I arrived in Krakow in the early evening, with the sun still hovering on the horizon. The city was known for its rich history and culture, and I was looking forward to seeing what it had to offer.
Krakow airport is relatively small and a little way out of the city centre, but a decent and cheap public transport system will take you to the main bus terminal for less than £2. The bus stop can be found as you exit the terminal and the ride into Krakow, through the outer suburbs, gave the picture of a country that braces itself for a harsh winter. Krakow’s main bus station is a stone’s throw away from the main square and the surrounds of the city centre, quite clearly bordered by a circular park with winding paths and deciduous trees.
The place I stayed was called Mikolajska 5 Hostel and Apartments. I opted for an apartment as the price was not much different from a hotel, and it meant that I had the option to cook my own meals, although eating out in Poland (much like just about everything here), was extremely cheap. Located within a 10 minute walk of the bus station, and 5 minutes to the main square, it turned out to be an ideal place and I would recommend it to people traveling on a budget.
Places to Visit
As far as things to do in Krakow, there is a lot of history in this country as it was arguably the hardest hit by The Nazi regime. Historic war related sites are scattered throughout the city, and I got the impression that it still hasn’t recovered from the hardships experienced during the war.
Schindler’s Factory is among the things on the Krakow ‘to do list’ and full tours of the factory are available. I unfortunately didn’t have time to tour the inside of the factory, but am a big enough admirer of the man and the movie to go and have a look from the outside.
Wieliczka Salt Mines
One place I did go and visit was the Wieliczka Salt Mines. Located 30 minutes by bus to the South West of the city, the salt mine was built in the 13th century and is located 327 metres underground. The mine is expansive, with over 200 kilometres of passageways but only 3.5 kilometres, roughly 1.5%, is open to tourists.
Prior to visiting Krakow, I had heard about this place through word of mouth, but not read anything, so I was not sure what to expect. For one, it is relatively expensive as far as Poland goes, costing around £15 for your basic tour. It is worth the money though, and the place itself is mind boggling.
When you really start to go through the various chambers, and you get your head around the sheer size of the place, it makes you marvel at the level of engineering it took to build with such primitive tools and no technology. The route that I took included an underground lake and historic figures carved out of the salt itself. The most impressive part of the tour is the gigantic cathedral that has been carved by hand, and in the modern day, holds weddings and other functions. It is truly awe inspiring.
Auschwitz Concentration Camp
The other main point of interest in Krakow is Auschwitz Concentration Camp. The most notorious death camp used in World War 2, responsible for the deaths of nearly 2 million Jews during Hitler’s tenure as leader of Nazi Germany.
Auschwitz is located 1 hour to the east of Krakow in a small town called Oswiecim (or Auschwitz in German). You can book guided tours of both sites that include transportation to/from your accommodation, but my recommendation is to go at it alone and get there as early as possible. This way you can beat the majority of the tour groups and really take in the eeriness of the camp.
Public buses leave from the main Krakow bus terminal, but don’t expect the station staff to help you out at all, I found them very unfriendly! Instead, buy your tickets directly from the bus driver and then catch the train back.
Auchwitz is free to visit and can be done at your own pace, which I recommend as there is a lot to get round and once it gets busy, can be very slow going. You can hire audio guides and a map, selecting the tracks to listen to at numbered spots across the site.
Once you have finished the audio tour of the Auschwitz site and museum, make sure that you walk the 20 minutes to where the main death camp is situated. The death camp is where the main gas chambers are found, and it is the vast size of the camp that really hit home for me; I just can’t begin to describe the feeling you get when you walk between the hundreds of semi destroyed dormitories that housed the victims of this horrific past.
At school you read and learn about World War II and what went on at Auschwitz, but until you stand in these fields and physically see the severity of what they went through; the books become reality. Even thinking back on the visit now, I still get shivers down my spine.
Another reason to visit independently and early in the morning is to avoid the one aspect that ruined the end to my experience at Auschwitz; loud, photo taking tourists. This really let the second part of the visit down as it killed the atmosphere of a place you would expect to be silent and respectful. Tour bus loads of children smiling and taking selfies outside the iconic red brick gate of Birkenau death camp was something I was not expecting upon my visit. I took very few photos, and those taken were only of the buildings and landscape.
Auschwitz is a place of such terror, torture and death that I would advise careful consideration before visiting as you truly leave feeling empty inside. Don’t forget to show your respect for the millions of people who were robbed of their lives during the war, be quiet and avoid taking too many photos as you wonder round the sites.