Wieliczka Salt Mine
A shining gem in the UNESCO World Heritage list, this eerie yet fascinating salt mine is located 14 kilometres from the city of Krakow and its rich deposits are well known for their preservative properties and their multiple health benefits. Everything here has been carved by hand by virtue of salt blocks and is of immense material and spiritual value in the country. The length of the many tunnels inside the mine amount to some 300 kilometres and there are as many as 22 chambers. Then there are salt chapels, statues, monuments and even underground lakes for that matter. Heck, even the chandeliers are made of pure salt. There’s also a reception room for private weddings. Yes! There’s the Eram Baracz Chamber with an elaborate salt lake, the Stanislaw Staszic Chamber with a panoramic lift and the beautiful Chapel of St. Kinga. There’s also the Krakow Saltworks Museum to be seen during the 2 hour tour during which you are expected to walk around 2 kilometres and be entirely covered in salt towards the end. Tickets for the mine come for 49PLN inclusive of everything and English language tours depart every 30 minutes between 8:30am to 6pm during July and August. During the rest of the year, there are six to eight daily English tours.It is advisable to buy your tickets online (and a lot in advance) from their official website: http://www.wieliczka-saltmine.com/ Minibuses to the salt mine originate from the Krakow Glowny train station between 6am till 8pm and a single ride costs around 3PLN. You could even take the suburban public bus but the ride is longer. You could however take this bus 304 on your way back to Krakow.
Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau
Famous as one of the most notorious concentration camps and gravest place of mass murder, Auschwitz and Birkenau emanates an eerie calm which sends down shivers in the tourist’s body. At its peak the whole complex of the Auschwitz death camp was a deadly prison to some 150,000 inmates that were being either murdered outright or starved and worked to death. If you have read Mien Kampf and wish to dig deeper into the Nazi psyche, Auschwitz and Birkenau is a must visit historic site.
Wawel Royal Castle
The Wawel Royal Castle, perched magnificently on the stunning Wawel Hill is undoubtedly one of the most culturally and historically significant structures in Poland. It is most importantly an emblem of Polish identity. This 16th Century palace has been home to a line of Kings and Queens who kept beautifying it and has also seen troubled times in the form of vandalism and occupation by enemy troops. It was only entirely restored after the Second World War and is now an elaborate museum where one can see the splendid Halls of Deputies and Senators as a section of the State Rooms. Then there are the Royal Apartments and the Treasuries apart from other exhibitions. All of the interiors are spectacular and are brilliant examples of the Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic style of architecture. There are five permanent exhibitions to be seen at the Wawel Castle and there is a different ticket for each one of them: State Rooms: 18PLN from April to October and 16PLN from December to March. Royal Private Apartments: 25PLN from April to October and 21PLN from December to March. Crown Treasury and Armoury: 18PLN from April to October and 16PLN from December to March. Exhibition The Lost Wawel: 10PLN from April to October and 8PLN from December to March. Exhibition Oriental Art: 8PLN from April to October and 7PLN from December to March. The State Rooms, Royal Private Apartments and Exhibition Oriental Art are open from 9:30am to 5pm from Tuesdays till Fridays and 10am to 5pm during the weekends. They are closed on Mondays. The Crown Treasury and Armoury and Exhibition The Lost Wawel are open from 9:30am to 5pm from Tuesdays till Fridays, 10am to 5pm during the weekends and 9:30 am till 1pm on Mondays. It is advisable to book your tickets by calling the reservations office in advance or you could buy them at the visitors centre. Arrive as early as you can and avoid weekends. For more information about the office, the winter timings and the updates for the month of November, visit their official website: https://www.wawel.krakow.pl/en
Krakow-Auschwitz At Auschwitz concentration camps, the atrocities against deported Jews changed the definition of human monstrosity forever. Millions of Jews were gassed to death. The railway tracks, barbed wires, personal belongings of the victims(there's fabric made of human hair!) all narrate horrifying tales of Nazi cruelty. In Krakow, synagogues were destroyed, Jews rounded up. But one man rekindled faith in humanity - Oskar Schindler. He saved nearly 1,200 Jews by providing them employment in his factory (remember, Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List?)
