If you are pondering potential European travel destinations for a future trip, I suggest you bump Krakow up the list. I’ve held this view after visiting the city in 2016 and subsequently visiting Prague, another great central European city, in 2018. I found the contrast of the two somewhat enlightening and prompted a concern that Krakow will soon turn into the major tourist magnet that Prague has become.
Why I Went to Krakow
I confess – the initial reason I wanted to go to Krakow was to see the March of The Dachshunds. I am the owner of two wiener dogs so I love all things dachshund. After some research, I discovered that Krakow would be right up my alley with interesting and varied sightseeing along with good options for redeeming hotel points.
My visit was in September 2016. I spent 3 nights in Warsaw followed by 6 nights in Krakow where I redeemed IHG points at the Holiday Inn for the first 5 and paid a sub $100 rate at the Hilton Garden Inn Krakow Airport the night before my early morning departure.
It was a super trip. People were friendly and the sightseeing was enjoyable and compelling. The food was terrific and inexpensive. Transportation was excellent. I had planned to do a day trip to Zakopane in the Tatras mountains but abandoned the idea as I still had things I wanted to see in the city. Even after 5 full days, I would happily have spent more time in Krakow.
Why You Should Go to Krakow
What really stood out during my stay in Krakow was the dearth of North American tourists. There were definitely some people from the United States and Canada but the english-speaking accent I most often overheard was British. People in the UK have easy access to cheap flights and Krakow is a popular destination for weekend breaks. I was waiting for a walking tour to begin when the guide went around the group to see where everyone was from. The majority were British along with a few tourists from Asia, South America and other parts of Europe. There was one other Canadian but no Americans.
As a country, Poland does not seem to grab North Americans as a tourist destination the way other European countries do. Perhaps they have visions of bleak Communist era architecture or economic hardship that impedes any interest in further travel research.
The reality, in my opinion, is that Krakow has all those things that many people typically seek in a European vacation – cobblestone squares and medieval or renaissance architecture with convenient modern public transit; food that’s different but not too different; and history, art and culture that’s very enriching yet within the realm of familiarity.
Krakow vs. Prague – Overtourism Effects
The well preserved Czech capital of Prague is very much on the tourist radar – and by that I mean the American tourist radar. While visiting the city in 2018, it was quite apparent how popular it is with North Americans, as those are the accents you hear everywhere in popular tourist areas. Even one of our walking tour guides was from New Orleans. The historic Charles Bridge gets incredibly crowded and restaurants are overpriced. The aforementioned tour guide said he never eats in the old town. I still loved Prague but I lamented the fact that I had not visited years earlier. I definitely want to go back to see more of the country.
Although Krakow certainly had numerous tourists as well, it was not the same experience. When I was there, the old town was not teeming with people and restaurants were very reasonably priced.
A Dark Period of History
When people hear Krakow, many inevitably think of the Auschwitz concentration camp located outside the city. There are tours available and for many travellers a visit to the site is an important part of their trip to Krakow. In the city, there are also museums, monuments and memorials related to WWII and the Holocaust. I visited a number of those but I did not go to Auschwitz. I knew my own tolerance and it would have been too difficult for me, especially travelling solo. Use your own judgment on whether a visit will be something you can mentally handle and want to include in your itinerary.
Pre-War and Post-War Krakow
There is a lot more to the city than the horrific events of World War II. My knowledge of Polish history was minimal before my trip so I learned a lot during my stay. It was especially fascinating to learn about the changes Poland has gone through over the centuries and how the country has advanced since emerging from Soviet domination.
In old town Krakow on Wawel Hill stands the Wawel Royal Castle which was the residence of Polish kings for centuries. There is an interesting Canadian connection to the tapestries found inside, which were woven from wool, silk and gold in the 1500s.
Krakow has one of the largest main squares in Europe. The centrepiece is the Cloth Hall of the Renaissance period when Krakow was a major hub for international trade. Beneath the main square you’ll find the Rynek Underground, a museum where you can explore exhibits and displays from excavations done below the square.
Among many other valuable works of art in the Czartoryski Museum, is a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci – Lady with an Ermine. When I was in Krakow, this museum was closed for restoration so the painting was temporarily on display in Wawel Castle. I remember thinking what a contrast it was seeing this Da Vinci work, popping in to a room with only a couple of other people, versus the crowds around the Mona Lisa in the Louvre in Paris.
Just outside Krakow, in Wieliczka, is a very old salt mine where guided tours are offered. I found it quite fascinating and highly recommend it if your knees are rugged enough for all those stairs you must descend. Thankfully you can ascend by elevator.
On a previous blog post, I went over some of the prices we paid during a trip to Gdansk and Torun last year. Costs for sightseeing and food in Poland are very reasonable. If you’re accustomed to eating cheap, you can spring for sit-down restaurants instead, knowing it won’t break the bank.
During my stay in Krakow, I saved by visiting museums on their free days and picking up lunch at inexpensive eating places called “milk bars” and a hole-in-the-wall pierogi purveyor near my hotel. I took a relatively modest amount of cash out of an ATM and still had some left over for my subsequent trip to Poland. It’s a good idea to bring along a small reusable insulated grocery bag for takeout food. Unfortunately I forgot to bring it with it me on this trip.
Flights to Krakow from North America
Last year, I believe there was only one non-stop flight to Krakow, on LOT Polish Airlines from Chicago. There are 6 seasonal non-stops to Prague from North America, in comparison.
Starting this spring, American Airlines will be flying Chicago to Krakow, and LOT will be resuming service from New York to Krakow in addition to its Chicago route.
Halifax to Krakow
When I booked my trip in 2016, I chose to fly into Warsaw and out of Krakow as it was significantly cheaper than a Krakow round-trip and allowed me some time in the capital. My airfare was $729 on Condor connecting in Frankfurt on the outbound and Munich on the inbound. Train travel in Poland is excellent and very reasonably priced.
LOT Polish Airlines is in the Star Alliance and flies non-stop between Toronto and Warsaw, so if you have some Aeroplan miles, that’s an option as well. Fortunately, LOT does not levy the high surcharges on reward tickets that Air Canada does. You could also fly Halifax to Chicago non-stop on United and connect to the LOT flight to Krakow.
Alternatively, you could book a reasonable WestJet fare to the UK or Ireland and combine a stay there with your trip to Poland. Check a website like Skyscanner for budget flights to Krakow (KRK). Just remember that if you buy separate tickets your connection won’t be protected, so it’s risky to book without a decent cushion of time.
The Rest of Poland
If you have time, I highly recommend visiting other cities in Poland in addition Krakow. Gdansk is a really terrific place to visit as a tourist. Highlights for me included the Museum of the Second World War, the European Solidarity Centre and nearby Malbork Castle. I enjoyed Torun and Warsaw as well, and plan to make it to Poznan and Wroclaw someday on a future trip.
There are a few people out there who believe Krakow has already become too “touristy” and suggest other Polish cities should perhaps take priority for travellers. However, even if Krakow has growing tourist numbers, it still has a ways to go before it suffers the effects that other popular European cities are now dealing with.
Anyway, I just hoped to spark some interest in a great city while it’s still at least somewhat undiscovered. I’m so happy I was able to take that trip in 2016. I know that tourist numbers have likely increased since then and will continue to grow in the future. So, if you’re contemplating where to go in Europe, consider Krakow before the tourist hordes descend upon it. And, if you happen to be there for the March of the Dachshunds don’t send me a picture because I will die of travel envy.