Eastern Europe has seen vast abundances of new tourism in the last decade, with the region stepping out of its ex-Soviet shadow to announce itself to the world. With both vivid colour and vibrancy, Europe’s cultured east is the globe’s new extravagant phoenix rising out of the ashes.
Eastern Europe is seasoned with brilliance, with the region and immense culture going together like salt and pepper. Leading Eastern Europe’s rapid rise is Poland – an intriguing country of intrinsic architecture and diverse landscapes who, in the early embers of 1989, transitioned from a state of communism to democracy thus prompting the dissolution of the mighty USSR 2 years later. With such a distinctive concoction of both medieval and modern history, Poland certainly has more to offer than originally expected…
Join me as I dive into the southern city of Kraków, a city steeped in rich heritage which is leading Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe to the forefront of our travel-thirsty minds. In this article I will showcase the city’s grand architecture whilst also exploring the underground tunnels that cascade beneath Kraków’s 13 th century cobbles; and of course, I will be exhibiting some of the finest hotels and restaurants Kraków has to offer, making your luxury visit to the city truly unforgettable.
Come on! What are we waiting for?
Kraków’s contrasting history and cultures
History is the core foundation of Kraków, with the city acting as a cauldron in which multiple different stories lie deep within the stone. Ever since the city was established as a stone age civilisation atop the steep slopes of Wawel hill, Kraków has experienced a tumultuous yet absorbing past. Bustling trading. Flamboyant monarchies. Religious discrimination. Kraków’s stone eyes have seen it all. The earliest written reports of the settlement date back to 965 AD, however many historians believe that its origins lay much deeper within the woven fabric of time. Fast-forward a millennium and you are presented with an incredible blend of modern history and classical architecture, a blend which seemingly congregates to perform a beautiful symphony of awe-inspiring experiences.
The city centre plays host to Kraków’s mesmerising Old Town. A place where tastefully designed townhouses tower above you and smaller, quaint restaurants invite you in with open and loving arms. Walking down into the famous medieval town from the artistic Wawel castle, it feels as if you are entering a past century let alone another part of the city. As you place one foot in front of the other, the soul of the city’s historic quarter exponentially accentuates. When I visited the region in the harshly cold clutches of February, taking my first steps through the wide and dimly lit streets ignited a warm fire within my frozen being. Leading on from this, I do really recommend packing multiple layers and warm attire – as temperatures can fall to -10°C in the winter months.
After a brisk 700 metre meander through Kraków’s magical streets, the city’s standout slice of European grandeur beacons into view. Standing proudly as the largest medieval square in Europe, the enchanting main square will raise the hairs on your arms. Being stalked by the gothic St. Mary’s Basilica, Rynek Glowny (the local name for the imperious square) has historically been the hub of all cultural activity in the city. Since the main square was rebuilt in 1257, after the brutal events of 1241 in which the then-deceased Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire tore through the city, it became an important trading post for Eastern goods. With its gargantuan, stone palaces which line the perimeter of its 10 acre area, Rynek Glowny strangely alludes one distinct feature. As a result of the Austrian invasion of Kraków in 1820, the city’s town hall no longer graces the market square – however, the remnants of the landmark can be witnessed in the form of the ineradicable Ratusz Tower. At the base of the tower sits the Kraków history museum, in which you can immerse yourself in the fascinating folklore and engrossing stories this city has to offer. Some museums are free in the city; however, many do require a donation of a few złoty (which equates to about £1 or $1) so the plethora of these stockpiles of history are well worth a visit.
Adjacent to the sensational tower is the true centre piece of the city’s exquisite square. Going by the local alias of the Sukiennice, Kraków’s cloth hall is arguably the most prominent landmark in this culture-rich city, whilst keeping a significant slice of the region’s famous, renaissance heritage.
Dating back to the 15th century, which can be visibly observed by the exteriors mystifying intricacy, the cloth hall resonates more towards a typically Middle Eastern souk rather than a traditional European market, hence prompting the Polish name of Sukiennice. As you take your first steps into the hall, the cantankerous yet hypnotic sounds of haggling stall-owners and the bright kaleidoscope of colour advertised by their miniature shops will electrify the senses. This is why Eastern Europe should see increased levels of tourism, as it is the site of one of the most exhilarating battles worldwide. The battle between Western European and Asian influences. I would describe it more a culmination of cultures rather than a clash, due to the fantastic way the two come together to create places which are purely magnificent – and there is no finer example of this than Poland’s second largest city.
