Krakow and Zakopane: Ancient and Snow-filled Poland
January 1, 1970
As a half English, half Polish girl with a mother who has always encouraged us to embrace our Slavic roots, I have spent a lot of time around the Malopolska area. My favourite places to visit is Krakow and Zakopane, two towns that can be easily visited in any length of trip time.
The best airport to get to Krakow is Krakow airport, however, if timings or prices aren’t to your liking, Katowice airport is an hour and a half away, and a taxi is affordable to take you to Krakow.
Travel around the city is easy and cheap, a new train station has opened up recently that takes you into the heart of Krakow and, failing that, buses are frequent around the city, costing pennies per 20 minute journeys.
For the history fans
Krakow is seeped in history, having been established in the 7th century, and its beautiful architecture and structures being kept largely undestroyed during the second world war due to Hitler’s favouring of the city, as well as making it the capital of Germany’s General Government.
The Grand Square is a great starting point in Krakow, and is quite easy walking distance. The square is the location of the Sukiennice, a covered market often referred to as the world’s oldest “shopping centre”, which contains stalls selling traditional goods, usually made of wood or fur. Around the market hall structure are a number of restaurants and museums, the former being a good place to grab food or drink and enjoy the beautiful city around you.
The catherdral in the Grand Square, St Mary’s Basillica, has a small figured of a man who emerges every 15 minutes to play a tune on the bugle before abruptly cutting off and returning back into the cathedral. The origin of this comes from the time of the Tartar invasion and the story goes that a scout on patrol saw the invaders coming and sounded his bugle, alerting the town. Sadly, midway through playing, he was shot by an arrow and killed. However, Krakow managed to be defended thanks to his efforts to alert the citizen and so the cathedral plays a cut off bugle in his honour.
Drinks tip: A good way to hear the bugle and have a backdrop of the cathedral is to head up to the top of the National Museum in the Sukiennice and go to the restaurant at the top. In good weather, you can sit on the balcony outside and enjoy cocktails, or alcoholic hot drinks under blankets in winter, and enjoy the view
The old town, in the Kazimierz district, is the location of the Krakow Ghetto now hosts the artsier scene of the city, and a great place for cheap and cool bars and restaurants, as well as markets selling wares a bit cheaper and different to that in the more touristy Sukiennice.
Auswitz is a place every person should visit, though it is harrowing, and tours are conducted in the concentration camp for you to book ahead for. If you do not wish to go on the tour, from 3pm in the afternoons, you are welcome to go in and take the site at your own pace.
The salt mines are a beautiful local tourist attraction. The salt mines opened in the 13th century and were still in use in the 21st, and their fame derives from the must-see carvings and sculptures made out of salt by the miners through history. The statues consist of characters from history, folklore, and religion, with the large chapel containing a carving in the salt wall of the Last Supper.
For the archaeologist: Within the main square, alongside a large row of shops and cultural buildings on the perimeter of the Sukiennice, or Cloth Hall Market is the History Museum. This museum, which spans beneath the main square, contains the archaeological history of the area and includes reconstructions of how old Krakow may have looked, as well as examples of archaeological stratigraphy and information about the folklore of Poland, such as vampire and witch burials.
Wawel Castle in the heart of the city is a beautiful place to visit, containing the castle and the chapel, and wandering through the caves beneath the castle will take you to the “Smocza Jama” or “Dragon’s Lair. The castle is free to enter, though entry to the dragon’s cave costs. The castle also contains “dragon bones” which hang above the church within the castle grounds. The legend goes that a dragon capture the princess of the time and a local carpenter rescued her. The legend of the dragon remains, which much dragon iconography evident in the local artwork and gifts, as well as the must see dragon statue on the river front, which breaths fire in busy seasons.
Spending time in Zakopane
Getting the bus from the main bus station to Zakopane costs 14 zloty (about £3) and the journey takes around two to three hours depending on traffic.
The ski town is fantastic in both the warm and the cold seasons. In the winter, when it is absolutely heaving with snow, the rustic wooden buildings and market stalls feel like something out of a fairy tale, and the ski slopes contain a variety of routes for both new and experienced skiiers. The mountains and the stalls can be enjoyed during the warmer months too, but there is something far more magical about Zakopane in the snow. Hiring ski equipment and using the slopes is often incredibly cheap, especially out of season, with hiring being as little as 15 to 20 zloty.
Gubałówka Hill, the large mountain in the heart of Zakopane, is best traversed by taking the funicular to the top and skiing down, or walking- be careful, bears and wolves have been known to be in the area!
Wandering down the main street, Krupówki, is a delight, with the shops and markets full of interesting local The stalls sell traditional Polish items, often wooden or woollen craft, for a fraction of the price that they cost in the hardly-pricey Krakow. The rustic looking restaurants serve up copious amounts of meat, which goes well with one of the tasty local beers.
For food, little stalls or food shacks sell amazing smoked cheese, Oscypek,- ask to have it fried, it tastes delicious. The cheese also comes in various designs, such a plaits, or even reindeer.
Places to stay
There are plenty of very affordable hotels and hostels within both Krakow and Zakopane, and Air BnB has an awray of gorgeous, cheap rooms to stay in for your visit.
If you have a bit more time
Depending on the weather, rafting along the Dunajec river is quite an experience- although I haven’t done it since I was a kid, and my mum forced us to wear traditional Polish outfits while we sat on the river…but I do wish to go back as an adult to appreciate it better!
It is possible to get down to Slovakia, if you are comfortable hiring a car, there are fantastic castles and monasteries along the border of both countries, you would just need to make sure you keep some euros on you (though they do take zloty in places along the Slovakian border). Stary Hrad is a beautiful castle whose oldest sections date back to the 13th century, and is open for people to explore and wander around. Climbing to the top of the tower results in stunning views of the Slovakian countryside.
Tasting the Local Cuisine
Wodka abound! Polish wodka is delicious, either drinking it straight or mixing it, and most restaurants will provide you with shots to either down or sip, depending on how adventurous you feel. Local Polish beer is also incredibly tasty.
Any trip to Poland is not complete without pierogi- dumplings that are boiled and then fried, commonly stuffed with sauerkraut and dried mushrooms, though meat filled ones are equally tasty, and sweet pierogi is also offered.
For the sweet tooth- Polish waffles are delicious, and often pretty cheap to get a big waffle absolutely covered in cream, fruit, and sauces! It will cover your face too!
Polish soup is a must-eat, especially if you are there in the winter. Mushroom soup, made from wild mushrooms, and Zurek, a sour potato soup¸ are often served in a bread bowl, meaning you can eat everything on your plate and won’t run out of things to dip in the soup!
Currency: Zloty (4 zloty to a dollar/ 5 zloty to a pound)
Hello- dzień dobry
Thank you- Dziękuję
Bill, please- Rajunek, Proszę
How much?- Ile?
I don’t speak Polish- Nie mówię po polsku
Do you speak English?- Czy mówi Pani po angielsku?
Cheers!- Na zdrowie!