I fell in love with Krakow at first sight.
It was after 10pm when we were dropped off at our AirBnb, just outside of the Old Town, and the cobblestoned street shimmered with rain, the dimmed glare of store windows, and the town beckoning night on. Krakow was enchanting, and didn’t try to hide it. Even a drive through Krakow’s outskirts was remarkable, the road dotted with Austrian-style houses between flourishes of forest. Krakow is the most beautiful city I’ve ever visited, and overall one of my favorites. It was comfortable, expressive, and delicious. It wove its poetry around me, the unhurried meter of a bon vivant nature.
How shall I measure my undying affection? In pieces of conversations snagged from the memories floating around my mind.
“It’s only forty-five minutes away.”
Our feet were our cartographers, charting routes that we watched blossom in front of our eyes. Given that the weather was (as we were told, unseasonably) warm, and the streets came to life like a gorgeous pop-up book, we weren’t prepared to miss a single bit of it. It was all very laissez-faire, especially for us. Known to be early risers and seize the day-ers, we didn’t rush out the door every morning as is our norm. Instead, we’d wake up whenever–though whenever is generally by eight in the morning–enjoy our coffee, sleepily gaze out over the balcony and catch conversation bites or the April breeze, change, whip out our sunglasses, and go.
We were swept up in this drift, and it trickled down into everything about Krakow. No walk was too long, no destination too time sensitive for the occasional detour or photo-op. (Occasional, frequent… same thing.) It’s the way that Krakow presents itself: effortless and easygoing.
If we’d booked ourselves to the brim with activities, we wouldn’t have walked the length of the city for no reason other than to see it. Simply blending into its vibrancy was entertainment at its finest.
The discoveries kept coming, the more we were on our feet. And we hit an average of 20,000 steps a day!
As I’ve mentioned before, walking is my main squeeze. We circled blocks for restaurants, to see what piqued our interest, and to not miss out on any possibilities. So was our mantra for three days here–it was too beautiful and walkable any other way. Aside from a couple of instances taking open air taxi cabs, everything was on foot. Kaylee and I sat in the back seat both times, which face backwards and bring you head to head with the vehicles behind (or, technically, in front of) you.
“That couch was one of the comfiest places I’ve ever slept.”
Ten minutes was all that stood between us and the city center. Every night, we returned to and contentedly collapsed in apartment on the third level of the building.
Our AirBnb was a two bedroom, two bathroom, six person sleeper modern spread that was prime in location and in space. The dishwasher didn’t work, we realized after a morning load, but everything else was functional and cozy at that. Why I love AirBnb is because of how in tune with local living you are. It was top notch at that, and without fuss. Just modernity.
Kaylee and I shared the pullout couch. We kept the balcony door open ajar, fresh air swirling through the room all night, and within moments of lying down we were both ready to conk. Our exercise and Vitamin D intake were a huge part of that; seriously, though, the couch was heavenly. It ranks as a top sleeping spot, taking the top mark from a stay in Dublin two years ago. Also a couch.
Good Zzz’s are fundamental to travel for me, and though I don’t necessarily need a lot of it, I do need a nice place to rest my head. This, oh, this was it.
“If we saw any pit bulls here, I would caption my next Instagram post, ‘Pit bulls and pierogi’.”
Accordingly, I mentally filled in the puppy blank. Passes and pierogi. Piroettes and pierogi. Port de bras and pierogi. The dance technique theme could be taking it too far, but in Krakow, there is an elegance that demands equally as graceful actions be taken. Imagine this: a crescent moon sketched in an ombre blue sky. As the sun reflects triumphantly on the moon, the Old Town town lights from the bottom up, almost a reflection on the current moments of orbit. A French singer strums his guitar by the fountain, and couples pause to listen to his melodic tales. Families sit at outdoor restaurants, agreeing to another pint and reaching for their plates of pierogi and reclining into the day as if it’s just begun. It is a weeknight, and there is no apparent worry of the work day to follow.
Such was the sum of Krakow, a balletic performance whose reverence to the day bows to the right now.
It was the little things that made me want to throw my arms out and spin around circa The Sound of Music. Like the bubble man, spinning the square into effervescence. Or the cherry blossom trees, their petals threading themselves through the grass. Or the company of strangers, every one measured in step and drinking in their setting with eyes, mouth, nose, ears, and hands. We circled one another, and the bounty of our joint happiness poured into the open air.
“It is up to us to remember.”
Prior to coming to Krakow, I knew that its preservation was important to the Germans during World War II. The city was untouched by bombs and blitzes because of how alluring it was to the naked eye. What I’d never fully been aware of was how battered Krakow was in those six years of Nazi occupancy.
We visited Oskar Schindler’s factory, a sanctuary for about 1,200 Jewish people through the war and now a museum of Krakow’s wartime history. We booked a tour here, and our guide, Ewa, was spectacular. Her informative tour went beyond the museum, a museum I wasn’t expecting. I’d assumed it exclusively showcased Oskar Schindler, and maintained the lay of the factory as it had been at the time. One of the first things Ewa told our group at the start of the tour was, “This won’t just be about Oskar Schindler.”
Truthfully, I was a bit taken aback by it. I’d figured that there would be more to the story she would tell us about Oskar Schindler–there is always a complexity to one person that can’t simply be a one-sided talk about their legacy–but now, I wasn’t sure how much we would learn about him, if she was opening with this disclosure.
Once we rounded the landing of the second level, where the museum begins, it made sense. We were embarking on a narrative of the city, its flourish, its fall to Hitler in 1939, its daily life, its injustices, its resilience.
