When we set out to travel the world together, one of our rules was that we would visit places that neither of us had been before. That rule was broken when we decided to visit Krakow, Poland, one of my favorite cities in Europe. I was looking forward to sharing this city with Andy since it held a special place in my heart.
Originally we booked a stay at the Light Rooms Apartment for two nights, but realized that in order to see everything that we wanted to see, we would need to stay a third night. Fortunately, booking an additional night was no problem and we were excited to have the time to see everything we wanted without having to rush.
Getting to Krakow
We headed to Krakow from Kosice which wasn’t the biggest transportation hub. We were fortunate to find the Tiger Express, a van service which ran the route. This was lucky as many other transit options required a connection which nearly doubled the transportation time.
We purchased our tickets online for 29E or $33 each. On the ticket, there were directions for the pickup location. Since it was a van, the pickup was not at the train station, but rather a few blocks away. To err on the side of caution, we left early, just to be sure that we didn’t run into any problems finding it.
Since we were early, we were the first to arrive at the van. The driver took our bags and put them in the back of the van. There ended up being only 5 of us on the van, all going to Krakow. Luckily, there were no bookings at the other stops along the way. This allowed us to change our route and shave 2 hours off the transit time.
The seats weren’t the most comfortable, but they were fine for the relatively short ride. We were fortunate enough to have an empty seat next to us which allowed a bit more room to stretch out which was quite nice.
Things We Saw & Did in Krakow
Wieliczka Salt Mines
One of the places that I visited during my previous visit to Krakow was the Wieliczka Salt Mines. It is a UNESCO world heritage site and was the longest operating salt mine, opened in the 13th century and closing in 2007.
There are many tour agencies around Krakow who sell tours to the salt mines, but we knew if we went on our own it would be quite a bit cheaper. To get to the mines, we took the public bus for a cost of 4Z or $1 each. This was a great deal since the ride was around 45 minutes. Once we arrived, we purchased our tickets for 84Z or $22.25 each. Since we were joining an English tour, they were quite frequent so we only had to wait 30 minutes. If you speak a different language, you may want to check the tour times on the salt mine website since tours in other languages run much less frequently.
Our tour was called and everyone gathered by the front of the mine. We were handed an audio-guide type device which had 1 ear plug. This helped everyone in the group hear our guide. I quite liked this as it made hearing the information a lot easier, especially if you were in the back of the group, since the guide did not have to yell the information, they just had to speak into the microphone which was streamed to our headsets.
The first thing that we did was descend very deep into the mine. We were not surprised when the group was moving extremely slow down the staircase as it seems that most of the world does not move at the pace that we are used to. Once we hit the bottom of the mine, we started our tour.
The tour gave information about the discovery of salt in the area and how the mining technique changed over time. My favorite part was the intricate carvings in the salt, specifically the large church that we made a stop at. My second favorite part of the tour was the extremely cheesy mannequins which demonstrated how the salt mine was run.
I’m glad that I revisited the salt mines with Andy. They were a little less impressive than I remembered, but I did like the addition that they added at the end of the tour. There was a large cafeteria area as well as a space for private events. While we considered eating at the mine, we decided that the food would likely be better and cheaper if we went offsite. We found a local restaurant across the street which served exactly what we were looking for – reasonably priced, delicious pierogi.
Probably the most powerful place that I have been my whole life is Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. It was the deadliest concentration camp during WWII, killing an estimated 1.1 million people – primarily Jews. While it is a somber place, I knew that Andy would be as moved by seeing it as I was so we decided to visit.
There are many tours that go to Auschwitz, but we preferred to go on our own. Not only is it less expensive, but it would also allow us to go at our own pace – something that is important at an emotional place like this.
We headed to the bus station to catch the public bus. It was a good deal at only 14Z or $3.70 for a ride that was just under 2 hours. We were dropped off at the Auschwitz Museum and went to get tickets. We learned that there were only guided tours until 3pm, but that Birkenau was free all day. We decided to visit Birkenau first, returning to Auschwitz after 3pm when admission was free. To get to Birkenau, we hopped on the complimentary shuttle which runs between the 2 camps.
When Andy first saw Birkenau, he had the same reaction that I did – absolute shock. The scale of the camp is beyond any notion that you have in your mind, you really need to see it in person to appreciate just how large it is. We quietly walked around the camp, visiting the rebuilt housing that prisoners were held in. Afterwards we headed to the many gas chambers, which were mere rubble as the Nazis bombed them to hide the evidence of their war crimes.
