Krakow: A Contrasting Trip Of Christmas Cheer & Harrowing History

In November, I finally visited Poland for the first time!

One of our best friends wanted to go somewhere for Christmas markets, and we mused over various German destinations before I piped up that we could do something different and go to Poland. None of us had been to Poland before, and most of the cities there look like the perfect, charming backdrops for a great alternative to German Christmas markets. Plus it was way cheaper, both for flights and in the cities themselves. We settled on Krakow, probably the most popular destination in Poland, but for very good reason.

Poland was one of those countries that I’d been meaning to visit but somehow never quite found the time – for one thing, it’s somewhere that we wanted slightly longer than a weekend, and also flights from Edinburgh rarely work out well just for a weekend, which meant taking a day off work. I also wanted to visit with a purpose, rather than just “hey, let’s fly to Gdansk for a weekend”.

As it happened, we ended up just having a weekend in Krakow anyway, with an early flight home on the Monday. Sometimes that’s the way the cookie crumbles with flight times. Therefore, I was determined to make the most of it.

View of the main square & cloth hall from St Mary's Basilica, Krakow, Poland

We would have just one full day to explore Krakow, with the other day being dedicated to the important trip everyone should do from Krakow: I am of course talking about Auschwitz.

This meant that we’d have one day of cheerful Christmas spirit, before completely depressing ourselves by delving into one of the darkest spots of history. However, it’s somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for a long, long time. In fact, I remember years ago saying to this friend that we should visit one day, so it seemed like an apt place to suggest.

We arrived at Krakow airport early on Saturday morning, raring to go. The train only takes about 20 minutes to get into the city centre, if that, which was perfect except that to get into the old town, you first have to navigate your way out of the train station… into a massive shopping centre, and eventually out of that. Seriously, it was never-ending. I thought our entire Krakow experience was going to be inside a bloody shopping mall.

Finally, we found freedom and made a bee-line for the city gate. This marks the entrance to Krakow’s Old Town, the whole of which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From there, it’s a very short walk to the main town square, towards the imposing church towers of St Mary’s Basilica.

Krakow town square

The first thing we noticed in the square, other than the line-up of horse and carriages, was the vast number of pigeons.

Pigeons in the main square, Krakow, Poland

The square is sprawling – interestingly, it’s actually the largest town square in Europe, which explains why it’s a lot less intimate than a lot of European town squares (especially after seeing all those Belgian ones) – but it’s got plenty of character with the Cloth Hall dominating a lot of the square and the beautiful St Mary’s Basilica overlooking it and the clip clop of horses trotting through it.

It’s also one of the few main town squares that doesn’t have a town hall, as it was destroyed in the 19th century. Another interesting fact I’ve just learned is that much of Poland’s cities have been rebuilt since the war, except for Krakow. So I was surprised that the town hall wasn’t destroyed in WWII, but actually much earlier.

Ukraine protest outside the Cloth Hall, Krakow, Poland
A Ukraine support protest in the town square – they were collecting money too, so we all donated

First on the list, though: food.

I was in desperate need of a cup of tea after our 4am start, so we tried a café round the corner that had good reviews (Camelot Café), but it was too busy. There was nothing for it, then. We’d have an early start at the markets!

Ham & cheese goodies, Krakow, Poland

I did manage to get a cup of tea, and I also very excitedly got myself a langosh (langos – a delectable flat bread that’s most popular in Hungary, and one of my staple foods on any trip to Budapest, but they’re called “langosh” in Poland). In fact, I picked up some other very delicious breaded goodies with ham and cheese, pictured above. I would like some more of these now.

Inside the Cloth Hall, Krakow, Poland

Cloth Hall (Sukiennice)

We had a few browses in the Cloth Hall over the course of our trip – while the Christmas markets were right outside, this is a permanent market with stalls of souvenirs, local crafts and all sorts of interesting wares.

Traditionally, it was a huge market of imported goods such as spices, silk and leather, with a meeting point for traders to organise imports and exports. These days, it’s a bit more touristy, but there are plenty of stalls with handmade crafts and local businesses. There are also a few shops around the outside of the building, which are worth a look in.

Naturally, I got my postcard here (I get a postcard everywhere I go!), and we picked up some gifts including Christmas presents.

It’s definitely worth a wander through the hall at least once on your trip.

