One place that has always been on my city break radar is Krakow, Poland. There are inclusive packages available through various tour operators that will organise your flights, popular excursions and transfers. I usually book my arrangements independently, but on this occasion I decided to use a travel company that run a Krakow package. Broadway travel is the company I have used to organise my trip, they have a good 3 night program in place with their top tours included.
It is October and we are on a direct service with British Airways to Krakow, the flight departs late afternoon so your first night will be to check in to your hotel, eat and then pretty much sleep. After possibly one of my hairiest plane journeys to date, we safely touched down after 8pm. Broadway has organised our roundtrip transfers, who is promptly awaiting our arrival. The transfer to our hotel is only 20 minutes and in a great position, as we drive close to the main city centre I am pleased to see our car pulling up right in the heart of this.
The Radisson Blu is our choice of hotel; there are several good hotels within the centre, allowing you to walk to many choices of restaurants and bars. I checked in advance the locations before making my choice and chose Radisson for its central positioning. Our first night we had dinner at the hotel, they have two restaurants on site, one which operates buffet breakfast, and the second is called Milk and co offering traditional polish cuisine as well as international. I am pleased with the choice of hotel, staff are friendly, the hotel is very clean but most of all I love the modern feel which makes it a very trendy place to stay.
After an incredible night’s sleep (beds are extremely comfortable), we enjoy the buffet breakfast which has a wide choice of cooked breakfast as well as cereals, fruits and fresh juices, we then proceed to meet our tour guide for our first full day. I have always wanted to visit Krakow; it has become quite a popular city break in the last few years. It’s a beautiful and historical city with an unfortunate chilling past that everyone knows about, Auschwitz. I have spoken to friends who are from Poland who always tell me to visit their country; they have advised that whilst it is understandable to remember the tragedies from the past it is disappointing to not look at what else Krakow has to offer. It will be a long while off before the past that Krakow is famed for starts to fade from people’s minds.
Admittedly, like a typical tourist the first tour I have is to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Whilst this is the tour that has put Krakow on the map I am going to sample the positive reasons of why you need to visit. I am going to use my time in Krakow to highlight the best of the city and show you that Krakow is a top city break for your list.
We are booked on a group tour with Krakow Tours this can be done as a private trip, but it will be a more expensive option. Your tour company will either pick you up from a central location in the city; or from selected hotels; luckily, our hotel is a major tour collection point. After collecting us at 9 in the morning we stop around the corner at the Sheraton. This is another lovely hotel which would have been my alternative choice to stay in if we didn’t get availability at the Radisson, we make one further pickup and then we are on the way. The groups are small so you won’t spend hours picking people up / dropping them off.
It is just over an hour’s drive to the area called Oswiecim; a documentary is played on the coach detailing the cruelty that took place. There is a morbid fascination to visit the camps; this is not because people take pleasure in seeing evil, it is a need to understand how another human can inflict such cruelty. The Holocaust took place between 1940-45; we are talking 72 years ago so it is still fresh in people’s minds.
On arrival at Auschwitz (known as Auschwitz 1) you are led through the gates, you can choose an audio tour if you have booked the trip independently and don’t want to hire a guide. Once you pass the main entrance and walk through the gates with the famous sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work sets you free), the feeling already changes. We walk a path with rooms on the right and left of you. Each room is numbered, and as you walk into them you will be able to read and hear of all the horrific acts that took place. Without the guide, just walking through looking at all the barbed wire and electric fences the story will unfold. It operates as a museum; original items have been kept and displayed in glass cabinets, I would warn that some parts are hard to stomach. The last area we visit before we move to the second camp is the gas chamber. As you’re led through dark narrow corridors into a small and dark room the guide falls silent, there is no explanation needed. The walk to the chamber is chilling but the difference is I know where I am going and not being led somewhere against my will to an unknown outcome, you can only imagine the fear back then. As I think about this a massive shiver runs through my body turning my blood cold!