It is not just the two prominent cultures of Eurasia that come together in Kraków, with the city’s complex history playing host to yet more stark differences. By taking a brisk 2.1km walk back through the Old Town’s majestic streets and over the Vistula River, or a quick 15 minute ride on one of Kraków’s traditional trams, you reach the Jewish quarter of the city. Whilst seeing incredibly troubling times and inexplicable discrimination during the Second World War, this side of the city has developed to offer the visitor some truly incredible history. 75 years on from the atrocities, the Jewish Quarter is not a somber place instead celebrating Kraków’s spectacular diversity. Yes, compared to the lavish palaces of the Old Town, Kraków’s Jewish quarter is far less affluent, however its richness in powerful history is almost overwhelming. Within the unique maze of streets lie an abundance of thought-provoking museums, which do an incredible job in enlightening you on Kraków’s contrasting side. Some fabulous museums I recommend strongly are the Galicia Jewish Museum as well as the world-renowned Schindler’s Museum. Many of the museums in the district are about very distressing subjects and most are rather hard-hitting, however they do showcase yet another angle of Kraków’s simply astounding history.
Krakow’s underground town
By investigating the history and culture above the surface, many would be mistakenly led to believe that Kraków’s offerings have been run dry. However, an abundance of small doorways on the outskirts of the city’s illustrious Rynek Glowny Square pave the way for the visitor to experience yet another angle of Polish allure. In both the form of traditional restaurants and quirky jazz bars, cultural blood scythes through Kraków’s underground veins.
It is a unique sensation to walk into what seems like a relatively normal door and embark on a journey down though centuries-old rock, unaware of which mysterious treasures lurk at the base.
One place I cannot recommend enough is the ‘Piano Rouge’ jazz bar in the north-eastern corner of the Main Square. From the outside it may not seem so impressive, however once inside its true façade comes to light. Equipped with charming, Persian sarongs draped from the ceiling, the 100 steps down into the Piano Rouge transport you into another battlefield for this culmination of cultures. Persian in appearance, French in name and Polish in cuisine. Warm, red fairy lights line the rustic wooden staircase as you finally reach the restaurant. At the foot of the descent lies the bar, offering a great variety of both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages – the whole restaurant revolves around the bar. To the left there is open dining space and to the right there is another small tunnel craving to be explored. Turning right and walking through the restaurant can be tricky if you are tall like me, however once through the tunnel that is no longer an issue.
Arriving in the main concert hall raises yet more hair on your already-astounded arms. This is the Piano Rouge’s pièce de résistance. A grand piano sits proudly atop the stage at the back of the room, thus giving the restaurant its name and the exquisite soundtrack to go with it. As seen throughout the restaurant, tables equipped with luxurious, patterned tablecloths and elegant chairs line the outline of the room – potentially playing host to a truly memorable romantic occasion. That is the beauty of this restaurant. There is no better place for a secluded dining experience for the romantics among you, but the Piano Rouge can offer a sole traveller or group a once-in-a-lifetime experience too. It is easy to see that the atmosphere and appearance of this unique eatery sells itself, however its culinary delights are just as impressive.
It’s not just the Piano Rouge that can transport you underground, as multiple different institutions call the underground tunnels their home. Jazz Bars, restaurants, museums and even a Karaoke bar all use the tunnels to house their operations. I strongly recommend you see the tunnels first-hand, as their delightful auras will give you an experience you will never forget – just remember to bow your head for the low bits!
