Where Turbulent History, a Fire-Breathing Dragon, and Perfect Pierogi Converge

Exploring the Jewel that Is Krakow

For centuries, the Jews of Krakow enjoyed a peaceful existence where their culture and community thrived. Then the Nazis nearly erased Judaism from Krakow’s landscape. In the first part of this story, we explored Kazimierz and the site of the Krakow Ghetto. But Krakow, whose entire old town was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, is a city that holds many wondrous experiences and surprises for visitors. So we will continue the story and take in the many fascinating facets of today’s Krakow.


In order to put the present in perspective, it helps to look at the past. This is true in most situations, but the history of Poland in general, and Krakow in particular is so complicated, and convoluted, this story could take forever to tell. So I will ask forgiveness from the historians and attempt to give you a bit of background to set the scene.

Throughout history, Poland was part of some European country or other including Lithuania and Austria. It was messed up by invaders, carved up by her neighbors, and disappeared from the map for over 100 years between the late 1700s and November 11, 1918.

Between the end of World War 1 and the Nazi invasion on September 1, 1939, Poland struggled politically, but thrived culturally. When Soviet Union troops drove the Nazis from Poland at the end of the war, they decided to stay, and the communist era was born. Poles lived under harsh conditions until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Since then, Poland has transformed itself into a nation with a multi-party political system, a free-market economy, and a thriving tourism component. It is a member of NATO, as well as the European Union, and welcomes visitors from nations near and far.

Buildings in the Main Square Silhouetted Against an Evening Sky (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Buildings in the Main Square Silhouetted Against an Evening Sky (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

The city of Krakow dates back to the 7th century. It was the capital of the Polish Kingdom until the early 17th century. In 1795, Krakow became the seat of Galicia province in the Austrian Empire. Under the Nazi occupation, the German’s turned Krakow into a completely German city, and the oppression of communism took a further toll on the city’s economy and culture.

Today, Krakow is a popular destination for Europeans, as well as visitors from other parts of the world. The people are warm and welcoming, and with her abundance of things to do, it’s easy to fall under Krakow’s spell.

Rynek Główny, Krakow’s Main Market Square

The Main Market Square is the center of activity in Krakow’s old town, and an ideal spot to begin your exploration of the city. This is the largest medieval square in Europe, so don’t assume you can have a quick wander around and move on. You can easily spend a couple of hours in this enchanting square, and that’s before you even begin to sample the available food. Morning is the best time to visit, but you will find plenty to do and see any time of day.

In the 13th century, the square was a bustling place of trade. Over time, all the trade buildings were torn down, with the exception of the Cloth Hall, the yellow structure in the center of the square. Souvenir and handmade craft shops of all kinds now occupy the ground floor, while an exhibition of 19th-century paintings can be found on the upper level.

The Cloth Hall in the Main Market Square of Krakow (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
The Cloth Hall in the Main Market Square of Krakow (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

The town Hall was torn down in the 19th century, but the original tower was preserved. For a fee, you can climb the tower stairs for a decent view of the city.

In front of the Town Hall is a massive bronze sculpture of a human head. Children like to crawl inside and watch the goings-on in the square from an eye socket. The view of the sculpture from the square if often of a child’s head instead of an eyeball. Now, that’s what I call a photo op.

The Recumbent Bronze Head Sculpture in the Main Market Square of Krakow (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
The Recumbent Bronze Head Sculpture in the Main Market Square of Krakow (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

The Main Market Square is alive and constantly moving. Busy outdoor cafes, vendors of all kinds, horse-drawn carriages, street performers, a fragrant eye-popping flower market, as well as throngs of locals and tourists give the square a feel of joyful chaos.

Rynek Underground Museum

Below the Main Market Square, 15 feet beneath the fountain to be exact, lies the 4,000 square foot Rynek Underground Museum. One of the largest museums of its kind in Europe Rynek treats visitors to a state-of-the-art look at Krakow in medieval times.

Ancient Walls on Display in the Rynek Underground Museum (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Ancient Walls on Display in the Rynek Underground Museum (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Excavation began in 2005, and the museum opened to the public in 2010. Here, interactive touch screens, videos and digital reconstructions combine with original artifacts and a model of the medieval version of Krakow to bring the past to life.

