Poland, Part 1. Krakow! My new favorite place.
Upon proofreading this blog post, I confess it comes off as a little utilitarian. Trust me when I say that its utility in no way reflects my new-found love for the city of Krakow. I travel a lot, and its easy to get jaded. You see things as another museum, or another beach , or whatever. I can say, without reservation, After traveling Europe and the Near East continuously for months, Krakow, Poland is the one place I definitely want to go back to. It’s an amazing city, and provides a great travel experience.
The weather was very nice in summer. The people were all friendly and outgoing. The city of Krakow was easy to navigate. Even the new section of the city, which I wandered out into so I might find a laundry service, was easy to figure out. The sights are world-class, and the food/beer is exactly what you expect. Seriously, if you go to Krakow and don’t enjoy your stay, I’m pretty sure it you and not them. I absolutely loved it.
Weather. I landed in Krakow in the latter part of June, 2019. The weather was absolutely fantastic. The whole time in the city was blue sky and sunny, with temperatures perfect for t-shirts and shorts. The days were warm to hot, and the evenings were pleasant.
The Old Town. Pretty much dead in the middle of the city, you’ll find the old town. It’s an area surrounded on three sides by a large encompassing green space, and at it south end by Wawel Castel. The old town holds everything from ST Mary’s Basilica, to museums, to monuments, and even a university. It is where you’ll come across most of the tourist-oriented offerings in the city. It’s open spaces are full of cafes and bars, and shops aren’t in short supply. It’s an easy-enough walk from the train station, as I made the walk twice.
Money. The Polish Zloty is the currency of choice in Krakow. The exchange rate, as of January 2, 2021, was 3.74 Zloty to 1.00 US Dollar. I never had any trouble finding ATM machines while in Krakow, and most of the vendors seem honest enough if you have trouble converting currency amounts in your head. After a couple days of using the currency, the math goes away and you just have a feel for what things cost.
Poland is part of the EU, and as such will be converting to the Euro eventually. There is no timeline for this transition.
Passports/Visas. Tourists coming to Poland will need a passport which is valid for at least six-months, and at least three-months validity remaining after leaving the Schengen Zone. If you plan to visit for less than 90 days, there in no visa requirement (USA Passport holders). There are also no vaccine requirements (A pre-COVID statement. Hey, the world’s a crazy places these days. I wouldn’t be shocked if they require a negative COVID test document for entry, whenever international tourism kicks off again.)
Language Barrier. Yet again I have to admit that I didn’t speak any Polish. I’m that guy that goes to other places and hopes somebody there speaks my language. That being said, I had zero problems with any language barrier while in Krakow. The English-speaking rate within the city was outstanding. I’m guessing that this is due to a young and outgoing population. There was a certain amount of signage that was completely in Polish, but it was of little distraction. Where I absolutely don’t recommend being an ugly tourist, and just assuming that people will bow to your wishes, getting around in Krakow with a couple basic Polish words, politeness, and a smile is pretty easy.
COVID-19 Issues. I was in Krakow in 2019. Currently, January 2021, Poland is about as well off as the rest of Europe. The country opened its borders to tourists from select countries in June, 2020. sadly America was not part of that group (yup, nobody likes us right now.)
Honestly, with countries opening and closing borders due to new strains of COVID, or hemorrhaging case numbers, I would research your specific travel country with your country’s tourism office (US State Department) for the latest information regarding travel. Keep in mind these organizations tend to hold a conservative view regarding international situations. Just, please, stay informed as you go.
Getting In and Out.
Poland is the largest economy in Central Europe. It’s an easy-enough place to get to. The city of Krakow is serviced by all major airlines. The John Paul II International Airport is located to the west side of the city. Major railroad lines also run through the city. The central train station is located in the center of the city, just north of the old town. It is a large and modern affair that is easy to navigate, and has a rail that runs out to the airport.
I travelled into and out of Poland via train. Using a EURail pass, I came into Poland from the Czech Republic. I left Poland and headed south to Austria by train as well. I had no problems crossing borders at the border stops, or using my EURail pass in Poland. Getting train reservations at the Krakow train station service counter was also quite straightforward. Poland has good countryside, and is an enjoyable journey by train.
Lets Talk About The Tram For A Minute.
I travel mostly by public transportation. I like trains, planes, and the like. I’m not averse to renting cars, I just find them to be a hassle (the majority of the time). When I get to a city, I tend to walk a lot. When not walking, I take the metro, a tram line, or catch a cab.
In decades of travelling around places where I don’t speak the language, I can say that the tram service in Krakow is the only one that has completely baffled me. I couldn’t make it work for nothing! I would get on, and go the wrong way. I would use the wrong tokens for the rides. It was so confounding that it was funny. I was officially bested by an automated train. If you use the trams a lot while you travel, I recommend doing some research on this one before you go. Hopefully, you’ll fair better than I did.
