Krakow is one of Europe’s best Christmas market breaks, says Jamie Ball. But there’s more to it than festive fancies...
With up to 100 souvenir and hot food stalls stoking the atmosphere around its medieval square, Krakow is a king among European Christmas cities.
Often, though not always, covered in Yuletide snow, Krakow’s Christmas market runs from the last week of November until December 26. Set in the heart of the city’s vast historic square, Rynek Glowny, a multitude of wooden stalls sells everything from Christmas decorations, gifts and sweets to hot dishes and mulled wine. Factor in the entertaining children ensembles and carol-singing locals and you can’t go wrong.
Polish cuisine is under-rated. Try kotlet schabowy (breaded pork), pierogi (dumplings) or bigos (a traditional meat stew) at Christmas markets and Krakow’s top restaurants: Pod Nosem (kanonicza22.com), Kogel Mogel (kogel-mogel.pl/en) and Mavericks (mavericksrestaurant.pl). Draught beer “selections” can be dull, so craft beer lovers should get along to the House of Beer (houseofbeerkrakow.com).
The medieval Wawel Castle comes close, but Krakow doesn’t really have an iconic trophy site. Slowly wander the regal city centre, before ambling down to Kazimierz (the Jewish Quarter) for street art, bookshops and shabby-chic vintage clothes stores.
‘Can you eat the walls?’ isn’t a question you hear very often. Not until you find yourself 160m below ground in Poland, in the 700-year-old Wieliczka Salt Mine, at least. It’s a question our stooped-over guide, dressed like an antiquated porter from Wes Anderson’s movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, gets on a daily basis.
Just south of Krakow, Wieliczka is the oldest still-working salt mine in Europe. Once churning out 1,000 tonnes a day, just two of its 280km of tunnels are open to the public these days, aside from a subterranean health spa where respiratory-afflicted Poles recuperate, sometimes for weeks on end, in its allergen-free, cool, even temperatures.
For more, see wieliczka-saltmine.com.
Over 13m people visited Krakow last year. It remains serenely beautiful, and definitely cheaper than Ireland, but is no longer bargain-basement territory.
Outside of Christmas, the best time to visit is shoulder season — September to October, or mid-April to mid-June.
Stay at Vienna House Andel’s Cracow (yes, an all ‘c’ Krakow!), an artfully furnished and very hospitable smart-casual hotel, barely 10 minutes’ stroll from the city centre, with an excellent restaurant and bar. Rooms from €80 per night (viennahouse.com). Oh, and remember Poles use the Zloty, not the euro — at the time of writing, €1 = 4.3 PLN.
Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from Dublin to Krakow. For more information, see visitkrakow.com and slaskie.travel/en-US.
Jamie was a guest of the Polish National Tourist Office and Vienna House.