zloty
- Language – Polish
We used Skyscanner to check the latest deals on flights. Sky Scanner is great as it checks across a range of airlines to find the best possible time, date and price. We settled for the low-cost airline Easy Jet as this was the most reasonably priced, and we’ve also flown with them before. The flight is only around 2 and a half hours from London to Krakow so we were happy to book with a no-frills airline.
Once we arrived in Krakow, it was very easy to catch a train into the city centre. Krakow airport is situated just 15 km west from the city centre and the journey by train lasts under twenty minutes. The shuttle train service connects Balice Airport with Krakow Glowny central station, located close to the Old Town historic district in the very heart of the city. The trains tend to run every thirty minutes or so, and this is arguably the easiest way to get into the city from the airport.
Where to stay
For our trip to Krakow we were a group of 5 so decided to rent an apartment during our stay instead of hotel rooms. We decided on an apartment as it would enable us all to hang out together in the same place, and we could also split the costs making it a cheaper alternative to booking hotel rooms. However, we did first check Booking.com to look at our available options (as I usually do with all my bookings) but in the end, decided to book with Air BNB.
Krakow is so easy to explore by foot and there isn’t really a need to use taxi’s to get around. During our stay, we arranged two day trips, one to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine and the other to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau. So we were collected via mini-van and taken to the destinations for these trips however other than that it was extremely easy to wander around Krakow by foot as a lot of the other sights are close together.
Wawel Royal Castle
Wawel Royal Castle is located on Wawel Hill in Krakow’s Old Town, about a 10-minute walk away from the Main Market Square, Rynek Główny. Both locations are considered one of the most historically and culturally important sites in Poland. Wawel Royal Castle is similar to that of Dublin Castle which, in that is has a rich architectural and social history which has changed and evolved through the years. You can read more about how I spent 48 hours in Dublin, and Dublin Castle here.
The history of Wawel Hill dates as far back as the Paleolithic era, with evidence of human habitation. In the Middle Ages, the hill became a popular site due to its excellent towering position over the banks of the Vistula. Mieszko I, the first historical ruler and creator of the Polish state, chose the hill as the site of one of his residence, and in the year 1000 the first cathedral on Wawel Hill was built.
Between the 14th and 16th Centuries, the rulers of the time, who had then outgrown the small existing medieval castle, renovated the entire hill producing one of the finest Italian Renaissance palaces in Central Europe. Unfortunately in the years that followed the Wawel Royal Castle suffered a decline, being looted during the Swedish deluge, and then during the 18th century when the property was converted to barracks for the Austrian army, during the partitions of Poland.
In the 20th Century Wawel Royal Castle received a monumental restoration and in 1930 the castle was converted into a residential museum. The museum encompasses ten curatorial departments, covering a range of artistic disciplines such as paintings, sculptures, tapestries, prints and ceramics. There are several permanent exhibitions on offer to visit as well as several more seasonal attractions in and around the grounds. For more information and ticket prices please visit the official website here.
As I mentioned earlier Wawel Cathedral was built in around the year 1000. Although this is not the cathedral we see today. Much like the Royal Castle the Cathedral has seen many developments through history; a Romanesque church was built in around the 11th century. Unfortunately, a fire in 1305 damaged much of the cathedral, and that along with the construction not being grand enough meant that throughout the 14th and 15th centuries renovations took place to create the gothic cathedral we see today. The interior of the cathedral also received further renovations during the 16th and 17th centuries and in the 20th century just before the millennium the cathedral received more renovation and restoration.
As you can see there is a rich history to be discovered in Wawel Hill in Krakow. As we didn’t have an awful lot of time, and the weather was quite mild, we wandered around the hill and Royal Castle Grounds outside and decided not to enter into the Wawel Cathedral. You can, however, explore the interior and visit the Sigismund Bell, Royal Tombs, and Cathedral Museum. For further information about planning your visit, please visit the official website here.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
We arranged our trip through Viator which was very straight forward. We met out driver nearby our hotel who then took us in a small mini-van to the Salt Mines. After spending a few hours marvelling at this underground salt mine, we returned to the mini-van and was dropped off back to our hotel.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine really is like nothing I’ve seen before. The mine can also be described as one of the most valuable monuments of material and spiritual culture in Poland and features twelve objects on the UNESCO’s World Cultural and Natural Heritage List. The Rock salt was first discovered in the 13th Century, and the first mining shafts were built shortly after. Once the Middle Ages were drawing to a close, almost 350 people worked at the Wieliczka salt mine, and about 8,000 tonnes of salt were produced each year.
