With a raging nightlife, and a charming Medieval city centre, Kraków has long been a firm tourist favourite. But as Linda Volpe wanders off the well-beaten trail, she discovers five lesser-known facts about Kraków that might surprise - and definitely delight - visitors to Poland's second city.
It often plays second fiddle to the country’s capital Warsaw, but historical Kraków bears its own, one-of-a-kind charm. The patchwork of old buildings, churches and cobbled thoroughfares spread throughout the picturesque Old Town makes up a compact city centre that is second to none. Add to this a fair share of cutting-edge galleries, down-to-earth bars and smart hangouts, and Kraków’s magnetic allure becomes easy to understand.
Energetic and thriving, the city is known to many for its troubled past. Kraków’s history can be traced back to the 7th century when it was a bustling trade centre. The Second World War saw the city undergo dramatic changes but the Old Town miraculously managed to remain untouched. The vestiges of wartime struggles are woven closely into the city’s fabric in landmarks such as the Jewish Ghetto, Shindler’s Factory and the dreadful presence of Aushwitz lurking just beyond the city limits.
But present day Kraków, is so more than a collection of historical landmarks from a harrowing past. Pulsating with life, theatres and cabarets, the city has developed into the Polish capital of culture, offering year-round entertainment. Kraków is renowned for its bar scene and you'll find a plethora of pedestrian areas lined with happening hangouts permanently bustling with a young, trendy crowd. And just in case you needed any more persuasion to come and take a look, read on for five relatively unknown but delightful facts that will place Kraków firmly on your travel bucket list.
1. Kraków Sits On Top Of An Ancient Underground City
It is easy to get carried away by the city’s Medieval flair, its many historical sites and the bustling bar scene of the above-ground Kraków, but tucked away four metres under the hubbub of the Market Square, a true treasure lies hidden. Much to their surprise, builders in 2005 accidentally bumped into the ruins of the old Kraków, discovering one of the most compelling attractions in town. Spread over 43, 000 square metres, the site is known as Rynek Underground and is made up of forgotten tunnels and buried buildings, perfectly capturing life as it used to be in Middle Age.
2. A Trumpet Sounds Every Hour
Set in the heart of the city-centre, St. Mary’s Church, aka Bazylika Mariacka, is a red-bricked, 13th century Gothic church. Legend has it that as the First Mongol invasion of Poland approached, a brave trumpeter sounded the alarm and succeeded in getting the city's gates closed just in time. The city was saved, but the trumpeter was shot in the throat and died. In memory of his noble sacrifice, the Heinal Mariacki, a traditional, five-note Polish anthem is played at the stroke of every hour from the church’s tallest tower, breaking off mid-tune to recall the fall of the soldier-saviour.
3. Good Vodka is Cheap and Cultural
It might not come as a total surprise, but vodka in Kraków (and in Poland, generally) is wonderfully cheap and wonderfully good. The city traces its history of the potato-derived fire water back to the Middle Ages, and while vodka is a traditional part of Polish culture generally, it reaches a whole new level in Kraków. Clear Polish vodkas, such as the highly regarded Belvedere and Chopin, are generally reserved for weddings and special treats in fancy cocktails. But visit any bar in the city, and you'll be presented with an overwhelming choice of coloured and flavoured varieties which is where the real fun lies. Wiśniówka is a dangerously delicious and cheap cherry-flavoured vodka favoured by students and pensioners, men and women alike. Żołądkowa Gorzka is another variation that's definitely worth sampling. Served on ice, this aged, amber-coloured vodka is flavoured with herbs and spices to give it a unique sweet-spice aroma and is thought to be good for whatever ails you. Mix and mingle at the city’s glossy bars and clubs on a pub crawl or set out on a vodka tour and you'll discover vodka's special place in Kraków.
4. Milk Bars Serve Traditional Polish Fare
After a hard day of exploring, your thoughts will no doubt be set on seeking out some tasty, traditional fare. For a properly authentic Polish meal, get a table at one of Kraków's many city centre milk bars. These down-to-earth eateries were established at the end of the 19th century when milk soups were commonly served to workers in the morning, gaining a reputation for offering inexpensive and nourishing meals. Today, the menu has changed somewhat and you'll find a whole range of delicious and traditional dishes at extremely reasonable prices, such as at Bar Mleczny in the Old Town.
5. You'll Get a Warm and Friendly Welcome
A truth universally acknowledged is that the people make a place. It is a common misconception that Polish are cold but it couldn't be further from the truth. Touch down in Kraków and from your very first encounters, you'll discover that the locals are hearty, chatty and ready to engage in a conversation and share a vodka.
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