Travel

A neighbourhood guide to Krakow

Poland’s second city is a first-rate destination for travellers seeking elegant medieval architecture, a buzzing bar scene and a rich history spanning some of Europe’s most seismic moments.Sunday, 22 September 2019

By Nicola Trup
View over Krakow’s medieval Old Town.

When it comes to looks, Poland’s second city takes first place. Its people suffered hugely during the Second World War, but Krakow’s buildings were spared the devastation inflicted on many other Polish cities, leaving its medieval Old Town — a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a castle, cathedral and one of Europe’s largest medieval squares — mostly intact. Stray beyond the historic centre of the pretty postcard city, across the Vistula River and to the outer edges, and you’ll find districts with fascinating stories to tell: tales of Jewish history, living under communism, or how new life is being breathed into this old city.

Kazimierz

“The danger for Kazimierz is making it into a Jewish Disneyland,” Celina, my guide, says, as we stand next to a stall — one of several — selling skull caps, Star of David necklaces and carved statuettes of klezmer musicians.

This Judaica (Jewish ceremonial art) isn’t aimed at Krakow’s tiny Jewish community, who number just 120. It’s for the visitors who come to trace the history of the district, which was home to around 56,000 Jews before the Second World War, during which the Nazis forced the vast majority into the Krakow Ghetto and concentration camps. 

After the Holocaust, this part of the city was “a ghost town”, says Celina — largely abandoned apart from a community of artists drawn here by cheap rents. But, “it all started changing rapidly after Schindler’s List [the 1993 movie that was filmed here]”. An influx of visitors and investment followed, with the area’s creative, bohemian vibe also getting a boost. A pair of former tram depots have been transformed into an engineering museum and a restaurant, Stara Zajezdnia; a 1970s former office block has become hip Nova Resto Bar; and vacant lots have been commandeered by clusters of food trucks.

Nudging up against the Old Town, this is one of Krakow’s most central neighbourhoods, but it manages to squeeze in little pockets of greenery. On a sunny afternoon, people flock to the lush Mleczarnia beer garden, or peaceful Mehoffer Garden (named after the local artist who designed it), hidden behind a museum, between apartment blocks.

We wander over to Plac Nowy, a square that Celina describes as “a big party area”. At its centre is a red-brick rotunda, formerly a kosher slaughterhouse, whose windows serve as hole-in-the-wall food stands. Most of them sell zapiekanki, Poland’s answer to the croque monsieur — a toasted, open-faced sandwich topped with mushrooms and melted cheese. Tomorrow, when I return, there will be a flea market, selling everything from cutlery and clothing to yet more Stars of David.

Kazimierz has several museums dedicated to its Jewish history, but the Galicia Jewish Museum does the best job of fusing past and present. A sleek space with a cool cafe and a bilingual bookshop, it has a permanent exhibition of modern photos documenting what remains of Jewish culture in the region.

We pause at Ulica Szeroka, a square with trees at its centre and pavement cafes skirting its edges. Celina points out two restaurants, Ariel and Ester, which play the best klezmer music in town. We pop into Remuh Synagogue, which survived Nazi occupation and is now Krakow’s only operational synagogue. Peaceful and understated, it’s a world away from the souvenir stands just beyond the gates.

Mehoffer Garden.

Podgórze

This has to be the best view in the city. In front of me, hilltop Wawel Castle rises above the Old Town, while to the left is a tree-filled former quarry that’s soon to be turned into a park. There’s a group of hills behind, but on a clear day you can see all the way to the Tatra Mountains, marking the border with Slovakia.

Krakow has four man-made hills, all with rather hazy origins. The one I’m standing on, Krakus, is named for the city’s mythical founder and is thought to have been built by the ancient Slavs at least a millennium ago.

“Podgórze has always been different; a small town within a big town,” my guide, Szymon, says. Just across the Vistula from Kazimierz, this area feels suburban by comparison, its streets lined with villa-like homes and neighbourhood restaurants. At the junction of Staromostowa and Kazimierza Brodzińskiego, we buy cones of tart blueberry ice cream from old-school grocery shop Delikatesowo. “This is the most international food corner in Krakow — you have Italian, Vietnamese, Basque,” says Szymon. “Fifteen years ago, there was nothing. The pedestrian bridge opened in 2009 and everything changed,” he adds. Thanks to the Father Bernatka Bridge, more visitors are straying south of the river.

Under Nazi occupation, Podgórze was home to the Jewish Ghetto, and the district honours its history on Plac Bohaterów Getta (Ghetto Heroes Square) with a powerful memorial: 33 oversized, empty metal chairs. Nearby, a pharmacy whose owners passed on food and information to ghetto residents, Apteka Pod Orłem, has been turned into a museum, as has Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory, a short walk away in Zabłocie.

