Driving into the 700-year-old city of Kraków, visitors are greeted by a small plaque reading: “The City of Kings.” And Kraków is indeed rich with royal palaces and magnificent architecture, and the cuisine, culture and curiosities worthy of this aristocrat of cities.
Even though Zygmunt III Waza moved Poland’s capital from Kraków to Warsaw in 1596(!), proud Cracovians refuse to accept this, preferring to see it as a kind of historical aberration, which results in a healthy rivalry between the two cities. My grandmother spent most of her life in this vibrant place and was happy to set people straight: “Kraków,” she would say, “is the most important city in Poland.”
The Trumpeter of Kraków
Tourists usually begin with Wawel Castle and the beautiful Renaissance courtyard, which is the oldest central square in Europe, along with the town’s landmark, St. Mary’s basilica. It is from the tower of an earlier church on this site, according to legend, that in 1241, a young trumpeter saw the approach of the Tartar army in the distance and repeated his evening Hejnał mariacki, the trumpet call of St. Mary’s, over and over, to warn the city. When the enemy had been driven back, they found the trumpeter lying dead in the tower, hit by a Tartar arrow, his bugle still in his hand, his last note unplayed. To this day, the lovely and haunting Hejnał mariacki is played on the hour, every hour, four times, to the north, south, east and west, broken off before the final note, to commemorate the trumpeter’s brave defense of the city.
But the UNESCO City of Literature has a lot more to offer. And check the schedules carefully, as a lot of museums have free admission one day a week.
Food: Proud and Plentiful
Strolling through the city center, you will often see people waiting for their friends at the monument of Adaś, the nickname of Poland’s national Romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz. You might then have coffee in the famous art nouveau café Jama Michalika, or join some of the locals at Karmello, a chocolatier offering a variety of (hot) chocolates and pralines. However, a true Krakus (a stereotypically stingy Cracovian) is often found hanging out with the university students at one of Kraków’s bar mleczny (“milk bars”), for instance in Bar mleczny Flisak. These remnants of Communist times offer delicious and cheap comfort food with a varying menu.
During summer you may often find pierogi with blueberries and cream, and drink kompot (stewed fruit) with it. All year round, it is easy to order gołąbki (stuffed cabbage rolls) in tomato sauce. While they offer daily menus as well, I would recommend these only if you are a hard-working manual laborer or just very brave – portions are generous, to say the least. In Kraków’s old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, new hip cafés attract young people, much like the 7th district in Vienna. Also, Georgian restaurants, like Czaczapuri, are the hottest food trend at the moment.
If you are ready for your post-prandial walk, head up the Kopiec Kościuszki and Kopiec Krakusa hills for a magnificent view over the old Galician city along the Vistula River. Galicia was a crown land under Habsburgs, stretching into today’s Poland and Ukraine, including both Kraków or Lviv, their respective universities and art scenes. Its history is marked by demands for autonomy and economic emigration, as by highly influential Polish aristocrats like Agenor Gołuchowski, and discovering that Kraków shares the Austrian love of academic titles long since forgotten in the rest of Poland.
The Pope’s Chosen Park
You might also explore the green meadows of Błonia – where Polish Pope John Paul II (Karol Józef Wojtyła) gave open-air masses before thousands of believers and which is a popular spot for afternoon walks and bike rides. This lovely park was also the setting for the 330th anniversary celebrations in 2013 of The Battle of Vienna in 1683, celebrating the victory over the Turks at the doors of the Austrian capital led by Polish King Jan III. Sobieski, when cavaliers on horseback strutted through the town’s main square while families stood by cheering and taking pictures.
And back in the city center, you can finish your walk through the marvelous Jagiellonian University’s botanical gardens and admire the about 220-year-old Jagellonian oak and inhale the scent of the gardens’ hundreds of ambrosial orchids and even carnivorous plants. These all belong to the Jagiellonian University, founded in 1364, and is the second oldest university in Central Europe by 16 years, after the Charles University in Prague.
Scenes of Solidarnośc
Often overlooked by tourists, the city’s former socialist realist district, Nowa Huta is fascinating, with traces of earlier art nouveau and Bauhaus styles preserved in its rounded corners and massive, gray layered designs from the 1950s and ’60s that offer a glimpse into Poland’s Communist history. It was here that the demonstrations by the Solidarność movement led by Lech Wałęsa took place in the 1980s. Nowa Huta was also the location for Andrzej Wajda’s award-winning film Man of Marble. In addition, the district also hosts the popular Kraków Live Festival with a line-up consisting of famous artists such as Calvin Harris, Post Malone, and Years & Years.
During colder months, the city’s university students flock to Latin Dance nights in bars like the Teatro Cubano or enjoy a movie night at Kino pod Baranami in the city center, an art cinema screening original language films, before they head off to the Piwnica pod Baranami for drinks and live music afterward. For book lovers, there is the welcoming coffee shop and international bookstore Massolit Books and Café where you can find used and new English-language books and settle in for a relaxing afternoon