Krakow's main square is lined with sidewalk cafes and filled with vendors, walkers, performers

Krakow’s main square is lined with sidewalk cafes and filled with vendors, walkers, performers

Krakow, Poland was just a convenient place to stay on our way to a different destination. But to our surprise, Krakow was a delight. There is a joyful energy in the main market square of Krakow. The market is filled with stands selling fur coats, grilled sausage and vegetables, trinkets, flowers – and of course pierogi, the ubiquitous Polish comfort food, half-moons of pasta stuffed with some combination of cheese, sauerkraut, potato, or meat (or dessert versions stuffed with fruit).

The Krakow open air market is rimmed by sidewalk cafes and elegant buildings in pastel colors that stand out against a blue sky. The main square is the heart of the city. It is crisscrossed by pedestrians, bicyclists, and tourists – some in horse-drawn carriages. In summer, it was bustling with local people, street performers, musicians, and tourists from late morning til late night.

A Walking Tour is Helpful

To get a sense of the layout of Krakow, or if your kids are interested in history, a private walking tour can be worth the expense. With our guide, we climbed the hill to see Krakow’s Wawel Royal Castle, which overlooks the city and houses a museum. We toured Jagiellonian University, which despite being founded in 1364 is only the second oldest university in Central Europe.

We were lucky to have an excellent guide (Jacek Gladk) who answered all of our questions. Like why Pope John Paul II is revered in Krakow (several reasons: he was the first Slav to become Pope, he was hugely important to the Solidarity movement and in bringing an end to Communism in Poland, plus he was the Bishop of Krakow).

Gold stars stud the high ceiling of St. Mary's (photo Sarah Ricks)

Gold stars stud the high ceiling of St. Mary’s (photo Sarah Ricks)

St. Mary’s Basilica

Every hour, a trumpeter plays the same song from the top of St. Mary’s Basilica, cutting the song off midway to commemorate the long ago trumpeter whose throat supposedly was pierced with an arrow while trumpeting a warning to the city. A charming tradition is to join the small audience that gathers at the base of the Basilica to listen and watch the trumpet player.

But don’t walk by St. Mary’s Basilica without going inside. The church’s soaring architecture and star-studded blue ceiling are awe-inspiring and worth a visit.

Jewish Ghetto

The former Jewish ghetto, created by the Nazis who governed Poland in 1941, is now a gentrifying mix. Pricey restaurants, inexpensive cafes, and nightclubs are in rehabbed buildings adjacent to unrepaired structures that show their age. Is a building deteriorating because no one wants to rehab it? Or because its post World War II ownership is disputed or uncertain? Krakow’s tragic 1940’s history is depicted in Steven Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List, which filmed many scenes in the former ghetto.

While Krakow’s Jewish population is tiny, the neighborhood honors its history with cafes specializing in Jewish, Kosher, and Israeli food. Other cuisines are available. For a delicious lunch including traditional Polish beet soup, borscht, we splurged at the outdoor café of the Hotel Rubinstein, named for the cosmetics magnate and Krakow native Helena Rubinstein. (For more about where to find authentic Polish food in Chicago, here. For Pittsburgh’s variations on pierogi and kielbasa, here.)

Schindler Factory Museum

Oskar Schindler, the subject of Schindler’s List, saved the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his factory. Schindler’s former factory is now an interesting museum of the Krakow experience of the Nazi occupation of Poland. Some of the exhibit was disappointing because it was not easy for us to follow. To us, the most moving exhibit was a wall covered with the faces of the people Schindler saved.

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An elegant version of traditional beet soup, here served with quail eggs. (photo Sarah Ricks)

Welcome Green Space

The old part of Krakow is surrounded by a perimeter park that is a welcome circle of trees and green walking space. Beyond the perimeter the tourist population drops off and a visitor can get a sense of how locals live.

Day Trips – One Fun, One Horrifying

One of Poland’s biggest tourist attractions is a salt mine. Really. Underground, in what until recently was a working salt mine, the miners carved statues, chapels, and even a cathedral – all from salt. Even the chandeliers are carved from salt. The Wieliczka Salt Mine is a day trip from Krakow. Tweens and teens and younger kids capable of walking long distances likely will enjoy touring the salt mine, which requires a guide. (You can also take tours of mines in Germany and the U.S. For a New Jersey mine tour, here. For a North Idaho mine tour, here.)

From Krakow, we also took a day trip to the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz, where more than 1.1 million men, women, and children were murdered during the Holocaust. Though I am not Jewish and did not lose family in the Holocaust, it was important to me to visit Auschwitz with my husband and teenaged children. It is a horrifying and deeply emotional experience. It may be too disturbing for children under 11 or 12.

My family traveled to Poland because we wanted to visit Auschwitz. For us, Krakow was a convenient place to stay but not the goal of our visit. The beauty and liveliness of Krakow was an unexpected pleasure, and we hope to return.

For how Krakow celebrates New Year’s Eve, here. For how Poland celebrates Christmas, here.