Inside St Mary's Basilica, Krakow, Poland

St Mary’s Basilica

I don’t often pay to go into churches, but I made an exception for St Mary’s Basilica, and along with St John’s Cathedral in Malta which we also visited last year, this was one of the best I’ve been into!

It’s absolutely stunning. And not in a lavish, over-the-top way like some churches. Just beautiful and boldly colourful.

David and I we were going up to the rooftop, which we’d been given a time for in about half an hour. Once we’d had our fill of spectacular ceilings, I had to ask someone where we needed to go, and in my usual nervous disposition when having to talk to a stranger, I started “excuse me, where do we…” in an accidental booming voice, cutting through the silence in echoing horror.

“Ma’am, this is a CHURCH,” the guy cut me off sternly.

“I’m sorry!!” I whispered hoarsely, scared to ask my question now.

We were pointed out the door, and I felt like he was glad to see me go.

View from St Mary's Basilica, Krakow, Poland

I don’t know how many steps there are up to the top of St Mary’s Basilica, and a quick google tells me that there are 271, 239 and “almost 300”, all on the first page. However many there are, it’s not the worst I’ve done, although I did have to stop for a quick breather while my friend the mountain goat practically parkoured his way up to the top.

From the top, there’s a really good view over the town square, and would have been over the rest of the city if the weather had been better.

View from St Mary's Basilica, Krakow, Poland

One really interesting tradition of the church is that a lone trumpeter stands at the top and plays every hour. The song is called “hejnal mariacki” and apparently he cuts it short to symbolise the local legend of a bugler warning the city of an incoming attack before being killed.

St Mary's Basilica, Krakow, Poland

It’s also beautiful at night, and I managed to get a few shots over the couple of evenings we had there.

Wawel castle & the fire-breathing dragon

We only found time to get to the castle in the evening, which was fine as we weren’t too bothered about going in. We were MORE bothered about finding the fire-breathing dragon, which let’s face it, is much cooler at night anyway. (Well, maybe “cooler” isn’t the right word for something spouting literal fire.)

We walked straight past it and checked out the castle, and it was only when I checked the maps that I realised we’d somehow missed it. We walked back down a short way.

“It should be here,” I said indignantly. “But there’s nothing here!”

We quickly discovered that the dragon is actually beneath the castle, on a totally separate path. From what we could gather, it’s so far out of the way to get down there that we settled for just watching it from above and getting crap photos.

Fire-breathing dragon statue, Krakow, Poland

It is really quite something. A statue that actually breathes fire! Not only that, but you can apparently text a number and it’ll activate it!


It’s pretty awesome – definitely one of the quirkier things to check out in the city.

The castle itself wasn’t anything to write home about, if I’m honest. Maybe it’s better during the day and if you go in.

Dick waffles

After the dragon, we needed dick waffles.

Krakow is a magnet for stag and hen do parties from the UK, which means it has a huge range of ridiculous but sometimes awesome things. For example, the nightlife in Krakow is fantastic because it caters to a crowd that want something different. You’ll find all sorts of novelty activities like laser games, neon crazy golf and stupid bars.

And yes, it also means there’s somewhere you can literally buy waffles shaped as dicks.

I’m not gonna lie, Ash needed some convincing here. One of the best quotes of the year was “we are NOT going to the dick waffle house… I don’t like waffles!”

However, David was fully on board and we got matching dicks from the Dickery waffle house.

(You can also get female ones – but I’m not sure a vagina waffle has quite the same effect. Just don’t get a blue one.)

Propaganda bar, Krakow, Poland

Kazimierz district & Krakow nightlife

The Jewish Quarter, Kazimierz, is the best place to go for nightlife in the city. I find this quite interesting considering the Jewish Quarter is also the nightlife hub in Budapest.

On our first evening, we just went to a craft beer place that we happened to stumble across called Nowy Kraftowy, hidden in the corner of a square in Kazimierz, but on our second night, we headed to a couple of places that we’d passed the first time around.

First up actually wasn’t in the Kazimierz district – a place called Cybermachina between the town square and Kazimierz, which is a nerdy dream! Rooms of people playing board games or consoles, and we sat at a Mario-themed table and ordered geeky-themed drinks. It was brilliant.

Cybermachina bar, Krakow, Poland

I even had a warm cocktail with tea! I did, however, completely forget to have one of their mulled wines which was advertised on the board outside as Obi-Wine Kenobi.