St. Mary's Basilica
The Church Of The Assumption Of Our Lady or St. Mary’s Basilica is an 80 metre tall brick church standing tall and pretty adjacent to the Rynek Glowny. The crimson façade is essentially composed of two asymmetrical towers one of which is a watch tower and the other a bell tower. While the 13th Century Tartar raids left it in ruins, it was rebuilt in Gothic style to look like the iconic structure that it is today. The southeast entrance is open for tourists and it is illuminated courtesy of breath-taking stained glass windows. The blue starred ceiling of the nave and the intricately carved wooden altarpiece are the most striking aspects of the interior. Designed by Veit Stoss, the beautiful altarpiece represents the assumption of the Virgin surrounded by the Apostles and is an extremely important piece of medieval art. 13 metres high and 11 metres wide, it is also the largest. Tourists are expected to pay 6PLN for the side entrance and 5PLN for ascending the tower for arresting views of Krakow. The church is open from 11:30am to 6pm Mondays through Saturdays and on Sundays, it is open from 2pm till 6pm. The timings for the watch tower with its gilded ball and stunning spire may differ.
Krakow’s Central Square, replete with its grandeur and charm is undoubtedly one of the most stunning plazas around the world. This 13th century marvel is perpetually bustling with activity and occupies a massive area of some 10 acres. It therefore happens to be the largest square out of all medieval cities in Europe. The layout was intriguingly based on a Roman Military Camp. If Krakow was a human body, Rynek Glowny would be the blood running through its veins; both are ultimately incomplete without each other. The rectangular square is surrounded by churches and town houses and the most prominent of them all are the Town Hall Tower, St Mary’s Basilica and the Krakow Cloth Hall. They rise like giants and account for the most conspicuous structures around the plaza. The pubs, restaurants and cafes are so large in number that it is almost impossible to keep track. Rynek Glowny is also a playground for buskers right from musicians to dancers to rather amusing magicians. And they sure keep you entertained with all the talent they possess. If nothing, hop on to a horse carriage and allow yourself to feel like a member of the royalty!
Kazimierz, an important historical district of Krakow, located south of the Old Town, was once independent and had a mixed population of Christians and Jews. It was founded by Kazimierz III Wielki in 1335 and saw massive development with the passage of time and some of its iconic synagogues, churches and museums can still be seen today. It also unfortunately witnessed its share of destruction in the form of plagues, floods and fires. During the outbreak of the Second World War, it transformed into a predominantly Jewish district with the quintessential atmosphere of one. While most members of the community were gruesomely murdered during the Holocaust, some 6000 survived and presently, the existence of kosher restaurants and klezmer music in the Jewish Quarter helps in bringing out the essence of its population despite the fact that Kazimierz is basically a run-down area. It must be mentioned that Steven Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s Factory’, although shot mostly in the nearby Podgorze suburb, greatly prevented Kazimierz from turning into a forgotten district. Make sure you see the Galicia Jewish Museum, the Remuh Synagogue and Cemetery, the Ethnographic Museum, and the Old and High Synagogues. Also hop over to Podgorze and visit the (in) famous factory. Kazimierz is a 2 kilometre walk from the Old Town Square. Trust your feet.
Perhaps the most important national haven in Poland, the Wawel Cathedral has witnessed the coronation of a line of Polish monarchs and has also been the cradle of their tombs. This gothic, Roman Catholics church houses artefacts of absolute historical and cultural significance. With its silver coffins and crypts, murals and stained glass windows, the Wawel Cathedral is fascinating. The most mesmerizing of them all are the animal bones on the iron doors that are believed to have magical powers. Additionally the Sigismund Chapel on the inside is supposed to be the most beautiful Renaissance Chapel north of the Alps. For those interested, there is also a Wawel Cathedral Museum. Before exiting Wawel Hill, make sure you also visit the Dragon’s Den (a cave that is some 130 steps below) and the Thieves’ Tower for rather hackneyed tales of Wawel’s fabled dragon and brilliant views over the Vistula River. Shelling out 12PLN grants you entry into the Wawel Cathedral along with the tombs and the Sigismund Bell Tower with its 11 tonne bell. You could rent English audio guides for 7PLN if in case you are looking for a detailed tour. It is open from 9am to 5pm, Monday through Saturday. On Sundays, it opens at 9:30am. You would have to pay an additional 3PLN for the Dragon’s Den. Tickets for the Cathedral are available from opposite the main gate and for the Dragon’s Den, a coin-operated machine is located right outside the entrance of the cave.