After you’ve finished you are driven to the next location which is only a few minutes away, this is Auschwitz 2, Birkenau. Once you walk up to the camp you will see the train track leading in to the camp, you will understand how frightening this train route is if you have ever seen Stephen Spielberg’s graphic portrayal in Schindler’s List. This section allows you to see the living conditions and the confined rooms. It consists of wooden sheds with bunk beds which are all outdoors, it is absolutely freezing! We are here in October which is very cold, give it another few weeks and it will be snowing. I can’t even stand the cold for a few minutes, how could anyone sleep in this? You will discover how many deaths happened due to severe illnesses, this is understandable with the atrocious living conditions. It will be an upsetting experience, but nothing you watch on television, or read in a book will prepare you for how emotional you will feel when you are there.
Tour complete, we drive back to our hotel; the tour lasts three and a half hours in total so you have plenty of time to see something else. As we landed late the night before we wanted to explore the local city centre (generally cheer up from the morning). After a little rest, we walk into the main centre known as Old Town Square. There is a lot going on in this area as this appears to be the commercial tourist spot, however this is a good place to be if you want to have a good choice of restaurants and there are many bars on the side streets leading off from the square.
There is a real medieval feel to the city in regards to the architecture, there is a beautiful building that runs across the length of the square that has a market inside, this is called Cloth Hall. Next to this is a leaning clock tower (Wieza Ratusza), it’s very picturesque as they have horse drawn carriages lined up outside waiting for your business, it really makes a nice setting, the drivers are traditionally dressed which completes the medieval theme.
The restaurants are very diverse, from Intercontinental, Asian, steak houses or traditional and local food. As you walk around they have the staff handing out leaflets and enticing you with dining special offers, however prices are already great value, you will eat very well. In my opinion, to complete your holiday experience you need to try local food and get an idea of new cultures and cuisines. We find a small Polish restaurant that looks warm and inviting. The menu is written in both Polish and English (very prepared for tourists), after a few minutes I choose a dish called Golabki. It is cabbage leaves wrapped around mince pork, a cabbage wrapped sausage served with a flavoured tomato sauce. The plate arrives and I am expecting two small cabbage sausages, I in fact get two massive sausages that take up the entire plate! I try it, all I can say is wow, this is absolutely delicious, and you don’t really need much else accompanying it as it is a complete meal. I have set a trend as another British family come in and I notice the gentleman looking at my plate, when the waitress takes their order he points and says “I want what she is having”. The meal is delicious and we are pleased we kept it Polish.
The following day we are being collected by the same tour company who arranged our Auschwitz tour. The trip today is to a salt mine called Wieliczka, as we step onto the coach we recognise a few of the people from the day before which is good as I must admit we had a really great group. I took this tour on a recommendation from our Broadway travel agent as I hadn’t heard of it beforehand.
The mine is a short drive from the city and located in the area Wieliczka. Once you enter you are led down a lot of steps taking you 135m underground. Luckily, you won’t have to walk up the stairs to get out as that would be quite a workout. You are guided through winding tunnels with walls and ceilings covered in salt. There are two routes you can take which is either the tourist route which I believe is the one we are on, or there is the miner’s route. As your guide navigates you through the maze he will tell you the complete history. There are salt carved statues which in the lighting look fantastic, the mine and carvings created by the miners have been here for 800 years. There is a beautiful Catholic Church that has been built for Saint Kinga; you wouldn’t expect to see such a huge church underground, it is gorgeous! I must admit, initially I wasn’t too excited about doing the tour but really glad it was recommended. This is the beauty of booking through an agent who has experience in the area you are travelling to; they will point out the highlights of the city (especially if you have a good travel consultant). I would definitely add this tour to your stay in Krakow; the tour lasts about 3 hours with a guide, you learn a lot about the healing qualities of salt and they have a gift shop geared at this when you finish the tour.
Instead of getting off at our hotel we decided to walk to the Schindler factory and continue learning about the Jewish history. Being in Auschwitz the day before we wanted to learn about the positive side with the man who saved lives during a very dangerous time. Once we got to the factory we realised that the tours are booked with time slots. We had just missed one and would need to wait just over an hour for the next. There isn’t many restaurants around the factory area so perhaps plan the time ahead by looking online and eat somewhere first.
