Krakow: Your Guide to a Wild Weekend in the Jewel in Poland’s Crown
The most beautifully preserved city in Poland, it is no surprise that Krakow is the country’s biggest tourist draw. But what is a surprise, is party Krakow. With the highest density of bars and clubs anywhere in the world and a huge student population. Factor in the weather – hot and sunny in summer, magical and snowy in winter. Now try to come up with a good excuse for not going.
At a glance:
• In the south of Poland at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, with the mighty Wisla River running right through the city and Wolski Forest nearby
• Made up of 18 distinct districts and said to boast the world’s highest density of bars and clubs at its heart
• Site of Oskar Schindler’s Second World War factory and location for Steven Spielberg’s 1993 epic movie Schindler’s List
• The war’s most infamous concentration camp, Auschwitz, is a short distance from Krakow
• Huge student population gives the city a young, vibrant edge, alongside its unique history
• Krakow Old Town and the historic Kazimierz District are both UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Things not to miss:
Remind yourself how close Krakow is to some of Poland’s countryside. Wolski Forest is 422 hectares of tame wilderness, close to the city and fantastic to explore. There are excellent hiking trails, horse-riding, cycling and cross-country skiing in winter. Sensational views too.
Made up of 50 hectares of unspoiled meadow right in the centre of Krakow, this is the ultimate urban green space and it’s belonged to people of the city since 1366. Park Jordana borders Blonia for swimming and sports and you’ll find the city’s main football stadiums here too.
Naturally freezing in winter, Krakow adds to the chill with ice rinks all over the city, large and small. You can hire skates and there’s never any shortage of mulled wine, hot-chocolate and snacks.
This is Poland’s best known and loved winter resort with great skiing and far fewer crowds and queues than its Western European counterparts. There are regular bus services between Krakow and Zakapone so it’s possible to just go ski or snowboard for the day.
Krakow’s 18 different districts all claim to be unique and individual but, like most cities, some are more unique and individual than others. If you’re staying for months, great. Go explore all 18. Otherwise, you want the Old Town for glossed up medieval history and die-hard nightlife. Then try some of the more arty, hipster quarters – rumour has it they’re becoming trendy, so catch them while you can.
Old Town – looks sedate, plays down and dirty
If anywhere in magical Krakow could be accused of sleight of hand it’s the Old Town. All gleaming, restored and respectable on the surface, underneath it’s a seething mass of excess. This is where the fable (or not) of record-breaking bar and club concentration comes from. And with dozens of places vying with each other on price, long hours and epically attractive customers, it’s easy not to question the numbers and just go for it. Famously stag and hen night friendly, Krakow Old Town is great to explore en-masse during the day, continue through the night and then start all over again.
Kazimierz – up and coming and oozing alternative charm
Bohemian and just verging on the edge of cool and trendy, Kazamierz was one of Krakow’s ancient Jewish quarters until the invasion of Nazi Germany in 1941. Cleared of its residents and cleansed of its culture, the district didn’t really begin to recover until recently. Schindler’s List was filmed in here in 1993 and inspired a rebirth that hasn’t stopped since. This is where you’ll find the city’s avant-garde galleries and museums, alternative clubs, bars, cafés and restaurants and a big concentration of Krakow’s young, successful and edgy.
Krakow’s Best Cocktail Bars:
The tagline here is ‘everyone can feel like a celebrity’. We don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing, but we can tell you the cocktails are amazing, the decor celebrates the rarefied world of stardom and it’s very lively. Good drink deals and excellent karaoke nights.
Hard Rock Café
Hard Rock Café is worth a visit for the location alone. Right in the middle of the Old Town next to St Mary’s Church, not only can you hear the legendary bugler playing Hejnar on the hour, every hour, you can have cocktails with your culture.
Slap bang in the centre of the Old Town nightlife, this pre-club favourite is cool without being standoffish, has great music and the drinks are reasonable and interesting.
High taste level Krakow is something to behold and Pauza is a good example. One of the city’s smartest bars, it sits in a 19th century tenement house on the corner of the Market Square and simply looks gorgeous. Considered one of the cooler Old Town places for cocktails and, if you want to stay put, there’s basement clubbing for later.
Sheraton Roof Top Terrace & Lounge Bar
Eastern Europe likes swanky, luxury chain hotels and Krakow’s Sheraton fits the bill just fine. You don’t have to be a guest to sit on the roof top terrace and have cocktails overlooking the Wisla River and Wawei Castle. sheraton.pl/krakow/
Krakow’s best sports for beer:
House of Beer
Poland’s not shy when it comes to brewing, so when House of Beer offers up 200 local varieties by the bottle and 18 on draught, you know it’s going to be a good night. Very friendly, enthusiastic crowd and shows live sports on TV, but avoids being too laddish. Wisnia W Plwie (cherry in beer) is a particular speciality – if you can pronounce it.
