I never planned to go to Krakow, only Warsaw. The flight to Warsaw was cheaper, the hostels were cheaper, and it was on my path north to the Baltics. As Poland started growing closer and closer, people I met along the way telling me that no trip to Poland is complete without a visit to Krakow. They were so right. I haven’t been to any other city that size that balances the hip and the historic as well as Krakow does.
Here’s how to spend three days in Krakow
Day one: Take a day trip to Aushwitz
This is a tricky one for me. Part of me feels strange for wanting to go to the site of such horrific events. It feels a bit like staring at a car crash. The other part of me knows that it’s important to remember human history. Although it is possible to remember without visiting the site, the visit is a totally different experience from learning about it in a textbook. In one part of the site, there’s a room full of shoes. More shoes than I’ve ever seen at any large warehouse shoe store. These shoes represent a fraction of those confiscated from prisoners. It’s an emotional experience, made better by taking a guided tour. I highly recommend taking a guided tour. The guides give you information just detailed enough to understand the atrocities of Aushwitz without being too horrific. A guided tour is free, you just need to sign up well in advance.
Visiting Aushwitz was not at all like visiting Dachau. I assumed it would be easy to just take public transportation and show up the day of. This is not the case. If you want to go with a guide, you need to reserve your spot in a group in advance. If you choose to go without a guide, you still need to reserve a ticket in advance to guarantee entrance.
Krakow really pushes tours. There are tons of tour companies that will take you via private coach to Aushwitz for around 30 euro. These tours fill up fast, so plan in advance. On the coach ride, you’ll watch a video about the history of Aushwitz to give you a little more background. Once you arrive at Aushwitz, you’ll meet your guide who will take you through the first site, Aushwitz I, the original Aushwitz site. This site is almost fully intact and the old buildings now hold artifacts, photos, and other historic exhibitions. After an hour and a half on the first site, you go to the second, larger site, Aushwitz II. Although many of the buildings are now destroyed, this site helps you see the sheer size of the camp. It’s powerful, difficult to comprehend, and important to remember.
Day Two: Wieliczka Salt Mines and the City Center
Get a sense of Krakow by taking a free walking tour of the city center. With the tour, you’ll learn about the history of Krakow from the very beginning, with very little history of the war. You’ll see the city center, the university where Pope John Paul was a student, and the famous “dragon” of Krakow. Although the dragon bones discovered below the city are likely from a mix of whales and elephants, a dragon remains the symbol of Krakow.
After the tour, visit the Wieliczka Salt mines. Explore the shafts of these deep, winding salt mines in a guided tour. Because the mines are so deep and can be confusing, visitors are required to take a guided tour. There are several routes that take you through the salt mine, some more difficult and in depth than others. The popular “Tourist Route” covers the top sights of the mine including the Chapel of St. King, an underground chapel built entirely of salt.
Day Three: Schindler’s Museum and the Jewish Quarter
Schindler’s Museum is less about Schindler and what he did and more about the history of the war in Krakow. There is a small room dedicated to Schindler and how he, and his factory, saved 1,200 people during the Holocaust. Between Schindler’s list and AP European History in high school, I had some background on Oscar Schindler. I didn’t have as extensive of a background on Krakow and Poland during the war as the rest of the museum provided, but I still would have preferred more information about Schindler’s factory. At the very least, it would have been interesting to have a bit of information in each room about what the room was used for when the factory was in use.
After visiting Schindler’s Museum, explore the rest of the Jewish quarter. Many of the areas of the Jewish quarter will look familiar to anyone who has seen Schindler’s List. Speilberg shot quite a bit of the film in Krakow, although he took some liberties with the historical accuracy of each location. The Jewish quarter was once the ghetto of Krakow, and is full of painful history. Now, the Jewish quarter remembers the past while moving towards the future. It’s the place to go out and is packed with hip bars and restaurants. For a reason I never discovered, a lot of the bars also have themes. My favorite bar Omerta Pub & more, is themed based on The Godfather. Don’t let the decorations deter you, Omerta is the place for craft beer in Krakow. They have local and international craft beer at a reasonable price, around 5 euro a beer. This is high for Poland, so if you’re not interested in craft beer, you can find a basic lager and some atmosphere for about 1.50 euro at one of the many other bars in the area.
After visiting Omerta, head to the Market Square for some zapiekanki. Zapiekanki is best described as Polish baguette pizza. It comes in two sizes, regular and small. A regular is a full baguette, so a small is plenty for one person. It comes in all different flavors, but they all cost anywhere from 2-4 euro for a small, or 5-7 for a regular. Another must try Polish food is a big plate full of Pirogi. These dumplings are filled with all sorts of different ingredients, but stick to the classics like meat and cabbage.