Visiting Krakow: Krakow’s Old Town and Its Horrible History

This week, the boy and I ran away to Krakow. Because if we must accept that winter is coming, we should probably do it in a city where the chills down your neck are as likely to be from a ghost as from the weather and where you can warm up of an evening in a cafe that sells vodka instead of tea.

Krakow is a big, gorgeous mess of a city with old and new elements vying for position in its streets, Italian Renaissance facades sitting side by side with stark Communist architecture, neon signs plastered on the front of grand, crumbling mansions, all framed by the most beautiful Autumn I’ve ever seen. Seriously, visit Krakow in Autumn. I’ve never seen colours like it.

krakow city centre autumn

I could have spent my entire holiday sat here watching the leaves fall like snow.

Things To See In Krakow

We decided to sink our teeth into the city straight away and joined a walking tour of the Old Town with Free Walking Tour. I’m going to rave a lot about these guys, I promise they’re not paying me. Their tours were just really awesome. We were shown around the city by Damian, who was quirky, entertaining and ridiculously knowledgeable about Krakow’s turbulent history.

We started in the main Market Square, which is dominated by an enormous indoor market building and the beautiful St Mary’s Basilica.

st marys basilica krakow

Every hour, on the hour, a trumpet player appears at the top of the tower and plays an unfinished melody. No one knows why the melody is unfinished, although there is a flagrantly untrue legend that the trumpet player was shot by a Mongolian archer while warning the city of an oncoming invasion. I really don’t know how Poland got a reputation for being stern and serious, they’re the most whimsical bunch I’ve ever encountered and I love it.

The tour continued through the streets of the Old Town, with a quick stop at Jagiellonian University to see the twisted chimney where the devil escaped from Dr Faust.

krakow jagiellonian university

We wound down at the beautiful Wawel Castle where we marvelled at the beautiful, chaotic cathedral and heard tales of a dragon slaying shepherd boy and a runaway king. One of these stories is a legend. The other actually happened, because Poland is the greatest.

krakow wawel castle

Wawel Castle was also the site of one of the most gorgeous sunsets I’ve ever seen, although it didn’t happen on the first night. It happened on our last night and I literally ran across the city to see it when I saw the colour of the sky starting to change.

krakow wawel castle sunset

During the tour, Damian stuck in a little plug for a tour that his colleague Jacek was giving that night: the macabre tour. The macabre tour took place after the sun had set, giving the streets we’d wandered during the day an undeniably sinister turn, and covered the more gruesome elements of the city’s history. We learned of the sickness that swept Krakow, creating real life vampires who subsisted on bloodied meat and couldn’t go out in sunlight for fear of their delicate skin. The skeletons of these vampires were found bound in their graves, often beheaded, sometimes with the fateful stake driven through their chests. We learned about mysterious serial killers who stalked the dark streets. We learned about the ghosts of tragic women who haunt the city squares. We learned about the life of the hangman and the cruel and unusual punishments meted out by a deeply religious society. I was put in an iron collar outside the church for being a woman of sin.

krakow st mary basillica

I’m a bit of a creepy chick. I like true crime. I like ghost stories. I once tried to take Niall on a date to a pathology museum. This tour was right up my street. Jacek was funny and frightening by turn and yeah, okay, he might have been a little bit handsome. Shut up, that has nothing to do with my positive review.

Having thoroughly explored the Old Town, we spent our next free day wandering the Jewish Quarter. The quarter is lovely, full of winding streets and cafes bursting with cushions and candles. Every house looks like it could potentially be the set of the Disney Haunted Manor ride.

krakow jewish quarter

It’s quirky and kitschy and a photographer’s absolute dream.

Where to Eat and Drink In Krakow

When I’m on holiday, I generally commit to eating and drinking myself into an early grave and Krakow was no exception. We found some brilliant little places to escape the cold and warm up with a plate of dumplings, a hot chocolate or a cheeky little shot of vodka.

Cafe Botanica

This little place is directly off the main market square and it’s brilliant. We ended up there for lunch by accident, having gotten lost in the lanes surrounding the square and liked it so much that we went back for dinner the next night. It’s a funny little nook, covered in leaves and wood panelling, with a stunning mezzanine level in the back that gives the feeling of sitting outside, without the wintry temperatures.

eat & drink krakow

They also served me the best hot chocolate I’ve ever drunk, not a word of a lie. Hot chocolate in Europe seems to be quite a different creature to our hot, milky cocoa. It’s thick and creamy and almost unbearably rich. I had mine with French vanilla but there were about 10 different options, at varying levels of booziness.

eat & drink krakow

And speaking of drunk, this is the size of their wine glasses, presented without comment.

eat and drink krakow

Cafe Mlynek

This was a little B&B that we stumbled upon in the Jewish Quarter and I absolutely loved it. Seriously, I’m so booking out a room for like six months and writing my novel here.

eat and drink jewish quarter krakow

We only stopped in for tea on our last day but a German couple across from us ordered two massive breakfasts and made us both insanely jealous. The food was traditional Polish fare, with a bit of a healthy twist. Or semi-healthy. Everything appeared to be covered in cheese. Two very enthusiastic thumbs up.

Marchewka z Groszkiem

Sweet Jesus, don’t ask me to pronounce this. I like to think that the Polish people in these restaurants were charmed by our hapless mangling of their language. This was another cafe in the Jewish Quarter that we went to for lunch. It was adorably chintzy and delivered on my touristy expectations of an authentic Polish cafe: little fringed lamps, embroidered tablecloths, gigantic portions of hearty food.

eat & drink jewish quarter krakow

Niall thinks I’m an eejit.

Studio Qulinarne

Another Jewish Quarter find, we booked this place after reading about it in the Guardian because apparently we’re middle class now. Niall was horrified at how fancy it was, but that really just means anywhere with candles and tablecloths. They let us in with me in a band tshirt and Niall in his Converse so make of that what you will. The food was delicious and the atmosphere was beautiful, with draping fabric chandeliers casting soft light and a pianist providing gentle background music. I was ludicrously happy here. It was the priciest place that we had dinner but the entire meal still only came to about £50, so I’m certainly not complaining.

eating in krakow jewish quarter

Wodka Cafe Bar

This place was so awesome, I’m gutted that we didn’t get to spend a whole evening here.

vodka bar krakow poland

Located just a hop (or a stumble) away from the Market Square, this bar boasts over 100 different types of vodka. And coffee, if you’re into that sort of thing. We were not. When I asked to see the menu, the bartender laughed and gestured at the vast shelves behind him. As our tourguides on the first day had suggested, I requested that the bartender choose for me. Apparently, he’s an expert on matching people to vodkas. My kind of expert. I’m a raspberry.

vodka bar krakow poland

The vodka is served straight from the freezer in iced glasses. The bartender’s horror when I asked whether you shot the drink or sip it came as a great relief – the standard measure in Poland is 50ml. Once we’d polished off our raspberry vodkas, we decided to order a couple of pineapples. It was the special of the day, after all. The vodkas were dangerously delicious, smooth and sweet enough to be sipped straight. I felt like I should be conspiring something. The bar also offers a tasting board from six to twenty three different kinds of vodka and liqueur and if I didn’t have a flight to catch that day, you can bet that I’d have been sipping my way through one of those all evening.

Krakow is a truly wonderful place, filled with beauty and chaos and magic. I’m already missing those golden leaves and crooked alleyways and daydreaming about returning to its crumbling beauty to live as a starving artist, subsiding solely on inspiration and vodka.

Up next: our Krakow day trips!