City guide: Krakow
Krakow is a cheap destination from many European cities, has a beautiful old city centre, a long and interesting history and many a tourist attractions in the area. We recommend Krakow to everybody who is looking for a great city trip. Comtourist have visited Krakow multiple times so we have some good tips for a city trip to this beautiful Polish city.
Many low budget airlines fly to Krakow at low cost from most European countries. It takes around 30 minutes to get in the city centre from the Airport. A train service brings passengers to the railways station in the city centre and a shuttle service stops in the centre and terminates at the bus station near the railway station. There is a fast railway service from Warsaw that takes 2.5 hour and is a comfortable way of travelling. We also drove to Krakow one time, which is doable but Krakow is located deep inside Poland and roads are often in bad condition or under construction.
Communist era hotels in Krakow
Readers who regularly read articles on Comtourist know that we have a preference for Hotels that date from the communist era. Big concrete structures, 1970s Eastern Bloc interiors, rude staff, dodgy breakfast and huge empty public spaces; we love it all. The biggest enemy of the ultimate communist hotel experience is renovation. Luxurious hotels build to represent everything good that Socialism had to offer are turned into boring, IKEA decorated, one in a million hotels that can be found all around the world. Krakow fortunately has a great hotel that has not yet been degraded yet by the seemingly unavoidable renovation terror. The Orbis Cracovia is a prime example of early 1970s communist architecture with a interior best described as communist chique. We can only hope that Orbis will keep the hotel in its current style for the years to come. An alternative hotel for the budget traveller is Hotel Start build in the early 1980s to house nurses working in Krakow. Start is situated a bid further from the centre but is still within half an hour walking from the centre and has a tram stop in front of it. On of the all time great communist hotels was actually build in Krakow bus was closed down in 1992, read more about Hotel Forum below!
Krakow boasts some interesting museums that add to the all-round attraction of this old Polish town. The Polish Aviation museum is a must see for every aviation and military enthusiast when visiting Krakow. It has the largest collection Soviet and Eastern Bloc aircraft we have seen besides the Russian Air force museum in Monino. Go to our page about the Polish Aviation Museum to find out what aircraft are on display and how to get to the museum. Another interesting museum is based in Oskar Schindler’s Factory. On display are the old factory, Schindler’s office and an exposition about life in Krakow during the Nazi occupation from 1939 to 1945. There are many more art and history museums in Krakow like the Polish National Museum, the Museum at the Royal Castle at Wawel hill, the Czartoryskis Museum, the Krakow Historical Museum and much more. Comtourist did not visit those museums but they are generally highly regarded.
Communist era architecture in Krakow
Krakow was not bombed or fought over during World War II and survived the war relatively unscaved. This is the reason that it has such a beautiful old city centre and is a great place to visit. The down site is that the communists did not have the opportunity to unleash their usual city planning and fill the city with familiar 1950s Neo Classical, 1970s Avant garde and 1980s Orwellian styles of architecture. Many buildings that actually look like communist architecture date from the late 1930s and were influenced by Social Realism. Some buildings that do stand out are the Cracovia Hotel from 1969 (mentioned above), Jubilat Department Store, and Kino Centrum. The highlight of 1980s communist architecture in Krakow however is the giant Forum Hotel on the Wisla River bank (see more below). Those interested in Communist era architecture should not be putt of by the marginal amount of interesting buildings available in Krakow, since Nowa Huta; a communist model town commissioned by Stalin himself is a tram ride of only 20 minutes away from the Krakow city centre!
From the Wawel Castle viewing point a gigantic concrete structure covered by an enormous billboard can be seen casting its shadow over the Wisla River. This building is the Forum Hotel that was constructed between 1978 and 1988 and saw its official opening in 1989. Forum had 278 rooms, two restaurants, two bars, a swimming pool, tennis courts, mini golf, shops and many other facilities to serve its guests. The Polish State Travel company Orbis sold the Forum Hotel to the Accor group in 2001. Accor closed the hotel less then two years later stating that there were structural defects to the building caused by river water damaging the foundation of the building. Local building control inspectors later found that the building was actually not structurally damaged. The building is now owned by the Wawel-Imos group and is used as billboard and also for paintball games.