On the riverbank, another piece of history has found a new purpose. The hulking brutalist Forum Hotel opened in 1988, and in the years after its closure in 2002 its bedrooms were abandoned. Today, the ground floor has been given over to Forum Przestrzenie, a bar, club and gig space that hosts raves in the former kitchen and conference rooms.

Robert, part of the team behind the venue, takes me to the basement bar, Klub 89, which has been kept almost exactly as it was in its Eighties heyday. It’s a David Lynch-style dream of red lights, carpeted walls and leather booths. If the bedrooms were available and looked anything like this, I’d check in.  

“Everything inside needs rebuilding,” Robert tells me. With the bar and club being temporary, the Forum’s future is still up in the air.

Wawel Castle

Nowa Huta

Just as I’m wondering how I’m going to recognise Klaudia, an ancient green car sputters to a halt in front of me, its engine not so much purring as yowling. It’s a 1972 Trabant, a GDR brand that was popular across the Eastern Bloc. And my guide is driving it for a reason: we’re off to the ‘workers’ paradise’ of Nowa Huta.

Krakow’s easternmost district, Nowa Huta was built between 1949 and 1951 to house employees of the steelworks at its heart. It’s one of only two planned cities in the world built in the socialist realist style, the signature Soviet aesthetic that was all about big, blustering buildings and banging the drum for communism. “The city was a gift from Stalin,” Klaudia says. “Showing off, really.” Paranoia meant 250 bomb shelters were built under Nowa Huta, some of which are now open for tours.  

We rattle through the ‘new’ part of town (built between the 1970s and 1990s), passing the Polish Aviation Museum, a former airfield, and Nowohuckie Centrum Kultury, a cultural centre, outside which are street food trucks and a live band.

The city was intended to be laid out in the shape of a wheel, with Plac Centralny at its heart, but only half the spokes ever materialised. One of those spokes, Aleja Róż, which Klaudia calls “our Champs-Élysées”, is a wide, partly pedestrianised street punctuated by tidy lawns and flanked by domineering, Orwellian apartment blocks, built for the staff of the steelworks. “Everybody was equal, but some more equal than others,” my guide quips, pointing to the flats with balconies.

The buildings’ ground floors are given over to grand colonnades, and shops and restaurants that hark back to Nowa Huta’s heyday, from the Bar Mleczny Centralny (a milk bar barely changed since the early 1950s) to Cepelix, a gift shop with vintage chandeliers and wooden display cabinets. Amid the net curtains and laminate furniture of Restauracja Stylowa — once popular with Communist Party officials — Klaudia buys me a cherry vodka, urging me to “drink it Polish-style, in one shot”. It’s not all communist throwbacks, though. On either side of the road are branches of hip local ice cream chain Good Lood, both with queues of teenagers outside. 

Aleja Róż was also once home to the world’s largest Lenin statue, and while that went the way of the communist regime, the steelworks once named after him still stands. Today, it employs 3,500, a fraction of its peak workforce of 40,000. At the entrance are two fortress-like administration buildings, one for the workers and one for management. While both brim with original features, the managers’ building, with its marble staircases and chandeliers, is the more impressive. Some truly were more equal than others.

Central Square, Nowa Huta.

When in Krakow...

Pączki
On Tłusty Czwartek (Fat Thursday), the last Thursday before Lent, it’s traditional in Poland to eat pączki (doughnuts). Some of the best are to be had just outside the Old Town, at Cukiernia Michałek, where the fillings include rose jam.

Old Town
Krakow’s crowning glory is its medieval Old Town. Highlights include Wawel Castle, and central square, Rynek Główny, where you’ll find the beautiful Cloth Hall, worth visiting for its architecture rather than its pricey souvenirs.

Tytano
A complex of bars, restaurants, nightclubs and arts spaces set in a former tobacco factory just outside the Old Town. Pick up a beer at Weźże Krafta and a carnivore’s dream sandwich at ‘meat bar’ Meat & Go, before a gig at live music venue Zet Pe Te.

Planty
Encircling the Old Town, this park is made up of 30 gardens, dotted with flowerbeds, water features and statues of historical Polish figures, like Nicolaus Copernicus.

Obwarzanki
Created here in the 15th century as a gift for the king, the obwarzanek is a sort of proto bagel, still sold from street-corner carts around the city. Crusty and slightly sweet, it’s lighter than its Jewish cousin, and while it’s not filled, it usually comes topped with poppy seeds, or sometimes salt or cheese.

MORE INFO
Polish National Tourism Office

Crazy Guides (Trabant tours)

ESSENTIALS
Wizzair flies to Krakow from Luton, Birmingham and Doncaster Sheffield. Puro Krakow Kazimierz has double rooms from 222 Polish zlotys (£47), room only. 

Published in the October 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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