Over the years the mine was excavated for rock salt using many different types of methods as technology developed over time. After hundreds of years of industry, by 1964 the excavation of rock salt on an industrial scale was terminated, and the mine began to produce only evaporated salt.
Once the salt mine was no longer used as an industrial source of rock salt, the mine and surrounding area was converted and transformed into a museum for tourists to visit. Now you can venture into the mines deep underground and explore what life would have been like for the miners, as well as appreciate the beauty of the rock salt sculptures and interiors. In order to see all that Wieliczka Salt Mine has to offer you will walk through almost 3 kilometres of meandering corridors, climb 800 steps of which 350 have to be descended to reach the depth of 135 meters underground! However, you will be rewarded with underground saline lakes, amazing timber constructions and unique salt sculptures. Definitely worth a visit when in Krakow, for more information visit the official website here.
The Holocaust In Auschwitz and Birkenau
Another tour which we organised through Viator was the day tour to visit UNESCO World Heritage-listed Auschwitz-Birkenau. We started the day by being picked up in a mini-van from our hotel and travelling the 65 kilometres west of Krakow to the Museum, which took around an hour and a half. The tour of the museum lasts around 3-4 hours too, so all in, it is around a 7-hour day trip from Krakow.
Your tour will usually start at Auschwitz I, which is the former Polish Army base that was converted into the horrific camp by the German Nazi’s. At the entrance to the camp, there is a wrought iron sign which reads ‘Albeit Macht Frei’, which translated to English means ‘Work sets you free’. If prisoners did not arrive via the trains which led directly into the camps then this is what they would have been greeted with upon their arrival. The entire site measures around 40 square kilometres, of which you will see a small portion. Auschwitz I was established in 1940, and then later once the Nazi’s decided that they would use camps for the sole purpose of exterminating Jews the second camp opened at Birkenhau (Auschwitz II) in 1942.
During your visit to Auschwitz, you will see a myriad of horrendous scenes. It is very haunting and overwhelming, and by the end of the tour, you will feel emotionally drained. However, it is such an important part of history, it warrants visiting to commemorate the lives that were lost in this atrocity. As you can see from the photos, there were many watchtowers positioned around the camps, meaning that the prisoners were under constant surveillance. Once you have walked around the grounds of the camps you will also have the opportunity to enter into some of the old wooden huts, where hundreds of Jews were expected to live. As you can see the bunks are three beds high and were only pieces of wood nailed together. The prisoners had no mattress, sheets, pillows or duvets, and would often use each other’s body heat as a means of keeping warm.
Above you can see the train tracks leading into Auschwitz, the end of the line for the prisoners of the German Nazi’s, both physically in that moment, as well as the end of their lives as they knew them. Although precise numbers are still debated it is believed that tragically of the 1.1-1.3 million Jews deported to the camp at least 960,000 were brutally murdered. Other victims included approximately 74,000 Poles, 21,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war and at least 10,000 from other nationalities. When the Soviet Nationals liberated the camp on 27th January 1945, there were an estimated 7,000 starving prisoners found alive in the camp.
In the Auschwitz museum, you will see hundreds of photographs from this terrible era, including galleries of photos taken of prisoners. You will also find exhibitions displaying collections of items. Above is a collection of the gas canisters containing the chemicals to produce the lethal Zyklon B gas, which was used in the awful gas chambers where most of the prisoners spent their final moments. You will also find collections of shoes, suitcases, and kitchen utensils, all stolen from the prisoners by the Nazi officers upon their arrival in the camp.
Before word spread about the deadly torturous condition of Auschwitz and Birkenau, Jewish prisoners were told that they were simply being ‘resettled’ to different parts of the country. Sadly however this was just a rouse by the German Nazi’s and the prisoners faced gruelling conditions during the journey even before arriving at the camps. Prisoners were packed into sealed freight cars, like the one above, they were overcrowded and not given any food or water. The gruelling journey to the concentration camps usually took around 4 days and by the time they arrived at the camp many of the prisoners would have already lost their lives.
