In October of 2022, my family and I embarked on our fourth month-long adventure of the year, the second that would be based in Europe.
We chose Krakow, Poland as our starting point.
I wasn’t sure of what to expect; Poland isn’t necessarily a top tourist destination, and Warsaw is the Polish city that sees the most tourism.
It was not difficult to exceed the minimal expectations I had for Krakow, but we were delighted with the city, its rich history, and the educational opportunities for ourselves and our kids.
My wife has predominantly Polish ancestry, as is exceedingly common in our corner of northeast Michigan. In her hometown of Rogers City, there’s a big rivalry over who makes the best kielbasa: Nowicki’s or Rygwelski’s. Down the road in Alpena, the town which we now call home, you can order pierogies, golabki, and gzik at The Old Polish Corner.
A trip to Poland is a heritage trip for my wife and our two children.
Krakow’s John Paull II Airport also happens to be a place that Ryan Air flies in and out of, and we found flights from Krakow to Sweden for about $25 USD apiece, including fees for two carry-ons and four no-fee small backpacks. Our next destination would be a heritage trip for me.
Finally, World War II and the Holocaust have been an area of focus for our boys’ studies, something that interests me, and my wife has read quite a few non-fiction and historical fiction books around these topics. Krakow makes a day trip to Auschwitz a possibility, and we were sure to include that in our itinerary.
Flying has been problematic for many, especially since the beginning of the pandemic, and we were unable to avoid issues yet again.
Initially, we booked inexpensive one-way flights to Madrid to get over to Europe. Our initial flight to Madrid was changed, and we were given the opportunity to leave a day earlier. This happened again after our first rebooking, and we again opted for an earlier flight, extending our trip by two days from the original itinerary.
The downside was that it added a leg to the trip, squeezing a stop at O’Hare in between Grand Rapids and Newark. Months later, we chose Krakow as our first European destination, booking a Ryan Air flight after a generous 8-hour layover in Madrid to accommodate even a ridiculous flight delay of up to about 7 hours.
Our flights to O’Hare and Newark went well, and we were on our way to Madrid with an on-time departure. Somewhere over Boston or the Atlantic Ocean late in the evening, we made a big loop, and eventually the pilot told us that we were heading back to Newark due to a generator failure on one of the engines.
The crew expected that a plane would be found to take us to Madrid yet that night after our three-hour flight to nowhere, but alas, we were delayed by 24 hours, and we were clearly going to miss the next flight to Krakow. We decided to decline the rebooked flight to Madrid, opting to book a new flight to Krakow from Newark instead. I hope to be reimbursed for the extra costs, as we should since we booked the flights on the Chase Sapphire Reserve which has canceled flight insurance built in.
Our Airbnb in Krakow
Man, did we luck out with this place. Located on the happening Krakowska Street, a 15 minute walk from the center of the Old Town and in the heart of the trendy “Jewish Quarter” known as Kazimierz, the setup was perfect for a family of four. I would describe the flat as a one-bedroom, two-bathroom, two-loft place with lots of exposed, old-world brick but an otherwise new modern interior.
The 11-12 foot ceilings accommodated lofts with full-size beds and extra space, one above the living room and another off the kitchen and over the common bathroom and hallway. The boys each had their own loft while my wife and I shared a large bedroom with its own en-suite bathroom.
We only got to enjoy 6 days here, but the 7 days we booked set us back all of $474, inclusive of all taxes and fees, or under $70 a night for a swanky family pad in a perfect location.
Food and Drink
The bargains extended beyond housing. Poland enjoys one of the lowest costs of living in Europe, and you can eat and drink your way through the city very affordably.
From a culinary standpoint, our boys, now 12 and 14 years old, are not the most adventurous, and frankly, neither am I. While there were Michelin-rated restaurants within walking distance, we chose to enjoy simpler fare.
Within a few blocks of our place were three fun outdoor “food halls,” which are essentially food trucks, trailers, or stalls gathered together in a common area. We sampled fares from the Judah Food Market, Plac Nowy, and Plac Izaaka. These were ideal because we could each get what we wanted. Examples of dishes and prices (in USD, converted from Polish złoty):
- 9 good-sized pierogies (I tried minced pork, mashed potato & bacon, and sweet cream cheese): $4
- Zapiekanki (flatbread pizza on a half-baguette of ~14″ length): $3 to $4
- Large hand-packed bacon cheeseburger and fries: $5
- Huge hot dog slathered in fancy mac & cheese: $4
- Vegan burger with all the fixings & fries: $5
You really had to go out of your way to find street food for more than about $6.
