Oswiecim and Nowa Huta! Walking through history.
If you haven’t visited Kraków then you haven’t visited Poland, po prostu!
Upon leaving Katowice, my next destination was the famed former capital of Poland, Kraków. In this post, I’d like to give you a basic overview of how I spent the third to fifth days of my Polish tour, again with some of my philosophical musings and perspectives as a foreigner. Where Katowice embodied the industrial side of Poland, Kraków simply encapsulates everything that has made Poland “Poland” over the centuries. Without a doubt Kraków is the most Polish of Polish cities! If you haven’t visited Kraków then you haven’t visited Poland, po prostu! For Kraków, I definitely recommend you spend at least a few days here, a day trip will simply not do it justice.
what will you find out?
What to see in Cracow?
What’s the story behind Nowa Huta district?
Why should you visit Auschwitz?
Auschwitz-Birkenau, The Old Town in Cracow, Nowa Huta
Before I reached Kraków however, I first stopped in the town of Oświęcim, unfortunately known better to history and the world by its German name “Auschwitz”. Between 1941 to 1945 in the concentration camp just outside the town, by a whole range of cruel and sadistic means, Germany’s Nazi regime murdered over 1 million of the up to 20 million men, women and children they and their allies killed in total during the Holocaust. Under no circumstances could I miss this place along with the opportunity to pay my respects and witness the grandest site of human nature at its worst.
I think everybody should come here. It’s a cliché about how visiting Auschwitz changes you but it’s true. For some, the realisation of what actually happened here and the resultant horror takes its toll quickly. For me, I remained cold and detached while there at least, but little things (and not so little things) stuck with me inside my head, refusing to leave. Almost 6 months later, I can say I’ve changed my entire approach to life, the world and my fellow human beings. As people, every day so many of us are so awful to each other in various small ways. Is it so surprising that under the right circumstances, sometimes we all start killing each other? The world would be such a better place if we could all just be a little more kind to and tolerant of each other.
The Auschwitz Museum is split into two sections so make sure you head to “Auschwitz 1” first. Auschwitz 1 was the work camp closer to the town while Auschwitz 2 was the death camp further away in the outskirts. There’s also another pertinent point I’d like to make. It pains me that I have to actually say this but while here, can people put the phones away please? Are the selfies and pictures really necessary? This isn’t Disneyland.
The old town
Upon arriving in the former Polish capital, the first thing you must do is to head to the Main Square. You’re there now? Ok, now pick your jaw up off the ground. Kraków’s main square is literally like something out of a dream, especially when everything is lit up at night. The beauty on display here was a whole new world for a sheltered Brit like myself, though the overpriced restaurants for rich tourists and the various guys offering you drugs and/or free entry to strip clubs maybe puts a little dampener on the atmosphere. My advice when it comes to the former is to go to any of the restaurants in the side streets, they are far more reasonable. My advice when it comes to the latter is to not be a sinner, save your soul! 😉
Anyway, I recommend you spend a few hours just walking around the city to appreciate all the beautiful preserved historical architecture, as Kraków thankfully escaped major damage during the Second World War. Every style from Gothic and medieval to Renaissance and Baroque is here. The entire Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Poland’s national Historic Monuments. While Kraków’s buildings may look old and dignified, let me tell you that this city is always ready to party! Pub crawls, clubs and whatnot abound both for locals and the throngs of tourists. Be prepared for a good time!
It’s now the next morning, you’re possibly a little worse for wear and want to get to know Kraków a little better. Well the Main Square alone could quite possibly occupy you for a large amount of a day! Among the places I visited here was St Mary’s Basilica, one of Poland’s most famous churches dating back to the 14th century. Head inside and be wowed by the utterly magnificent interior. Bang in the centre of the square you will also find the Cloth Hall. This specific Renaissance structure was built in the 16th century, however the Cloth Hall was in operation since the 15th century. This just might be the world’s oldest shopping mall! Underneath the surface of the square, the Underground Museum dealing with Kraków’s medieval history awaits you. I spent a good two or three hours in this museum and I recommend it very much. Like all Polish museums, it stuns and dazzles.
Wawel Royal Castle is another UNESCO World Heritage Site and essential landmark for you to visit. One of Poland’s largest castles, for centuries this was the residence of Poland’s monarchs and the symbol of Polish statehood. Today, it serves the dual purpose of continuing to symbolise Polish independence while also hosting one of the country’s premier art museums. I also visited the Home Army Museum, which commemorates and documents the heroic activities of one of the largest underground resistance movements in occupied Europe during WW2. I can never get enough of my WW2 history and at the risk or repeating myself, I once again would like to sing the praises of Polish museums.
To the south of the Old Town, you have some delicious Georgian cuisine from the restaurant “Tbilisuri” waiting for you and the Kazimierz district. Kazimierz historically was the epicenter of where Polish and Jewish culture met, combined and flourished, until its Jewish inhabitants were tragically deported to the Kraków ghetto by the German occupiers in 1941. Kazimierz, now an artistic district, is filled with synagogues and Jewish restaurants. A visit here is especially poignant after experiencing Auschwitz.
Take a tram out to the eastern outskirts of Kraków and you will arrive in a very different world from the Old Town, you will instead be met by the concrete jungle of Nowa Huta. Following the defeat of Nazi Germany and the USSR’s consolidation of power over the countries of the Eastern Bloc, Poland’s new Communist government had a major popularity problem, especially here in Kraków. The solution? Some good old social engineering and the construction of an in your face proletarian city to be populated by red flag-waving steel-workers, as an alternative to intellectual middle-class Kraków which kept inconveniently voting the wrong way. You can see how well that worked for the PZPR regime by the fact that by the 1980s 29,000 of the local Vladimir Lenin (now Tadeusz Sendzimir) Steelworks’ 38,000 workers were active members of the pro-democracy Solidarity trade union.
Today, Lenin’s statue is long gone from the main square. The square itself, having once borne the name of the Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin, in an amusing twist of fate now bears the name of that great patron of drug-trafficking death squads and Islamic fundamentalists, Ronald Reagan. Nowa Huta remains however, and similarly to the city centre is like stepping back in time to another epoch. This is one of only two examples of an entire city district planned and constructed completely in the socialist realist fashion (the only other being Magnitogorsk in Russia). The whole layout was also designed so it could be locked down like a fortress in the event of the Cold War becoming hot, the trees and green areas dotted all around helping to soak up a nuclear blast while the wide Parisian-esque avenues would prevent the spread of fire. I only spent a few hours here, walking through the imposing streets contrasted by the lovely green areas (Nowa Huta is actually the greenest area of Kraków), but it was an impressive few hours for sure. There’s nothing, absolutely zero, of Kraków’s beauty to be found here but in its place is a sheer, utilitarian practicality that I found very interesting. Speaking for myself, I always find these remnants of the failed attempt at an alternative modernity fascinating.
watch our video from cracow
I believe this section of my Polish tour was what truly elevated it into the life-changing experience it was for me. The Auschwitz Museum is the world’s most important museum, while Kraków is one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Earlier, I recommended to spend a few days here – in fact, I think you could even spend up to a whole week in this magical city. In hindsight, I feel I only scratched the surface of Kraków, this city that truly manifests everything that makes the Polish nation amazing! Book your holiday now!
my top 3 favourite places
The old town in Cracow
Kraków’s main square is literally like something out of a dream, especially when everything is lit up at night.
Today, Lenin’s statue is long gone from the main square.
It’s a cliché about how visiting Auschwitz changes you but it’s true.