We caught the shuttle over to Auschwitz and grabbed a late lunch nearby. When we finished, we picked up our free tickets and stood in line to enter the museum. Before we were granted access, we had to go through an extensive security screening. Luckily we did not have a backpack with us as only small bags were allowed in the museum.
Once you walk into Auschwitz, you are struck with quite a different feeling than Birkenau. All of the lodging seems very nice compared to the basic structures we saw in Birkenau and the overall size is dramatically smaller.
The most powerful exhibit that we walked through was labeled “proof of genocide”. It contained large rooms filled with the personal effects of those murdered – from prosthetic limbs to shoes and luggage. To see the large scale of these possessions and know that they are only a small fraction of what was taken, was difficult.
The two different camps are set up quite a bit differently. In order to fully understand what happened at the camps during the war, you really need to visit both of them. To say it is a depressing place to visit is an understatement. The reason I found it important to visit is to remember those who died and remind future generations of the atrocities that were committed.
Laundry at the Bar
It had been a while since we had done our laundry and needed to find a place to do it. After researching online, I stumbled upon Frania Cafe, a laundromat that had a bar in it. We were sold, so we collected our clothing and headed over.
When we arrived, we paid 19Z or $5 to wash and dry a load of clothes. This price was reasonable, especially since the detergent was included. When our clothes were in the washer we grabbed some drinks to pass the time. As we were enjoying a drink, we realized that there were games to play as well. We got into a pretty serious game of Jenga, where ultimately Andy won.
It was a little sad just how fast our clothes washed and dried. Normally it would be great, but we were having such a good time, it was a little hard to leave.
During our time in Krakow we checked out the Wawel Castle both from the ground as well as journeying up the hill to see it up close. Andy and I both agreed that we liked the view from the river the best.
Admission to the castle was quite costly, so we opted to spend our time at the grounds outside of the castle. In addition to the beautiful church at the top, we enjoyed the blooming trees and the beautiful sunny weather.
The only disappointing part of the trip up to the castle was that without purchasing a ticket to the castle, you were not able to see views of the city.
Since we didn’t get a chance to see the city from Wawel Castle, Andy researched if there was anywhere that we could go to get a good view of the city. He found the Kopiec Krakusa, a man made hill with views of the city.
To get there we took a tram outside of the city center, then hiked up the hill. When we arrived it was pretty quiet, with only a few people around. By the time that we were heading out, there were a ton of people.
It was nice to get a good view of the city, but the hill itself was almost comical. It was extremely manmade and seemed a little cheesy.
Main Square (Rynek Glowny) in Krakow
Krakow’s main square is one of the largest medieval town squares in all of Europe. There were a lot of historical things around the square and we had a fun time checking them out.
St. Mary’s Basilica
One of the iconic buildings of Krakow is St. Mary’s Basilica. We wondered why it looked so different than other basilicas that we had seen on our travels and learned that it was because the architecture is based on the Polish design vs. the more commonly recognized western design.
As a tradition, every hour a trumpet player plays Hejnał Mariacki from the tower. Part way through the song, it stops suddenly. This is in tribute to the 13th century trumpet player who warned against the Mongol attack on the city and was ultimately shot through the throat. I think that it’s a pretty cool tradition and am happy that it is still in place after so many years.
Cloth Hall Market
If you’re a tourist in Krakow, you’re likely going to walk through the Cloth Hall Market. The market is very touristy and caters to those looking to purchase souvenirs. We ended up buying our Christmas ornament here. I am sure that there are better prices in other parts of the town, but for a quick and easy trip to pick up a gift, this is the place to go.
Back in the 1820, there was a large town hall building where Wieża Ratuszowa now sits. In order to enlarge the square, the building was completely destroyed except for the large tower which still remains standing.
You can pay to go up to the top of the tower, but we opted to take the money it would have cost and enjoyed an overpriced beer at one of the restaurants in the main square instead.
I wondered if going to a city that I had visited before would be a mistake, but it was not. Sure, revisiting some of the sights that I had seen previously was not as fun as seeing them for the first time, but it was fun to see them again with Andy. When I visited Krakow previously, it was New Year’s Eve and returning in the spring made it feel like a completely different city. Instead of freezing when I was sightseeing, we had lovely spring weather which was very nice.
I think our best decision was to extend our stay to 3 days. Being able to see everything in 2 days would have been extremely difficult, especially with the salt mines and Auschwitz being a good bus ride from the city.