Early in planning our trip through Europe we added Krakow to the list of cities we wanted to visit. I primarily wanted to visit Auschwitz to pay my respects to the millions murdered by the Nazis. Having just visited Berlin prior to Krakow, I knew we would be digging even deeper into the history surrounding World War II and was very interested in how this city was affected.
Krakow, however, has much more to offer as it was previously the capital of Poland, a significant trading post in history and now continues to grow after the liberation from Soviet control. Prior to our arrival, the only guided tour we booked in advance was Auschwitz, but we ended up on four, yes FOUR, additional guided tours throughout our stay in Krakow.
We stayed in an Airbnb about 20 minutes from old town. The tram was a 10 minute walk from our studio apartment in a quiet building complex. Waking up fairly early to get to our pre-booked tour of Auschwitz we felt almost like locals crowding the tram into town in the morning. We made our way to central station and boarded a bus to the Auschwitz Memorial leaving a couple times each hour. It’s about a one hour drive from Krakow to Oswiecim where the concentration camp memorial is located. Arriving with a few minutes to spare, we passed through the gates to meet our group. Our guide then led us through the memorial describing the events that took place and the life of the victims, the false beliefs told to the victims on their arrival and the grotesque manner in which the Nazi scum (I edited out soldiers, they don’t even deserve that title) murdered so many innocent people. Then in order to speed up the murders, Auschwitz II-Birkenau was created, which was the second part of the tour. Our guide boarded the shuttle riding with us to Auschwitz II-Birkenau about 10 minutes away. She then had us walk the path taken by the innocent families arriving to this death camp. Families were divided up immediately and sent either directly to death in the gas chambers or to be worked and starved to death. The image of this camp with barracks spread in all directions, the stories of what it was like will forever be in my mind. There is plenty more to say, but I’ll just say you must visit this place to understand.
We caught the same bus home after our tour and took it easy for the rest of the day. It was important to just reflect on our visit so we stayed in that evening.
The next morning, we got an early start to give ourselves as much time as possible to explore Krakow. We decided to join a free walking tour through a company with that exact name, FreeWalkingTour.com. The tour focused on Old Town and the history of Krakow, not specifically about World War II. We arrived at the meeting point and were invited to participate in a “social experiment” by our soon to be guide Jakob. He encouraged us to speak to a stranger within the group to basically start a dialogue about 1) where we are from and 2) tell them something we are obsessed with. It was more like an ice breaker, but really opened us up before setting off to learn about Krakow. He walked us through the Old Town, past the old market square and the opera house, and eventually finishing up the tour at the Wawel Royal Castle thoroughly describing the history of this city and of Poland as a whole. Having an incredible guide, with a passion for telling the history of his city with stories that he relates to through his family and friends, really made our day. After this tour, we realized there was definitely a lot more to this city than we initially thought.
On a bit of a high of excitement we checked the time and it looked like we had enough time to meet another tour group to check out Schindler’s Factory Museum. All I knew about Oskar Schindler was based on Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.” Lucky for us, the same company, Free Walking Tours, would be leading a tour that afternoon.
We started out on a casual walk to the factory stopping for a quick bit of food from a street food window call Krak Burger (the sandwiches did not disappoint), but soon realized it was going to be a lot further than we had anticipated. We ended up running, yes truly running and at a fast pace too, to get there. We arrived with only minutes to spare, paid for the tour and headed into the museum with headphone sets on to hear our guide. It is possible to tour this museum alone and read the plaques all around, but we recommend paying for a guide who will give you so much more insight into the exhibitions you are seeing. The museum is a lot to take in, so we were happy that our guide was there to point out the most significant parts and even provide some stories along the way about her relatives. The museum focused on Jewish history in this region leading up to and through World War II with a smaller part dedicated to Schindler’s Factory as it is really only a small part of the bigger picture.
Having been on our feet since we woke up that morning, we headed toward home at a much slower pace. We stopped along the way at a small square with a few food trucks and sipped a couple Acai berry smoothies for a late afternoon snack and a moment of rest for our feet.
