Hack the Hidden City: Beyond the royal splendor of Kraków

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A unique heritage, summer events, green spaces, countless cafés and clubs, mouth-watering local cuisine — Kraków certainly has a lot to offer. It’s the perfect choice of city for study abroad, a workation, or just a short city break. Well-established tourist destinations do have their drawbacks, but we have some tips for you on how to get the best out of this magnificent historic city, without feeling like you’re on a school trip.

Kraków is a city with a rich history. It was once the capital of Poland, the seat of the royal court and the center of the country’s political and cultural sphere. Perhaps fittingly so, it’s also the resting place of most Polish rulers.

Unlike Warsaw, most of Kraków remained intact after World War II. Medieval buildings, Polish Art Nouveau architecture and monuments from the Renaissance are all well-preserved, so it’s no wonder that Kraków welcomes many more tourists than the present-day capital does.

Rynek Krakowa z kościołem Mariackim i sukiennicami, na rynku ludzieKraków: once the capital of Poland and the seat of the royal court — Shutterstock

There’s a lot to see here, and don’t get us wrong all the usual places of interest in any travel guide are worth checking out. However, if you want to get to know the less-explored side of the city without spending a fortune on tourist traps, follow us!

Getting to and around

If you’re going to Kraków on land, you’ll arrive, conveniently, in the very center of the city. The main train and bus stations are connected to each other and to a nearby shopping center, which is just a short walk away from the Old Town.

Alternatively, you can fly to Kraków Airport and take a train to the city center. The train takes around half an hour and costs less than €2. Or, flying to Katowice Airport about an hour’s drive away   is a feasible option. Shuttle services between Katowice Airport and Kraków are available for the reasonable price of approximately €10, but you should book in advance.

Within the city, you can get around most of the interesting stuff on foot. Attractions that are a bit further afield, such as the famous salt mines, are easily reachable by public transport. There’s a range of public transport tickets available so that you can choose the most cost-effective for your particular journey. The Jakdojade app comes in particularly handy for this.

The taste of Kraków

Nobody likes to sightsee on an empty stomach. Naturally, in a place as touristy as Kraków, you can find a whole spectrum of cuisines, but we’ll highlight some delicacies here that are quintessentially Polish. Many restaurants in Kraków pride themselves on their traditional specialties, but they can be overpriced — even if you only want some grilled oscypek cheese or a small plate of pierogi. So, what are the alternatives?

Perfect baked goods

Since we’ve been in and out of lockdown, lots of us have had the time to refine our own baking skills. Still, you can’t beat bread made by a master baker, and they’re ten a penny in Kraków. Forget your French croissants — visitors to Poland can’t get enough of the bread, sweet buns and kremówka pastries, the latter of which is supposedly a particular favorite of Pope John Paul ll. Be sure also to try the classic Kraków-style sernik cheesecake. When in Rome, you know?

Is that a pretzel?

Widok na krakowskie Sukiennice, na pierwszym planie dłoń z owbarzankiemThe obwarzanek is the pride of Kraków – Shutterstock

One other culinary delight that Kraków is especially proud of is obwarzanek. It’s a ring-shaped bread sprinkled with salt or poppy seeds. Indeed, it bears some resemblance to a pretzel or a bagel, but don’t remark upon this too loudly in front of the locals. In any case, obwarzanek is a great snack to munch on when sightseeing. You’ll find them positively everywhere, but if you want our advice, look for vendors with the blue and yellow sticker that reads “Protected Geographical Indication” (“Chronione Oznaczenie Geograficzne” in Polish), as these are the EU-certified originals.

The oldest market in town

Osoba z zakupami i mężczyzna z aparatem rozmawiają na targu warzywnymEmbrace the local experience with a trip to the market — Shutterstock

Do you enjoy cooking, or do you just like the atmosphere of traditional markets? We recommend that you stop by Stary Kleparz, the oldest market in Kraków, close to the Main Square.

At first, Stary Kleparz was a separate village, which then grew into a town called Clepardia. It was a settlement in its own right until it was incorporated into the city 1791. For centuries, it was the center of trade for food, cattle, grain, fabrics and leather.

