The Ultimate Family Guide to Kraków Old Town
We’ve been in Kraków for six nights now, and we have another three to go. ArgeyDad hurt his back (a slipped disc) when we were in Warsaw, so I’ve basically been single-parenting it the whole time. I’m not sure if it’s because of that, or in spite of that, that we haven’t ventured much out of Old Town. But the advantage is that we feel like we know Old Town pretty well.
We had very little choice for accommodation while in Kraków. We just happened to be here in the week after Austria’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, the day after Labour Day, and the week that included Constitution Day and the day for celebrating St Stanislaw and his miracle. (You know? When you are murdered and your body is dissected and then miraculously all the bits join themselves back together to form a whole body? Apparently that gets you sainted in these parts). Plus we wanted to claw back a little bit of money that we lost earlier on in Europe where accommodation was a bit pricier than we hoped.
All these things combined meant our options were limited for where we would lay our heads. Fortunately, we found a hostel on the outskirts of the Old Town, where the building, although completely warn, dumpy and hagged, had some okay rooms and acceptable bathrooms, an awesome hostess and all for a more than awesome price.
We managed to book the 4 of us into Hostel Al Fresco for less than GBP22 a night. We booked through hotels.com (our preferred hotel/apartment booking site), as we get good discounts (as good as any other site) and we pick up a free night every 10 nights, which when you are travelling for months on end, means a week in Paris suddenly becomes a LOT more affordable.
The hostel is on Pijarska, on one of the roads that runs along the Old Town side of the Planty. It is 8 minutes walk to a laundromat, 7mins walk to the Old Town square and 1 minutes walk to the best Pierogi in Krakow. The location (and price) is indeed THE most redeeming feature of the hostel.
The building itself is grimy and very warn, but the rooms are tidy and clean and the beds are comfortable enough, the bathrooms are shared but clean (although both of ours -we had to shift rooms half way through to accommodate a larger family- had broken screens and only hand held showers, and the water goes cold after about four minutes), and you get a nice blast of fresh air when you open the window (so many rooms in Europe are stuffy). There’s also no TV, which made no difference for us as we can’t understand much Polish, but the wifi is good, so when we wanted some downtime in the room we just put on Netflix, or plugged in our portable hard-drive which we carry with us for media.
Monika, the host, is so lovely and helpful. I am not sure that we would stay here again, but I don’t wish we didn’t stay here.
OLD TOWN SQUARE
The Krakow Old Town Square is one of my favourite places in all of Europe. Krakow is by far a prettier city than Warsaw (this could be due to the fact that it didn’t have the crap bombed out of it in WWII), and they celebrate with full flourish all that beauty. I met two local skateboarders in the Planty, who (apart from being extremely jealous of the trip we are on) asked almost straight away “Which is nicer? Warsaw or Krakow?”. I also met another man who asked where else in Poland I had been. I told him Warsaw and he replied “Meh! Warsaw not Poland!”. There’s a rivalry here but that’s cute.
Just by the way, the Planty runs around Krakow Old Town. It is 4kms of beautifully lush gardens that encircle the Old Town.
Anyway, back to Old Town. So there is a massive town square, just like most ancient European towns. But Krakow’s is REALLY big, with a huge old cloth hall in the middle. This is where, 15 years ago, I bought a blue and white chess set for my Mum, which I know have in my home. It is also where, a few days ago, I bought myself two gorgeous big chunks of amber rings.
The Old Town Square is really remarkable. On the eastern side of the cloth hall, there are stands in the open selling all sorts of artisan and bespoke goods, breads, cheeses, pierogi, meats as well as hand bags, scarves, jewellery, toys. The kids were particularly taken with the blacksmith who made horseshoes and bottle openers, we have gone to watch him craft his wares almost every day. There’s also insanely good hot chocolate (you know? where the spoon stands up on its own) and these weird donut things… like cylindrical tubes… they are weird, but yum.
