For a festive getaway sure to fill you with all the Christmas feels, it doesn’t get much better than visiting Krakow in December.
I’m just going to get it out there; I’m a sucker for a Christmas jaunt.
Perhaps it’s the big kid in me. Perhaps it’s the nostalgic softie. Something about the promise of twinkling lights, the smell of towering pine tries and the distant sound of brass bands piping away as you wander merrily through an unknown city just gets me right in the festive feelbags.
The problem is, living in Edinburgh has set the bar pretty high when it comes to my festive expectations. Every year, our city centre becomes home to an epic, sprawling market. It can be hard to escape the smell of gently warming mulled wine and German sausages. People travel from around the world not to miss our Hogmanay fireworks display. It’s a yuletide addict’s dream.
So where does one head when one loves Christmas just so?
Choosing a city which could encapsulate the spirit of Christmas on a level playing field is next to impossible. Last year, our gamble paid off with a visit to the Hungarian capital of Budapest. Turns out, Eastern Europe is rather fab. This year, we decided to ignore the Pet Shop Boys instructions and Go East again. The destination? Krakow.
On first appearance, Krakow might appear an unusual choice for a festive getaway. For many people, the idea of visiting Poland in the heart of Winter brings to mind images of drab, grey streets and Communist-era architecture. It casts aspersions to soggy shoes and miserable expressions amidst sub-thermal temperatures. And of course, it’s hard to ignore its troubled past.
Well, forget what you thought you knew about Krakow…
…other than the cold. I can’t deny that.
A new Krakow has emerged
This is a city in the midst of an exciting transformation. It’s a city which has gone to hell and back, but which has survived and gone on to tell the tale. It’s staggeringly beautiful. So much so that even the Nazis couldn’t bring themselves to knock it down! It’s also bursting at the seams with history and folklore. From tales of dragons and vampires to survivors of one of the worst, and most indescribable, moments in modern history. Krakow is full of tales.
While Warsaw is regarded as the political capital of Poland, Krakow is very much its cultural gem. It also does Christmas BIG. I’m talking bustling markets, with intermixing smells of street food luring you in. Indulgent decorations lining every street and carol singers drawing the crowds. Trees which could put old Rockefeller himself to shame!
After four days visiting Krakow in December, my only regret was not staying longer. It’s a city which would be beautiful at any time of the year. Yet something about the Medieval setting just helped frame that Christmas scene we’d been so desperate to find. I could go on for days about the things you should experience in and around Krakow. To help narrow things down a little, here’s a few essential experiences you should include on a festive itinerary…
Explore the Labyrinth of Wawel Castle
Because every fairytale town needs its castle!
Built at the behest of King Casmir III, Wawel Castle is the jewel in Krakow’s crown. Over the years, the network of buildings has grown as various monarchs showed determination to make their mark. A case of “mine’s bigger than yours” if ever I heard one.
I loved the spontaneity of the mismatched domes and turrets.
With such a magical outlook, it’s easy to see how myth and legend came to be. If ancient stories are to believed, the lower depths of the castle were once occupied by a dragon! You can still remnants of curiously shaped bones as you enter the labyrinth. All across town, you’ll find references to the castle’s beastly inhabitant.
We didn’t have nearly enough time to explore the castle in its entirety. Even if you’re short on time you should set aside an hour or so to climb the hill and take in the view. Or just marvel over the stunning Italian courtyard – it’s well worth it.
Also, check out that fir!
Take a carriage ride through the old town
Whenever I think of Krakow, I think I’m always going to be taken back to the sounds of the city. We were lucky enough to be staying right off the main square, Rynek Glowny. There are three sounds which come back to me distinctly. The church bells ringing. The hourly bugle which played its melodic tune from St Mary’s Basilica. The sound of horses hooves clip-clopping over the cobbled streets.
Krakow’s horses have become nearly as famous as its architecture. A carriage ride around the city might seem a little kitsch for some. However, there’s no denying that there’s something romantic about snuggling up under a blanket as you pass under the Christmas lights.
Plus, these are some of the best-dressed residents you’re likely to cross paths with:
Get lost in the cobbled streets of Kazimierz
Did you know that Kazimierz, Krakow’s Jewish quarter, was once an independent town? In fact, it was only absorbed by the city of Krakow and its government during the Middle Ages.
Today, Kazimierz could quite easily be referred to as Krakow’s Hipsterville. It’s a jumble of indie galleries, quirky shops, second hand stores and hole-in-the-wall-style wine bars. It’s great if you’re looking for some offbeat places to hang out or fancy a rummage through the thrift shops for alternative Christmas presents.
But of course, Kazimierz has also experienced more than its share of trauma. During the Second World War, the majority of the township’s residents were forcibly moved to the crowded Krakow Ghetto across the river Podgorze. Few made it home.
