The journey from Warsaw to Krakow was slated to be our first train ride of the trip. Having only traveled by train once before, I had little to no expectation. Long and short, the train we tried to book online didn’t even exist once we got to the station. So we ended up shorting ourselves three hours in Warsaw, leaving late morning, and embarking on a much longer train ride than expected.
Four and a half hours later we were a bit cranky, realizing that we booked the oldest train in existence. We were eight people to a car, the luggage racks were so tall I couldn’t reach, and to say we were hip-to-hip with the other passengers would be an understatement. It was definitely the most uncomfortable transportation to that point. We also realized a few hours into the journey that not a single other carriage was completely occupied. Most carriages only had four or five people. Oh well.
A few of the many produce stalls at Stary Kleparz.
One miserable train ride later we were in Krakow in search of a bite to eat and a place to sit while we waited to check into our Airbnb. One thing we quickly learned is the importance of traveling with cash in Poland. While it wasn’t mandatory in Warsaw, there were times it would have made it much easier. However, in Krakow, we did miss out on a number of opportunities when we weren’t carrying Polish złoty. For reference, it might also be important to know that the exchange rate is currently about 1 USD: 3.75 zł. Overall, Poland is extremely affordable.
Just to give a bit of insight into our day-to-day, Steve and I can be a bit too particular when it comes to deciding where to eat. We have a lot of grand expectations and starry-eyed ideas when it comes to food. Spoiler alert: the perfect, local dining experience hardly exists. But we have fun window shopping through the process.
So back to Krakow. We hangrily (i.e. so hungry we were angry) puttered around Krakow for a bit before stumbling upon Stary Kleparz, a happening local market filled with vegetable, cheese, fish, meat, clothing, and pierogi stands. We awed over the specialties and ended up eating the worst “Mexican” burrito I’ve ever had and a crepe that might as well have been a piece of cheesecake. It was a pretty funny moment once we realized how horrible a pairing it was, but we were so hungry at this point that it didn’t matter. We then tried to buy what we thought were artisanally shaped perogies but were actually smoked sheep and cow cheeses. The ladies standing at the counter laughed so hard at us that it quickly became endearing. And the cheese– well, pungent.
We did make off with cucumbers, fresh pierogies, and a great loaf of bread after a few more blunders. And plums. I have never seen so many plums. Plums everywhere. And you could buy a kilogram (2.2 lbs) for the equivalent of 25 cents.
After the market, we went in search of a cafe for a beer and WiFi. We ended up at a local spot complete with wooden decor, a traditional menu, local oldsters, and draft beer. We quickly realized that we had happened upon one of the local gems and vowed to return for dinner.
Part of our Walkative tour group just inside St. Florian’s Gate in Old Town.
OH HEY THERE, AIRBNB
You’ll hear us advocate for Airbnb time and time again because it can be reasonable, accessible, and puts you in the middle of local neighborhoods instead of in the midst of a business or tourist district. Something that is new for us on this trip is booking Airbnb accommodations spur of the moment. Normally we’re booked 1-6 months out, so we felt pretty lucky to have scored the room that we did in Krakow only a few days before our arrival.
Our hosts, Monika and Juan, both work in the tourism industry and met while working on a cruise ship. They were so kind and had the perfect spot for us just east of the train station. We really enjoyed chatting with them about their travels, languages, attractions in Krakow, and also advice for our future travels in Colombia, as Juan is originally from Colombia. All in all, if you’re looking for a place to stay in Krakow, drop us a line. We’d love to recommend them.
Krakow’s Town Hall Tower in Old Town.
LET’S TALK ABOUT FOOD
Really, what else is there to talk about? The majority of our money goes to food, we spend so much of our time tasting new foods and searching out the perfect spot. We really should just call this trip a culinary journey. There were a few things that we experienced in Krakow that if you’re going, you must try.
Soured bread soup, anyone? This isn’t a dish we were familiar with and was suggested to us by our hosts. Boy, are we glad we tried it. We returned to the previously mentioned local restaurant, Jagienka Cafe, twice before we were finally able to get a table.
This soup is made of soured rye with a boiled egg, sausage, and potatoes. It’s what you want a hearty winter potato soup to be. Slightly soured, the resulting flavors are sharp, tangy, and salty. It will keep you warm, cozy, and wanting another bowl.