Stary Kleparz has been operating continuously since the Middle Ages, and business boomed here even during the communist era. The market is still a central element of local life today, so shopping here is a great opportunity to immerse yourself in the more everyday Kraków.

Street food fit for royalty

Female hand holding delicious sandwich called Zapiekanka. Okrąglak street food court on Plac Nowy (Jewish Square) in background. Kazimierz district of Old Town Kraków, famous Zapiekanki Krakowskie.Zapiekanka is a local street food from communist times — Shutterstock

Traditional’ is a word that certainly describes many of Kraków’s offerings, and zapiekanka is no exception to this. This hot snack is popular all over Poland, but Kraków’s Kazimierz quarter is the place to be for the best. The concept originated at the time of the Polish People’s Republic when food shortages were commonplace, and it’s quite simple: a long bread roll baked with mushrooms and cheese. Over the years, of course, variations of zapiekanka have emerged as other toppings have been experimented with.

It satisfied the munchies of party-goers long before the rising popularity of kebabs, but nowhere has zapiekanka stood the test of time more than in Kraków. While Taste Atlas claims it to be the most popular street snack in the whole country, we say that the Endzior stand on Kraków’s Plac Nowy is the very best place to try it. Endzior is in fact just one zapiekanka vendor at a small outdoor food court called Okrąglak. If you have the time and dedication, you can try the zapiekanka from each stand at Okrąglak to see if you agree with our pick.

We also encourage you to indulge in some more sophisticated culinary delights. About a 30-minute walk from the Old Town, Bezogródek in Błonia Park is an interesting space inspired by travel, tropics and smells — according to its creators. It’s a real “tropical spot” hosting parties and yoga events, complete with food trucks serving an eclectic mix of dishes — from Hungarian lángos flatbread to Belgian fries and Thai ice cream. Here, maczanka (marinated pork) is served in a burger bun, putting a modern spin on a traditional regional specialty.

Kraków Blues? Not in Kraków clubs!

Undeniably, the nightlight of Kraków is also something reminiscent of its decadent history; artistic cafés of the interwar period remain, as does the legendary atmosphere of Piwnica pod Baranami, a cabaret club established in the 1950s. At the same time, there are plenty of new initiatives reviving some of the more run-down spots. A song that you’re certain to hear on a night out is the Polish pop classic Krakowski Spleen by Manaam. It translates as “The Kraków Blues”, but we can assure you, these are the only blues you’ll be experiencing.

Forum Przestrzenie is one revived spot. It used to be the Forum Hotel, built in the 1970s on the bank of the Vistula at the height of communist-era megalomania. The hotel became derelict, empty for years, but today it’s a contemporary cultural center with a bar and kitchen. Its fate is uncertain, but it’s currently one of the most fashionable venues in the city. Not only can you sample great food and local beer, but you have your pick of all sorts of entertainment — from concerts and film screenings to fashion shows. In summer, it’s the best place to watch the sun set over the Wawel Royal Castle, from a deckchair with a nice cold drink in your hand.

modernistyczna bryła hotelu Forum w KrakowieForum Przestrzenie is a project that turned the deserted Hotel Forum into a buzzing cultural venue — Shutterstock

If you want some more sophisticated entertainment, try Mercy Brown — a cocktail bar hidden beyond the cloakroom and into the courtyard of the Smakołyki restaurant on Floriana Straszewskiego street. Mercy Brown’s elegant retro décor is evocative of the interwar period, and a typical evening here entails sipping original cocktails while watching a burlesque show.

Another good tip is Sababa. Although it’s in Kazimierz, tourists easily miss this little treasure of a bar. To find it, take a good look at Szeroka street 2 — an old tenement building.

Kraków’s nightlife is constantly changing — places are always opening up and closing down. It’s always worth talking to the locals to have the best shot at experiencing the most current hidden gems. Even if you never make it to that place that’s trending on Instagram, you never know — you might be in for a much more memorable night.