St. Mary’s Basilica

On the eastern corner of the Main Market Square stands the magnificent 14th century Gothic-style St. Mary’s Basilica. Her two towers different stand at different heights and have different architectural styles, but it’s the basilica’s extravagant interior that will take your breath away.

Colorful stained glass windows and the brilliant blue ceiling immediately attract the eye, but save some eye energy for the church’s elaborate alter. If you arrive when St. Mary’s opens in the morning, you can witness nuns unveiling this treasure.

Admission is free if you are coming to attend services. Otherwise, you will pay to enter, to climb the tower, and to take photos. All this will set you back less than $10, a bargain considering the one-of-a-kind experience.

Climbing the tower’s 239 stairs will reward you with the best view of Krakow. Every hour, on the hour, a man trumpets a medieval tune from the top of the tower. He plays the melody four times, facing a different direction for each. The last melody is abruptly cut off before its completion. This represents the legend of a brave bugler who climbed the tower and played in all four directions to warn the town of approaching Mongol invaders. The city gates were closed in time, and the town was saved, but the unfortunate bugler was cut down by a Mongol arrow in mid toot. I found both the melody and the story quite haunting.

The Bugler of St. Mary’s Basilica (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

While waiting for the trumpet-player, Jola, our guide, showed me a tactile model of St. Mary’s Basilica. How many times have I said, Look for the surprises?” Well, this was one of the best for me. I was able to visualize the shape of the church and literally get a feel for its architectural features.

The Royal Route

The Royal Route is the seven-mile-long coronation path taken by Polish kings. It begins at the castle on Wawel hill and ends at St. Florian’s Church.

Two sites worthy of attention are Saints Peter and Paul’s Church and the 14th century Jagiellonian University. The university is the second oldest in Central Europe, after Prague University.

At the church you will find magnificent marble apostles adorning its façade. The university campus with its immaculately manicured gardens, will make for a pleasant stroll. Then you can sit down on one of the benches and contemplate the fact that both Copernicus and Pope John Paul II studied there.

The Royal Route passes through the Main Market Square all the way to St. Florian’s Gate, There you will find a portion of the the medieval walls that was not destroyed. Walking atop the wall makes for an interesting view and some good photos.

Wawel Castle and Cathedral

It seems as though every European city has a cathedral and a castle that draw visitors from all over the world, and Krakow is no exception. Wawel Hill is home to both, and no visit to Krakow should be considered complete without a climb up and a look around.

Wawel Castle has been home to Polish kings since the 11th century. The castle has undergone many changes over the centuries. Within the castle complex, you will find examples of Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance architecture.

There is no charge to explore the castle grounds. You can spend hours taking in the spacious courtyards, well-maintained gardens, a stunning view of the Vistula River as it flows from the Southern mountains to the Baltic, and an architectural salad of historic structures. However, you will need to pay a small fee to enter individual buildings.

Wawel Castle Complex in Krakow (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Wawel Castle Complex in Krakow (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

The Castle

Wawel Castle was home to one of the largest courts in Central Europe. The building alone contained over 100 rooms. You can visit some of the castle’s rooms on the lower level, and enjoy the private art they contain.

I was fascinated by the story of the castles priceless Flemish tapestries, woven in silk with silver and gold thread. Of the original 170 pieces, 138 survived and, were smuggled out of the country shortly after the Nazis invaded Poland. They endured a dangerous journey across the Romanian border, to France, and then to England. From there they were shipped to Canada. In 1961, the tapestries were finally repatriated.

Other Attractions

The castle isn’t the only structure worth a visit. You will find several buildings containing museums on the castle grounds you can enter for a separate fee. If you’re interested in the details of life during the period of Poland’s monarchy, they will be well worth the time and money.

The “long’ museum, Treasury, and Armory, hold some of the most interesting exhibits. 

While strolling the grounds, note the different styles of the towers, building facades and other features. Much may have been lost during periodic reconstructions, but enough remains to add even more interest to an already fascinating site.