Right below our apartment was a pizza joint that made wood-fired Naples-style pizzas. These were 13″ and about $6 but the Wednesday special was a pizza for 1 złoty (about 21 cents) when you bought an oversized $8 cocktail. Which we did, of course. Two of them, in fact. They also had a citrusy double IPA on tap, and an imperial pint was about $4.
Beers at the grocery and convenience stores were $1 to $3, depending upon the style and size. In bars and breweries, national lagers were around $2 a pint and craft or imports were $3 to $4 each. They’ve got a great beer scene with the most popular styles like hazies and sours that I enjoyed at places like Tea Time Brewpub, Beer Street, Strefa Piwa, and Nowy Kraftowy.
In general, the cost of dining and drinking out was at most about half of what I would expect to pay back home in the U.S. Grocery store prices were also lower, but to a lesser extent. And the pierogies were fantastic!
Every night after sightseeing or taking a tour, I would return to our flat and fire up Wikipedia to learn more about Poland’s fascinating and difficult history. At different times, they were conquered by the Swedes, Russians, Habsburgs, and Germans. For a while they were partnered in a commonwealth with Lithuania. In the 1800s, Poland didn’t exist and speaking the language was against the law. Yet, here they are today, a free country after breaking loose from the chains of communism in 1989.
Atop a hill overlooking the Vistula River, the Wawel Castle and Cathedral have existed in some form since the 14th Century.
During World War II, the castle served as a home for the evil Hans Frank, the Governor General of the “General Government,” the name the Nazis gave Polish territories that included Krakow.
Oddly, the Third Reich tried to rebrand Krakow as an ancient German city with a mostly made-up history. Many street names and plazas temporarily had new German names during the occupation, and the city was largely preserved and spared the destructive bombing that so many other European cultural capitals endured.
Tickets to each of about 10 places on the Castle grounds cost a few bucks apiece. The parents chose the Cathedral, and the boys picked out the Armory and Dragon’s Den cave, so we toured each of those. The Cathedral and its massive bells were worth seeing; the armory and cave, not so much, but, well… tourists gotta tour.
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Wieliczka Salt Mine
Supposedly, a kilogram of salt was once valued as much as a half-kilo of gold, primarily thanks to salt’s ability to preserve food in the days before refrigeration.
A rich salt deposit on the outskirts of Krakow made the city a profitable place for centuries, and one of the world’s largest salt mines operated in Wieliczka from the 13th century until the late 20th century. Today, guided tours are offered in about 3.5 km of the nearly 300 km of tunnels that make up the massive network of winding passageways and massive caverns, some of which are over 10 stories high and dozens of stories underground.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine is a must-see on a visit to Krakow, and it’s no wonder it was among the very first places on Earth to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Throughout, there are remarkable carvings from the salt-rich stone. You’ll see an immense cathedral with equally impressive chandeliers and reliefs of The Last Supper, a Nativity Scene, Pope John Paul II (a Krakovian, it turns out), and more. There are restaurants and a gift shop well beneath the surface; on the tour, you descend a total of about 600 feet via various stairways.
At the end, an elevator whisks you up, but don’t go up until you’ve taken the optional post-tour museum tour. This was mentioned as an option when our tour was over, and treated like an afterthought, but it was the best, most informative 40 minutes of the whole 3-hour tour. Don’t miss it if you visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which I highly recommend.
The Pinball Museum
I grew up with an old pinball machine in our basement, and my brother-in-law once had a job rehabbing and repairing pinball machines, so when I heard about the pinball museum a few blocks from our place, I couldn’t resist.
The best part of this “museum” is that you’re expected to play the machines, and with the exception of a few games that were out of order, we had unlimited game play of dozens of pinball machines and a bunch of classic arcade games for the evening. The cost was about $30 total for an evening of family fun reliving my childhood.
We booked two walking tours of Krakow, one of the Old Town, and one that included the former Jewish Quarter and Jewish Ghetto. I put “Jewish Quarter” in quotes above, because there are not many Jewish people left in Krakow. Roughly 95% of them were killed by the Nazis in the Ghetto or in concentration camps, and the population was forever altered.
In the 1930s, 25% to 30% of the population of Krakow was Jewish. Today, it’s a fraction of one percent, a stark reminder of the atrocities that took place some 80 years ago.
