Visiting Historical Krakow

I recently finished my second term at Erasmus University and realized that the way my exams fell, I had an entire week off before my classes started again. So, of course, I quickly sent a message to my friends and we decided to organize a trip to Poland. We are all history majors on exchange in the Netherlands so, naturally, we all wanted to go to Krakow medieval Old Town and see the effects of the Second World War on the city and its surrounding areas.

We left on February 2nd and flew out of Eindhoven airport, which was a first for me. It was a little more inconvenient to get to compared to Schiphol Airport but the flights were SO much cheaper so it was worth it. We flew into Krakow Airport and landed around 4pm in the evening, taking a cab to our Airbnb because the train wasn’t running from the airport. Brief tangent, but cabs are so unbelievably cheap in Poland. We were apprehensive about taking one, since it was supposed to be a 30 minute drive into the city, but it ended up being 5 euros each! For a Canadian, who basically has to sell their soul every time they want to take a cab, it was a very exciting experience. Our Airbnb was super nice, and was everything that we could’ve wanted, with a nice little kitchen and two beds for the four of us.

Our first day in Poland we decided to go to the Wieliczka Salt Mines, about 20 minutes on the train outside of the city. We really didn’t know what to expect but had heard that it was a ‘must visit’ site in Poland. We arrived and were taken down 54 flights of stairs by our tour guide to the entrance of the mine and began walking around the large caverns and hallways of the mines. It really was beautiful. The area used to be mined for rock salt so all the rooms were completely carved out of salt which, of course, meant that you could lick everything. It might sound a little gross but we all felt like it was one of those things that you just needed to do. Many of the rooms had been converted with sculptures, explaining the history of the mines and how they were discovered. The most fantastic part of the whole experience was the large chapel which was created for the miners. It was absolutely massive, with rock salt chandeliers hanging from the vaulted ceiling, religious motifs and sculptures carved out of the rock and intricate floor tilings designed out of the rock salt as well. All in all, it was a wonderful experience, but you can really only look at salt for so long before it becomes a bit repetitive. After eating lunch and doing the tour, it took us most of the day to do the mines but it was a day well spent. We went back to the apartment that evening where we planned our next day when we would be going to visit arguably the most infamous concentration camp, Auschwitz.

We knew that we wanted to visit Auschwitz while we were in Krakow because it is an extremely important part of world history and is important for people to witness the atrocities that were committed there. I’m not going to go into too much detail about what exactly occurred there but I am going to talk a little bit about the experience of visiting and the history of the camps, so if that is something that is difficult for you to hear then just skip this section. Auschwitz is just under an hour and a half drive outside of the city, purposely placed there in an attempt to keep the public oblivious to what was really happening there. We started the day by visiting Auschwitz II – Birkenau, which is the part of the camp which is known as the ‘death camp.’ You walk through the ‘gate of death’ into the camp, where you do a self-guided tour of what remains, a few barracks, monuments and the harrowing train tracks which moved millions of people into this camp. I think the most surreal part of the whole thing was the sheer size of the camp. We spent 2 hours walking around and we didn’t come close to walking the whole perimeter of the camp. You can see as many pictures as you want, but I don’t think until you’re standing there for yourself, are you able to really take in just how big it is. It was emotionally overwhelming to be there and I honestly don’t think it’s hit me yet that I actually went to Auschwitz, to such a site of horrors. We did the memorial in the opposite order from usual, so we went to Auschwitz I next. This was the original camp and has now been turned into a museum and memorial site. Each group of people that were sent to Auschwitz has a building where there is a memorial or exhibition dedicated to them, along with other buildings where there is further information about the atrocities which occurred there. We were all very glad that we went to this historic site, but it definitely wasn’t easy. It was very hard to stand and hear about everything that happened there, but like I said earlier, it’s extremely important to learn it.

We knew that we were all going to be very emotionally drained after visiting Auschwitz, so we wanted our final day in Krakow to be a little more positive, so we saved the Old Town and the Castle for the last day. We set out in the morning for the castle and, as soon as we rounded the corner into the Old Town we were not disappointed! The castle had the most fantastic walls surrounding it and was massive. We decided to start there, so we walked up to the top of the hill where the castle was and started with the Wawel Cathedral. It turns out, you were supposed to pay to go into the Cathedral but we accidentally went through it without paying. It didn’t say on the door that you needed to pay and we assumed that a church would be free to enter, and it wasn’t until the very end that we realized we were supposed to buy tickets in order to visit. Oops! The castle was run in a very interesting way because unlike most museums, you had to pay to visit each individual part of the castle and it was quite expensive. We decided to only see the estate rooms and then walk around the grounds ourselves, for free! The estate rooms were lovely but very different from what I have seen in comparison to other European palaces. There wasn’t the same type of gold detailing as the palaces in France but it was beautiful in its own way.

After visiting the castle, we walked down to the market square, stopping for lunch on the way. We ended up in a really cute little restaurant with skylights and delicious, traditional Polish food which somehow met all of our MANY dietary requirements. We ended up sitting in here for almost two hours before going back out to the square. My favourite part was all the carriage horses lined up around the square to take people out on rides. We all thought that would be a fantastic way to see the Old Town so we went on a 15-minute ride. The horses were so well looked after and happy and the driver was more than happy to chat with me about her horses and let me spend as much time as I wanted petting them.

We ended the day by visiting the Jewish Museum which was really nicely done. They had arranged it as a photography exhibit about Jewish life in Krakow, followed by a photo display about the aftermaths of the Second World War on the Jewish community in Poland. We followed this up by going to get Latkes, which are potato pancakes and were AMAZING. Yet again, we managed to find a place that met all our dietary needs and had a great final night, chatting over delicious food in the cutest little vegetarian café. We ended the trip there, since we had a very early morning flight the next day.

Krakow was absolutely fantastic and we all had a wonderful time. It is a beautiful city with so much more to do than just what we saw. I think I could easily have spent 2-3 more days there, without running out of things to do. I highly recommend visiting this historic city, especially if you’re travelling on a budget. Our Airbnb came out to €8 a night each, the food was all very reasonable and transport was unbelievably cheap, even for Europe! Travelling on a student budget isn’t always easy, but we felt like Krakow was a place where we didn’t need to constantly be worrying about how much we were spending.