For years, the streets of Kazmierz lay quiet. Its houses and Synagogues empty, its Jewish culture silenced.
To see it bustling with life and activity today is remarkably uplifting. Since 1988, the annual Jewish Cultural Festival has helped celebrate and reintegrate a once displaced community. It’s now the largest festival celebrating Jewish traditions in Europe. Anyone looking to learn more about Krakow’s Jewish community and the impact of the Holocaust should visit the fantastic Galicia Jewish Museum on Dajwór 18. The informative photography exhibition will help paint a portrait of Jewish life in Kazimierz both before and after the war.
Get cosy down at the Jazz Club
The Jazz Club u Muniaka came highly recommended by pals.
Founded in 1991 by saxophonist, Janusz Muniak, this super-central bar is the ultimate place to go if you’re looking for somewhere with real character. With live music every night – not all jazz – and laidback vibes, this underground cavern has a charm to it that’s hard to beat.
Just don’t do what we did one night and arrive after the musicians have packed up for the night. The vodka’s great, but it kinda defeats the point!
Get the lowdown on a free walking tour
This should be the first stop on anyone’s itinerary!
I love free walking tours. No, it’s not my inner-Scrooge speaking there! They’re just a darned great way to get your bearings and to hear about the city from a local perspective.
We met up with our guide from Walkative! Tours on our first day in the city. They run tours every day, setting off at 10am, 12pm and 2pm and meet at Florian’s Gate, just a short walk from the central square.
Our guide was excellent, and really took his time showing us around the Old Town. He was also happy to share quirky stories about his own time in Krakow. Turns out, he had moved there out of love. Sadly, the relationship with the girl did not turn out as well as his relationship with the city. Such is life.
Our tour began with an introduction to life in Crakovian Middle Ages, and a look at the defensive walls and towers which had been built to keep enemies at a safe distance. We then moved on to the ancient university, once the stomping ground of Copernicus, before delving into the darker Nazi occupation. Did you know that Hitler was so enamored with Krakow that he actually renamed the main square after himself? Thankfully Adolf Hitler Platz didn’t really catch on, and Rynek Glowny reigns still. Finally it was on towards the river and up the hill to Wawel Castle. There, our guide was able to tell us much more about the various monarchs who influenced its design.
A 2.5 hour walk in -2 temperatures might not sound like the most cosy of ventures. Believe me, once you get to thaw out in front of a wee outdoor heater, you’ll be glad of every step.
Pick up some handmade presents at the Christmas markets
There’s no better way to get that festive buzz than to find yourself in the thick of a bustling Christmas market. Thankfully Krakow’s does not disappoint.
Throughout December, the city’s square is taken over by a network of stalls selling food, crafts and Christmas trinkets. Combine this with the nearby Cloth Hall, a market hall which dates back to the Renaissance, and you’ve got yourself some prime Chrimbo shopping opportunities!
We spent a lot of time down at the market, browsing the stalls and admiring the impressive Christmas trees. If I’d had room in my hand luggage I would have loved to take home a handmade wreath (they smelled divine!). As it was, my options were either limited to wearing one on my head on the flight home or keeping my purchases petite. Thankfully there were some gorgeous pottery tree decorations on hand to help me out of my pickle.
Sample the goods at a local Wodka bar
I’m not actually much of a vodka drinker, but it was hard to imagine visiting Poland without sampling the local tipple!
Thankfully we stumbled upon the gorgeous wee Wodka Cafe Bar on Mikołajska. This cosy nook is super-popular with locals and tourists alike. With only a handful of tables up for grabs, it can be hard to even get your foot in the door.
We’d only intended on popping in for a token sample. However, after a couple of attempts without managing to get seats, we were lucky enough to blag a table on our last day. It seemed rude not to stay. A couple of smorgasbords down and we were feeling well and truly merry, though perhaps not so bright.
Climb to the top of St Mary’s Basilica
No matter where you are in Krakow, it’s hard to ignore the presence of St Mary’s Basilica. Built in the 14th Century, The Church of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven, is one of Krakow’s most beautiful and recognisable buildings.
The gorgeous gothic spire can be seen from far and wide. Even if the basilica is out of sight, it’ll rarely be out of mind. Every hour, on the hour, you’ll hear a bugle played from one of the upper windows. Unusually, this melancholy tune will always finish abruptly. The reason? Well, as our guide informed us, no one knows. It’s just one of the quirks of the city!
For unbeatable views of the Old Town you might want to climb to the top of the tower. Tickets can be bought from the travel centre just across from the tourist entrance to the church. Sadly we were there on a Monday when you can only visit the lower level. Even still, with architecture like this to explore, it was hard not to be blown away!
