Dear European Traveler,
Gather round and hear a little secret…we know who you are. You’ve visited the Colosseum and soaked in the Tuscan sun. You’ve tasted chocolate in Belgium. You’ve viewed the Eifel tower, the Mona Lisa, and Notre Dame. When you made it to Croatia you though “Now I’ve been somewhere exotic”… and you had been. You went north to see Van Gogh, skipped over to have tea with the Queen, journeyed down to run with the bulls, packed it in and called it good. This was your picture perfect, couldn’t have asked for more, complete tour of WESTERN Europe. But stop there and you are honestly missing so much more than you realize.
To ease you into the half of the continent that you somehow totally forgot about, here is a guide to one of the greatest cities in the world: Kraków, Poland (also known as Cracow). It’s just about the only city in Poland that wasn’t ransacked or destroyed in WWII. Hitler took a shine to it and, for some unknown reason, spared it from total ruin. Kraków is an amazing city and should be a high priority on your next European adventure.
What to See
1. The Old Town Square: It’s the largest old town square in all of Europe as well as one of the oldest. It has a festival feeling all the time and there always seems to be something going on. You’ll find street performers in abundance as well as lots of places to eat. Don’t miss the cloth market that runs directly down the center of the square; It’s full of fun little shops and vendors.
2.The Wieliczka Salt Mine:
located a 40 min bus ride from downtown. The mine has been around for nearly 1,000 years! Inside you will see sculptures and entire rooms carved out of salt. There is an extremely impressive salt carved Cathedral near the end of the tour. You are required to enter the mine with a guide but they have regular English tours that leave every 30 min. (Tours are also given in French, German, Polish, Spanish and Russian). Because there are several hundred stairs descending into the mine you’ll want to pack the babies on your back if possible. Also, it gets chilly down there so even on a hot day you’ll want jackets. It’s about a 3 hour tour so bring some snacks for the kids. After the tour you will find gift shops, restrooms, a restaurant and a child’s play place area. This is an amazing experience not to be missed.
3. Wawel Castle (pronounced Vavel): Full of old legends of Kings, Knights, and even Dragon’s, the Wawel castle has a magical feeling. It’s about a 20 min. walk from the square and is free to tour the grounds.
There are lots of museums and exhibits priced (very reasonably) al a cart style, including: The Stateroom, The Treasury and The Tower. There is even a Dragon’s Lair that is sure to delight and spook the kiddies (but be warned of lots of tight downward stairs as you descend into Smok’s dark and dripping cavern). The Cathedral is an additional cost but is free on Sunday’s after mass (12:30pm). All of the castle’s attractions are closed on Mondays so be sure to plan ahead.
4. St. Mary’s Cathedral: A beautiful and stunning Cathedral located right in the Old Town Square. Rebuilt in the 14th Century, St. Mary’s is one of the oldest buildings in Poland and has a beautiful and unique exterior. The inside is famous for the Altarpiece of Viet Stoss which is the largest Gothic Altarpiece in the world. There is a small fee to enter the Cathedral unless of course you sneak in for Sunday Mass.
5. The Underground City: Worth a visit, especially if you like archeology. This site is located directly underneath the Old Town Square and was excavated in 2006. It’s a well-preserved view of ancient Kraków, complete with artifacts, old foundations and even vampier bones. Be sure to get tickets in advance because they tend to sell out. You can reserve tickets in person or on-line. Backpacks are not allowed so you will have to check your child carriers at the front desk and carry the little ones through the exhibit. The whole thing takes about 45 min to an hour.
6. The Auschwitz Concentration camp is about an hour drive from the city. We decided that we weren’t quite ready to see it and wanted to wait until our next trip to Kraków. But if you are interested in going you can easily find tours that will take you from Kraków to Auschwitz. .
Accommodations and Travel
We stayed at the RedBrick hotel and would highly recommend it. It’s a lot of bang for your buck. Nice accommodations and a friendly English speaking staff. But most importantly it has an ideal location. It’s a 2 min walk from the train station and a 5 min walk into the old town square. Also, bus 304 picks you up outside the front door and will take you right to the Salt Mine. We passed on the over priced breakfast and found some quaint bakeries inside or close to old town instead. We also saved 30% by calling instead of booking online.
As far as travel goes, you can fly right into the Kraków airport or come in by train from Warsaw (about 3 hours). It’s also just a 5 hour train ride from Kraków to Vienna, Austria. Polish trains in the North can be a bit slow but in the southern part of the country there are express options and even sleeper trains available. The Polish country side is beautiful and worth seeing. Traveling by train is comfortable and enjoyable. Children under 6 travel free and still get their own seat. Be sure to ask for tickets for a compartment car (think Harry Potter style instead of airplane rows). This makes for a more enjoyable experience, especially with your tiny travelers.
If you’ve been to Kraków, please feel free to leave additional comments and advice below.