We also went to an excellent pub called Propaganda. If you only make it to one bar in Krakow, make it this one. It’s fantastic!

It’s that kind of dive bar with things everywhere that I love. There are even car bumpers on the wall, and bikes!

I’d been planning to go to a vodka bar – Wodka Cafe Bar had been recommended to me and is highly rated, but it was full when we tried to go. In Propaganda, we asked the bartender for some flavoured shots, and she recommended one to us – Soplica vodka. She took a bottle of cherry vodka out of the FRIDGE and served it to us chilled.

Propaganda bar, Krakow, Poland

Oh my God.

I’m not even a vodka fan, but I could drink this stuff all day. It is absolutely delicious! And chilling it? Makes it even better!

Needless to say, we saw bottles of it in duty free and immediately bought some.

Another city with great nightlife? Check out Budapest – one of my favourite European cities!

Christmas market, Krakow, Poland

Christmas markets in Krakow

It was back to the Christmas markets the following evening to buy a few things, drink some mulled wine and cheer ourselves up after a very difficult day.

I knew what I needed: pierogi.

It’s been so long since I’ve had pierogi, and I felt like I was setting myself up to be disappointed when we were served sloppy dumplings instead of the crispy ones I used to cook. Thankfully they still had plenty of texture and were absolutely delicious. I was so excited that I forgot to take a photo, but it’s probably for the best as it tasted better than it looked!

A theme of the weekend (and the weeks that followed) was David asking what they were called again, to the point that our group chat now has “pierogi” in the title.

Christmas market, Krakow, Poland
Christmas market, Krakow, Poland

The Christmas markets in Krakow aren’t set in big wooden Bavarian sheds, which has become synonymous with Christmas markets. They have a more traditional feel, but the setting in the town square is really nice and there’s a lot on offer, from traditional Christmas decorations to gifts like knitwear and ceramics and local food. It was busy, especially as we were there on the opening weekend, but enjoyable enough for a browse.

It’s well worth visiting Krakow for the Christmas markets, especially if you want an alternative to the popular German markets.

If you do want German markets, I recommend Munich – read about the time we went there for a day!

Visiting Auschwitz

The one thing I knew we had to do in Poland was visit Auschwitz; to pay our respects to the millions who died, to remember the atrocities so that they might not happen again.

I won’t sugar-coat it – this was the hardest place I’ve ever visited.

I remember the feeling of visiting the Killing Fields in Cambodia; how shocked I was that we hadn’t learned about it at school, and that a quarter of an entire population was murdered without the rest of the world knowing. I couldn’t decide if visiting somewhere that I already knew the history was better or worse. But then I realised it didn’t matter. You cannot compare human atrocities.

What I do know is that I felt numb for the entire tour. For the first few minutes, we were led through the entrance to Auschwitz I, that famous gate coming into view, and for just a split second, it felt like we could be on a movie set. I had to take a deep breath before we went in, but nothing could prepare me for the rest of the tour.

Arbeit Macht Frei gate, Auschwitz I, Poland

Rooms of belongings never collected, photos of people just hours from being murdered, and stories of how they died. It filled me with so much horror. How could humans have done this to each other? How do you dehumanise someone to the point of deliberately making them suffer in such a way? How do you do that over and over again, to millions of people?

I couldn’t even speak after Auschwitz I, and we still had the rest of the tour in Auschwitz II (Birkenau).

Auschwitz II is where the famous train tracks are, and although the site is much, much bigger, a lot of it has been destroyed in the Nazis’ attempt to cover up what they had done. The damage is significant enough that I didn’t find this part of the tour as difficult to comprehend, and I found my voice again.

Despite the fact this setting has been used in movies for decades, after the tour of Auschwitz I, I no longer got the feeling of a movie set to distract myself from reality. It was all real – this is where people crossed the tracks to their horrific deaths, and where Nazis stood to make those decisions on whether people should live or die. The numbness had only slightly subsided – it was still there.

It was a really, really tough day.

And yet, such an important visit. Like many other historically significant but horrific places I’ve been, like the Killing Fields in Cambodia and the genocide museum in Bosnia, it’s somewhere you visit to remind yourself: we cannot let this happen again.

I’m going to write about our Auschwitz tour in more detail, when I can form the words.

