Chocolate box old town Kraków is a jumble of narrow cobbled streets, elaborate churches and grand medieval sights like the main square and Wawel Royal Castle. However, in the summer months, Kraków struggles to cope with overtourism. In 2017, 13 million visitors (and the horse-drawn carriages that carry them) thronged the old town, as well as nearby Auschwitz and Wieliczka Salt Mine. Rachel Mills suggests hitting the highlights fast and then exploring places with a little more local flavour at a more leisurely pace.
1. Take a stroll in Planty Gardens
Where a defensive wall once ringed old town Kraków, there’s now just leafy Planty Gardens, home to more than two thousand trees. The throngs of tourists tend to stick to St Florian’s Gate at the entrance to the old town, which leaves the rest of the park free for a quiet stroll. In the evenings, local families head to its playgrounds and you feel a thousand miles from the old town circus.
2. Cycle along Vistula (Wisla) River
Poland’s “Queen of Rivers” passes Kraków on its 1,000km-long meander to the Baltic Sea and her banks are a much-loved public space. You’ll see local people zipping about on bikes as well as tourists setting out on the south bank to cycle to Tyniec Abbey 12km away. Water trams ply the same route if you’re not feeling too energetic. And if you just fancy splashing about, you can hire a kayak near Pilsudski Bridge.
3. Explore Kazimierz and Podgórze
Kazimierz is the Jewish district of Kraków, or it was until the Nazis forcefully moved surviving members of the community to a sealed ghetto across the river in Podgórze. A devastated neighbourhood after the war, Kazimierz’s low rents eventually enticed artists and bohemians to move there, and by the 1990s it had developed into the coolest part of Kraków. It kept an authentic feel, with synagogues and a Jewish cemetery, and you can give tour groups the slip by exploring the tangle of backstreets. Bernatek footbridge opened in 2010 to create a link to Podgórze – a district that started to regenerate after the movie Schindler’s List was filmed here (Oskar Schindler’s factory is now a museum). Today, the neighbourhood is all start-ups, coffee shops and industrial chic.
4. Take a picnic to Zakrzówek
A man-made limestone quarry that’s now piercing blue lagoon, Zakrzówek is a secret(ish) wild spot not far from central Kraków. Hike in on a trail to be greeted by a vast reservoir ringed by sheer limestone cliffs and trees. There’s an entrance fee these days and locals grumble about swimming being prohibited (not everyone follows the rules), but it can’t be beaten as a picnic spot.
5. Learn about Communism in Poland at Nowa Huta
It’s not everywhere that you can visit an entire district that was bankrolled by Stalin. Nowa Huta (“New Steelworks”) was a post-war experiment in Social Realism; a carefully planned hub for 100,000 workers that was to be the antithesis of bourgeois Kraków. Although Poland’s devout Catholicism and the ill-considered location of the steelworks meant that the experiment was ultimately a failure, visiting the neat concrete blocks of Nowa Huta – now a suburb to the east of Kraków – gives a fascinating insight into Communism in Poland.
6. Visit Katowice Culture Zone
Just an hour away, Katowice airport is sometimes used as a cheap gateway for Kraków. It’s fair to say that until recently, Katowice itself didn’t have all that much else to recommend it to visitors. Fiercely working class, with an industry based on coal mining and steel, the city has been suffering economic decline for decades. But times are changing and a government-led initiative has created a central “culture zone”.
The zone incorporates Spodek, a stark brutalist building known as ‘The Spaceship’ that’s been a landmark building since 1971. Spodek has had new life breathed into it and now hosts major arena tours and music festivals. A former mine has been converted into the world-class Silesian Museum, where underground spaces with glass ceilings are now exhibition rooms. Exhibits include Polish art from 1800 to the present day and an outstanding gallery of non-professional art that includes work by miners. Just next door, the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (NOSPR) has a brand-new concert hall with outstanding acoustics.
7. Step back in time at Nikiszowiec
A socialist fantasy turned reality, wandering the well-ordered grid of streets in the Nikiszowiec quarter in Katowice feels like stepping back in time. Built in the early twentieth century to attract coal miners (once the kings of the working class in Poland), today, hipsters are snapping up the red-brick flats in the area. Explore pop-up art galleries and an arcade of 1920s-era shops that includes cute-as-a-button Café Byfyi where you can order apple pie and strong coffee.