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Kraków
Wandering through the streets of Krakow is like stepping into a European history book. There are carefully preserved medieval buildings around almost every corner; the city's many churches are rich with baroque and Renaissance influences; and haunting wartime memories mingle with nostalgia for the years of communist rule. Nevertheless, Krakow is a modern city. A predominantly young population can be found frequenting the many popular bars and restaurants, and several world-class museums have opened in recent years using cutting-edge technology specially geared to international visitors.
At every turn in Krakow there is another chapter of the city's intriguing story waiting to be told. Visit the cobble-lined streets of Kazimierz, a short walk from the Old Town, to learn not only of the tragic fate of the city's pre-war Jewish population but also of the revival of Jewish culture there today. The cathedral at Wawel is a classic example of Italian-influenced Renaissance architecture, while the stone fortification of the Barbican was built to defend the city more than 500 years ago. The excellent museum under the main square takes visitors into a subterranean world where 1000-year-old objects have been unearthed and put on show, revealing the story of a city that grew up at the crossroads of Europe's major trading routes.
Those looking for old-school Polish cooking will find plenty of places serving pierogi (stuffed dumplings) and bigos (a hunters' stew heavy on cabbage and great as a winter warmer). But it would be a mistake to think that Polish chefs are merely repeating their grandmother's recipes. Several high-end restaurants offer creative new dishes at very affordable prices, and the quality and variety of modern European cuisine is in keeping with Krakow's place on the premier international tourist route. And while Polish vodka remains a popular tipple, there is a growing beer scene in the city with some excellent pubs and several microbreweries opening in recent years.
As a city that grew up on the major trading routes of medieval Europe, it is no surprise that Krakow has become a cosmopolitan city. It was at its most diverse in the years before World War II when the Jewish population of the city numbered around 60,000. Today the Jewish history of Krakow is once again celebrated as an integral part of its identity. Outdoor kosher restaurants in Kazimierz attract diners from all backgrounds, with klezmer musicians frequently performing in the summer evenings. The Old Synagogue with its hauntingly beautiful prayer room is now a museum, while the Galicia Jewish Museum is a welcoming space where large photographs depict the rich Jewish heritage of this corner of Europe.
In the 15th century, the magnificent Sukiennice (Cloth Hall) that occupies the center of the Market Square was a buzzing hive of commercial activity as silk, amber, salt, leather, and spices from the East were traded within the arches of the main hall. Today the traders are Polish and in most cases speak excellent English, selling a wide range of traditional Polish handicrafts to crowds of eager shoppers. Over-sized wooden chess sets and lace tablecloths are popular souvenirs; travelers with Polish ancestry can buy traditional folk costumes for children or grandchildren back at home.
Krakow is Poland's second-largest city and the John Paul II International Airport has direct flights to many European cities including London, Paris, and Frankfurt. Visas are not required for visits of less than 90 days for citizens of many countries, including the United States. Public transport is cheap and clean, and many sights are within walking distance of the main square. A Krakow Tourist Card gives free access to the city's main museums and costs 100 złoty (around $26) for 48 hours. Electricity supply is 220 volts and a standard European two-pin plug or adapter is needed. Spring and fall are ideal times to visit, away from the oppressive summer heat and the cold winter's bite.