A look outside the city
On a clear cloudless day, the sensational Tatra mountains that line the Polish-Slovak border are clearly visible with their jagged peaks, often used as skiing hotspots in the winter, leaving you stumped in awe and wonder. To the north of the city, lowlands dominate the landscape with many playing host to an interesting agricultural background. However, the land to the south is far more appealing. With a total of 4 national parks (Gorkzański, Pieniński, Babia Góra and the acclaimed Tatras) all within an hour to two hour drive, Kraków acts as the perfect base from which you can embark on rural daytrips. Often enough, Southern Poland’s extensive rail and bus network should allow you to visit these regions of immense natural beauty – however, in some cases such as the extremely remote Babia Góra on the Slovakian border, a taxi is desperately called upon.
Which of the four stupefying national parks you visit depends on two things, your interests and how much time you wish to travel there. The easiest national park to get to would be the Tatra’s, with easy road links and transport networks whisking you the 100km down south from Krakow. For most, the Tatra National Park is the one that will give you the most pleasant visitor experience with stunning views and the security of the town of Zakopane.
However, for many avid hikers, the other national parks are good bets as well as the spectacular Tatras. Hiking trails range from easy difficulty to really challenging therefore offering the adrenaline-fuelled tourist another memorable experience. The summer months are best for visiting the Tatra’s if you are lusting for luscious green forests and beautiful weather, where temperatures usually peak at a comfortable 25°C. Another advantage of visiting in the summer is the opportunity to miss the pandemonium of the ski-season, where temperatures can drop to a chilling -10°C. Overall, unless you are a skier, I recommend the summer not only for the mountains but Krakow too.
As mentioned previously, Zakopane is easily reachable from the city of Kraków. 3 daily trains, all roughly 3 hours in duration, leave from Kraków Glowny Station in the north of the city. In addition to this, guided day trips to the mountains can often be found on the tourist board – but it is important to check at an information point first as trips can be infrequent. During a quick weekend break, seeing the captivating peaks up close will leave you pushed for time therefore I advise you to use the time for viewing more of the city’s wonders. However, at least one of these spellbinding national parks can and should be visited on a week-long trip, making your time in Southern Poland unanimously inspiring.
Glorious stays and galvanised taste buds
After seeing all these sights, one needs to taste heavenly cuisine and utilise some luxury pillows to place their weary head. Luckily for you, Kraków has an abundance of gorgeous eateries and boutique hotels to sprinkle some luxury onto your city break. Heading back into Kraków’s Old Town we reach the site of the majority of high class hotels, and whilst gallivanting round the Old Town’s perpendicular streets, two hotels instantly drew my attention.
One was the Balthazar Design Hotel – a sensational combination of both rustic, boutique warmth and quirky, modern design. As you enter this unique 5 star hotel, situated in one of Kraków’s many grand stone palaces, you are greeted by a jaw-dropping wall-to-ceiling painting traversing the entirety of the room. Some useful services this quirky hotel offer include the free organisation of trips and tours to local sites as well as a highly-rated à la carte breakfast. Its location is rather handy too. Being located just 0.4 miles from the main square, this hotel does not just offer guaranteed luxury but convenience as well. For a standard double room, prices start at £177 per night with the most luxurious suites fetching up to £360 per night.
On the subject of convenience, no hotel anywhere in the city has a better location than the Bonerowski Palace. Glamourous by name, glamorous by nature. Positioned on the square itself, this 13 th century palace has all the hallmarks of a luxury night to remember with its boutique persona shining beautifully through its vast corridors. With its diamond encrusted chandeliers hanging gracefully above the guest, the Bonerowski Palace unsurprisingly boasts the same 5 star status as the Balthazar. Alongside a superb breakfast, the palace also showcases a critically acclaimed gourmet steak and fish restaurant, of which its quality beats almost every kitchen in the historic city.
Prices start at approximately £350 per night but can reach as far north as £600 for their most luxurious suites.
In addition to fascinating history and luxury hotel rooms, Rynek Glowny square specialises in its stunning cuisine. From traditional Polish eateries to quaint underground Italian restaurants, Kraków’s diversity of culinary attractions cannot be witnessed in many other places worldwide. High class food and drink go with Kraków just as much as its notable history, with prices fluctuating as you move into different cuisines. You can go from brilliant platters of cold meat to sumptuous spaghetti pomodoro within the space of 10 metres. And with this, the enticing smells and tastes of the city add yet another twist to Kraków’s extraordinary tale.