Stepping off the overnight train after our 11-hour bumpy ride from Budapest to Krakow was a welcomed relief! After an experience I will never forget, nor wish to repeat, the destination was worth the restless sleep and cramped quarters. The cool morning air and robust coffee helped us begin our three days in the last city of our Eastern Europe backpacking trip.
For accommodations we stayed at Mosquito Hostel, which was a short walk from the main train station and located in the north end of Old Town. Brad and I dropped off our gear, freshened up, and explored the pristine city.
St. Florian's Gate and Barbican
With a bit of cool mist in the air, which actually kept us awake, we stopped to admire St. Florian's Gate and Barbican. The Barbican was once connected to the gate and is a moated cylindrical brick structure with seven turrets. Constructed in 1498, the Gothic architecture of the fortification is well preserved. St. Florian's Gate is the last surviving medieval gate in Krakow and was a part of the Royal Route; the pathway used for coronation processions and foreign envoys.
Wawel Castle Complex
We made our way south through Old Town and enjoyed the grounds of the Wawel Castle complex. You can choose how many exhibits and attractions to visit upon arrival. Due to time, we decided to tour the Crown Treasury, Armory, Sandomierska Tower, Dragon's Den, and Wawel Cathedral.
The collection of dueling pistols and cannons was particularly impressive. The tower has stunning views of the Vistula River and lush gardens. Some attractions are time stamped so be sure to plan accordingly. Save the Dragon's Den for last since it provides a fun underground exit!
Polish Food Tour
After working up an appetite, we headed to the meeting point for our four-hour Polish food tour with Eat Polska. Our guide, Maurice, was informative and eager to share the cultural significance of Polish cuisine.
Our small group sampled zapiekanka (a type of pizza bread with mushrooms and chives), barszcz czerwony (a beetroot soup), zurek (a sour rye soup), pierogi, stuffed cabbage rolls, chicken livers with potato dumplings, vodka, kremowka papieska (a cream cake made with puff pastry), and ice cream. We were STUFFED! The experience was a great way to explore Krakow and understand the complexities of each dish. The tour was $75 USD per person and well worth it.
Auschwitz Concentration Camp
One of the most significant places for us to visit on this trip was the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. We booked a tour with Krakow Auschwitz Tours, which included round-trip transportation from our hostel and guided tours of the camps for 360 PLN ($46 USD) per person.
The total time of the excursion was five hours, three of which were spent touring the camps. The company was very easy to contact and the staff was on point managing the logistics. We brought a bag lunch to eat in-between the camps. Prepare to walk and bring comfortable shoes.
The former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp was in operation during World War II between 1940 and 1945. Over 1.1 million men, women, and children faced terror, starvation, and disease before meeting their deaths. Walking the grounds of this haunting place is truly heartbreaking.
We began the tour in Auschwitz and entered numerous brick buildings containing various exhibits showcasing photographs and documents. Victim artifacts on display included eye glasses, suitcases, shoes, housewares, and hair.
We visited prison cells and a gas chamber which evoked a harrowing sadness. The German phrase, arbeit macht frei, meaning "works sets you free" on the metal sign at the front gate was a false promise to all imprisoned there.
Birkenau Concentration Camp
Ending the tour at Birkenau (Auschwitz II) put the scale of the Holocaust in perspective. Since Auschwitz wasn't able to process the massive number of people arriving at the camp daily, Birkenau was constructed nearby with large crematoriums to facilitate higher volume exterminations.
The train tracks passing through the main brick gate is an ominous sight. Cattle cars brought thousands of Jewish people into the camp and selections took place immediately. A physician decided the fate of each person depending on their appearance. Women and children were often directed towards the gas chambers while men were usually selected for labor.
The roughly 422-acre camp is enclosed with barbed wire fences. Rows of brick chimneys are all that is left of some of the barracks which were once overcrowded without proper heat or sanitation facilities. Sporadic roll calls instilled fear while hunger brought hopelessness. The inhumane conditions drove some people to commit suicide. Visiting the concentration camps was a mournful experience and a powerful reminder of the pure evil that was the Holocaust.
Once we returned to Krakow, we decided to have Indian food for dinner and walk around the Main Square. The square is one of the largest in Europe and was built in the 13th Century. Find a souvenir inside of Cloth Hall and admire the Gothic architecture of St. Mary's Basilica and Town Hall Tower.
After a hearty breakfast at Camelot Cafe, we met our tour group near the Main Square for a four-hour bike ride with Krakow Bike Tours. For 100 PLN ($25 USD) per person, a local guide took us on a splendid ride through the city.
We saw locations from Schindler's List, the eclectic area of Jewish Kazimierz, the historic University Quarter, sections of the Jewish Ghetto, the greenery of Planty Park, and the outside of Schindler's Factory. We shared stories with fellow travelers and had a blast navigating the narrow streets. Bike tours are a great way to see a city and learn about its history!
Afterward we had a cocktail at Cafe Szal to rest our numb butts. The cafe is located on the upper terrace of Cloth Hall and has a fantastic view of the Main Square. Keep an eye out for a table and seat yourself. This popular spot is worth the wait.
At the top of every hour, a trumpeter plays a Polish anthem from the tallest tower of St. Mary's Basilica to re-enact the legendary alarm to close the city gates before the Mongols invaded during the sack of Krakow in 1241.
For our last meal in Krakow we decided to indulge in two plates of pierogi at Pierogarnia Krakowiacy. There are a few locations in the city and the counter service generates a low-key atmosphere.
Making a decision can be difficult with so many varieties to choose from! Enjoy a kompot (fruit water) while you wait for your tasty dumplings. We shared potato/onion pierogi and pork/onion/cabbage pierogi. Mmmmm!
Krakow is a bountiful city full of WWII history, delicious cuisine, and relaxed charm. I was especially excited to visit because of my recently discovered Polish ancestry via 23andMe. Krakow is an affordable destination with humble and friendly people. It was one of our favorite places and an ideal way to end our three-week trip in Eastern Europe.