Irish Pub Pod Papugami
If a classic Irish pub and a Cracovian cellar bar cross-bred this would be their offspring. Excellent selection of the usual favourites (Guinness and Murphy’s) plus a big range of Polish soon-to-be-favourites. Not too touristy so good for a bit of local life.
Boasts the largest sports TV in Krakow and some fine local beers pretty, which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about Polski. If you can drag yourself away from the screen, there’s a nice summer terrace overlooking the Market Square.
A combination of drinking and gaming, Cybermachina is themed on classics like Mario Bros and even has retro Nintendo for old school geeks. Laid back, cheap and some real weird tastes mixed in with the standards – vodka, dried sausage and mustard anyone?
Right in the Old Town centre and the only place in Krakow to serve the prized Dragon’s Head Beer. plus.google.com/1109189113641525433915/about?gl=uk&hl=en
Krakow’s best nightclubs:
Short walk from Market Square, this is one of the more elegant city clubs with live music and an emphasis on classic cocktails and cool customers. Worth investigating for the secret bar hidden away at the back. stalowemagnolie.com
Contemporary Krakow at its slickest, Le Scandale is a series of rooms with an interconnecting party vibe, excellent music and the best Whisky Sour in the city.
Classic Cracovian cocktail club meets wild weekend venue and shakes it up seven nights a week. Fantastic cocktails at ridiculously low prices, great show-off mixologists, guest DJs and live music on Sundays. shakers.com.pl
A Krakow legend and arguably the city’s best club, Prozac is underground in style and literally underground. A maze of rooms for drinking, DJs, dancing and just standing about looking like you just don’t care. facebook.com/ProzakDwaZero
Chic, glamorous and great in summer (there’s a fantasy secret garden) Baroque in Kazimierz mixes up clubbing, cocktails and vodka. There are over 100 Polish vodkas and Baroque has all of them, neat or on their 200 plus cocktail menu.
Food: Eat like a local:
Krakow is cold in winter and local food is obviously designed to stop you freezing to death. Heavy on carbs, high in calories and almost unbearably delicious, it’s the original and best comfort food. Try Pierogi dumplings in all their many and wonderful forms. Barszcz is fantastic savoury beetroot soup. And for snacking there’s Zapiekanka – big, open baguette smothered in cheese and mushrooms, baked and covered in tomato or garlic sauce. No chance of hypothermia here.
Rustic and a little bit kitsch, this underground restaurant serves fantastic, regional food for very little money. When the costumed staff aren’t waiting tables they do a bit of dancing to local bands, which apparently is a Polish tradition.
The news that breakfast is the most important meal of the day hasn’t reached Krakow yet. So the city still starts the morning with a cup of strong coffee and a cigarette. If you want to give this local custom a miss, Caffe Camelot is happy to step into the breach with all-day breakfast instead.
When Krakow does ‘fine dining’ it doesn’t do it by half. This city legend dates back to 1364 and has served legions of kings and also Kate Moss in its time. The staff are discreet and attentive, the décor is lusciously ornate and gorgeous and the food is superb. Expensive by Polish standards but not out of the question for a special occasion. The views of Market Square are pretty splendid too.
Sledz are pickled herrings and they’re so good with vodka that they have their own theme bars all over Krakow. The ‘Herring Embassy’ is where the Sledz Bar tradition was born and it’s one of the city’s busiest bars. The vodka is cheap and after a while you grow surprisingly fond of the fish too.
Krakow institutions to try at least once, Milk Bars are all over the city and specialise in calorific classics like golabki, nalesniki and barszcz. The food is basic and piled high and the prices are ludicrously cheap. Babcia Malina is a good place to start.
Best time to visit:
Warm in summer, Krakow is plenty sunny and has lots of green space and riverside spots where you can cool off. Winters are notoriously harsh, but pretty snow more than makes up for freezing temperatures.
Best views of the city:
Take the lift to the Academy of Music’s top floor café and you can see forever over the city’s rooftops. amuz.krakow.pl
Krakow city centre is compact, so in summer you should walk. Slippy streets make that less of a winter option, but the MPK bus and tram service goes everywhere and a 24-hour pass costs 7.50 zloty (£1.50).
Polish women don’t approach unaccompanied men and invite them to nightclubs, if this happens it’s probably part of a scam. Be polite and walk away. Avoid scuffles or fights in the street, Poland’s anti-hooliganism squads are armed with live ammunition. Brothels aren’t legal in Poland, if you go into one it’s a criminal offence.
When in Krakow…
Poland is a very devout and conservative country so dress appropriately visiting churches and remember many places won’t be open on Sundays. Carry plenty of change with you to make it easier for shop assistants.
5 Useful phrases:
Hello = czesc
Yes = tak
No = nie
Goodbye = do widzenia
Cheers! = Pozdro!
Did you know?
The Trumpet Signal played every hour from St Mary’s Church tower is abruptly cut short in memory of the original trumpeter killed mid-tune by a Tatar arrow in 1241.