SoulTravelers3 has practically become a household name for extended travel. The trend continues and more families are Vagabonding around the world. Brenna Gibson Redpath reached out to me about their trip recently — last year Brenna and her husband Bob quit their jobs and sold everything they owned, and their family of four is now exploring the world together.
They share notes and stories about their travel experiences on From Here to Uncertainty. I’m a photography nut and Brenna’s photos are spectacular (the one of Ella by the Vistula River below is magic for me).
I invited Brenna to write a guest post on Krakow, Poland. When I received her photos, my jaw dropped. A Photo Friday must and I have to say, Krakow was never on the top of my Europe travel list but now it is.
Probably not your first thought for this year’s summer vacation, right? Well – Krakow, Poland is a wonderful place for families, and being just on the edge of Eastern Europe, the value can’t be beat! The city holds a unique place, both geographically and historically, bridging Eastern and Western Europe with delightful results.
Krakow, like any European city, has its challenges for the American visitor. Our family found Polish a hard language to crack, and while most younger people, and practically everyone in the service industry, speak English, the older generation, as a whole, does not.
Krakow is charmingly crumbly around the edges. It’s not elegant Vienna or picture-perfect Rothenburg. It’s a real city, still recovering in some ways from Soviet era rule. It’s also one of the few European cities that didn’t get bombed to smithereens during World War II. In Krakow, the building you’re looking at may have bullet-holes in it, but it’s the original 17th century building, not one reconstructed within the last 50 years.
Another reason to love Krakow is simply that it’s not Prague. It’s been called the ‘next Prague”, but it’s not over-run, over-touristed, and over-expensive yet. Get there before it is.
There are ‘do’ vacations, and ‘be’ vacations. In Krakow you can choose either, or both. Our family spent 6 weeks there last summer. We never got bored, and we were sorry to leave.
5 things we loved in Krakow:
The Rynek Glowny
The Grand Square in the center of Old Town is a giant playground for kids. It’s the largest medieval town square in Europe, and all that space means freedom to run. It’s perfect for weary parents too. The square is rimmed with outdoor cafes, selling everything from pizza to pierogi. Our kids loved them. My husband and I spent many evenings sitting at an outdoor table drinking wine while our kids ran around the square chasing pigeons and climbing on statues. It’s a relaxing way to wind down a day.
The buskers that populate the square are the best we’ve seen anywhere in Europe. So many are truly talented performers, who know how to put on a show. Our kids each had their favorites, and pierogis often got cold at the table as they tore off to watch the break-dancing guy spin on his head again.
In the tower of Saint Mary’s Basilica a trumpet plays the henja every hour, on the hour, continuing the 700-year-old tradition. We all loved it, and made the climb up the 266-foot tower to watch the trumpeter play. The views of the city from there are, of course, spectacular.
The Dragon At Wawel Castle
According to legend, Wawel Castle was built atop the lair of Smok Wawelski, an evil dragon from Polish folklore. You can visit his cave, hiking down, down, down narrow circular steps to the dragon’s cool, damp hideaway. It’s good kitsch fun, if not very historical. At the exit of the cave is a statue of Smok, who shoots fire out of his mouth every few minutes. He looks out over the Vistula river, and he’s surrounded by venders selling little stuffed Smoks, Smok keychains and Smok snowglobes. He may be the most exploited tourist attraction in the city.
Wawel is a hodge-podge of a castle, with an “addition” for practically every architectural style in the last thousand years. It’s not elegant, or rich with plunder. It is wonderfully relaxed and accessible, which really works for kids. You don’t have that herd-of-cows experience of shuffling in between the velvet ropes. Our son spent a few hours in the armory, getting an up-close look at some of the longest swords and most ornate guns he’d ever seen.
Wieliczka Salt Mines
A day trip from Krakow, this place is truly awe-inspiring. Salt was mined at Wieliczka from the 13th century until just a few years ago. The miners who worked there in the early days also lived there, full time. Horses were born, lived their lives, and died in the mines, never having seen the sun. In this underground world of work and sweat, the miners made their homes in the salt, creating beauty in their leisure time. They carved cute little gnomes, and monuments to famous Poles. They created a huge cathedral, with murals and statues, all carved out of the salt. Hanging from the ceiling are enormous and beautiful salt chandeliers.
It’s not that the miners were all incredibly gifted artists. What’s so very cool is that they chose to spend their spare time doing this work, instead if drinking enormous quantities of vodka, which is what I may have done, faced with weeks without sun.
The tour is quirky and low tech. Our guide was funny and irreverent, and deeply, deeply Polish. We loved her. My advice: Don’t take a tour bus from Krakow for this one. Take public transport on your own and you’ll have the time to enjoy it much more.
Kazimierz is the old Jewish quarter of Krakow, and has a completely different feel than Old Town. It’s steeped in history, which my husband and I found fascinating and sobering. But we also found it deeply atmospheric and rich. The kids liked all the hip little shops, restaurants, and neighborhood squares. It’s where the nightlife is, we hear — we’ll have to take their word for it.
Kazimierez is enjoying it’s renaissance, but according to a friend we met in Krakow, it will never be completely renovated. There are too many buildings that still have no known owner since Jewish property was confiscated during World War II.
The Vistula River
The Vistula flows through the city, and past Wawel Castle. Walkways wind along the river, perfect for a break from city streets. We didn’t take any boat rides, but we spent wonderful afternoons ambling along the Vistula, having picnics and picking wildflowers.
Krakow is an easily walkable city, which also has a good public transportation system. Our apartment was close to everything a tourist wants to see: the Square, Kazimierz, Wawel Castle, the Planty, and the Vistula, all in different directions.
Speaking of apartments – when we travel, we rent. Our kids are better travelers when they can eat their cereal and milk while still wearing their pajamas in the morning, and a washing machine can be a lifesaver for a traveling family. If you’re interested in renting a furnished apartment in Krakow, there are a few good websites to try. HomeAway and HolidayLettings.co.uk are both worth a look. OldCityApartments.eu specializes in Krakow. Expect to pay $600 – $1200 a week for a place that sleeps 6, depending on the time of year, and how luxuriously you want to live. We were on the lower end of that scale, and were perfectly happy with our spacious 2-bedroom flat with a pullout couch.
Finally, I can’t talk about Krakow without talking about Auschwitz. It is not a family destination. My husband and I took turns going solo, and we wouldn’t have missed the sobering and memorable experience. There are inexpensive tour busses that leave from Old Town regularly, taking you to both Auschwitz and Birkenau. They handle the experience with a great deal of dignity and respect. The memorial doesn’t recommend visits for children under the age of 14.
Krakow is a unique city. It’s a bit gritty, and a bit undiscovered. Yet it also feels very accessible and friendly. Our family can’t wait to go back.
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