There’s also the trumpeter who plays half a song every hour from the tallest tower of St Mary’s Church in the Old Town. This fascinated the kids. Every time he starts TheDaughter asks about the trumpeter who got an arrow through his throat when he was half way through playing.
Most of all we have just hung out in the Old Town Market Square. The stall holders change a little bit, there is great food, there are loads of pigeons to feed/chase, there are statues to climb, comfy seats, good company… what more could you ask for on a sunny day when the kids wants a play and a bit of excitement.
Just a warning for families: There are NO, and I MEAN NONE AT ALL, playgrounds in the Old Town of Krakow. Trust me I have googled, searched, asked… and no one knows of any. So the Old Town is the best place to let kids have a roam and a climb. Trust me, they wont be the only kids climbing on statues. The Planty is good for a run, but we followed another family’s lead, and went onto the grass area, but when ArgeySon started climbing a tree and old lady came up and (we presume – she was speaking Polish) told him to stop. So I am not sure if that is allowed or not.
GOLF CART TOUR
When it was clear that ArgeyDad was going to be flat on his back for longer than a few days, the kids and I decided to do a golf cart tour of the city. These tours are EVERYWHERE in Krakow, and you can’t walk ten steps down any road leading to the market square, without someone coming and asking if you want a tour.
We decided on the people we wanted to go with (Wojcik Tours) and off we went! I’m so glad we did as we had THE best time. Our driver was an older guy called Jacek (or Jack, as he insisted we call him). His english was quite good (although he kept apologising for it – “I not learn at school, I just listen and learn” which is remarkable in itself), and he told us so many interesting facts, adding to the audio commentary that we had running as we drove along. He was very jocular which made it more fun for the kids as well.
We didn’t do the full tour (about two hours worth) as it included the Schindler Factory and the Ghetto area, which although I am sure would have been interesting, would not have appealed to the kids. It is more interesting because of the facts you are listening to, rather than actually what you are seeing.
Instead we did the one hour tour, which included Old Town and the Jewish Quarter.
As soon as we got back TheSon was full of stories for ArgeyDad, about the Krakow Dragon that drank and drank and drank and then exploded.
A word of warning, there were no seatbelts, and the carts go on full proper main roads with other cars and buses and vehicles that can kill you. More than once ArgeySon and I had words as he insisted on hanging half out the cart while it went around corners. ArgeyDaughter, on the other hand, lazed around on the back seat (having it all to herself) like she was Queen Muck! And loved every minute!
EXPLORING OLD TOWN ON FOOT
There are lots of little roads in the Old Town which all lead to the market square. For us the best place to always start is the Planty. There’s always something that pops up every couple of hundred metres that you can look at; statues, rotundas, the barbican. They all offer something interesting to look at or read about.
And if you are walking around the Planty clockwise, any road on your right will (eventually) lead you to the market place.
The roads off of the Planty are often quite restricted (room for one car, and one -badly- parked car) and the footpaths are also really small, so keep a tight hold of little hands in some places. The locals know these roads well, and there are frequently cars, taxis and golf carts flying down them. BUT you will see some amazing buildings, pretty paintings and bright stuccos and decorated doors.
My favourite place to observe is the road off of the Planty that goes past the Akademia Muzyczna w Krakowie (the Krakow Music Academy). The road is called Świętego Tomasza, and walking past there reminds me of my days at the Flinders Street School of Music. The sounds that come out as the front door opens is a joyous cacophony! Even the skulking and slightly scary looking girl, sitting in the window of a practice room with a coffee and a cigarette, eyeing me off wondering why I am smiling so brightly at her… It all just brings back wonderful memories.[wpvideo Jyu3jcKJ]
As you wander down any of these streets you will also encounter a sign that says “Lody”. If you do, WALK IN! This is an ice cream shop and they are everywhere. We have eaten a bucket load (figuratively and probably literally) of ice cream since we have been here. 1) It has been hot – well hot for our temperatures for the last 6 months – and 2) It is just so good! I am not sure if Polish Lody is a traditional thing, like some ancient recipe, but there is ALWAYS good ice cream to be had in Poland. We have only encountered one shop where we didn’t love the ice cream (oddly enough that is the one that Jacek said was the BEST!). It is really, really creamy. So much so they often have a flavour called “creamy” which has no flavour apart from sweetened cream. The other thing to be aware of, the chocolate flavour is often not ridiculously sweet, and the vanilla (waniliowe) often has a slight hint of lemon about it.
