Krakow, Poland: Monuments and miracles

This one-time royal capital contains a wealth of architectural splendour. Tim Richards offers must-sees for a visit.

Poland's southern city of Krakow is something of a two-part miracle. First, as the nation's royal capital until the late 16th century, it built a heritage of grand and beautiful architecture. Then, as if its guardian angel was working overtime, it was the only major Polish city not to be severely damaged in World War II. Its streets are thus filled with original, graceful facades and plazas, topped by a spectacular castle on a hill above the Vistula River.

This wealth of mediaeval, baroque and Renaissance splendour is all contained within a flat, easily walkable Old Town, and if you get peckish while strolling, little old ladies minding carts on every street corner sell obwarzanek (50¢), a peculiarly Cracovian bread pretzel, baked daily and dusted with poppy seeds, sesame seeds or rock salt.

8am

Restaurants serving breakfast are uncommon in Poland, but stylish vegetarian eatery Glonojad neatly fills this gap in the market.

Affordably priced choices, such as potato pancakes, burritos and egg dishes cost about $5.

Glonojad, Plac Matejki 2.

9am

Stroll around Krakow's Main Market Square, the largest in Europe. In the north-eastern corner, St Mary's Basilica is a fine mediaeval structure with intriguingly asymmetrical spires and a beautiful Gothic altarpiece.

In the centre of the square is the Cloth Hall, containing souvenir shops selling amber jewellery. From here, descend to the Rynek Underground exhibition beneath the square. Opened in 2010, it is an amazing collection of high-tech exhibits on Krakow's trading history, housed in a maze of recently rediscovered mediaeval stalls and cellars.

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Rynek Underground, Rynek Glowny 1; mhk.pl. Entry: adult /concession $7/$6.

11am

Walk west from the square to the Collegium Maius, the oldest building within the 14th-century Jagiellonian University. Regular tours show off its treasures, the highlight of which is the oldest surviving globe to depict the Americas.

Collegium Maius, Ulica Jagiellonska 15. Entry: adult/ concession $4/$2.

1pm

Take lunch at the Restauracja Pod Gruszka. This old-fashioned eatery above the street is decked out with lace tablecloths and chandeliers, and serves traditional Polish dishes. If you are really hungry, try the zurek (sour rye-flour soup, $7) served in a small bread loaf, then eat the loaf.

Restauracja Pod Gruszka, Ulica Szczepanska 1.

2pm

Take a tram to Podgorze to see the darker side of the city's history. This district across the Vistula was the site of the Jewish Ghetto created by the Nazi occupiers during World War II.

Plac Bohaterow Getta (Heroes of the Ghetto Square) contains a permanent memorial comprising dozens of empty metal chairs.

A short walk to the east is Schindler's Factory, once the factory building of German businessman Oskar Schindler. As depicted in the film Schindler's List, he was the unlikely saviour of many of Krakow's Jews during the war. The factory is now a museum devoted to the German occupation of the city, with fascinating multimedia exhibits. Next door to the museum is another new institution, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow.

Schindler's Factory, Ulica Lipowa 4; mhk.pl. Entry: adult/concession $7/$6.

MOCAK, Ulica Lipowa 4; mocak.com.pl. Entry: adult/concession $4/$2.

4pm

Catch a tram back to the city, alighting beneath Wawel Royal Castle, which was the seat of Polish kings for centuries. The grounds are free to wander through, with fees to enter the museums. The State Rooms are impressive. Finish with a visit to the Dragon's Den beneath the castle, where a curious fire-breathing sculpture represents the legendary creature that is the city's symbol.

Wawel Castle; wawel.krakow.pl. Entry to State Rooms: adult/concession $6.50/$4.

6pm

South of the castle is the district of Kazimierz, once a thriving Jewish neighbourhood. Have dinner here at Ariel, choosing from delicacies such as Sephardic-style carp ($14) or chicken liver-stuffed goose necks ($14). Every evening there is a concert of traditional Jewish music, including regular klezmer band performances.

Ariel, Ulica Szeroka 18. Concert: $9.

8pm

Walk west to Plac Nowy, the hub of a thriving bar scene, with numerous establishments tucked into tiny spaces off the square and in the adjacent narrow streets.

Alchemia is a fine choice for an after-dinner drink, with its candlelit retro interior and a concert room out the back, or for something smarter, try nearby Le Scandale.

Alchemia, Ulica Estery 5.

Le Scandale, Plac Nowy 9.

10pm

Back in the Old Town, enter the Stalowe Magnolie (Steel Magnolias) live music club for a jazz or pop-rock concert in a venue decorated with scarlet fabric, comfortable sofas and gilt-framed mirrors. Put up those weary feet, sip a cocktail, and let the music wash over you.

Stalowe Magnolie, Ulica sw Jana 15, stalowemagnolie.com. Minimum spend at bar: $15.

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