Both of the tours we took, tip-based walking tours offered by Krakow Explorers, were given by Polish men who spoke excellent English. These offered a great overview of the history of the city and its neighborhoods, complete with interesting stories and some simple cultural and language lessons. I can now confidently say Yes, No, and Thank You in Polish, which is three phrases more than I had in my armamentarium a few weeks ago.
We often use Freetour.com to find these walking tours when visiting a new city. You can do the tour operators a favor by finding out their business names and booking directly with them. They’ll appreciate it, although I also believe in throwing a bone to freetour.com, since they make it so easy to find walking tours where and when you want them in once centralized website.
More From Krakow
As mentioned above, Pope John Paul II, previously known as Karol Wojtyla, spent some of his formative years in Krakow, and when he was chosen in the 1978 Conclave, he became the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. He was also the second-longest serving pope ever among the 266 Popes thus far, and he is revered here, as evidenced by many statues, mosaics, and places that bear his likeness and name.
My wife has a rather large Polish pottery collection, amassed one gift at a time, and you can buy the genuine article at The Painted Lady in her hometown. You can also buy it here in Poland at any number of pottery shops sprinkled throughout the Old Town. We have a lot of pieces in our collection, but we don’t yet have a Polish pottery Jack-o-Lantern!
For the best views of Krakow, take a hike up Krakus Mound, a big ol’ grassy knoll presumed to honor Krakow’s founder, King Krakus.
After snapping a few shots from on high, we descended down the mound and made our way to the natural area that was once known as Camp Płaszów, the domain of Amon Göth, the Austrian war criminal depicted by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List.
We saw his former house and got a glimpse of the balcony where he reportedly shot at prisoners for sport. Most of the massive Camp has been relinquished to nature, but there are educational placards that tell some of the awful tales of what took place there and an imposing Memorial of Torn-Out Hearts marking one of many sites of mass execution.
I intended to reserve the references to World War II to a single section of this article, but as the impacts of the war and its consequences are still palpable throughout the city, it’s impossible to recap a week spent there without frequent mentions of what took place from September of 1939 through January of 1945 when they were “liberated” by Russia’s Red Army.
Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory
The factory that helped spare the lives of about 1,200 Jewish people who were employed by Mr. Schindler has been transformed into a museum dedicated to the Polish experience in the Second World War.
While there is a small section dedicated to Oskar Schindler, the factory, and the remarkable story behind it, the museum covers a much broader spectrum of the German occupation of the city and the Nazis’ brutal and often lethal treatment of both Jews and ethnic Poles.
I would include this as a must-see site in Krakow, and I would urge you to watch or rewatch Schindler’s List beforehand, as my family did leading up to this trip.
Auschwitz / Birkenau
The day we spent touring Auschwitz I and the much larger Auschwitz II (Birkenau) was a solemn day that cannot be forgotten.
Our guided tour, which included the 3-hour round-trip bus ride, was thorough and thoughtful.
We passed through the cynical gate with the wrought iron “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” sign, meaning “Work Sets You Free,” in a place where thousands were worked to death if not put to death immediately.
We saw the shoes of the children, hair that was chopped off the women, luggage that was discarded, and the intake photos of thousands of prisoners.
We set foot in a gas chamber and saw the chutes in the ceiling where small chunks of cyanide-producing Zyklon B were dropped, sealing the fate of hundreds of thousands of souls. In the next room, a crematorium that once burned around the clock.
It was a sobering experience that left me contemplating how on earth any person, let alone thousands of them, could partake in the willful extermination of so many fellow human beings.
It is estimated that 1.3 Million people were sent to the Auschwitz camps and that 1.1 Million were executed there. 900,000 were killed in the gas chambers. These may be conservative estimates; the Nazis did their best to destroy the evidence, burning both paper records and dug-up bodies as their impending demise became evident in the final stages of the war.
The fact that there are Neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers today is disgusting, and I wish they would spend some time here as we did, learning about the atrocities of the past. These evil ambitions and deeds must be recognized and remembered, but never celebrated.
Our time in Krakow was well-spent, and I would gladly return for a longer visit someday. The city is laden with history, nicely preserved, exceptionally affordable, and highly educational.
I would also like to visit Warsaw, the larger Polish city that was not spared in the war, and thus has a different story to tell, but that will have to wait for another trip. We’ve moved on to Stockholm, where we’ll see some of the treasures that were plundered from Krakow’s Wawel Castle several centuries ago.