Get an alternative look

Widok na kraków z kopca Krakusa, na szczycie grupy osób na trawieYou get a fantastic view of the city from Krakus Mound, and it’s a great place for a picnic — Shutterstock

If you visit the Wawel Royal Castle (which we do recommend), from the hill on which it sits, you’ll be able to see the Mounds of Kraków in the panorama. The Kraków Mounds are artificial hills, each with their own stories. The oldest ones — the Krakus and Wanda Mounds — were most likely pagan burial places several thousand years ago. The most frequented, however, is Kościuszko Mound, thanks to its spectacular views of Wawel, St. Mary’s Basilica, Błonia, and the Main Square. Admission to Kościuszko Mound costs about €4, which also includes admission to the permanent and temporary exhibitions held there.

Nowa Huta

panorama z lotu ptaka Nowej HutyNowa Huta in and of itself is a monument to socialist realism — Shutterstock

For those who grew up in Poland, the very name of the Nowa Huta (“New Steel Mill”) district connotes communism, and as such, people tend to think of the area reluctantly or nostalgically. It’s definitely worth checking out, not only as a token of socialist urban planning, but also for its cultural landmarks and pleasant atmosphere, which are different from those of the city center.

There’s a little-known underground tour led by Rawelin, the Małopolska Association of History Lovers. They’ll take you to the bunker underneath the Stefan Żeromski Hospital, which has got to be one of the very coolest and most educational experiences that Kraków has to offer. And in the evening, try to spot all of Nowa Huta’s Cold War-era neon signs — though unfortunately, not all of them still work now. Finish off the day at the Ludowy Theater, a cafe in the former Świt cinema building, or the Kombinator club.

Go green

Pandemic lockdowns have given us a renewed sense of appreciation for the great outdoors, as well as the realization that even a simple walk in a city park can relax us immeasurably. Kraków and the surrounding area have plenty of green spaces, and we recommend that you make the most of them.

widok na zieloną łąkę i trzciny, Nowa Huta, KrakówThe Łąki Nowohuckie are of great natural significance — Shutterstock

Sticking in Nowa Huta for now, get a glimpse of the Lesser Polish countryside on the Łąki Nowohuckie (“Nowa Huta Meadows”). This vast peat bog is of exceptional ecological importance, being the habitat of hundreds of different species. It’s a great place for a stroll, and the Nowa Huta Cultural Center is nearby. Did socialist urban planners want to reconcile nature and culture, to contest Rousseau’s theory? For visitors, the combination seems to work pretty well.

If you’re into art, Park Decjusza is definitely worth a visit. It’s one of the oldest parks in Kraków, but due to its relative distance from the center, it’s pretty quiet. Among the trees and shrubs, you’ll catch the unusual sculptures by the artist Bronisław Chromy. Even if you’ve only seen pictures of Kraków, you might be familiar with at least one of his works: the fire-breathing dragon that stands at the foot of Wawel.

Zatopiony samolot i altrapy szkieletów w zalewie na Zakrzówku w KrakowieNo, you haven’t walked into a horror movie — this is just the kind of wreckage you might find if you go diving in Zakrzówek — Shutterstock

We’re aware that in most cities in central Europe, opportunities to hit the beach are extremely scarce, but the Zakrzówek area of Kraków might just help your longing for seaside cliffs and turquoise waters. There’s a huge flooded limestone quarry, and its “shores” are perfect for walking or picnicking. The more adventurous turn up to dive, or even rock-climb. (We should point out at this point that entering the water in the quarry is officially forbidden, but the city plans to develop the area to ensure safer swimming conditions.) All these outdoor opportunities, and only 10 minutes by tram from the Old Town!

On the topic of water sports, a bit further down the Visulta in the suburb of Kolna, you can try your hand at rafting. The Kolna course imitates a mountain river, and there’s no other rafting facility like it in the country. Nothing brings a group of people closer together like extreme sports do, so it’s no wonder that the attraction often gets booked out by bachelor(ette) parties and colleagues on team-building endeavors — it’s simply a great way to have fun with friends. And after wading your way through the gushing current, the evening beer that you’re going to have in Kazimierz will taste even better.

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