Last weekend we made a quick trip to Krakow, Poland. By “quick,” I mean with several detours!
So, my first piece of advice if you are thinking about driving up is to check the route carefully. Don’t depend on GPS. While ours did function in Poland, it seemed pretty confused! But, the main problem was in Austria. There is a big piece of highway missing between Vienna and the Czech border, which means a lengthy detour on local roads. Once we got into the Czech Republic, the roads were great. Then, soon after crossing the Polish border, we got diverted again, and the roads were not all in good shape. I would say the trip took at least an hour longer than Google Maps had predicted.
On the way back, we headed due south at Brno toward Bratislava, then jogged over to the main highway on local Austrian roads. This worked much better: though we couldn’t do highway speeds, the roads were smooth, there were no traffic lights, and the scenery was beautiful. So, I’d recommend that route rather than going straight north. And, invest in a map!
Anyway, we stayed two nights in Krakow at the lovely Hotel Senacki. It is not the cheapest place, but very comfortable with a good breakfast (included) and right in the middle of the old town. And, there was a fully-functional air conditioner in the room. Parking is not available at the hotel, but there is a discount at a Radisson parking lot about three blocks away. Once you leave your car, you won’t need it again. The tourist areas are very walkable.
Krakow is really cool. It reminds me very much of Prague before it got all fixed up. Beautifully renovated buildings are interspersed with shabby older ones. Because of the tourist economy there is also lot of good food and drink around. In fact, it’s a bit of a party town, like Prague, with some groups of Brits and Germans who were clearly there for the cheap beer. But this is not too out of control (yet). Cracovians are also very friendly.
In general, while we were not actually seeking out kids’ activities, since ours are grown, I’d say it’s a destination more for adults and older kids than for small children. While there is plenty of park space, I did not see one playground the entire time I was there, for example. In fact, I didn’t see very many kids at all! Only a few streets are pedestrian-only, and even those have a lot of horses and bikes on them. The market square would be a good place to hang out with kids, but that would depend on the weather, of course! And even then they’d have to be content with ice cream and people-watching. There was no entertainment specifically for kids that I saw.
Wawel Castle has a large open plaza and a cafe serving sandwiches, hot dogs and ice cream in the middle, but the rest of it is not stroller-friendly at all. There are lots and lots of stairs and things that can’t be touched. In fact, children under 14 are banned on some tours–which is just as well, because they’d be very bored on them! (Check with the castle staff ahead of time as to which tours allow children and which do not.) Also, most exhibits have timed entry, which could be a problem if your rugrats need to eat, sleep, poop, scream, or whatever at the wrong moment.
That said, older kids–maybe 6 and up–might like the castle a lot. There is a big tower to climb up (no elevator), probably the most interesting exhibit of medieval armor and weaponry I have ever seen (no, really, this is very cool!), an underground part where you can see the original foundations of the castle, and a tiny, spooky spiral staircase that leads from the castle down to a rather damp and nasty “grotto” called the Dragon’s Den.
For adults, I’d recommend the tour of the state rooms and especially the guided tour of the private apartments. We had a very knowledgeable and entertaining guide who told us lots of fun facts about Polish history and the castle. I usually avoid guided tours because they can be tedious, but this one was really interesting.
Allow most of a day for the castle and the adjoining Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus.
The 13th century market square is lots of fun. We just happened to be there on what was probably the nicest day of the year, and there was so much going on! There are cafes all around, food and drink vendors in the square, and also lots of stalls selling not only the standard tourist goods, but flowers, and some pretty nice crafts at good prices. Street musicians and performers of various kinds provide entertainment. Inside the Draper’s Hall, there are yet more souvenir stalls, and a city museum which we were not able to visit because the tickets are also timed entry (this seems to be a thing in Krakow). Maybe next time.
We had two excellent dinners on Grodska street in the old town. Pod Aniolami is a very traditional places with lots of hearty meat dishes. The staff is very proud of their “traditional homemade lard.” I was not a big fan of the lard, but everything else was very good. Miod Malina is more upscale, and serves both Polish and Italian food. We ordered salads and a big plate of assorted pierogies to share and left stuffed and happy. Definitely make a reservation well in advance at Miod Malina. It is very popular and was jammed by 7:30 p.m.
The last morning, before driving back to Vienna, we visited Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter. This was really interesting. Krakow’s Jewish population was basically wiped out by the Nazis, but the diaspora–primarily American–have poured resources into preserving the history of the place. There is a Jewish museum in the Old Synagogue, another medieval (still active) synagogue with a partially restored cemetery, and a nice square with restaurants serving Jewish food. Kazimierz is also home to a Jewish cultural center and an international Jewish festival. It is clearly an important part of Krakow’s history. Check out jewishkrakow.net for more information about Kazimierz.
This area is stroller-friendly, although probably not very interesting for young children. Older children may get something out of the visit, though, if you are prepared to explain the Holocaust to them and they are prepared to be properly respectful in the synagogues and cemetery. The Holocaust is not the entire focus of the area, but of course it is a large part of it, with plaques and memorials everywhere, and Nazi destruction still clearly in evidence. The presentation is very forthright (and entirely in both Polish and English, which is helpful). After the relative silence of the Austrians on this subject, we thought this was very interesting.
Note that the synagogues are conservative. Women must cover shoulders and legs (my capri pants were apparently OK, though) and men must wear yarmulkes. Definitely do go inside, though, they are very different from Baroque churches!
We finished up with a lovely lunch at Klezmer Hois, a Jewish hotel and restaurant on the square, very happy that we made it to Kazimierz before leaving town. My only regret is that we didn’t schedule a longer visit, because there is more that I would like to see!