Tatra National Park
It's a little difficult to plan a route because there are so many marked hiking trails in this park. We decided on a 16.8 km (10.5 mile) hike with an elevation gain of about 700 metres (2,300 feet). This is a route that took us to three small lakes high up in the mountains, to a place called Rohacske Plesa. But first, we had to take the local bus about 9 kms (5.5 miles) from the town of Zuberec to a little village called Zverovka. We left our place at about 9:00am, and paid €0.80 ($1.00) each for the one way bus ride. When we turned onto the blue part of the trail, it became much steeper. This trail was very rocky. It opened up onto a small picnic area, where we came across a strange site! This woman is wearing a different hiking outfit! And she was hiking...up the same trail we were. Never checked to see if she had hiking boots on! This is about the half way point. There are three small lakes up here. There is another trail that leads along the top ridge of the mountain in the background. And then there was a gradual paved yellow trail that led us back to the bus stop. We did 16.8 kms (10.5 miles) in six hours. Didn't stop very often, so it was a good workout. We got back to the flat, and the landlady came and knocked on our door. Keep in mind that she speaks no English, and we don't speak enough Slovak to be of any use either! Turns out she needed our passports for the invoicing. No problem, she disappeared for a while and then came back with a bottle of something. She grabs a couple of glasses off the shelf and talking away in Slovak, prepares us each a drink. One thing we noticed on our hike today is that there are a lot of wild blueberries. I tried some and found them not sweet enough for my liking, but Ruth thought they were okay. Well it turns out that they are used to make a popular homemade type of blueberry liqueur, and that's what this lady poured us. And there were still blueberries in it. Enough that you had to eat them with a spoon! And these blueberries tasted like they were full of rocket fuel! Heavy duty stuff! Obviously some kind of Slovak specialty.
I was walking through Błonia Park, which is right next to the Cracovia Stadium. It just so happened that a match was about to start, and the crowds were NUTS. It turns out, this wasn’t just any match, it was against Wisła Kraków. When they play, it’s known as the Holy War, and riots and stabbings after the match are apparently pretty common. I went down to the park, just wanting to check it out after having a late lunch, and I realized that something was going on after I saw all the police. These are all police vans, and there were tons of cops, loaded down with riot gear, just waiting for the inevitable.
The Cloth Hall
Krakow’s Cloth Hall was a shopping mall way before the idea of malls even existed. This Renaissance structure, dominating most of Rynek Glowny, is one of the most conspicuous places in Krakow and is loved by both locals and tourists. While today, the many shops on the ground floor majorly sell souvenirs and crafts, this place used to be a hub of textile trade in the 14th century and the 15th century saw the flush of exotic imports. The level upstairs is dedicated to a rich exhibition on 19th Century Polish art. Walk around the arcade and you can then enter the Rynek Underground through its northern end. The Underground is a permanent exhibition and a treasure chest of information about Krakow’s history. There are tools, coins, clay figures and medallions from the medieval ages and documentary films and holograms enrich the experience of peeking into the past. You have to pay 13PLN to get into the Rynek Underground and it is open from 10am till 8pm from Wednesday to Monday. On Tuesdays, it is open till 4pm.
Fabryka Emalia Oskara Schindlera
Located in the working class suburb of Podgorze where the Nazis took some 15,000 Jews to concentration camps during the Second World War, Schindler's Factory or Fabryka Emalia Oskara Schindlera is now an elaborate museum and is a part of what used to be an enamel factory owned by a certain Oskar Schindler. You might know of him from the book ‘Schindler’s List’ by Thomas Keneally and its successful movie adaptation of the same name. The exhibits here recount the heart-wrenching story of the city, especially that of the Jewish community from 1939 to 1945. Photos, documents and audio-visuals help in illustrating what living in Krakow during WW2 was like. The most prominent of all the displays ranging from tram carriages to ghetto apartments is that of the fate of Oskar Schindler and his workforce. Irrespective of whether or not history interests you, a visit is imperative. The museum is located at 4 Lipowa Street and is around 3 kilometres from Krakow's Old Town. You can hop on to any tram from Starowislna and get down at Plac Bohaterow Getta. Walk along Kącik and turn left for the museum. Schindler’s Factory is open from 10am to 6pm from Tuesdays till Sundays and the ticket comes for 15PLN. On Mondays, the entry is free and it is open from 10am to 2pm.
Kasprowy Wierch Cable Car
First day here, I hiked up to Kasprowy Wierch, in the West Tatras. For the first bit of the hike it was fairly clear, but once I got a bit higher, where the view should’ve gotten better, the fog/clouds got really thick. The top of Kasprowy Wierch is on the ridge line that defines the border between Poland and Slovakia, and here’s the glorious view of Slovakia that I got at the top!
Fabryka Schindlera. Oddział Muzeum Historycznego Miasta Krakowa
I went to the museum that’s housed in the Schindler Factory. It has some great info and stories about what was going on in Poland, and specifically Krakow, during WWII. If you come to Krakow and Auschwitz isn’t enough for you, check out this museum…lots of interesting stories…but don’t expect to be very energetic when you leave.