Krakow is a quaint little city. It has some stunning architecture, hardy residents, and a gigantic open town square with a great atmosphere. It’s a beautiful place to explore and relax in. Plus, with a very strong exchange rate from British pounds to Polish złoty, we could eat in some of the best restaurants in prime locations for less than an average meal out in the UK. We found ourselves dining in candlelit restaurants in shorts and t-shirts rather than evening dresses.
As well as the history, there is another reason to visit. Krakow is one of the closest cities to Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp built by the Nazis in World War II. At least one million innocent people were murdered at this site. I can’t recommend a trip highly enough; it’s something that everyone should have to witness. WARNING: I will talk about the tour we had in this post and it could be distressing.
This city has a rich history, and much of it is very recent and very sad. Here is why you should visit.
To get your bearings of the city, I highly recommend one of the free walking tours that depart from St Mary’s Church in the main square every morning at 10am. We used Free Walking Tour and had a great local guide. She took us through the Jewish quarters of the city, pointed out the places the locals love to eat, and even took us into a synagogue.
We also heard the history of the Jewish ghetto in Krakow. There is poignant memorial in the square; empty chairs facing the direction of concentration camps that the residents were taken to by the Nazis. All of this was while walking down pretty side streets that we wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. It is a lot of walking, but we really enjoyed seeing the city this way.
Krakow also has some very cool street art. Artists are regularly commissioned to spice up the urban space, so keep an eye out for their unique art work.
I personally think that everyone who has the opportunity to go to Auschwitz should go. We knew it was going to be an emotionally tough day, and it really was. Our tour guide was incredible. She told the incomprehensible story of the place with such earnest and made us understand the conditions at the camp as best we could. If you ever visit, I highly recommend going in a guided tour group.
I think you should experience this for yourself, but to give you an idea of what the visit was like, we were shown around Auschwitz 1, which was originally built to house prisoners of war. We went into some of the buildings to see how the prisoners lived and to see some of their confiscated possessions. We were taken into the terrifying basement where Zyklon B gas, which was used to kill hundreds of people at a time, were first conducted. We even went into the first gas chamber and saw the incinerators.
Then a bus took us to Birkenau, the location of the famous train tracks under the watch tower. Here, most prisoners were taken straight from the trains to the two gas chambers. There are some remains of the chambers, though the Nazis blew them up before they fled. Others had to endure even worse conditions than in Auschwitz I in endless wooden huts.
It was a day I will never forget. We left the site feeling numb and emotionally exhausted, but we were all very glad that we had been there to remember all of the victims of the Holocaust.
- Remember to book a reservation for an Auschwitz tour before you arrive. In peak season, visitors have to go in a tour group so you’ll need to pick a time in advance.
- Buses go to Auschwitz from the central bus station, which is attached to the train station. Go to the upper level to go on an air conditioned coach. We didn’t, and ended up in a rickety mini bus. Locals flagged it down and jumped on board at random points, and the tiny aisle was clogged with people at one stage. It was bizzare.
- Eat in the town square because you will be able to afford the fanciest restaurants. Make the most of it! Ice cream is also very cheap, so treat yourself. I got a gorgeous homemade raspberry ice cream cone for 70p from a tourist-heavy area.
- Explore the town square at night as well as in the day. It’s beautiful when it’s all lit up.
- Wawel Castle is fun to explore and you can get a free view of the city from the ramparts. There is also a legend of the Wawel dragon, and we greatly enjoyed this brilliant name for a dragon. The legend goes that the Price of Krakow slayed the dragon and built his castle on the beast’s lair. As you do.
Have you been to Krakow? If you have any questions about the city or visiting Auschwitz I’ll be happy to answer them in the comments.