There are few foods that I have intentionally steered away from, and borscht is one of them. And I really can’t tell you why. I love beets and I love soup, so it should have been an easy choice, but it’s really always intimidated me. Maybe it’s because everything it comes in contact with becomes permanently pink and pink is easily my least favorite color. Who knows.
Regardless, try it. The two versions we tried were complete with a boiled egg and scallions. The broth is rich, earthy, and rounded out by the natural sweetness of the beets. It’s perfect when paired with fresh bread and a cold beer. If you’re feeling extra hungry order a kielbasa on the side.
Wegierskie Stand selling Hungarian goulash outside of Stary Kleparz.
Pracownia Cukiernicza Stanisław Sarga
Quite the title, I know. Maybe I should have just called it Lody, Polish for ice cream, but I feel like this place should just be acknowledged as the only ice cream in all of Krakow. It’s that good. Speaking to having cash in hand, this is a cash-only joint that almost caused us to miss out of the best ice cream of our lives. As it turns out, at 3 zł a scoop, we had just enough cash on us to try two scoops.
Don’t let the out-the-door and down-the-block line intimidate you, as it moves quickly. There are two ladies behind the counter. One is taking the money and one is making cones, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more efficient duo. The lody comes in a cake cone-shaped more like a hand-held bucket than a cone. Each scoop is a perfect, divine, semi-circle. We opted for mango and raspberry, which are both completely counter to our normal choices.
With less than ten flavors, each is a pure, straight-forward creation. No mix-ins, no sauces, no glorification. Just cream and the base ingredients. Both the mango and the raspberry tasted like little fruit explosions. Neither of us has ever had anything like it. Pick a perfectly ripe fruit, mix it with cream, make it taste completely unaltered, and then freeze it. Heaven. We should have gone back for more.
I’m probably not the right one to talk about vodka, as spirits really aren’t in my wheelhouse. I’ll try just about anything once, but beer and wine are more my things. However, when in the land of vodka, drink vodka. Specifically, drink Żubrówka, and drink it ice cold.
We mentioned in our previous post that there’s an entire museum devoted to Polish vodka in Warsaw. Monika told us that vodka is viewed as a cure-all. Headache? Have a shot. Upset stomach? Have a shot. Feeling under the weather in any possible way? You should really just have a shot. We tried a few different kinds and learned that some people prefer fruited, sweeter vodkas, while others are like herbaceous or straight shooters. We opted for Żubrówka, which is a bison grass vodka. Meaning that the herbal vodka comes complete with a few blades of grass. It tasted like a vodka-digestif hybrid, but nonetheless, when in Poland you really should try vodka.
A good example of how excited Steve gets at every new bakery.
Again, not really a food, but we’ll let this one take the spotlight for fine dining in Krakow. Our second night in Krakow we ended up being our overly chatty selves. By the time we pushed ourselves to go out for dinner Steve was hangry. We were turned away from the cafe we intended to visit and just started wandering towards Tytano. Our host recommended the neighborhood, mentioning that it has a large nightlife scene complete with a number of restaurants. What made it so appealing to us was that it was all housed inside of a former cigarette production facility subdivided into separate businesses.
So we walked forever, weren’t exactly sure what we were looking for, and eventually stumbled upon it. We literally rounded the corner, borderline argument over hunger, and were stunned that we finally found it. Mind you we aren’t (or weren’t at this point in time) traveling with a phone plan. So no map data on-the-go and little to no knowledge of the town.
Cargo was to die for and I am officially a fangirl. We were surrounded by bottle service, maybe the best table service we’ve ever seen, and food that looked more like humble art than edible. We both got a drink, ordered pate to start, and Steve decided on curried mussels while I got beef cheeks. An amuse bouche showed up at the table, followed by the pate, and the best meal we’ve had our entire trip.
Having both worked in restaurants and bars, we always take the time to appreciate how the staff interacts with one another and the overall tone of service. Cargo genuinely has it down to an art. The communication between the kitchen staff and front of house staff overlapped with the integration of management was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. At one point I subtly shivered and a blanket appeared on my shoulders in less than 20 seconds.
But, speaking to the food, you must visit if you’re in Krakow. Everything was rich and flavorful and the portions were a bit too big. Steve’s mussels weren’t lacking, he ended up with a stove pot filled with at least 80 mussels in a coconut curry broth. My beef cheeks were rich, tender, and bountiful.
