If you follow our Instagram account, twinningtutorials, you may have seen that I’ve just got back from spending five days in Kraków. After Rachel visited Gdansk with her boyfriend earlier this year, I was eager to visit Poland myself and decided to book a trip there with my Mam. I have wanted to visit Auschwitz since I was twelve years old – weird, I know. Most young girls want to go to Disneyland, but I’ve always loved History so Auschwitz was a permanent fixture on my bucket list. Unfortunately, the run up to this trip was frantically spent writing essays and cramming in as much university work as possible, so I didn’t have time to execute a thorough Trip Advisor investigation before I went. Instead, my Mam and I ‘winged it’ and we did a pretty good job, if I do say so myself.
Where did we stay?
This trip was a pretty spur of the moment thing – neither my Mam or I had put any money aside for it so we were hoping that this was going to be a cheap city break. After searching for hotels and finding myself pretty unimpressed by the standard Holiday Inn or Ibis deals, I thought I would give Airbnb a try. If I’m honest, the whole concept of Airbnb scared me and I didn’t know how comfortable I would feel staying in someone else’s home but after hearing such great reviews from Rachel about her stay in Gdansk, I thought why not?
There were tonnes of apartments on offer but I decided that in order to make the most out of our trip, the room had to be centrally located, it had to be exclusively ours for the week (Airbnb also offers rooms in someone’s home or shared accommodation), and it had to have good reviews. It didn’t take me long to find the perfect place and after a quick phone call to my Mam, we had booked four nights stay in Kaśka and Zbyszek’s apartment. I cannot recommend this place enough. A beautifully decorated, modern apartment located on the top floor (the many, many stairs are worth the view) of a one-hundred year old building. It has a compact kitchen with all the amenities you need, a very comfortable double bed, and a private bathroom. As well as this, it was just a ten-minute walk from the Main Square and had a cash machine and convenience store just down the street. But what made this place even more special was the hosts, Kaśka and Zbyszek. They picked us up and dropped us off at the airport for a very reasonable price and even stored our luggage in their car, free of charge, so that we didn’t have to drag our cases around with us on our last day. The couple were so friendly and offered us great advice about staying in Kraków and where to visit. This was my first Airbnb experience and it is safe to say that, from now on, I will be opting for an apartment over a hotel. It is such an affordable way to stay in first class accommodation whilst experiencing the culture of Poland firsthand.
Where did we visit?
- The Main Square
If you Google ‘Kraków’, you will be inundated with several hundred images of the Main Square, situated in the Old Town. We were lucky enough to be staying just by the square so it meant that most of our mornings and evenings were spent here – soaking up the first and last rays of sunshine. It is the perfect place to sit out, sunbathe and sip on a cocktail whilst participating in my favourite sport – people watching! The architecture is beautiful and the Main Square is a must if you want the perfect holiday snaps.
Often referred to as ‘the Jewish Quarter’, Kazimierz remains the heart of Jewish culture, even after Jewish residents were forcibly uprooted and relocated by the Nazi regime, during the Second World War. Kazimierz has since regained its identity and not only hosts the annual Jewish Culture Festival but has became one of the largest tourist attractions in Kraków, thanks to Steven Spielberg’s infamous film, Schindler’s List. The historical district has a bohemian feel to it as the streets are lined with endearing cafés, discreet bars, quirky stores and unique art galleries. Kazimierz oozes history and yet, at the same time, contemporary culture. Cobbled streets are host to peeling, worn, and tired buildings that have been lined with beautiful, bright murals and politically charged statements, in the form of graffiti. This was our favourite place to visit and even though we returned to this district twice, we feel as though we did not even scratch the surface of what Kazimierz has to offer.
I am struggling to find words sufficient enough to describe my experience of visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. As I have previously mentioned, Auschwitz is somewhere that I have felt compelled to visit since I started secondary school and learnt of some of the horror that History holds. In my final year of school, I was fortunate enough to listen to the words of a concentration camp survivor and as a university student, I felt somewhat prepared for what I was about to witness. I was wrong. I would only do the museum and memorial a disservice by attempting to put my experience into words so instead, I will let my photographs of the camps do the talking.
What I will tell you is some very useful information on how to get to Auschwitz – don’t be fooled into paying crazy prices for private transfers and tours, DIY’ing it is just as easy. Head to the Galeria Krakówska shopping centre (a great place to visit if the weather isn’t treating you well) and follow the signs for the railway and coach station. Once you’ve arrived at the coach station, go to the ticket office on your right and ask for a ticket to Auschwitz (these are just single tickets, you have to buy your return once you’re on the bus) and head towards the designated coach stand. The tickets are mega cheap – for one person, a return journey to Auschwitz is just 24zł – that’s just £4.84! One key piece of advice is to get there early – the coaches are more like minibuses and even though they may only have a few seats, they will sell many more tickets and will cram everyone into these small vehicles. The journey takes approx. 1hr 40mins so if you’re without a seat, it’s pretty tough going. The coach drops you just round the back of Auschwitz and picks you up at the same spot. Another piece of advice – if you buy a return ticket on the bus there like we did, your ticket will only allow you to catch certain buses back. Many different companies use this stop and if your ticket is with one company, you won’t be able to use it to get an earlier bus home. It may be a better idea to not buy a return ticket and just buy one on the first bus home that arrives, that way you’ll be back home sooner and won’t have to wait around for your designated bus that could even be full!
