Intense nightlife, history await visitors in Krakow
December 18, 2012
KRAKOW, Poland -- Krakow is a city of duality. There's historical Krakow, evident in its medieval square -- the largest in Europe -- and Renaissance-era buildings. Schindler's factory, the Jewish ghetto and nearby Auschwitz mark the ravages of World War II, while remnants of Occupied Poland still linger in the city.
But then there's youthful Krakow awash in bars and restaurants that are packed with the bright young things of modern Poland. Residents of all ages party through morning then trickle into brunch joints and Soviet-style cafeterias called milk bars to refuel.
Due in part to Krakow's historical roots, lively scene and affordability ($1 buys about 2.5 zlotys) the city has grown more prolific on "must-see destinations" lists.
Krakow's most resonating site actually lies 70 kilometers outside the city. Auschwitz/Birkenau, World War II's most notorious concentration camp is a bus or train ride from Poland's second city.
Devastating and mournful, Auschwitz is dedicated to remembering the 1.4 million lives taken by the Nazis 70 years ago. Auschwitz I houses a series of tiny museums dedicated to remembering the singular purpose of the camp. The most haunting rooms contain thousands of shoes, eyeglasses and over a ton of hair of some of Auschwitz's final victims.
At Auschwitz II or Birkenau, visitors enter next to the infamous railroad tracks and walk past destroyed crematoriums and through the prisoners' barracks, bathrooms and washrooms.
Those who want more World War II history can head to the Podgórze district. This neighborhood housed the Krakow Ghetto and Oskar Schindler's factory of "Schindler's List" fame. Visitors can wander through Plac Bohaterow Getta (Ghetto Heroes Square) and head to the Schindler Factory Museum at 4 Lipowa.
Those wishing to discover the lighter side of Poland's history can visit the Wieliczka Salt Mines. Hundreds of years ago, miners carved rooms, churches and sculptures for themselves 300 meters under the earth.
Descending into the caves, tourists enter a salt world: walls, floors, chandeliers, gnomes and statues of Saint Casimir are all chiseled from salt.
The most impressive chamber is a massive ballroom and cathedral complete with an altar, reliefs and a salty replica of "The Last Supper."
Post-Soviet countries are rarely seen as vibrant, but Krakow pulsates after dark. And after a day steeped in Poland's tragic past, letting off a bit of steam at night is necessary.
The streets surrounding Rynek Glowny, Krakow's main square, and Kazimierz, the Jewish district, are the most popular destinations for a night out in Krakow.
Krakow's food scene, from Polish to Greek, does not disappoint. Paese, which bills itself as a Corsican restaurant, sits on a quiet street behind the square. The attitude is laid-back French and the menu boasts crisp salads, tender steak and excellent wine. Aperitif, also off the main square, serves a taste of everything, including duck confit, pierogies, burgers and pad thai and has a fun cocktail menu.
The Kazimierz has more of a neighborhood vibe than downtown and is packed with bustling bars and modern restaurants. Szara Kazimierz is popular with locals and tourists for upscale Polish food and salads. Those who can't get enough herring should try the Swedish herring platter; for those who can, it's a pickled fish overload.
For a wild card restaurant, try Manzana, which serves surprisingly decent Tex-Mex (the jalapeno poppers, pico de gallo and guacamole pack more flavor than you'd expect for central Europe.) Head to the bar after the meal for excellent cocktails.
Krakow is a liquor-lover's paradise. Krakovians will drink flavored vodkas straight or mix them into cocktails. A quintessentially Polish elixir called a Mad Dog mixes vodka, Tabasco and raspberry syrup and is a must-try. So is bison grass vodka: vodka flavored by grass flavored by bison. It's earthy, but good.
For a more refined night out, Krakow has a smattering of piano bars, like Harris Piano Jazz Bar near the square and Piano Bar After Work in the up-and-coming Podgórze. The Piano Rouge, situated on Rynek Glowny feels like a throwback. They serve dinner in the restaurant and drinks in the lounge. Classic drinks like Old Fashioneds and Manhattans feel more at home here, but The Piano Rouge also serves frothy, fruity drinks with umbrellas and pineapple sticking over the rims.