Krakow: Could this be the coolest city in Europe right now?
Cheap, cheerful and edgy, the Polish city now rivals Amsterdam in popularity. Stephen White pays a visit.
The party is in full swing as we walk into Plac Nowy (New Square) in the centre of Kazimierz, a little after 10pm on a hot August Saturday.
Tables and chairs from cafes and bars that surround the scruffy but buzzing concrete market area, spill onto the pavements.
Almost all of them are occupied by tourists, including groups of lairy 'nurses' and 'convicts', who look determined to drink the city dry as they shout their way from one drinking hole to the next.
Krakow, the second largest and one of the oldest cities in Poland, plays host to an astonishing 10 million visitors a year - and most of them head for the city's Main Square or the rejuvenated Jewish quarter, Kazimierz.
But these busy old streets were not always a place of such merriment.
Krakow's Jewish community thrived here for more than 500 years and, by the beginning of the Second World War, had swelled to some 68,000 people, about a quarter of the city's population.
Amid diabolical scenes of brutality and deprivation, that number nose-dived almost immediately after the Nazis swept into town, in September, 1939.
Some 52,000 Jews were forcibly deported, suffering atrocities in the nearby Plaszow labour camp (the setting for Steven Spielberg's 1993 epic film, Schindler's List) and the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Belzec death camps.
After the war, Kazimierz was largely abandoned, many of its buildings becoming derelict and its streets dangerous.
But since 1989, when democracy returned to the country, Polish Jews have been free to reclaim confiscated buildings. Low property prices encouraged entrepreneurs to invest, and students looking for cheap accommodation followed, making their homes among the ancient synagogues and packed cemeteries.
The ensuing years have seen a remarkable turnaround - the area is now home to a trendy jumble of tiny galleries, quirky shops, vintage clothing shops and a range of bars and restaurants to suit every taste and wallet.
Where to stay...
Vienna House Andel's Hotel
One of the nicest and handiest hotels is this four-star property, a short walk from Krakow's Main Square. Built in 2007, it has 159 rooms - all big, beautiful and extremely comfortable. The property sits right next to a huge new shopping centre (Galeria Krakowska) and opposite Krakow Glowny (the main railway station) and the city's bus station. The everything-you-could-possibly-think-of breakfasts are a big hit. Rooms cost from €80 per night.
Where to eat...
Kogel Mogel Restaurant
This beautifully furnished traditional restaurant in Sienna Street, near the Main Square, runs a hands-on lesson on how to make pierogi (Polish dumplings). There's also the opportunity to sample a variety made properly and boiled to perfection. Try them stuffed with potatoes and onion, stuffed with minced veal and served with mushroom sauce, and stuffed with stewed sauerkraut and mushrooms. Dumplings workshops cost €57 per group (minimum seven people). Pierogi dishes from €6.50-€9pp.
Mavericks Restaurant, Vienna House Andel's Hotel
Chef Marcin Socha and his staff serve up a deliciously eclectic Californian tasting/sharing menu with various Asian, Mexican and European influences, at this brightly coloured restaurant. Expect a host of big platters piled high with excellent steak, prawns, cod, tuna, tacos, burgers and various accompaniments. Fine Californian wines match the food perfectly. A six-course tasting menu for four costs about £18pp. Wine costs from €22-€61 per bottle.
Where to drink...
Pijalnia Wodki I Piwa (Vodka and Beer Bar), Old Town
No-frills bars, with their trademark old newspapers plastered all over their walls, are springing up all over Poland. Here you can eat, drink, and become very merry on a modest budget. Three pints of good local beer, a small red wine and three shots of lemon vodkas (it's homemade and tastes just like lemon meringue - with a kick) costs less than a tenner. Snacks at less than €2.20 include beef tartare (served with a raw egg), herring in oil, white borscht (classic Polish soup) and a selection of toasties. More substantial, similarly low-cost meals are available.
Starka Restaurant & Vodkas, Kazimierz
The choice of flavoured vodkas sold here is ridiculous, delicious, and all made by staff member Gabriel. Take your pick from a list that includes delightfully intense concoctions such as cranberry, ginger, raspberry, pear, rowanberry, blueberry, apple, mango, mandarin, pineapple. At less than €2.50 a pop (for a large glass), it could easily get silly.
What to do...
Krakow Old Town
The UNESCO World Heritage site is home to the city's Main Square (Rynek Glowny), the biggest medieval town square in Europe, which hosts dozens of festivals every year, including Krakow's famous Christmas Market. In the middle of the square is the magnificent Cloth Hall, home to upmarket craft stalls, cafes and a museum. On its eastern edge you will find the striking 14th Century brick-built St Mary's Basilica - listen for the trumpet call played from the top of the tallest tower on the hour every hour.
The former Polish military barracks is located in Oswiecim, about 40 miles to the west of Krakow. In 1941, a much bigger camp, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, was built less than two miles away. Up to 1.5 million people are believed to have died at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the majority of them in gas chambers immediately after arrival, their bodies burned in huge purpose-built furnaces. Visitors are advised to book a full-day tour with an agency (they are everywhere in Krakow; expect to pay between €28-€39pp), which will arrange transport and a guide.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Built on nine levels, this 700-year-old mine, a 30-minute drive south-east of Krakow, stretches for more than 180 miles and reaches a depth of almost 1,000ft. The three-hour underground visit includes about two miles of walking, hundreds of steps, and a peek at more than 20 chambers (on three levels, max depth 450ft), all hand-hewn from the glistening rock salt. The chambers include magnificent chapels (including the 100m-long St Kinga's Chapel), a ballroom, dozens of superb statues (including one of 'local lad' Pope John Paul II), and a very good restaurant. Admission and guided tours from €20.
For more information, see poland.travel/en and visitkrakow.com.
Read more:Revealed: Europe's 10 cheapest city breaks (and where Dublin ranks)