I'd visited Krakow once before almost 20 years ago. Back then it was taking baby steps back into the capitalist world after over 50 years of communist rule. The Solidarity Movement had won the battle and its leader Lech Wałęsa was the country's President.
I remember checking into my hotel, a rather nondescript building near the town centre, with a grand spiral staircase. The rather dour receptionist asked if I'd like to do any tours, pointing to a small notice board with prices on them. I declined politely. It wasn't that I didn't want to visit these places, just that I always get so much more out of seeing them by going independently. The resulting shoulder shrug I received perfectly summed up that post communist malaise.
Back in the late 1990s the drive to the city centre from the airport, took you through a largely undeveloped landscape. Just arable farmland on a fairly good if unspectacular road. Here in 2019 it was a very different story. Seeing a McDonalds sign just off the runway as we came into land was a sign of just how things had changed. The 20 minute taxi ride to my hotel, mostly along a dual carriageway, gave me plenty of opportunity to survey the plethora of rural development that had taken place since I was last there.
The first thing I noticed was the number of apartment blocks. It is clear that the Krakow population has grown considerably, and that young discerning Poles require better than their predecessors. Quite right too, but unlike other cities that build with little consideration to the surroundings, Krakow has largely avoided this catastrophe. Krakow is a city with a proud past. It survived largely unscathed after World War Two, and has managed to blend the new with the old well.
So what are my top five tips for a visit to this beautiful city?
- Buy a Krakow Card. Getting around the city is easy. This travel pass can be used on all buses, trams, and trains in the Krakow area. You can buy it online before you leave home, and collect it at the Tourist Information Desk in the airport. It has a time span of 1, 2, or 3 days and if desired can include free entry into lots of museums. Whilst you're at it, download the Jakdojade app on your phone to help with planning your journeys.
- Take time away from the old town. It is clear why most tourists head towards the old town. Its picturesque buildings and churches are stunning, and the plethora of nearby bars and cafes make for a lovely place to rest and watch the world go by. Personally though I like to go where the locals go. Head down past the Wawel and across the Vistula river. Once there, walk along the river path. Maybe even take a picnic and a beer with you. It's what a lot of the locals do.
- If, like me, you like beer, visit one of the many off licences around the city. Each is an Aladdin's cave of beers of all tastes and strengths. Beer in Poland is a serious business. It won't make for an easy choice, but it will educate you that there is no such thing as just beer!
- On the subject of beer, perhaps avoid visiting during the late spring / early summer months. Perhaps this is a little harsh, but the cheap flights available mean a lot of stag and hen parties during this time. To be fair most are pretty harmless, but the odd one or two can make for a fairly raucous time. The city centre bars around Rynek Główny are particularly prone to this. Don't let this put you off going there, but just be aware.
- Visit the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. If this isn't on your list of places to see, think again. Is it upsetting? Yes. Is it confrontational? Not at all. It simply states the facts in a thought provoking manner. At the centre of the story is George Santayana's quote, "The one who does not remember history, is bound to live through it again."
So there you have it. Krakow is a wonderful city, full of life and colour. Whatever you end up doing, just breathe it in and enjoy it.