There are so many things you might encounter strolling through the back streets of Krakow Old Town. On many parts of the Old Town Walls you will find artists displaying their works, mostly originals, some copies, and many worth looking at. There is one really impressive collection, just down from the entrance to the barbican. It spans the height and length of this section of wall. You can also find a good busker not far away, whether it’s one of those gold painted statue people, or a musician (near the music academy you get good classical buskers). Guys on accordions singing old polish tunes are not uncommon either.
EATING IN OLD TOWN
While we are talking about wandering the back streets, we can’t neglect to mention the amazing food you will come across. As well as lody, pizza, pasta, hotdogs and this polish dish where you get a massive slice of bread, toast it, and smear it with a warm paste of onions and whatever else you want, you will find on almost every street, and at several stands in the Market Square, pierogi. You can’t come to Poland and not try the pierogi so here is my break down on the little dumplings of polish goodness.
Pierogi are in essence, little semi circle shaped dumplings that have either been boiled or fried. The most traditional fillings are a potato/onion/cottage cheese mixture, or cabbage/mushroom/onion, or a meat/onion mix. I like them boiled, ArgeyDad likes them fried so that they are crunchy, and the kids don’t care; Pierogi is pierogi and even bad pierogi isn’t too bad. The best accompaniment to have with pierogi is borszcz (beetroot soup). I know. “Beetroot Soup??? ” I hear you say. Well it sounds grosse, but it is actually very delicate in taste and delicious. There is none of that slightly gaggy feeling you get when you are gulping down your “favourite” hipster juice in a mason jar with a paper straw from your local farmer’s market. It is a clear, delicately seasoned soup. The stands at the Market Square don’t sell borszcz (although one should) but if you go into any of the many places selling pierogi around old town, they almost all will sell it.
Absolutely the best place to buy pierogi in Krakow is Pierogowy Raj (which means Pierogi Paradise). They have fifty flavours of dumplings (sweet and savoury), and sell the nicest borszcz, plus an interesting white borszcz, which I think is made on cabbage and onion and has the slightest vinegary flavour to it. It is a tiny, tiny shop, with seating for fourteen people (which really, it doesn’t even fit that) and if it’s busy you can barely get to the counter. But the three tattoo’d girls (and they are really pretty tattoos) that run the shop are friendly, speak good english and were nice to the kids. AND the pierogi was perfect!!! Plus if you don’t want the traditional flavours, they have mountains of others, from lentil to curry to chinese flavours, so you can take your pick.
Apart from the more traditional foods and those mentioned above, there are also a few Costas, and Maccas, littered throughout the Old Town, so you are never too far from something familiar if that’s what your taste buds need.
In the Market Square stands, you will also find three big meat smoke houses, which sell ludicrously big grilled polish sausages (kielbasa), shashlicks the size of a small human, and pork knuckles. The smell is amazing as you walk past (definitely not something a vegan would want to smell) but smokey as heck, so make sure you wear your glasses. Only one of these stands sells chips/fries with their meaty goodness. They and the others offer cabbage and potato based veg as accompaniments. OH, and be quick to say if you DON’T want mustard. They slather almost every type of meat in the stuff in the blink of an eye.
Well that ends my little virtual tour of Krakow Old Town. I hope you have enjoyed it. I can not encourage people enough, to visit Krakow. It is a beautiful city. We have spent a week just chilling out in Old Town, not something the average traveller can afford to do with time constraints. You could do all we have done in a day; roaming the streets and sitting in the market square is well worth it. Thankfully we have been lucky enough to just hang out for a few days in a row in this beautiful part of the city. AND WE HAVE LOVED IT!