On a personal note, the castle grounds offered me another one of those superb surprises. Yes, it was another touchable detailed model, this time of the entire castle complex. My fingers took their time identifying the castle, cathedral, churches, museum, dragon’s den, towers, the statue of Poland’s national hero on horseback, along with the roads leading in and out of the complex. The model was installed over a decade ago, with Braille information in Polish and English.

A Bronze Tactile Model of the Wawel Castle Complex (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
A Bronze Tactile Model of the Wawel Castle Complex (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

In the title of this post, I promised you a fire breathing dragon. Well, to no one’s surprise, the monster dwells down the hill from the castle. The beast cuts loose with its fire power intermittently, and it was a hoot watching Simon try to get the timing right for that perfect night shot of the event. The legend tells of a shoemaker who slew the pesky dragon, but in my opinion, the story has no sole.

Best Seen at Night, the Fire-Spewing Dragon on the River Walk Below Wawel Castle (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Best Seen at Night, the Fire-Spewing Dragon on the River Walk Below Wawel Castle (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Wawel Cathedral

Wawel Cathedral is the place where Polish kings were crowned, married, and buried. If this description brings to mind London’s Westminster Abby, you’re not far off. The 14th-century cathedral is the resting place of some of Poland’s most revered citizens: kings, statesmen, and national heroes, including a former president, Lech Kaczyński. The cathedral is also the one-time stomping ground of former Arch Bishop Karol Józef Wojtyła, Krakow’s favorite son, commonly known as Pope Paul II.

A Dragon Gargoyle on the side of the Cathedral (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
A Dragon Gargoyle on the side of the Cathedral (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Little is known about the original cathedral, which is believed to have been built around the 11th century. Two consecutive cathedrals were built on this site, both of which burned to the ground. The current church was consecrated in 1364.

The cathedral’s interior contains many of its original decorations, along with additional paintings and furnishings from later periods of the cathedral’s history. The tomb of St. Stanisław, the former Bishop of Kraków, after whom the Cathedral is named, appropriately occupies the church’s center.

The cathedral’s interior holds 18 elaborately decorated chapels and the Royal Crypts. Climb the 70 steps to the top of the tower where a 12.6 tonne bell and a view of Krakow await you.

Admission to the main cathedral is free, but if you want to see the Pope John Paul II Museum, crypt, and bell tower, you‘ll have to pay a separate fee for each. Do you see a pattern here?.

Food for Thought

When you think of Polish food, you probably imagine huge platters laden with kielbasa, cabbage, potatoes, and pierogi. Well, to some degree, you are right. These foods are easy to find in Krakow, and they’re damned good, too. However, Poles, like the rest of us, like to experience different ethnic cuisines, and are culinary creators in their own right. 

Although you can find just about anything your belly desires in Krakow, for our part, eating local happens to be one of the many pleasures of travel. In Krakow, pierogi became an obsession, and we sampled several varieties throughout our visit. It’s a good thing we also did a lot of walking.

On our way to our scheduled Wieliczka Salt Mine tour, we found ourselves in the village with time to spare and rumbling stomachs. Simon parked our rental near the small square and set off in search of signs of sustenance, while Otto and I waited in the car. “See if there’s a ‘Pierogi Hut’,” I called to his retreating back.

Less than five minutes later he reappeared and said, “Get out of the car, I’ve found your ‘Pierogi Hut’.”

Our "Pierogi Hut" (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Our “Pierogi Hut” (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Well, that’s not what the tiny restaurant was called. The name was Pierogarnia, and the woman who made the pierogi in full view of patrons will be making them in heaven one day. We ordered a mixed plate, which included meat, mushroom and cheese pierogi. They were hands-down the best we ever tasted, and if we return to Krakow, we will definitely look for our “Pierogi Hut” again.

Making Pierogis by Hand (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Making Pierogis by Hand (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Krakow Day Trips

When in Krakow, there are two day trips you’ll want to add to your itinerary. One is a true delight, while the other is anything but fun. Both are fascinating, educational, and, not to be missed.

The Wieliczka Salt Mine

For your first trip, take the 30-minute drive from Krakow to the 13th-century Wieliczka Salt Mine. This extraordinary UNESCO World Heritage site is a nine-level network of tunnels and chambers, located 1,100 feet beneath the surface at its lowest point.

