Exploring the History of Krakow

Poland may be one of the most underrated travel destinations in Europe – with extremely cheap prices, friendly people, delicious food, and an abundance of history, the country is a dark horse in the running for best weekend getaway destination, especially for those interested in learning more about World War II in a place that was at the heart of it all. 

Although I flew into Warsaw because it was cheaper due to its bigger airports, my real desire was to see Kraków, so I took a four hour (extremely cheap) bus from Warsaw to Kraków and spent the most wonderful two days exploring the city and its history. Check out these amazing things to see and experience in Kraków that make it such an underrated gem among European cities:

 

Old Town Square

In the heart of Old Town,  there is a large square filled with tons of merchants and artisans peddling their wares for extremely low prices. From clothing to local food and candy to handmade metalwork, there’s something for everyone, making this the perfect place to shop for souvenirs and gifts for family and friends. For an idea of the amazing local cuisine, check out my Poland food blog post!

Kazimierz

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Jews in Kraków, be sure to take advantage of the free walking tours of Jewish Kraków in Kazimierz: they occur at least twice daily and the guides are experts who lead you on a two hour walking tour of the most significant synagogues and areas in the former ghetto.  The most striking facts that our guide shared with us: 3.5 million Jews were in Poland prior to WWII; afterwards, 95% of the Jewish population of Poland was wiped out. The walking tour of the ghetto where many of the Polish Jews encountered the evils of the holocaust gives a lot of insight into this harrowing period of history. 

Synagogue-turned-bookstore

It’s visually apparent how old the buildings in Kazimierz are, and that actually adds to the appeal of the area. It feels like a combination of stepping into history and stepping into a friend’s home all at once. 

 

Bridge over Vistula River

I won’t bother with the long and complicated name of this bridge in Polish, but if you’re crossing the river on the south side of the city, choose to walk over this one made of metal – it features statues of circus performers in the midst of acrobatic acts, and all the pieces are loosely fixed to strands of wire so they move and bounce in the wind as if they were actually moving and performing a circus act!

Schindler’s Factory

Prior to visiting Kraków, I think it’s imperative to watch Schindler’s List – directed by Steven Spielberg, it’s a fantastically executed film that accurately depicts, sometimes in too much disappointing detail, the struggles of Jews in Poland and specifically in Kraków during the Holocaust. Schindler’s Enamel Factory is a real place and the movie tells the true story of Oskar Schindler, a Nazi who saved the lives of about 1,000 Jews after a change of heart. It’s a story that is both heartwarming and heart-wrenching, and the factory itself in Kraków tells this story while also detailing the entire journey of Jews in the holocaust, with exhibits designed to immerse visitors in scenes of the ghetto and concentration camps. It’s probably one of the best Holocaust museums I’ve seen. 

The names of some of the Jews who were saved by being on Schindler’s List

“He who saves one life saves the world entire.” – Talmud

Some of the enamelware made by the factory workers
Oskar Schindler’s office

Wawel Castle

Does almost every European city have a castle on a hill (a la Ed Sheeran’s Castle on the Hill)?! Perched on a large hill overlooking Kraków, Wawel Castle is a great viewing point at any time of day, but especially at sunrise and sunset (just don’t make the mistake my friends and I made of looking West at sunrise when the sun rises in the East…). With a combination of different architecture styles, it’s an interesting area to explore. 

Walk down to the area near the waterfront below the main castle to see the dragon statue – at seemingly random intervals, it breathes fire!

A little extra: some helpful Polish phrases!

I think Polish may be one of the most difficult languages, at least for native English speakers, because of the complex, unusual pronunciation associated with certain letters and because there are so many letters not in the standard English alphabet. But just saying some small phrases in Polish can go a long way in breaking the ice with anyone you meet in Poland! Take notes:

  • Dzień dobry (pronounced like gin-dough-bray) = good day/hello
  • Dziękuję (pronounced like gin-coo-yay) = thank you

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