Eventually we continued on, noticing that we reached the Kazimierz neighborhood. This district lies south of Old Town and was once the center of Jewish life for over 500 years. As rich as it is in history (and after several decades of neglect during the Communist era), it has since been transformed into one of the most hip, lively, and bohemian neighborhoods in Krakow and should not be missed on your visit.
We noticed restaurants were filled with locals and only a few tourists seemed to remain in the area. We had already planned on stopping for dinner in Old Town so we kept walking, but later ended up turning up our noses at the high “tourist prices” at most of the restaurants. We began to understand that there is a separation of the Old Town and the Kazimierz neighborhoods. The Old Town is filled with tourists with restaurants and shops catering to those willing to pay for the overpriced meals and souvenirs. We were clearly not willing to pay double and triple the prices we had seen in Kazimierz and headed home. We did however plan to go out in Kazimierz before we left Krakow.
Here are some pictures from Old Town on our way home:
So, for our last day we wanted to take a food tour to hopefully dig into the traditional polish cuisine. As usual, we ended up rushing to the meeting point for the tour. Two days in a row, we were running a little late and just about running there. (I really need to check how long it takes to get where I’m going so this doesn’t keep happening). We soon found our guide who again was with Free Walking Tours, even though this was one of the paid tours (it was still quite cheap). We waited another 5 minutes for others to arrive, but it turned out that Whitney and I would be the only ones on this tour. Our guide was amazing and since there is no minimum number of people for the tour we headed off with our very own private guide. She walked us through the town, inviting us to try a variety of foods with a theme that took us from breakfast, to lunch, to snacks, to pre-dinner, dinner, and finally a night out all within a couple hours.
Ok, so you’d expect us to do our own thing for the rest of the day, but no…we joined another free walking tour through the Jewish District (Kazimierz) for later that day. Our guide on the food tour inadvertently talked us into it cancelling our original plans to take a trip to the beautiful Salt Mines just outside of Krakow. We were excited to see the beauty and character of that particular salt mine, especially at the recommendation of a good friend, but we were drawn to the historical significance of the Jewish District and changed the course for the afternoon. Again, we ended up with our new friend Jakob as our guide, with his voice projecting and his love for Poland kept us focused on everything he shared. He walked us through the quarter describing the life of the Jews leading up to the war, as well as the effects the war had on local Poles, then led us into the historical Jewish Ghetto where so many horrible things took place. He told the stories of Holocaust without sugarcoating anything. He said it was his goal to share everything he could in hopes that we all learn from it and prevent it from ever happening again.
After this final walking tour we were mentally done. We had absorbed more information than ever expected in this city. We wandered back into the center of Kazimierz for dinner, stopping briefly for ice cream on the way. We eventually settled for dinner seated outside at a delicious restaurant. Once again we reflected on all that we have seen and done in this city.
You might be wondering how much all these tours cost and how we managed to budget ourselves for such a busy few days here. To be plain, we spent an average of $81 a day for the two of us for everything. First, we rented a private studio apartment through Airbnb for $28/night outside of downtown, which was about a 20 minute ride on the tram. Next, the cost of our guided visit to Auschwitz was certainly worth more than the $37 we paid (this was for two people and included the round-trip bus transfer from Krakow). Our tours of Old Town and the Jewish District were “free tours” so we tipped generously, but with the current exchange rates they were still really cheap. Finally, our Schindler’s Factory Museum and the Food Tour were only $26 and $20 for both of us. This has by far been the most inexpensive city we have visited in Europe. We definitely recommend adding it to your travel plans not just for the price, but for the chance to see and understand what happened in this part of the world and how the people are moving forward today. All of our tours were with FreeWalkingTours.com and we highly recommend looking into them if you travel here. They were the best tours we’ve been on in all of Europe.
Overall, Krakow was much more interesting than we thought. Heading here I really only expected to see Auschwitz, then wander through Old Town and possibly visit the salt mine, but would mostly be relaxing beyond that. This didn’t turn out to be the case and we are so fortunate to have had the opportunity to see this city. After touring so much of it, I think we definitely could have spent a few more days here. Then maybe we wouldn’t have had to physically run from tour to tour.
Now, it’s back on the road…next stop Prague.