I’m sure at this point you’re thinking, I thought you guy were budget traveling? The whole meal, drinks, food, service, and all, was $33.
THIS ISN’T ABOUT FOOD, PROMISE
We spent a lot of time exploring the town and trying to get a feel for what Krakow was about. Beyond eating our way through Krakow, we took our first free walking tour with Walkative, visited the castle, spent a day at Auschwitz and Birkenau, toured Old Town, visited churches, enjoyed buskers, saw the debauchery that is bachelor parties, and walked through the Jewish Quarter. While I’ll save Auschwitz and Birkenau for another post, the rest deserves a bit of attention.
The very beginning of our Walkative Free Walking Tour.
Walkative Free Walking Tour
I was a bit skeptical of the free walking tours. Large crowds, so much sun, a lot of monologues, and a significant amount of time. We kept hearing from people that we needed to try one, so Krakow ended up being the first. The things that we learned really were fascinating. Krakow was the original capital of Poland. The wall is still standing around a good portion of Old Town. The Old Town square is actively being excavated because it has grown in elevation by more than two meters. This is not because of shifting on the land, but because the square was an active compost pile that swallowed anything that fell to the ground. Everything was then compacted down by people walking through it every day to enter the market for trade.
We learned a lot more. Like, 2.5 hours more. The weather was hot and sunny, and there was no time to run to the bathroom in the middle because you were going to be left behind. Our tour guide was mousey but endearing. Our fellow participants were overshadowed by the severely hungover dudes that snickered way too often. And we spent a lot of time standing and very little time walking. Would we do it again? Maybe. But it’d have to be a bit cooler and not 2.5 hours long.
Wawel Castle in Krakow, Poland.
Appropriately enough, the walking tour ended here. I think it’s how they keep people on the tour the entire time. It’s an interesting amalgamation of a place. Or palace. Whichever you prefer. Think of all of the different styles of architecture from the last millennium and then give each ruler the opportunity to erect a portion of the castle in their preferred style. It’s really weird and you should go to see it. Just wear pants below your knees, close-toed shoes, and cover your shoulders or they won’t let you in.
We’ve come to realize that you see a lot of busking in places with concentrated tourism. Some of it is good and some of it is really, really bad. And you also hear a lot of Radiohead covers. Often the song “Creep”. And sometimes you’ll hear it twice within two minutes. But we did come across a fellow who had situated himself off of the main square in front of a beautiful old church that was perfectly lit for the atmosphere he was trying to create. Andy Grabowski. Look him up. He plays synthesized jazz cello.
A better look at the different sections of the Wawel Castle.
This was a neighborhood we wished we had been able to explore further. We had a delicious lunch here one day followed by the Sarga Lody mentioned above, but overall we missed a number of things we wanted to see here. The Old Synagogue wasn’t a possibility because we showed up just at closing. Plac Nowy, the local square, is a cash-only market, which resulted in missing out on the French bread pizza known as ‘zapiekanki’. And we missed out on Kiełbaski in Hala Targowa. Later we learned that the communist-style van that was grilling kielbasa outside was dubbed by many to be the best sausage in Poland. And we walked right past it because we were too tired to wait in line. What can you do?
IN A NUTSHELL
So I think that’s the best summary we have on Krakow, and that doesn’t even begin to cover it all. We had a number of great interactions here, saw and ate some wonderful things, and really were able to slow down and enjoy ourselves in this town. If you visit, be sure to stand in the square of Old Town when Saint Mary’s church strike the hour. A trumpet player will appear out of the window and play a tune in all directions. If you’re curious as to why it ends so abruptly, be sure to research the story. And also visit St. Mary’s for us. The internet tells me we missed out on something pretty incredible.
One of the many bubble magicians entertaining children in Krakow’s Old Town.
Here are a few bloopers:
- Whatever you’re ordering, order it confidently. It might be perogies or it might be cheese.
- Sometimes it’s better to follow the crowd. Your shortcut is the road less traveled because it’s not a shortcut and the locals will laugh at you.
- Often AirBNBs come with so.many.stairs.
- Walking tours do not always involve a lot of walking.
- Save your pocket change, because be it might help you pay for a scoop of the world’s best ice cream.
- Just carry cash. Period.
- Multiple tasting of vodka on an empty stomach isn’t always bad.
- Don’t ever pass up an established kielbasa line.
- When you ask to buy a few plums, be ready for a kilo.