While in Krakow, I stayed at the Rembrandt Aparthotel, located on the south end of the old town on Wislina Street. The hotel was hidden inside a centuries-old building, and the entrance was through the street-side carriage door using a provided key code. I literally can’t say enough good things about this place. It was a great place, in a great location, with a good view of the old town traffic, and the price was reasonable.
I have no association with the property. I found them through Booking.com (which I also have no association with, LOL!!) while I was in Prague. They had good reviews and proved to be an excellent choice. I would recommend staying inside, or directly adjacent to, the old town during your trip. It is where you’ll spend a bunch of time, so staying close by cuts down on walking and tram rides.
The old town area of Krakow is an amazing and densely-packed place. There is much to see and do. There are many excellent churches, and grand museums. You can find anything you like here, from tourist-book top tens, to funky craft markets selling tourist trinkets and paintings. After some exploration, these things appealed to me as being highlights of my trip.
The Interior view from Wawel Castle. The castle complex sits at the south end of the old town, between old town and the Vistula River, and is easy to find. The castle complex draws many tourists, as it is home to the Wawel Cathedral. The complex is truly an amazing place to visit, and is well worth your time. There are different entry tickets, depending upon what you want to see, so ask questions at the ticket counter. Some parts of the complex are only open on certain days of the week. Built during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the UNESCO World Heritage Site was the home to many of Poland’s great rulers.
The Dragon’s Den is a cave system or grotto, depending upon your interpretation of geology, that sits under the southern fortifications of Wawel Castle. The den was said to once be the home of a dragon that lived in the area. You can enter the cave from the castle, and exit it below, at street level by the river. It’s a fanciful alternative to the otherwise straightforward historical sites around it. Also, it’s cool in the summer, if you need a break. I’m pretty sure that I had to purchase a separate ticket for it when I entered, so ask at the ticket counter.
Sitting dead in the middle of the old town square is the Krakow Cloth Hall. Once a major trading location, the Renaissance-era building is now the home of tourist stalls and cafes. It is open most days during standard hours, and is fun to walk through. The upper floor of the hall is also home to The Sukiennice Museum, and houses a permanent exhibit of Polish painting and sculpture.
Toward the north end of the old town is the only remaining section of Krakow’s original fortification wall. The area around the section of wall is the home to street art sellers, and tourist stands. There are numerous cafes in the area, and it provides a nice distraction from more touristy areas to the south end of the old town.
The memorial to Nicolaus Copernicus, located inside a magnificent church (that since I have returned to the US, cannot figure out what its name is. ugh!!) located along the greenway on the western side of old town. The church is just up the way from the Nicolaus Copernicus statue, which is adjacent to the university. Where I’m a physicist by education, a stop here seemed a must-do event.
Let’s face it, sometimes you just want to sit down and have a beer. You’ve seen a pile of sites, and walked all over the place. Now, you’re hot, tire, and thirsty. It’s time for a beer. At this point, I would stop at a table outside the Bulldog Bar, on the north end of the old town square. The place had a good view, cold beer, and nice people. As one who has had a lot of beer, in a lot of places, I recommend it.
While I’m on the topic of things that i definitely recommend, I definitely recommend the pierogi. Every place you will travel to has that dish that just sums up your experience, and in Krakow, Poland, this is it.
If you take a turn east off the old town square onto Sienna Street (???????), and wander along a ways, on the right hand side of the street you will come to a blue-fronted little pierogi shop. It’s was run by a pair of young ladies, and they do a brisk business. My lunch on several occasions (pictured to the left) were pierogis filled with red and black berries, and covered in cream sauce. It were absolutely fantastic!
I’m not saying that you need to stop at this particular place, but you definitely need to try them someplace, while you’re in town.
Some Final Thoughts.
Looking back over the pictures, the city looks a little like a one trick pony. It’s really, really not that way. I have come to notice that the majority of my posts are now a picture collage of the insides of museums and churches. I confess that I have those pictures from here as well. I just didn’t use as many of them in this post. While I was in the city, I explored several museums, and art galleries. I also stopped in on every church that looked worthwhile. The central part of Krakow is old, and as such has many very fine architectural and museums treasures.
I think that if you just see the museums and churches, you will do the city an injustice of sorts. Get out and sit in the cafes. Drink beer at a local bar. Pop into little restaurants and have a local dish. In a word, explore. Krakow has much to offer. And, I personally think, that its amazing spirit and openness is one of its greatest offerings.
Now, get out there. Find a new city to explore!