A rattling mine elevator takes visitors down 210 feet to where the tour begins. Old mining equipment, stunning chambers, and magnificent detail-rich sculptures, grace every level. The sculptures were all lovingly carved by miners during their spare time.

At approximately 330 feet down, you’ll encounter a truly wondrous sight. The 5,000 square foot St. Kinga’s Chapel was completed by three minors between 1896 and 1963. There you’ll want to linger long enough to marvel at the detailed biblical carvings in the walls. The entire scene is illuminated by chandeliers fashioned of pure salt crystals.

The Chapel of St Kinga Deep Underground in the Wieliczka Salt Mine (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
The Chapel of St Kinga Deep Underground in the Wieliczka Salt Mine (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

There is much more to see at the Wieliczka Salt Mine, so allow at least two hours or more to take in everything. Since you’ll probably work up a thirst and appetite for some hearty Polish food., you’ll find the Miners’ Tavern in the Budryk Chamber the perfect underground oasis to rest your feet and recharge.

The Wieliczka Salt Mine is an easy drive from Krakow. You can also get there by taking a bus, train, or a guided tour.


Entrance to the Birkenau Concentration at Sunset

The second must-see day trip is the 42-mile drive West from Krakow to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I promise you, you won’t leave smiling. In fact, you’ll want to take plenty of tissues.

Combined, Auschwitz and Birkenau form the largest of the Nazi extermination camps, and serves as a stark reminder of the kind of evil of which man is capable. It is also a solemn tribute to the 1.5 million men, women, and children who were murdered on that piece of land.

Visitors tour each camp separately. The guides hold back nothing when it comes to telling of the misery and brutality the Nazis inflicted upon their prisoners. You will see the remains of prisoner barracks, exhibits of shoes and luggage taken from prisoners before they were sent to the gas chamber, and the rubble that remains of the gas chamber at Birkenau. The Nazis destroyed it before the Soviets liberated the camp, as if this would have been enough to hide the evidence of their murderous acts.

Allow the better part of a day to tour both sites. Touring the camps involves a lot of walking out of doors, so wear comfortable shoes and sunscreen. This experience is not appropriate for young children, but only you can judge whether your child is old enough to separate past from present and learn from both.

My Auschwitz-Birkenau Story

I didn’t want to go. Yet I knew I had to go. My father was a Polish Jew who lost most of his family in the Holocaust. And although he never saw Auschwitz-Birkenau, his memories of those years haunted him until the day he died. Also, I believe everyone should visit a Holocaust memorial or Nazi concentration camp at least once, lest we forget the genocide the Nazis perpetrated in Europe. So, how could I not go?

The Iconic Entrance to Auschwitz  - "Work Makes Free" (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
The Iconic Entrance to Auschwitz – “Work Makes Free” (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

We toured Auschwitz-Birkenau three years ago, but I still haven’t found the ability to write about the experience in detail. This is something I must do, but not today.

Final Thoughts

Krakow is a city with a million stories to tell, some fascinating, some tragic, and some amusing. These stories are the building blocks of her physical, cultural, and historical landscape. Although Krakow acknowledges the heinous crimes committed upon her soil, the city has risen from the ashes of fascism and communism to become a premiere destination for visitors of all ages and interests.

From both a weather and crowd perspective, Spring and Fall are prime times to visit. Although an EU member, Poland’s currency is the Zloty, so be sure to check the exchange rate on the day you make your transaction. Also, be sure to do it at a reputable bank or ATM.

Our time in Krakow was an unforgettable experience, and we hope to be back some day. Yes, we saw a great deal during our first visit, but there is so much we still want to experience. If you visit Krakow, you too will fall under her spell.

Disclosure: Our visit to Krakow was generously hosted by the Municipality of Krakow, Promotion and Tourism Department, and the Polish National Tourist Office. However, all opinions, as always, are entirely my own.
Note on Covid19: Travel is beginning to resume, but countries, states, provinces and municipalities are reopening at different rates. The rules may vary from place to place. Be sure to check the website belonging to venues, restaurants, events, or accommodations you plan to visit before finalizing your plans.

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