A Tour through Old Town Krakow
Old Town Krakow is up there on the list of my favorite places in Europe. It is just as charming as Prague with far fewer crowds, lower prices, and possibly better food. The former capital of the Kingdom of Poland has long historical significance to Polish people and the care they have taken in restoration after World War II/Fall of the Iron Curtain is apparent.
Not everything can be sunshine and roses though. My least favorite part about Krakow was the excessive drinking. There are quite a few Brits having their stag/hen parties in Krakow getting crazy. There were also a lot of locals staggering around Old Town at 8am when I was out getting coffee. As long as you can deal with that, Krakow is during the day and early evening is a gem.
If you look at a map of Old Town Krakow, there is a giant 2 mile pedestrian/bike circle around it. Mostly used my walkers, runners, and one old man rollerblader, it is the perfect way for me to get a run in and see some of the more historical buildings in Krakow.
My favorite story of Krakow is the bugler who plays the Hejnal Mariacki, every hour on the hour at the top of St. Mary’s Church Tower in the main square. The story goes that the bugle call was performed when the city gates opened/closed, there was a fire, or an armed attack on the city. Around 1241, the bugler was shot with an arrow and killed during the song to warn citizens by invading Mongols.
If you look very closely, you can see the top center window opened from the top and the bugler playing:
Today, when the bugler plays the song to the North, East, South, and West, it ends mid-bar on a half note. To listen to it, you know it the song is unfinished, just as the song was unfinished in 1241.
The Wawel Royal Castle is the big attraction at the edge of Old Town Krakow. It is a massive complex of buildings and facades, all built at different times, making for a mish-mash of architectures and styles (medieval, baroque, renaissance). It doesn’t look bad just eclectic.
Both times I climbed the hill to the castle complex the ticket line was long. Even in the off season, Wawel Castle is a big draw. Get your tickets in advance!
Today Wawel Castle is a national museum and houses the Crown Jewels, treasury, and armory. It is also a great place for a picnic.
While I was in Poland I ate out often as it was fairly inexpensive compared with the rest of Europe. I tried quite a few things but kept going back to the reliable pierogi. There are so many different types of perogies (plural spelling quite different than the singular spelling), I never had to try the same fillings twice.
I mostly stuck with vegetarian varieties (I’m not a huge meat person) and I never had a bad pierogi. They are delicious morsels of inexpensive goodness!
Also the doughnuts were the best! I mentioned the rose flavored, jelly-filled doughnut in my other Krakow blog post. I loved them so much I tried the orange glaze as well, which was awesome. But I kept coming back to the rose glaze. I still think about these hot, fresh, delicious doughnuts. And I always ate them at night. Instead of gelato, get a doughnut (or two)!
The main square at night is the place to be. Yes, it is touristy. No, I do not care. It is beautiful. During the day the square has more souvenir stands but mostly it is an open space. It also has a giant head sculpture if you are into modern art.
St. Peter and Paul’s Church on the way from the main square to Wawel Castle is mostly a concert venue these days. It is a great stop to see the Baroque-style church and it’s beautiful façade.
Dragons were a recurring theme in Krakow stemming from legends back to the 12th century. The Dragon of Wawel Hill is the dragon statue at the bottom of the castle along the pedestrian path. It breathes fire every few minutes because the statue is connected to a natural gas line. Apparently it is a rite of passage for kids to get their photograph taken here. I saw quite a few scared kids who were not having it!
There were Dragon water spouts at the Wawel Castle Royal Apartments and at the University of Krakow. Ingenious! Water spouts would be much cooler if they were all in the shape of dragon heads.
My time in Krakow was amazing and I definitely would put it in my top destinations in Europe. There is a lot of history, friendly people, and amazing food. Don’t skip this Polish gem!