“So what will we do with you now?
He said it long and slow, biting into W’s and licking his L’s.
“Are you joking?” I said, my heart racing faster than it should of been.
“Not joking you. You must pay.”
All I could see was his big dumb polished head reflecting the bus stop information screen.
“Ok, ok, look. I tried to buy a ticket but I couldn’t figure out that machine. I just arrived and I’m trying to find my hotel. Can you please cut me a break or at the very least just back off a little bit.”
Only in Eastern Europe would bus ticket checkers resemble some kind of gang. They had no uniforms, piercings in their eyebrows, and seemed to know no other way to converse than by physical intimidation.
As you might expect, I wasn’t thrilled by my first experience in Krakow. I even regretted coming for a few minutes.
But this is the kind of thing that Eastern Europe is all about. It’s rough around the edges. And I was definitely expecting this.
Fortunately, Krakow got better. It got a lot better.
Although Krakow retains a level of Eastern European ghetto-ness, it’s more refined, historic, delicious, and budget friendly than I could have ever imagined.
Krakow Isn’t like The Rest Of Eastern Europe
I was always under the impression that all everybody ever did here was drink vodka. But the very first thing I saw, before I nearly got beat by ticket controllers, were hundreds of fit people jogging along the river in the evening light.
There’s also something very peculiar about the population of Krakow. In all my time here, I never once saw a Roma, an African immigrant, or really anyone foreign who wasn’t a tourist. It was a bit bizarre, and raised a lot of controversial questions for me. At the same time, I have to admit, never once being hassled was really refreshing.
It’s not just the people of Krakow, who seem health conscious, liberal, and ubiquitously Polish, but it’s also the history that sets this city apart. Unlike many European cities that suffered complete destruction during the wars of the 20th century, Krakow was never bombed. This means that all of it’s 150 churches and it’s castles, some of which date back to the 13th century, are all in tact. You can also find Schindler’s factory, along with the whole set of the movie, practically as it was in the 1940’s.
Each block transports one to different eras. It’s nostalgique, melancholic, and simply charming.
Eastern European Cheap
The architecture is antiquated and prices seem to be too. Everything in Krakow is cheap. The 30 minute bus ride from the Airport to downtown costs just 1$ (Unless you don’t have a ticket and then it’s 35$). And tram and bus tickets around the city go for 50 cents a ride.
Krakow is also full of cheap eats, from 4 and 5 star restaurant dishes for around 10$ to street food for just a buck.
You can sleep cheap too with a dorm bed in a quaint centrally located hostel for just 10$ (Good Bye Lenin Hostel). Or you can splurge a bit and get a private cabin in a boat hotel for 2 for just 26$ – Excellent breakfast spread included. (Hostel On The River Marta)
Hip & Delicious
The beauty of the cities is only rivaled by it’s traditional fare. In Kazimierz, Krakow’s Jewish quarter, Polish Jew’s are rediscovering their rich traditions and cuisine. At street side cafes you’ll find the most delicious Kosher Polish fusion in the world. Definitely try the Perogies, Polish dumplings filled with cabbage and potatoes.
Just a few blocks away in Ploc Nowy, the ‘hipster’ square, you’ll find vodka bars (aka Bania Luka) and beer gardens with drink and food all for just 75 cents a glass/plate. Be sure to try a Zapoekanka, Krakow’s ultimate drunk people food. It’s basically a huge French oven pizza smothered with mushrooms and cheese, and whole lot of ketchup on top for just 1$.
An Unfortunate Past
Just 60 kilometers away from Krakow lay the largest and most notorious concentration camp of Nazi regime, Auschwitz.
Here, nearly 1,300,000 Jew, Poles, and other enemies of the Reich were murdered. It’s an extremely sobering day trip and something everyone should experience, whether you’re interested in this history or not.
Eastern European & Ghetto?
Yes, there are some aspects of Krakow that make it unmistakably Eastern European and a bit ghetto.
But the city is ghetto is the best kind of way. Delicious drunk people street food and modern Polish fusion at sidewalk bistros thrive side by side. Everything is remarkably cheap from food and accommodation to transport and attractions, but the city is anything but poor. And crumbling streets aren’t simply in disrepair, they’re just really old and charming.