This is Know Your $h!t – a series where I help you get in the know before you Shut Up And Go. Get the historical, political and social lowdown before you touchdown (and maybe some recs on the hotspots and hidden gems of the area)
Krakow fed my soul. It was my first dip in the waters of wanderlust, and where I celebrated my 18th birthday.
We went, primarily, so we could visit Auschwitz. Ever since I found out that you could visit Auschwitz, I wanted to go and pay my respects. I came back with the most humbling and overwhelming memories, but also a long-distance relationship with a city.
Krakow (actually pronounced Kra-kov – your first bit of $h!t to know) is the nearest big city to the former Holocaust site and the perfect distance away to be able to experience a haunting reminder of the past without missing out on typical city break living.
Whether you want to explore an edgy arts scene, a thriving Jewish community, the gritty political history of Poland, or an underrated café culture, Krakow is THE place for you. But, to make the most of all the history and culture that the city has to offer, you need to know your $h!t.
For All You History and Politics Nerds Out There
No need to hide in the shadows anymore – it’s 2018 and political engagement + historical intelligence = officially HAWT HAWT HAWT.
First thing’s first, if you’re going to Krakow, you should make the trip out to Oswiecim to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau site. It goes without saying that the Holocaust is one of the most harrowing events of recent history, and you can feel its aftermath no more sharply than in Poland. There are plenty of tours via coach that run from Krakow to the site in Oswiecim (just under an hour away), so accessibility isn’t an issue.
It was the most sobering and emotional experience of my life, and one I would urge you to do for yourself. Prepare to be winded by what you see and learn when you’re there. It’s clearly not ‘enjoyable’, but it’s necessary that we, as humankind, see it for ourselves, and honour the millions of innocent lives lost.
Love or hate history, Auschwitz isn’t a classroom or a textbook: it’s a human experience.
And, it’s true what they say – there is no birdsong at Auschwitz. Know Your $h!t at Auschwitz: taking photos IS allowed in certain areas: use them to re-tell their story. Just be aware of when the time is right
If you don’t have time to visit Auschwitz, Krakow is still packed with history, from its medieval origins, Wawel Castle, and, of course, its recent wartime history. One of the BEST spots in Krakow to get your fix of modern history and politics is Oskar Schindler’s factory (sans Liam Neeson). It’s right in the heart of the old Jewish ghetto (not to be confused with the Jewish Quarter) and tells the entire story of Krakow, right through to its days under communism and the present. If you wanna hear the real story of Schindler’s List, this place is a must visit.
Bonus: just down the street from the factory is a tiny restaurant (easily missable) that serves the cheapest and the best pierogi you’ll ever have. Feed your minds and your stomachs.
Kazimierz: the Post-Punk Revival of Judaism
When in Krakow, it’s impossible to ignore the legacy of the Holocaust, and the damage it did to the Jewish community and Poland as a whole. The most gripping reminders of their tragic past can be found in the “ghetto,” in particular, the number of lonely-looking empty chairs in the square – an artistic monument to the fallen Jews of the city.
However, Jewish history in Krakow has a second identity, and it rocks. Kazimierz (pronounced kashj-ee-myeshj) is the buzzing Jewish Quarter, on the other side of the city from the ghetto, that tells the forgotten story of Judaism in a postwar world: the happiness, the culture, the spirit. Recognise and appreciate the touching tributes to the religion’s saddening past, but don’t overlook the community that came before, and flourished afterwards, and that has enriched the city for centuries.
This Jewish Quarter is where most Jewish people lived before the Nazi occupation, and its history stretches far back. After falling on hard times, this part of the city is having a revival, now playing host to a number of cool bars, restaurants, shops and cafés, as well as its original synagogues and cobbled streets. Think of it as the Brooklyn or Shoreditch of Krakow.
The synagogues range from opulent to humble, are all incredibly welcoming. If you want to delve deeper into the Jewish religion and history in Krakow, these are the places to go to.
And, if you appreciate some rustic Polish-Jewish cooking (cześć to latkes with goulash), Kosher vodka in a dimly lit bar, and edgy street art, Kazimierz is just out here WAITING for ya.
Krakow: Charlotte York’s Dream City?
If you’re the Charlotte York of your friendship group (we can’t all be Samantha amirite?) then you’ll be in heaven in Krakow: Judaism and art. And the best place to experience them both together? Back at Oskar Schindler’s place, where there is a modern art museum attached to the factory. If, like me, you wanna taste a bit of everything on the Polish smorgasbord, you could spend the entire day here, wising up on your history and then getting lost in Krakow’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Yes – it is extra to buy a ticket to see both, but if art is your thing, there’s no way you could pass this up.
As well as the MOCAK, there is also the National Museum in Krakow which houses Da Vinci’s only painting in Poland, alongside a masterclass in Polish artistry.
Want your art fix on a budget? Say no more. You can get all you need for free. Krakow is a spectacular city, and you can’t turn a corner without coming face to face with some incredible architecture, stunning statues or colourful graffiti. The Rynek Glowny is a must-visit for fans of regal European architecture and coffee-shop lined squares. It was recently voted Lonely Planet’s most beautiful European square, and they ain’t wrong.
For a musical surprise, hang around the bottom of the church in the square at the turn of the hour for ol’ trumpet boi to pop out and play his unfinished song. Legend has it that the song is unfinished in tribute to a guy who got shot through the throat with an arrow when he was playing back in the day. Tough crowd.
If you’re strapped for cash as an art lover in Krakow, all you need to do is follow your feet
Krakowian Kafé Kulture
Between all the art, the winding streets and intense history lessons, it’s hard to get a minute in Krakow. Or is it? You can’t absorb the city’s rich heritage on an empty stomach, and it just so happens that Krakow’s coffee shop culture can rival that of Paris and Vienna à mon avis. I won’t wax lyrical too much about just HOW much good food I had in Krakow, but I will say that, with prices so low in Poland, even eating and drinking in the square won’t break the bank. And, with every building reeking of the Renaissance, the war, or the communist 20th century, each bite is a brush with history.
Soak up the sounds of the trumpeter in and around the square with some apple cake and the richest and most delicious hot chocolate of all time – chilli hot chocolate if ya nasty (and I am). Gorge yourself on pierogis in Podgorze, drown yourself in goulash in Kazimierz, and fill your luggage with marmalade donuts for the flight back – you won’t regret it. After all, eating is just another way of immersing yourself in the culture, right?
Meet me in the comments: have you booked that flight already, or are you lost in your own memories of Krakow?