With time to kill we found a guide who offered to take us on a very quick tour of the city in his tuk tuk. These guides have set routes that they sell at a pre-packaged price, they can last a few hours as it is an in depth city tour covering the highlights of Krakow. As we had tickets booked for the Schindler tour we had limited time so managed to get a shorter version of the tour and negotiated a lower price. To stay within the theme we asked to see the Jewish ghetto which is very close by. He offered to show us the ghetto as well as the home of Itzhak Stern (the accountant of Schindler) along with the most beautiful church in Krakow.
Usually in this tour you will get out and walk around, we told him we wanted the Tuk Tuk only version and will jump out here and there for a quick photo if need be. In this brief tour, we actually saw so much relating to the Jewish history in Krakow. The Jewish community still remains around the ghetto area with old synagogues, kosher delis and restaurants and original homes where they were forced to live in. We went onto Hero’s Square; this is made up of 33 iron chairs which is a memorial to the Polish Jews who were held prisoners during the war, very close to this is Eagle Pharmacy which was run by Tadeusz Pankiewicz who offered help during this frightening time. After the ghetto we drove onto the Corpus Christi Church, as our guide pulls up outside he says I urge you to go inside and take a look, you will not believe how gorgeous it is. Well, he was correct the architecture is beautiful, you are not allowed to take photographs (I manage a sly picture on my phone) but to appreciate this more, visit Krakow!
Our time is up on our mini city tour; admittedly I would have liked staying on for a bit, however we are dropped off at the factory to begin the Schindler tour. Now I am not trying to turn my blog into a film promo, but I do highly recommend watching the film Schindler’s list before making the trip, this has to be such an accurate and in depth account of what happened within the walls of the factory and how a greedy German business man turned his greed into a heroic plan to save many lives.
The first part to the tour takes you to the office of Oskar Schindler, the furnishing is original but this isn’t the original office. You will need to know that whilst you will learn the history of Schindler and see the original items he owned, you will not be in the factory itself, all the items recovered are within the museum. The other part to prepare for is that there is a brief history about Oskar Schindler and the loyal workers who stayed by his side, you will also learn a lot about Polish history and the German occupation during World War 2.
I do recommend the tour to the factory, especially if you have made the trip to learn about the Jewish history. I generally do enjoy having a guide as this is the best way to understand the history, however on this occasion I perhaps would have preferred to walk around the museum independently. Everything has full descriptions for you to read, without the guide the tour could have perhaps been a little faster paced which I would have preferred.
By the time we had completed our tour the museum was about to close. It is now early evening so we decide to walk back to the old city and towards our hotel. The walk back is pleasant as you cross the bridge passed Krakow’s famous Vistula River. The walk is about 15 to 20 minutes and you will be back in Old Town Square. We stop for a very quick and exotic meal (don’t judge but we have a McDonalds); we then head back to our hotel as it has been a long and tiring day. We have our flight back the following day which means sadly the trip is over.
Krakow is definitely a place to add on your list for a 3 night stay. I have come across several hen and stag parties during my walk around the centre in the evening. The city really comes to life at night; they have a lot of bar promotions with 2 for 1 offers on drinks. For those not on a stag or hen the reasons to see Krakow would be the history the city offers, the architecture which is medieval with all the original buildings intact. Importantly for me is the food, try Polish food to have the full experience on your holiday (don’t have a McDonalds like yours truly), I recommend the Golabki or even a good soup which is also a speciality (we managed to try ghoulish soup before heading back to the airport). Sample the Zubrowka which is the local vodka flavoured with Bison grass, we had this served with apple juice in a pint glass, absolutely delicious and deadly at the same time. Krakow has so much more to offer than a tragic history which I learnt in my 3 days, try to do the tours but take in the friendly people, the delicious food and the deadly vodka. The break will be a great cultural and learning journey.
Hotel – Radisson Blu Old Town