Kraków, Poland | September 12 to 15, 2017
Before I came to Europe to study abroad, I never intended to visit Poland. We all have our preconceived notions about places we've never been, and Poland was one for me. Then I heard RyanAir was offering €10 ($11.80) flights to Kraków. I was sold. A friend told me how he just had a great time in Kraków. I was double sold! Then I met a girl from Kraków who even made a blog about it. Triple sold! I was ready for my trip with alacrity.
So there I was, once again in Eastern Europe. I had been to Bratislava last month and was once again happy to see something different. For those who don't know, Kraków is a medieval town full of color and youthfulness. As one of Europe's lowest median aged country, it soon became clear as I saw stunning Polish girls walk down the street every two seconds. After countless head-turners, I started my sightseeing in Rynek Główny, the 13th-century plaza, which is the heart of Kraków. Here lies several churches—most notably St. Mary's Basilica (Bazylika Mariacka), the famous Cloth Hall (Sukiennice), and other museums and restaurants.
Before I continue any further on Kraków, I took a day trip to Auschwitz—the infamous concentration camp—where millions of Jews were tragically and mercilessly slaughtered. Auschwitz, the camp, and the museum are located in different parts of the town Oświęcim. It is a highly emotional experience, and you must visit if you have a few days in Kraków. (See my Quick Tips for a few notes on visiting Auschwitz).
It says below: "For ever [sic] let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe."
When I was on the train to Auschwitz, I met a huge Italian family who was just as confused as me about where to go and what to do. They didn't speak a word of English, and I don't speak a word of Italian—well, other than "ciao bella," which means "hello beautiful." I digress. We ended up spending the day together—communicating entirely through Google Translate. Thanks to Google, we were able to learn all sorts of things about each other and enjoy our day at Auschwitz.
Auschwitz was a heavy-hearted, yet enlightening experience. I realized how fortunate I was to be able to take the time to experience this. I then went to one of the most remarkable places in town—the Wawel Royal Castle (Zamek Królewski na Wawelu). Construction began in the 14th century and now houses an armory, museum, royal residences, the marvelous Wawel Cathedral (Katedra Wawelska), and Baszta Senatorska, a lookout tower with views of the whole fortress.
One of the top places to visit in Kraków is the Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz). It has a fascinating history. For over 500 years, it was in the Jewish Quarter where Polish Jews—for the most part—peacefully coexisted with the Polish Christians. Packed with historical sights like the 600-year-old synagogue (Stara Synagoga), and a few other places featured in Spielberg's Schindler's List, the Jewish quarter is a bustling part of town that you should certainly not miss when you're in Kraków.
On the way out of town, I took a few minutes to stop at the 19th century performing arts theater, Teatr im. Juliusza Słowackiego. Even if you don't get to see a performance there, just take a minute to enjoy the beauty of this establishment.
- Oświęcim—where Auschwitz is located—takes two hours to get there via an extremely slow train. Be prepared for this.I would recommend you sign up for an English (or any other language) tour that picks you up at your hotel and transports you to Auschwitz I and II (the museum and the concentration camp, respectively). They will take you guide you through both, providing important facts and anecdotes.
- If you go on your own, do not skip Auschwitz I (the museum); you will get a lot of meaningful information. At Auschwitz II (the concentration camp), get in a tour there if possible.
- In Kraków, if you want to get a good view of the city, go to St. Mary's Basilica. Do keep in mind that it has odd hours, so make sure you look into that right when you get into town.
- Poland is one of the countries in Europe that does not allow you to consume alcohol publicly. Many Western Europeans do not know this and subsequently, find themselves in a bit of hot water with the local authorities.