One of the joys of traveling is discovering places you previously didn’t know much about and then feeling the need to shout your love from the rooftops. That is how I feel about Poland. During my slightly manic pre-trip research period I kept coming across blogs and Reddit posts singing the praises of Poland, and of Krakow in particular, so I added it to our shortlist of European cities. I didn't really know what we’d do there - our outline just had the word “Krakow” with a bunch of question marks under it, but something compelled me to include it, and I’m so glad I did. I cannot say enough good things about this country, but I hope these next couple posts might inspire you to visit someday. Poland is an amazing destination: it is easy to get in from elsewhere in Europe, easy to get around once you’re here, extremely budget-friendly, and full of welcoming people and some of the most delicious food I've ever eaten. It’s also pretty easy to get around speaking only English, although learning a few Polish phrases is fun (yes really!) and the locals really appreciate the effort.
As we fleshed out our itinerary, we decided Poland would be a good place to stop in between Prague and Budapest, and managed to get a bus to Krakow for under $15 per person. The company we used, PolskiBus, operates a massive network of buses within Poland and to/from a few nearby countries, and compared to some other major carriers (like our bus ride from hell in our last post) it was downright pleasant. We were able to choose our seats which was a huge perk, and we wound up nabbing the upper-deck front row seats which gave us amazing views the whole ride in. The a/c is typically fine by European standards and and most buses have actual, functioning wifi. We liked PolskiBus so much we wound up using them again for our night bus to Budapest. Note: I’m planning to write up a survival guide to bus travel within Europe, which will have more details of our many bus rides and tips on how and when to book, so stay tuned for that in the coming weeks.
So yeah. Less than $15 each for an eight-hour bus through the Czech/Polish countryside with zero hiccups? Sign me up. As soon as I got onboard, I booted up my Kindle and cracked open the Lonely Planet guide to Poland with the goal of figuring out just what the hell we were gonna do for four nights and five days in a city I knew zero about. As I read on, one thing became clear to me: the magic of Krakow, it would seem, doesn’t lie in any one particular activity or tourist hotspot. No, the best thing to do in Krakow is just walk around and soak everything in. Oh, and eat everything you possibly can. By the time I finished reading the Krakow guide, I was positively salivating thinking about all the incredible food in my future.
And luckily for my stomach (not so much my bikini bod), the guidebook was right. From start to finish, our time in Krakow was a culinary adventure of epic proportions. We’ve been to a lot of cities with interesting local/regional cuisines, but usually after a couple meals we get pretty sick of it and start branching out into other types of food. Not here. As I write this, we’re wrapping up our last day in Poland and I am still not sick of the food despite eating it twice a day for the last eight days. There’s just something about it…or maybe I have a tapeworm…either way, I’m in love with Polish food and I’m sad to be leaving it behind.
We genuinely did not have a single bad meal, but I’d like to give special shoutouts to a few special foods that stood above the rest. Kielbasa, potato pancakes, goulash, and a sauerkraut-based stew called bigos (always served with lots of soft bread to mop it up) were available most everywhere, and were all very tasty. And of course, we ate plenty of pierogis of all varieties - pork, duck, potato-and-cheese (called ‘ruskie’), just cheese, berries…we ate pierogis daily and while some were greasier than others, we never had a single bad one. We also enjoyed some of the local drunk food, zapiekanki, which is sort of an open-faced cheesy bread with your choice of toppings (we got ham and salami) best eaten while standing, after ordering from one of the many food stalls in the Jewish Quarter.
But for me, the standout of Polish cuisine is the soups - they do soups incredibly well here, and most people start their meals with one. If you know me well, you know that I love soup - I love cooking it, I love eating it, and I love trying all varieties regardless of how hot it might be outside. So in Poland, I was in soup heaven - particularly after I discovered one soup that, in my humble opinion, stands above the rest. It’s called zurek, and it’s full of cut-up sausage, potatoes, and hardboiled eggs in a hearty, sour (think sauerkraut) broth. Guys, this stuff is unreal. I think I ate it four or five times during our eight days in Poland and each bowl was better than the last. Thinking about it is making me hungry. And sad. I suppose I’ll have to learn how to cook it when we get back home.
