Hop in an East German Trabant to the Communist zone of Nowa Huta, invite yourself to a local’s house for dinner or hang out with the hipsters at Forum Przestrzenie. Duncan Rhodes shares his top secrets for Krakow.
Krakow boasts almost as many attractions as it does (low-flying) pigeons, and just on the Main Market Square alone you’ll find the resplendent red-bricked Mariacki Cathedral with its non-identical twin towers, the elongated cream and terracotta arcades of the Sukiennice cloth market, the clock-mounted Ratusz Town Hall tower (which you can climb for great views of the city!) and the iconic “Eros Bound” statue – a favourite with kids who like to climb inside it. Meanwhile a short walk down the Royal Way will take you to the chakra-licious Wawel Castle, the burial place of Polish Kings and a great spot to languidly gaze over the River Wisla.
Further afield and a visit to the Auschwitz and Birkenau Death Camps is a sombre pilgrimage most will want to undertake, whilst the UNESCO-listed Salt Mines are a unique marvel, also easily accessible on a day trip. But enough of the mainstream sites… we’ve already covered all these on our Long Weekend to Krakow guide!
This post is all about those alternative attractions, original tours, hip venues and cool things to do that Rick Steves ain’t got the foggiest about…
1# Eat Lunch With A Local
Restaurants are so passé in Poland… when in Krakow travellers can opt for the personal touch of eating dinner at a local’s house, thanks to entrepreneurial start-up Eataway.com. The concept is simple, local amateur chefs around the city announce the time and place (usually their own house) along with what’s on the menu, and guests sign up and pay. It’s like Airbnb for eating! Apart from outstanding home-cooked food, there’s a chance to make friends with the host and fellow diners that a formal meal in a restaurant simply can’t offer.
2# Pop Over To Podgorze
We love the old Jewish district of Kazimierz, but long gone are the days when this wonderful district could be seen as an “alternative” area to hang out in the city. These days that mantle probably should go to Podgorze. Established during the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a separate city to Krakow, across the river Vistula, the district is most famous for housing the Jewish Ghetto during World War II during the Nazi Occupation of Poland. Perhaps its tragic history also explains why it was neglected for so long, even after the fall of Communism gave other parts of Krakow a chance to regenerate. Today that history is certainly not forgotten, as remnants of the ghetto wall have been preserved and Oskar Schindler’s Factory has been turned into a museum about the Occupation, however there’s also plenty of new life in the barrio too. Hip new cafes like BAL keep Krakow’s cool cats caffeinated whilst Cinema Paradiso goes one step further by screening free cult cinema as well. Despite these new joints my favourite Podgorze hang out is still the old fashioned Drukarnia Jazz Club, one of the first bars to set up on this side of the river. When in Podgorze you should also check out Krakus Mound, which brings me to…
3# Climb Krakow’s Mounds
One of Krakow’s most original features are its four “mounds“, the most famous of which is the Krakus Mound, whose 9th century pagan origins are unknown but is said to be the burial place of Prince Krak the legendary founder of the city. Found in Podgorze it’s just about within walking distance of the centre and commands great views over the city. A more modern mound was built in the 19th century to honour one of Poland’s favourite sons, Tadeusz Kościuszko, who fought both in the American War of Independence and led a sadly ill-fated uprising against the Russians in 1794 and was described by Thomas Jefferson as “the purest son of liberty that I have ever known.” His mound is even grander than Krak’s and heading there makes for a pleasant stroll in the leafy Salwator district.
4# Hang Out At Forum
As you cross the Grunwaldzki Bridge your hipster radar should start to sound with steadily louder bleeps. FORUM Przestrzenie is arguably Krakow’s best hangout: a beach bar, restaurant, club and cultural space in the foyer of what was once the Communist-era Hotel Forum (the very place the regime would place visiting foreigners so that they could keep an eye on them). Whether you just fancy hanging out on deckchairs by the river drinking bio-lemonades during a sunny day, or you fancy popping by at night when DJs spin a crossover of urban sounds, there’s nearly always a great vibe at Forum. The fact that it’s slightly out of the Old Town helps keep it relatively tourist free… so ssshhh, let’s keep it that way.
5# Hitch A Ride To Nowa Huta
A pioneer of alternative tourism, “Crazy” Mike Ostrowski was working as a hotel receptionist in the early 00s when two American tourists asked him to show them a different side of Krakow. He picked them up in the iconic Polish deathtrap that is the Maluch Fiat 500 and drove them to the Communist district of Nowa Huta, a purpose built Soviet city built around a steelworks considered a no-go zone by many Cracovians. The Americans loved it and lo and behold Crazy Guides were born. Now one of the Krakow’s most popular tours (but so cool we had to still recommend it!) the chance to jump in an old East German Trabant, trundle off to Nowa Huta and visit a Communist-era flat and restaurant and even enjoy a shot of vodka and a pickled cucumber is not to be missed. Check out our first hand report for more info or go ahead and book your space via Get Your Guide!
6# Party At The Unsound Festival
If you haven’t booked your flights already, then consider timing your visit with October when the Unsound Festival brings a dark wave of audio madness into some of the city’s most intriguing spaces. Museums, churches and bars become the stage for experimental electronica by a roster of cutting edge artists which your mum has never heard of (and quite possibly you neither – it’s definitely a contender for the most hipster festival on the planet). The event is always great fun and the opening and closing parties are usually some of the best shindigs of the year in the city. The same team have just opened a nightclub in conjunction with the aforementioned FORUM Przestrzenie, so even if you’re not in town for October you can catch a flavour of Unsound there instead…
7# Cycle Out to Tyniec
Aside from offering a highly recommended city tour, from March to October bike company Cruising Krakow also lead a “country tour” out to the rather lovely 11th Century Benedictine Abbey of Tyniec which is around 12km outside of the town centre. The route takes you on a picturesque route along the Vistula river, passing fields, woodland, lakes and crumbling forts as you go. After a hearty lunch, and maybe small beer, at the Abbey, you’ll way your way back to Krakow stopping at Zakrzowek, a water-filled quarry, for a photogenic sunset. Cyclists keen to go further than 24km might prefer to hire a set of wheels from Cruising Krakow and make their own way to the gorgeous natural park of Ojcow instead.
So there you have it… seven fun things to do in Krakow aside from the main attractions. In fact if you take a little look around our blog you’ll even find some more cool suggestions like these subterranean cellar bars, some top spots for trying Polish pierogi, some places where you can listen to new and classic Klezmer music and a few more stories besides. And don’t forget our Long Weekend guide is a compact guide to everything you need to know for a Krakow city break.