Because, as I learned a bit every day, Polish pride reigned high. Their army was not large or hugely successful, but the country would not surrender its heart.
This doesn’t alter the reality of the situation of the Krakow ghetto and the inhumanness of treatment of the Jewish population. Life was difficult, and I lost my breath in quick turns of emotion. Ewa led us through the years of occupation, pointing out the worn down sign that read Adolf-hitler-Platz, a renaming of the Old Town; the walls of the old ghetto, which were designed to look like headstones; Oskar Schindler’s office. The second to last stop was in the Room of Choices, a rotunda of both good and bad decisions in a variety of languages made by people helping others during the Holocaust.
Overall, it encompassed the horror and the heartache and ended on a note of hope, a reminder that human kindness is otherworldly powerful.
We toured Auschwitz-Birkenau the next day. I’ve hemmed and hawed about writing a post on it, but have decided against it. The raw emotion and sobering realization of standing on those grounds, I think, is too harrowing and personal an experience to share here. I will say, however, that our tour guide, Conrad, gave an exceptional tour. Facing these atrocities is the only way to ensure it never, ever repeats itself, and the tour is given with the deepest respect for victims of the Holocaust. You can book a tour here.
On the morning of our last day, we had booked a tour of Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarters of Krakow. We ended up being the only ones scheduled. (Score!) Jack, our guide, offered wonderful insight into the history of the Jewish quarter. The trendy neighborhood is home to markets, outdoor restaurants, and memorials honoring Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Its life, past and present, are palpable. Book a tour with them here.
“Do we want a slice of cake?”
Eyeing the platter holding a rectangular pineapple cake, Kaylee and I nodded at my mom’s inquiry. We were standing at the counter of the cafe at Krakow’s Museum of Contemporary Art, waiting to order coffee, and none of us could help the fatal attraction. It was every bit as scrumptious as it looked. The coffee was its perfect partner in crime.
This was not the first nor the last of our googly-eyed lust for Krakow’s cuisine scene. I loved that classic and traditional both felt so new and exciting. My few tangos with pierogi and latkes in the past have always been delightful, but I was ready to really dig in to them here.
Pierogarnia Krakowiacy is a quirky little eatery with sit-in and takeaway dining. It’s off the main square, near the end of the street, and adorably cramped.
Kaylee, mom, and I shared our picks of apple and cinnamon, spinach and feta, and tomato and mozzarella pierogi.
At Restaurant Tradycyja, a Polish Italian restaurant in the Old Town, I filled my belly with pierogi stuffed with potatoes and cottage cheese. Not usually one for the latter, I went with it and concluded that cottage cheese is living its best life in a pierogi. Don’t fight me on that one.
Latkes were had at Cafe Mylnek, a ten-minute walk from the last point on our walking tour of Kazimierz. Our plates were arranged Mickey Mouse style to fit three on each. My eyes are often bigger than my stomach, but this time, I was committed. I ordered them without the mushroom sauce. Oof, were they divine.
Donuts might be all the rage in America right now, but the Polish have known about them forever. A traditional packzi can be located anywhere, but we bought ours at Gorace Packzi. Our packzi roza, or rose jam donuts, held out until the next morning, as fresh and bakery-warm as if they’d just exited the oven. The rose was a hair too sweet for me, wouldn’t you know, but the lightly glazed dough matched it brilliantly. From the moment we bought the donuts until the moment of consumption, I laid my nose on the white box and inhaled deeply, an involuntary grin lighting up my slightly sunburnt face.
And then there was the ice cream. *Sigh* Ice cream is right up there with cake as my favorite dessert, and is undoubtedly my favorite wintertime snack. It doesn’t melt, and what’s cozier than curling up under a blanket, plaid pajama set on, watching The Crown, and shoveling coffee cookies n’ cream ice cream into your mouth?
Warmer weather reckons a challenge with me to fit even more ice cream into my diet, which I always oblige. To be in a city that so highly prizes their frosty treat was a serenade.
Cupcake Corner was on our way home one night, and we popped in for cups of salted caramel and peanut butter ice cream. A Chicago expat and group of Polish-American friends decided to open a first-of-its-kind bakery in Poland, serving authentic American cupcakes, pastries, and ice cream. It cropped up virtually everywhere we were in the city–I believe I saw at least three outlets.
From cookie to tiramisu to mint, the flavors were endless and oh so sweet on those warm days. We mostly picked cones up on the way, when we were feeling hot and needing a pick me up. I recommend Lody z Lodziarni and Góralskie Praliny for your creamy indulgence.
Because of Krakow proper’s close confines, it is rooted in locality. A fair number of independent shops and cafes surrounded us, and we even decided on our “local” coffee joint: Big Hat of Coffee. A decaf Americano with brown sugar from them enlivened us with its flavor. Plus, the takeaway cups were darling. Order three beverages and they’ll grant you a free treat. For us, it was their bite-sized cinnamon roll. For something so small, we all got quite a good chunk of it.
We enjoyed pizza at an unassuming trattoria in the Old Town, as well as street food from a kiosk near our apartment. Let me tell you, their meats on grilled baguette special hits every spot.
I don’t think this needs any more explanation than this. I mean. Krakow, you stunner, you. Even a see you later! was hard to muster up at the end of our time.
Artsy vibes claim Krakow, too, from store displays to street graffiti.
The fact that the Old Town is encased by a park is incredible. It’s impossible not to want to take time to enjoy that.
And so the world bloomed under spring’s pastel hand. It left me delirious at its touch.
Where are your favorite spots in Krakow? What would you recommend for a return trip?