You can book a tour to Auschwitz on Get Your Guide, which is what we did (affiliate link)

I don’t think we could have had a more contrasting trip, really. We had a fantastic weekend, but it really was going from Christmas cheer to learning (more) about the worst genocide in history.

Krakow town square with St Mary's Basilica, Krakow, Poland

One thing that can be said – I absolutely loved Krakow! I’m not surprised, though. When I announced we were going to Krakow, everyone said they loved it.

Krakow is the perfect introduction to Poland as it’s easy to visit, touristy enough that it’s very easy to get around and get by speaking English, but it wasn’t so busy that you felt like you were battling through a European theme park. The public transport is excellent (the logo on the trams made me think of Gandalf riding a hobby horse Shadowfax though, not gonna lie) but equally it’s so easy to walk around and take everything in or stumble across random sights.

St Peter & Paul Church in Krakow, Poland
A church we happened to pass on our wanderings

I would 100% go back as well, if just to do another bar crawl, adding to the list of Budapest and Belfast for places we’d go with friends just for a good night out. But more than that, now that I’ve been to Poland, maybe I will “just pop over to Gdansk for a weekend”. Because it seems like most cities in Poland are charming and lovely.

I’m going to end this post with two silly photos from the trip: the aforementioned Gandalf riding a hobby horse Shadowfax, and one of the most ridiculous magnets I’ve ever seen. I almost bought it because it’s so dumb.

I’m now pretty much caught up with all my travels on the blog – until next weekend, and then I’m off to four countries in the next month! All with the same friend as we went to Krakow with. Very excited for more adventures with him, and in two new countries for me as well!

Stay tuned for a few more European adventures!

Read more about my recent European city breaks below:
A Whirlwind Tour Of Belgium: Ghent, Antwerp & Brussels
Christmas In Kaunas: Feeling Festive In Lithuania
Three Days In Fairytale Budapest, One Of My Favourite Cities
A Photo Tour Of Colmar, France’s Fairytale Town
There’s Something Magical About Mdina, Malta

Loving Lisbon: A Perfect 3 Day Itinerary


8 thoughts on “Krakow: A Contrasting Trip Of Christmas Cheer & Harrowing History

  1. A whirlwhind, funny-to-serious, dick waffle of a trip! I had exactly the same feeling as you entering Auschwitz. Funny thing is, a few weeks before I visited, I’d actually met a Holocaust denier in Germany. It definitely made me want to go back for a further conversation with that person! If you go back, the Schindler Factory is something, too.

    Love the magnet- slightly kitsch, very charming!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I could not deal with a holocaust denier. They make me sick. I sometimes wonder if it’s a coping mechanism because they don’t want to admit that something so awful could have happened, but I suspect not.

      I’ve heard the Schindler Factory is worth a visit, it would have been on our list if we’d had longer on the Monday. I wish our flight had been in the afternoon or evening so we could have had a bit more time!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It was a surreal conversation with an older lady who, when I lived in a small German town, was the biggest objector to the laying of a Stolperstein. I’d be surprised if she’s still with us, but I’ve thought about that woman a lot over the years!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, that is quite the contrast of a trip. I can’t even imagine how surreal and awful it must have been to visit Auschwitz… but as you said, such a necessary piece of our history to acknowledge. I would like to visit one day as well to pay my respects.

    On a happier note, I laughed out loud at “although I did have to stop for a quick breather while my friend the mountain goat practically parkoured his way up to the top” because my husband is a mountain goat as well and I frequently find myself gasping for breath in my attempts to keep up with him!


  3. Krakow was actually the last stop on my first visit to Poland almost six years ago: I had a blast in town, wandering the gorgeous Old Town, eating hearty Polish food at the milk bars, and doing a couple of pub crawls (when I was young and could still handle it, haha). Like you, I also did a day trip to Auschwitz, and it was certainly a sobering experience…I also did a day trip to Zakopane, which was gorgeous even in the snow (in April!). Poland’s one of my favorite countries I’ve visited, and I’d go back in a heartbeat! Have fun on your four-country trip soon, Clazz!


  4. Great read! I really appreciate that you include several lesser known things to do in Krakow and Poland. I also told my other half about the dick waffles, and being the child that I am, I was the one giggling and not him. One other note: I’ve been to holocaust museums, but I cannot fathom how much worse, and different, it is to visit the actual place.


Leave A Comment After The Tone *beeeep*

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.