Shout out to Krakow the number 1

krakow

A small survey, but it shows a consistent result:

Members of leading British consumer association Which? have chosen Kraków as Europe’s best city break destination for the third year in a row.

The Polish city finished ahead of Spanish rivals Seville in second and Valencia in third, and well ahead of traditional tourist hot spots Amsterdam and Venice (joint 5th), Barcelona (19th) and Prague (26th). Poland’s capital, Warsaw, also made the list, tying with Paris in 29th.

The almost 5,000 respondents surveyed by Which? gave Kraków top marks for the quality of its accommodation, food and drink, and cultural attractions, which include Wawel Castle, the former Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, and more recent additions such as the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Kraków also scored highly on value for money, with Which? noting that average hotel rates of £59 are less than half of those found in some western European and Scandinavian locations.

“To those holidaymakers still stuck on Amsterdam, Paris and other classic European destinations, try Poland for your next trip to find food, hotels and sightseeing that’s just as good but at half the price,” says Which? travel editor Rory Boland.

For about two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Krakow remained a bit of a poor tourist cousin to everyone’s favourite Central European destinations, Prague and Budapest. Not any more. While somewhat smaller than the other two, and not a national capital, Krakow is just as jam-packed with history, regional charm, culture, and opportunities to indulge, with the added benefit, as the article points out, of being cheaper than most places in western and northern Europe, while on par with the East’s main tourist Meccas. Even anecdotally, I find a lot more people I know now putting Krakow on their itinerary than ever before, and loving it – or so they tell me in order to avoid unpleasantness.

A few recommendations of things to do in and around:

1. Take a leisurely stroll through the Old Town. Krakow is one of the few historical cities not to have been damaged in World War Two; nothing had to be painstakingly recreated, all stones and bricks are genuine old articles. The market square is the largest in Europe. Good views from the top of the City Hall tower. Buy some nice amber jewelry at Sukiennice, the medieval cloth market. Get a pretzel from a street vendor – the famous New York pretzel is the bigger descendant, at least according to my taste buds.

2. Visit Wawel Castle, the former seat of Polish kings, and wander around the tombs of monarchs and other prominent Poles in the castle cathedral.

3. Dine at Wierzynek, the restaurant at the main square, which has been open for more than 600 years. The food’s fresh though.

4. Walk to and around Kazimierz, the old Jewish district, now with museums, restaurants and other activities centered around Polish-Jewish past and present.

5. Plenty of museums if that’s your thing, but for those more contemporarily-minded there is the Schindler Museum on the site of his famous enamel factory.

6. Take a short trip to the town of Wieliczka, just outside Krakow, and go down one of the oldest salt mines in the world, now listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site, with chambers undergound, including an entire chapel with its fixtures and decorations, carved out of salt.

7. Auschwitz/Oswiecim is a day trip, which nowadays is pretty much obligatory for all visitors to the country.

8. A bit further away are Tatry, the Polish part of the Carpathian mountain chain. If you’re used to the Alps as a gold standard of beauty you won’t be bowled over but there’s lots of charm there still, including Zakopane, the region’s capital, and the traditional goral (Polish highlander) culture. Try oszczypek, the smoked cheep cheese. I’m salivating just typing these words.

9. If you’re after some communist-era chic (that’s a contradiction in terms, I know), you can visit – briefly – the district of Nowa Huta (New Foundry or New Steel Mill), built around the steel works immediately after the war by the new government in an attempt to proletariatise an otherwise conservative city. Ironically, Nowa Huta, with its ugly but famous church “the Ark”, became a hotbed of Solidarity.

10. Pop into the Beauty Centre “Chamomile” at Librowszczyzna street, number 5, which now occupies an inner city apartment, where a very early version of The Daily Chrenk was once labouriously typed up through carbon paper for distribution among family members. There is no commemorative plaque there yet (hint hint).

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