As you can see above, flowers are regularly laid at points through Auschwitz and Birkenau to honour the victims of this atrocity. Two years after the camps were liberated the museum and memorial were founded in 1947. On the left is the railroad leading into Auschwitz the final destination for most of the prisoners who arrived here alive. On the right is The Black Wall, where prisoners were murdered by Nazi firing squad. The victims of the firing squad mainly included political prisoners and polish resistant fighters, who would not ever be registered at the camp. Following a period of interrogation and a ‘trial’ in the courtroom of the adjacent building they would be shot by firing squad. Within this area in nearby buildings, horrific medical experiments were also carried out by German Nazi doctors on the helpless Jewish prisoners. Many world leaders have visited this area in particular to lay flower wreaths to pay tribute to the millions who lost their lives during the atrocity. A harrowing experience to see first hand the camps and conditions of the victims of the Holocaust, but something which must be acknowledged and learned from.
This is the official name for the main square of the Old Town of Kraków, it is also Europe’s largest medieval town square measuring 200m by 200m! Within Rynek Główny you will find the 13th-century Gothic Town Hall Tower, the magnificent 14th-century Gothic basilica of the Virgin Mary’s with its astonishing Great Altar and the tiny church of St. Adalbert’s whose parts date back to the 11th century. As well as the 16th-century Renaissance Cloth Hall in the centre. It’s also a great place to meet or get to, to find a nice restaurant pub or bar as there’s lots of options available near the square to choose from!
You will also find an intriguing large head sculpture situated in the western corner of the square, just next to the Town hall Tower. The sculpture was gifted in 2004, by the Polish artist Igor Mitoraj. Sadly Mitoraj passed away in 2014, but is widely known for his large fragmented sculptures of the human form.
Originally unveiled in 1898, the statue of Adam Mickiewicz portrays a large likeness to a romantic poet and national hero. Unfortunately like many other landmarks and national treasures the statue was destroyed during the World War II. The statue that stands in the Rynek today is a 1955 copy of Teodor Rygier’s original.
There was great night life to be had in Krakow. One evening we decided to check out the ‘escape rooms’. If you haven’t been to an escape room before the premise is, that you will be locked in a room for an hour with a group of hopefully reliable friends and then have to figure out various puzzles and clues in order to escape before your hour is up! It’s a lot of fun and there are often escape rooms in most cities, (we’ve been to some in California, London and Kent). We visited Escape rooms ‘Locked up – real life escape room’, which was great fun! The prices are reasonable and they have a selection of different rooms and games to chose from.
Another evening we also visited the very lively pub and karaoke bar, continuing our theme of puzzles, aptly named ‘Enigma’. They offer a warm welcoming atmosphere, and later on in the evening lively entertainment when karaoke is in full swing! There were all different nationalities in the bar when we visited and it was great to sing along to different songs that were unfamiliar to us. As well as singing along to classic hits from the likes of Madonna or George Michael! The drinks are great too, and reasonably priced. In fact, visiting Krakow in Poland I would say that for a buzzing city, everything was very reasonably priced in comparison to the likes of New York or Paris .
For more detailed information and advice why not check out these useful guides and books – Lonely Planet Krakow, DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Krakow, Marco Polo Travel Guide Krakow or Insight Guides: Explore Krakow.
Another book I just have to mention is one which I picked up at the airport last summer for some holiday reading, titled, The Tattooist of Auschwitz: the heart-breaking and unforgettable international bestseller, when I started reading this book, I could not put it down! It is based on a a true story, and covers the life of ‘The Tattooist’ who was forced to tattoo new prisoners as they arrived at Auschwitz. This book not only encompasses the ravages of war, and the impacts on its victims, but celebrates the love, friendship and warmth of those, who still held on to these values tightly and did not let go. I was completely moved by this book, and urge everyone to read it!
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my experience in Krakow. I’d love to go back and spend longer in Poland. I’d especially like to spend some time in Warsaw to visit the Royal Castle and museums, and also track down some vegan polish food too!
What have been your experiences so far? What’s the best things you’ve seen and done in this beautiful part of the world, share your experiences in the comments section below I’d love to hear about them!
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