So yeah, like I said, the food’s amazing. And the best part? Alex and I never paid more than $50 (total) for a meal, and we only spent that much once, on our first night in Krakow when we accidentally went to an extremely nice restaurant and had a three-course meal plus alcohol for that amount. Most of our meals hovered around the $20-25 range for the two of us, and some dinners (like the zapiekanki mentioned above) cost as little as 15 zloty total, which is around $4. This should be reason enough to visit Poland, but there’s more here than just food, I promise.
Incredibly, we did manage to fit in some actual activity between all those meals. Krakow is a very walkable city and we actually never used the public transportation, although trams and buses are plentiful and inexpensive. On our first full day, we went on one of the many free walking tours that meet in the Old Town Square. There are free English-language tours in most major cities throughout Europe and they’re extremely popular with backpackers, but we haven’t really been taking advantage of them for a couple reasons. First, most of the cities we’ve been are really large (too large, in our opinion, for a tour to be comprehensive) and we’ve usually already got a list of things we want to do and see, so we haven’t felt the need. Second, we did a free tour in Cologne on the recommendation of some hostel-mates and it was, well…not great, so we decided to avoid them for a while. But when we rolled up to Krakow we realized that a) we really didn’t know much about the city and b) it’s pretty compact. So we decided to take a chance, and I'm glad we did. Our tour guide was actually comprehensible and very funny, and because Krakow is so compact we were able to see a good amount of the city, learn a lot about Polish and Krakovian history, and scope out some sights to explore on our own later.
We also did a day trip to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. We signed up through our hostel, which only cost a few zloty more than the price of admission, and wound up getting picked up in a private van and skipping the huge lines at the mine to join a small group tour. The mine was really interesting - I’d been to one salt mine before, in Salzburg, but I was 12 years old at the time so to me this one seemed cooler. You only get to visit the three top (oldest) levels of the 9 or so that make up the mine, because lower levels are still operational, but there was plenty to see. There were vast caverns, underground brine lakes, and even an underground chapel featuring scenes depicting the life of Jesus - all carved out of salt! And yes, you can lick the walls. I did it, but Alex seemed to think that was gross and opted out. Whatever.
Something that I didn’t realize before coming to Krakow is that apparently the nightlife here is quite popular. It’s not to the level of Budapest or Prague, but there’s a bustling bunch of bars and clubs in the Old Town and the Jewish Quarter. Alex randomly found a boat party on TripAdvisor and we signed up not knowing what to expect. We wound up having a blast, going from drinking while cruising the Vistula river to bar-hopping in Old Town. We did learn a really difficult lesson though, which is ‘never go out the night before a travel day.’ We woke up the next morning in tremendous pain, full of regret and having to get on a 2-hour bus to Zakopane with no air conditioning along some bumpy mountain roads. Not the best experience ever.
One thing I found interesting in Poland was how many locals were surprised we were visiting Krakow. After the boat party, at another bar, we got to chatting with a Polish couple for a few hours, and they were genuinely interested in why we chose to come here. This was intriguing, because most hostels were full and we had no trouble meeting other tourists out and about, so although it seemed less touristy than, say, Prague, to my eyes it seemed like it was still a very popular destination. Maybe it’s mostly domestic tourists from elsewhere in Poland. Or perhaps it’s just one of those things where it’s hard to imagine the place you live being interesting to visitors (which is how I feel about my own, very touristy hometown in Florida). Or maybe there really are fewer tourists here, but I have to say I hope that changes because this city deserves more love.
All in all, I have to say Krakow is one of my favorite cities so far on the trip. It’s got all the history and culture of someplace like Prague but with lower prices, friendlier people, and less bullshit. It’s a breeze to get around and there’s amazing food and drink around every corner. If we hadn’t had a flight out of Budapest to Athens in a few days, I think we would have stayed much longer. Go there. It’s amazing. You won’t regret it.