Auschwitz itself is free and it is only the guided tour that will cost you. We opted to go without a tour guide and instead, I purchased a guidebook from the museum store (it was very cheap and so useful – there’s only one guide, so you can’t buy the wrong one) and I took on the role of tour guide for the day. On your way around the camps, you inevitably bump into the guided tours and although the information we overheard was extremely interesting and useful in aiding our understanding, the large groups felt contrived and very tourist-like. At times, I needed silent moments alone and by navigating our own way (with the help of the guidebook), I felt like we had a much more organic experience. A free shuttle bus takes you from Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II–Birkenau and it is imperative that you visit both. I very much got the impression that whilst the original camp, Auschwitz I, was designed for living – Auschwitz II was designed for killing. Birkenau is therefore the most chilling of the two and the atmosphere is painfully eery, to say the least.
4. Wieliczka Salt Mine
I must admit, the words ‘Salt Mine’ didn’t exactly fill me with excitement. However, after reading many reviews and listening to the recommendations of friends and family, I decided that it would be a cardinal sin to visit Kraków and skip the Salt Mines. Once again, we opted for public transport to get us there and, as hoped, it was both cheap and cheerful. It did take us a while to find the right bus stop though (this one isn’t in the coach station, much to our dismay) and I would advise exiting the mall on Pawia street, then heading left and walking up the street before taking your first right (you’ll have to cross the busy road) and there you will find the bus stop for bus number 304. Unfortunately for us, the bus driver didn’t speak English and we were left dumbfounded when he wouldn’t accept our money (the journey cost just 4zł each). Thankfully, the most lovely Polish student enlightened us and showed us the ticket machines on the bus and helped us select our ticket type (you need a Zone 2 ticket for the Salt Mines) and helped us validate it by using the punch machine on the other side of the bus. The journey takes around 30 minutes, you’ll want to exit at the Wieliczka Kopalnia Soli stop so look out for the sign! The bus gets extremely busy and I would actually recommend catching the train instead, we used this to return to Krakow and it was the same price, took less time and was a far more comfortable journey. Both the train and bus stopped just a five minute walk from the Salt Mine, you just have to head up the hill and you’re there – it’s all signposted nicely, they really couldn’t make it any easier for us Brits.
The Salt Mines were the only attraction that cost us throughout our stay in Kraków and, as it’s a guided tour that lasts for approximately three hours, it was worth every penny. I was able to get a discounted ticket with my student card and purchased the ‘photo rights’ pass for just 10zł extra. The mines are full of beautiful statues, carved by the miners, and hold enormous chapels, carved from salt alone. It was fascinating to hear about the history of Polish industry and to literally be immersed in their culture. I would thoroughly recommend visiting the Salt Mines – you only cover 1% of the vast underground mine but, after walking down 380 stairs, you will be more than glad to end your exploring there.
Where did we eat?
Now, I wish I could say that I have left the best ’til last, but unfortunately we weren’t too adventurous when it came to food. That’s purely down to a lack of research prior to the trip (I blame my university deadlines) and a bad experience on our first night. Whilst waiting to board our flight home, we got talking to a British couple who said they had eaten at the best restaurants they had ever visited whilst in Kraków and our experience is therefore in no way a reflection of Polish cuisine. We arrived rather late on our first night and decided to eat in a restaurant that had great Trip Advisor reviews, called La Grande Mamma. This restaurant is beautifully decorated, the interior is stunning and we enjoyed a lovely bottle of red whilst looking out on the Main Square. Perhaps we were just unlucky, but both of our main courses (I opted for spinach and ricotta cannelloni while my Mam chose the steak pasta) were extremely disappointing and had no taste at all.
For the rest of the trip we were a bit skeptical of Trip Advisor reviews, because this restaurant had been so highly rated yet so utterly disappointing, and therefore decided to stick to restaurants that were more familiar to us. We enjoyed two evening meals and plenty of cocktails at the Hard Rock Café in the Main Square but weren’t impressed by their breakfast (this may just be down to bad luck as Rachel loved her breakfast from the Hard Rock in Gdansk). Instead, we found a gem for breakfast called Charlotte, which was just outside of the Main Square. It served the most beautiful pastries with homemade jams and spreads, as well a lovely cappuccino for that well needed daily dose of caffine – what more could a girl want? By far our best find though, was the Augusta – a boat situated on the Vistula River in the Kazimierz district. This contemporary and stylish restaurant serves the most beautiful food and cocktails right on their sun deck, meaning you can soak in that all-important vitamin D (we were blessed with 21 degrees heat) whilst admiring the picture-perfect views. The chicken caesar salad, crostini, and margarita pizza were to die for – the ingredients were fresh but simple and we really felt like we had found a not-so-hidden gem.
If you’re wanting to go on a city break but need to do so on a budget, then Kraków is the perfect place for you. The drinks and food are so inexpensive, you really are able to live a champagne lifestyle on a lemonade budget – I’ve never drank so many cocktails in such a short space of time. The city offers you the perfect balance of history, culture, shops, restaurants, tourist attractions and scenery, meaning that you will never be left wanting more. I can’t recommend this place enough and after spending five days there, I feel as though I have only just scratched the surface of Kraków. I can’t wait to return – this time, armed with endless restaurant reviews and maybe even enough courage to try Polish cuisine. Let me know if you have found any hidden gems in Kraków and which city breaks are on your bucket list.