Even if Christmas isn’t a religious time for you, the basilica is a lovely, calming place to have a moment’s contemplation.
Warm up with a hot chocolate at E.Wedel Chocolate Lounge
Anyone who knows me will know that I’m a bit of a chocolate fiend. You can imagine my delight then at finding a chocolate lounge just minutes from our hotel!
Polish hot chocolate is unlike any hot chocolate I’ve ever experienced before. Forget your Cadbury’s and milk combo. Imagine instead a mug of pure molten wonderfulness. It is made from what I can only imagine is just unabashed, nae-shame, melted bars of premium chocolate. It’s the kind of stuff Augustus Gloop could only dream of.
We fell a little bit in love with E. Wedel’s chocolate shop. This vintage lounge has been on the go since 1854, supplying the fine folk of Krakow with all manner of chocolatey treats. We popped in here to warm up after getting caught in an a flurry of snow. The mulled wine was tempting, but in the end the hot chocolate won all the way!
Tuck into some glorious street food
Looking back upon our trip, we realised that over the three days we’d been in Krakow, we’d barely sat down in a restaurant! The street food stalls at the market were just irresistible.
Every corner you turned, you were greeted by the welcoming smells of candied nuts, chimney cake and mulled wine.
Tucking into Krakow’s street food turned out to be a great way to get to know the city. Not only did it introduce us to some of its traditional flavours, but it allowed us to spend more time exploring. It also saved money, which is always a plus!
If you want to sample some of the best of Krakow’s delicacies, make sure to try:
Shell-shaped Polish dumplings, made with unleavened dough and a sweet or savoury filling. You can have them boiled or fried. I definitely preferred the lightness of the more traditional boiled dumplings. Particularly when filled with broad beans and pancetta, or spinach and feta!
We searched high and low for these bad boys, but it was worth the effort! Zapiekankas are long, open-faced sandwiches, traditionally smothered in melted cheese, mushrooms and garlic. They’re a little bit like thick, squishy pizza breads and super tasty. We had ours topped with pickles, sour cabbage and chillis. Despite being a little intimidated by their size, we managed to devour our way quite happily through one each. No shame, whatsoever.
Picture a cross between a bagel and a German pretzel and you’ve got an Obwarzanek. You’ll find these stalls dotted across Krakow all year round. They’re a perfect snack if you’re looking to fuel up between sights.
There’s something undeniably loveable about the simplicity of a humble Polish sausage. Top it off with a dill pickle salad and some fried potatoes and you’re on to a winner, my friend.
Zurek is a soup made of soured rye flour and meat (usually boiled pork sausage or pieces of smoked sausage, bacon or ham). You’ll often find it served in a bowl made of sourdough bread. Though it’s more traditionally eaten at Easter time in Poland, it’s hard to imagine a more belly-warming meal to combat the wintry winds experienced during a December visit to the city.
Explore the city’s darker side!
Who says Christmas has to follow convention?
Krakow is heartwarming for sure. It’s also got its fair share of dark stories if you enjoy a wee shiver up the spine not caused by the sub-thermal temperatures.
For an overview of the city’s more sinister side, be sure to check out the underground village below the Cloth Hall. There, you can learn about the Medieval happenings of the city and get up and close with some creepy vampire skeletons! Or better still, join in on Walkative!’s Macabre Tour. This walking tour will entertain with grizzly tales of serial killers, the lives of executioners and some of the city’s ghastliest inhabitants. Lumps of coal all around for these guys.
Unwind with some classical music
On one of our first nights, we stumbled upon the beautiful St Peter and St Paul’s Church. We decided on impulse to grab some tickets to one of the Golden Classical Music Concerts. It turned out to be one of our better decisions.
With its ornate baroque interior and acoustic-friendly chamber, it’s hard to imagine a more atmospheric setting to take in some beautiful orchestral music. As our evening flowed through the musical musings of Grieg, Vivaldi and Chopin, the happy vibes were well and truly in the air. This would be a gorgeous way to spend an hour regardless of the season. However, something about listening in as the candle lights flickered away and the wintry winds swirled outside just really set the tone for our festive getaway.
Bag yourself an outdoor table
“An outdoor table? In December?”
Believe it or not, outdoor dining and drinking are possible throughout the year in Krakow!
All throughout the city, you’ll find bars and restaurants spilling onto the cobbled streets. I can just imagine how relaxing it would be to sit out here and enjoy a crisp pint on a summer’s day. However, there’s something equally special about watching the chilly world go by as the outdoor heaters crackle away softly in the background.
Most bars also provide blankets for extra snuggle factor. Sadly we did not see any that were giving out complimentary slippers.