City guide: Nowa Huta
Nowa Huta was Stalin’s answer to the Marshall help given to Western Europe by the Americans from 1948. A communist model city and the biggest steel works in the world were built near Krakow. The Soviets hated the city of Krakow that has been the religious and intellectual centre of Poland for ages. Nowa Huta was meant to be a city of workers showing bourgeois Krakow how to be good socialist citizens. Nowa Huta never delivered for the communists, on the contrary, the workers of Nowa Huta fought an on-going battle for a church and were among the first to join the Solidarity movement in the 1980s. Nowa Huta is a prime example of Socialist Realist architecture, with beautifully laid out streets, housing blocks and parks. The heart of the city is Plac Centraly where a Lenin statue once stood. Visitors can have lunch in one of the last communist era Milk Bars and have a beer in a café that has not changes since the 1980’s. Many walking tours are available (sold in a small museum) and tourist organizations organize tours complete with a dinner, Trabant car and a visit to a communist era house. Read more about a visit to Nowa Huta and see the photos we shot there.
The Old town
The beautiful old town is the main reason why millions of tourist visit Krakow each year. The Old Town named Stare Miasto in Polish is a maze of streets that all lead to the Main Market Square (Rynek Glowny). Many important buildings are situated on this square including the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice), the old Town Hall Tower and St. Mary’s Basilica; the church where John Paul II was the Bishop before he became pope. Many restaurants, bars and clubs are situated in the streets that lead to the Main Market Square, Krakow is a student town so the night life is always buzzing. Other highlights in the Old Town are Wawel Castle, the Barbican and the Church of St. Anne. The Jews of Krakow lived in the Kazimierz district until World War II when they were moved to the ghetto and later the death camps, Only an old wall reminds of the Krakow ghetto nowadays.
Krakow is an ideal city for a long weekend but also has enough to offer for a week trip or more. Krakow has a fast train connection with Warsaw so combing it with the Polish capital is a good option. Another option is to go in the winter when Krakow looks stunning in the snow and combine it with Zakopane a popular ski resorts two hours by bus. There are also some day trips, most notable to the Wieliczka Salt Mine and Auschwitz concentration camp. The Wieliczka Salt Mine is from the 13th century and has many statues and a whole chapel carved out by salt miners. Auschwitz is an hour away from Krakow and can be reached by train, taxi or with organized tours. Visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau is a very emotional experience that has a huge impact on anybody. Seeing the horrors of a death camp is not everybody’s idea of a holiday but it is important that people are reminded of what happened there!
Short history of Krakow
People already lived in the area of Krakow during the Stone Age, three Mounds including Wanda’s Mound where a queen is buried date back to the 8th century. A thriving trade post on Wawel Hill was reported as early as the 10th century. In 1038 Krakow became the Polish capital which it remained to be until 1596 when Warsaw became the capital. The University of Krakow was founded in 1364 by Casimir III making Krakow the most important academic centre in Poland. Krakow flourished in the following period with its peak during the Polish Golden Age between the 15th and 16th century.
Poland halted to exist a state twice during the 17th and 18th century being partitioned between Russia, Austria and Prussia. Many artists, politicians and other prominent Poles moved to Krakow in this period making Krakow a national symbol and a centre of culture and art. World War I ended the occupation of Krakow by the Austrians. The Nazis moved Krakow’s Jews in the ghetto and later killed them in the concentrations camps Auschwitz and Plaszow. The communists saw the academics and intellectuals of Krakow as enemies of the state and transformed Krakow from a university city to an industrial centre by constructing Nowa Huta with the largest steel works in the world. In 1978 Karol Wojtyla, cardinal archbishop of Krakow was elected pope and became John Paul II. The Polish pope would support the fight for religious freedom in Krakow until the end of communism in 1989. Krakow is still a major economic centre in 21th century Poland and attracts more then 8 million tourist every year.