I wasn’t sure what to expect from Krakow, but with the price I got on our plane tickets a few months ago (20 CHF!) I was ready to take my chances. Verdict…? Gosh, it’s such a cool city. Yes, it was absolutely freezing with even a little bit of snow, but we were asking for it with a February visit. And yes, we spent part of the trip learning about the city’s tragic history, but it was a very meaningful experience. Add in the elegant architecture, the warm, hearty Polish meals, and the low prices for top-notch everything… It was a wonderful stay. Here’s the recap:
We flew in late Saturday and took the 20-minute train ride to city center before walking about 10 minutes to reach our hotel (the very lovely and affordable Hotel Wielpole, which I would definitely recommend). Following a suggestion in our guidebook, we then set off for dinner at “U Babci Maliny – Szpitalna,” which was my favorite meal in Poland. Hot, thick mushroom soup in a bread bowl, veggie pirogies, cabbage salad, Polish beer… all with live piano music? We loved it. Not to mention the slightly over-the-top but fabulous decor. If you’re ever in Krakow, go.
The next morning we took the train to Wieliczka Salt Mine — one of the original UNESCO World Heritage sights — which was very impressive. Highlights include a giant chapel with hand-carved statues and salt-crystal chandeliers deep within the mine, as well as the natural cauliflower salt formations. You walk down many flights of stairs to enter the mine, but it’s not difficult. In fact, the most terrifying part of the experience, in my opinion, was being crammed — literally crammed — into a tiny metal mine elevator for the ride back up. I would have preferred to climb stairs any day, but I guess it’s not an option? Pro tip: Don’t bother to pay an extra $2 to take photos like we did; it was not policed and everyone took photos, as it was much too dark in the mine to see the special stickers that show you have permission (yeah, we’re suckers…)
Afterward, we took the train to Plaszow to search for the site of the former labor camp, but the path appeared to be blocked by construction sites (which, I should add, are everywhere!) We walked along the highway and, thanks to Gui’s expert navigation skills, were able to find the cemetery that marked the next stop on our itinerary — the Liban Quarry that was used as the set for Schindler’s List and now sits abandoned. The path leading down into the quarry was incredibly steep and icy, and our feet were already soaked from wearing improper footwear for the unexpectedly snow-covered trail, so we decided to settle for viewing it from above. If you look closely in the bottom-left corner of the second photo, you can see the poles that marked the barbed-wire pathway of the labor camp in the film.
We headed back into Krakow and found our way to the former Jewish ghetto, locating the remaining piece of the ghetto wall, the pharmacy run by a Pole who risked his life to help Jewish inhabitants, and the main square that was both the center of ghetto social life and where residents were rounded up for deportations (now recalled in a memorial of empty chairs). Afterward, we visited what was Schindler’s actual factory and is now a museum about Krakow during World War II. Despite the glowing reviews, the museum wasn’t my favorite: It was crowded with school groups with loud tour guides and I found some of the displays difficult to read and unclearly labeled. Plus, I had expected it to tell the story of the factory, Schindler and the people who worked there, rather than the story of Krakow during the war — undoubtedly a very important story, just not what I expected. The museum does have an exhibit about Schindler in his former office, which is pictured in the last photo below. Later that night, I discovered my new favorite apple cider (“Cydr Miloslawski” for my fellow cider-lovers) and filled my stomach with more delicious Polish food before collapsing into bed.
Monday we visited Auschwitz. I cannot put that experience into words, but we took a half-day English language tour and I am glad we did it. The below-freezing temperatures and wet snow falling from the gray sky seemed fitting. I will say that I was totally unprepared for the scale of Birkenau, with its seemingly endless barracks in both directions… the photos do not even begin to capture it.
Tuesday was our last day in Krakow and we began by visiting the royal chambers and state rooms in Wawel Castle, stopping at a lovely shop selling hand-painted Polish ceramics afterward as we walked to the old town. We wandered around the charming streets, visited the gorgeous interior of St. Mary’s Basilica, toured the old university where Copernicus studied and went for one last plate of pirogies before our 8pm flight back to Geneva. Enjoy the photos!