We just couldn’t wait for the spring and for being outside after the dark, wet, chilly winter days, so of course we took advantage of the public holiday in Hungary in the middle of March. That’s how we ended up in Krakow, Poland for 4 days.
The drive from Budapest to Krakow
We could probably call it our first European road trip as we drove from Budapest through the Tatras of Slovakia to Krakow. And European road trips are quite different from what we got used to in the US. There’s different countries here with different currencies and different road toll systems. We’ve done our research, of course we have – a good starting point could be this page.
Still we got confused when we noticed the red warning signs along the Polish highway towards Krakow and it took an hour and about 3 stops at different shops and gas stations while we figured out whether we have to pay for the road or not and where to do that – good news: no. 🙂 This was the same what we initially thought based on our research, but lesson #1 learned: we should be more confident about the accuracy of road toll information.
Lesson #2 learned (especially for Csaba) is not to forget the PIN code of the card what you want to use for payment in the hostel. Lesson #3 learned (especially for me) is that forgetting the stupid PIN code of a stupid card is still not the end of the world. But at least I forgot his flip-flops at home and packed 2 flips-flops for myself instead 1:1. Lesson learned? Never ask your wife to pack any of your stuff for you. 😀
Is March a good time to visit?
So finally after about 8 hours on the road our adventures in Krakow have started. Middle of March was a good timing, because Krakow is not yet full of tourists. Though the weather could be very crazy in early spring – just as it was during our visit: cloudy, chilly days, drizzling, some sunshine, snowstorm…
We were prepared for that and have dressed in layers. We also had umbrellas and some ideas for indoor activities in case the weather is very bad. Looking back all of the above were very good ideas and thanks to them we have enjoyed our stay in Krakow very much.
Rynek Główny: the heart of Krakow
Fortunately we had 3 mostly rain free days so we could walk a lot in Krakow’s beautiful Old Town.
Our favorite place was probably the Main Square or Rynek Główny in Polish. Colorful houses, the Town Hall Tower, the Renaissance building of Cloth Hall and the Gothic St Mary’s Basilica, a lively flower market and several nice restaurants and cafeterias make it a perfect place for hanging out.
The city of churches?
Which is the city with the most huge churches per square meter? We are not sure, but Krakow is a good candidate. There’s just so many churches in its small Old Town and most of them are huge!
I don’t think you should plan to visit all of them, because that’s probably too much even if you like visiting churches. What we found the most amazing is the interior of St Mary’s Basilica and Wawel Cathedral with its Gothic church inside the Baroque church. The mix of different styles are very typical for most of the churches in Krakow anyway and it makes them quite interesting even for people like us who don’t know too much about architectural styles.
We also liked the beautiful Baroque interiors of Skałka & the Pauline Monastery and the Church of St Anne where we just looked in by accident while we walked around in the Old Town. The same happened in the case of Church of St. Francis of Assisi which doesn’t look very special from outside, but it has an amazing colorful interior, it reminded us a little bit of St Mary Basilica.
We like visiting beautiful churches and while we sometimes find them overdecorated (especially Baroque churches), we are usually amazed by the architecture and by all the decorative elements and colors. And Krakow is quite spectacular in terms of churches.
The castle on the hill: Wawel Castle
Our accommodation was just 10 minutes walk from Wawel Hill, so we started every day with a walk up to the Castle and the Cathedral and we’ve seen it in the sunshine, in the rain and in the snow during our 4 days of stay – I’ve already mentioned the crazy weather, right?
We love castles anyway and though Wawel Castle is not that Disney princess kind of a castle, it is truly spectacular. Just as Wawel Cathedral, the castle is also a mix of different architectural styles. As we visited its private royal apartments we were guided through Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance rooms.
When it’s time for hot chocolate…
Though it wasn’t terribly cold at the time of our visit, but it got quite chilly after sunset – a tempting time for hot chocolate (not that we need much temptation for any kind of chocolate any time).
Pijalnia Czekolady Wedel on the Main Square became our favorite place for hot chocolate and we would most probably return there quite often if we would live in Krakow. Their chocolate is just awesome and we tried special ones, too, like the ones flavoured with raspberry and liqueur or orange and ginger. Who can resist that? 🙂
One thing you must taste: Zapiekanka
Maybe it’s challenging to pronounce, but Zapiekanka is a very common street food in Poland. And it’s very delicious! It’s a sandwich made of half of a baguette topped with some kind of sauce and mushrooms, cheese and other ingredients of your choice, and it’s toasted until the cheese melts. It can be found anywhere in Krakow, so you can’t miss it – and you really shouldn’t.
Captivating Old Town
While Krakow is a lively, charming city, we definitely felt the weight of the years in its rich and varied cultural heritage: buildings from the medieval times, Barbican, a historic gateway leading into the Old Town, the medieval Collegium Maius which is the Jagiellonian University Museum today, countless beautiful churches and synagogues, old legends, all the different architectural styles and the charming streets of the Old Town… There is a good reason for Krakow’s popularity, it’s a place which easily captivated us.
Day trip to the depths of Wieliczka Salt Mine
On our last day we planned a day trip from Krakow to Wieliczka Salt Mine. The mine itself is not in operation since 1996, but in 2010 it was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites and more than a million people visit it annually.
Spending 3 hours in a mine didn’t sound very exciting at first. Not even at second. But it should be a UNESCO site for a reason, right? So we put in on the list and we were happy to go under the ground on our last day anyway, because the weather became very cold, rainy and even snowy.
And in the end… WOW! This mine quickly exceeded our expectations with its amazing salt statues and chapels carved out of rock salt! The 3 hours long guided tour just flew by as we walked through 3 levels of the mine.
Budget travel tips for Krakow
Finally, let me share some tips to keep your wallet happy as well in Krakow:
- some exhibitions of Wawel Castle are free on Sundays, just check their website for up to date info about it
- all of Krakow’s amazing churches are actually free to visit – except St Mary’s Basilica
- you don’t need to use public transport to get around as Krakow is not a big city, it’s easy to just walk around in the city center
- parking is free on the streets during the weekend
Would you visit Krakow? Which of these places interest you the most?