Krakow provides ideal getaway for a weekend city break
We take in the charms of Poland's medieval city, and look at what else the country has to offer
After an often fraught history, Poland is now enjoying some well-earned boom time. Robin McKelvie takes a look at Kraków’s ample charms
Many former Eastern Bloc cities have in recent years been touted as the ‘New Prague’. On the evidence, the Polish city of Kraków has the strongest chance of replicating the Czech capital’s tourist success. There’s the pretty, chocolate-box medieval core, its wallet-pleasing nightlife and restaurant scenes, not to mention its role as Poland’s cultural heart. Swirl in direct budget flights from Scotland and Poland’s second largest city conjures up a compelling weekend break.
Things have not always been so rosy for Kraków, which endured a vicious Nazi occupation during World War II, with the horrors of Auschwitz lingering just a few short miles away. The Communist era brought attempts to undermine the city’s all-important Catholic faith (Kraków was the home city of Pope John Paul II) and the suppression of Polish culture and language. It was fitting then that Poland, through Solidarity, was at the vanguard of bringing down Communism.
Any anachronistic images of scarcity and privations are quickly brushed aside today, though, by a vibrant cosmopolitan city that brims with slick shops, cool cafes, eclectic restaurants and bustling bars. Kraków has undergone an impressive renaissance in recent years, propelled both by tourism and the burgeoning student community. The focus is firmly around the medieval Market Square, or Rynek Główny, one of Europe’s great public spaces. In the Jewish quarter, a flurry of ornate churches and the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Wawel Castle complex offers visitors plenty to fill a weekend or even longer.
The ‘Royal Way’ connects Rynek Główny to Wawel, taking in a sweep of architecture in what is one of Europe’s best preserved historic cities. A guided tour is the best way to get around the maze of Wawel, with its voluminous cathedral, Royal Chambers, Treasury and various exhibitions. For centuries, Polish kings were crowned here and the local luminary Nicolaus Copernicus once trammelled the halls musing on the great mysteries of life. Wawel exudes a palpable sense of history and breadth of culture and it takes at least a whole day to even scratch the surface.
One ‘attraction’ that is not always on the mainstream tourist circuit (but should be) is Oscar Schindler’s old factory. For years it sat uncomfortably abandoned, the local authorities not sure what to do with what was both a reminder of Nazi cruelty, but also a symbol of hope. It has now been brilliantly converted into a state-of-the-art museum that delves into the horrors experienced by the local Jews under Nazi occupation.
Rynek Główny, though, remains the hub of Kraków life. As the sun comes down, first time visitors should take a ringside seat in one of the myriad pavement cafes and just watch the posse of designer-clad locals, whizzing cyclists, horses and carts towing tourists and the street entertainers strutting in medieval garb. Drink prices may be inflated here, but they will still be less than half what you would pay at home.
The Old Town really comes alive at night with floodlit church spires and elegant townhouses glittering all around. Kraków may paint a pretty picture, but behind it lies the most nefarious nightlife in Poland. Fuelling up beforehand is essential at Kogel-Mogel (Sienna 12, +48-12 426 4968), one of the best authentic Polish restaurants. The vodka flows freely amongst the vaulted ceilings, along with traditional dishes like pierogi dumplings and hearty game platters.
Much has been made of the British stag parties which have flocked to Kraków since the advent of the budget airline routes, but they tend to descend into the same predictable venues, leaving the rest of the city for locals and savvy visitors to enjoy. And enjoy they do. New this year is Movida (Mikolajska 9), arguably the best place in Kraków for cocktails. A sprinkling of more discerning visitors sip tasty mojitos with the Kraków cognoscenti as photographs of various celebrities peer down from the walls of this narrow bar.
The Polish Spring Punch at swish Baroque (Swietego Jana 16) provides some raucous fun, not surprising at a bar that pays homage to the national drink with over 100 vodka varieties. A dancefloor awaits here too, with clubbing options on and around Florianska and Szewska.
Reclining in one of the multitude of characterful brick-walled cellar bars with an ice-cold Zywiec beer after savouring another Polish feast, you can congratulate yourself on discovering one of Europe’s most charming medieval cities. Whether Kraków is the ‘New Prague’ or not is something of a moot point. It is a richly cultured, lively and dynamic city that has impressively reinvented itself since the demise of Communism and lies tantalisingly just a two-hour budget flight away from Scotland.
Kraków fact file
Kraków’s most chic hotel is a centrally located boutique bolthole with stylish rooms, a basement swimming pool and roof terrace. Tel. +48-12-4243400.
Returns from Edinburgh to Kraków with easyJet start from £163.
Check out the Polish tourist info site for more info.
Other Polish highlights
Kraków isn't the only city worth visiting in Poland. Here are a selection of highlights from around the country
Home to the largest seaport in Poland. The Wały Chrobrego prom is a good spot for views of the Oder River. The Maritime Museum’s not bad too. Flights from Edinburgh, Ryanair.
One of the oldest cities in Poland, Poznan is easy to walk around. The Old Town Square has some great museums and architecture. Flights from Edinburgh, Ryanair.
The largest city in Western Poland, Wrocław has been selected as European Capital of Culture in 2016. The Market Square is the go-to spot for pretty bars and cafes. Flights from Edinburgh and Glasgow, Ryanair.
The Old Town has some great shops down narrow streets and the Museum of Tower Clocks at St Catherine’s Church and the Trójmiejski Park Krajobrazowy should be top of the to-do list. Flights from Edinburgh, Ryanair.
There’s some great architecture and no small amount of history to be found here. Head to Piotrkowska Street for bars and clubs. For galleries, opt for the Muzeum Sztuki on Wieckowskiego Street. Flights from Edinburgh, Ryanair.
Katowice Historical Museum is worth a whirl and church lovers should enjoy the rather lovely Christ the King Cathedral. Flights from Edinburgh, Ryanair.
Upcoming Polish festival events
Set in Kraków’s urban spaces, this celebration of modern art features site-specific works, invited artists, curators and activists.
Jewish Culture Festival
(28 Jun–7 Jul)
A week of music, film, performances, art and stories. Don’t miss the end of festival party on Szeroka Street.
Over 70,000 revellers head to the Gdynia-Kosakowo airfield for a festival filled with some of the world’s best pop, rock and electronic acts. This year offers up Alt-J, Blur, Queens of the Stone Age, Kings of Leon and more. Check out its film festival too.
(9 & 10 Aug)
Mainstream fest set in Kraków bringing some mighty fine names to the city. 2013 finds Biffy Clyro and Franz Ferdinand at the helm.
Jazz, nu-jazz, electronics and dance music flexes some finely tuned muscles at the KWK Katowice Coal Mine site.
We won’t lie, it’s pretty special: indulge in this week-long party celebrating electronic music with some mind-bending music and film. Brave and brilliant.