Buckle up, this is a lonnnnnnnng post!
Like many folks, we had big plans for 2020. Many visitors were lined up for our last year in Hungary with tons of trips on the calendar to look forward to together. Unfortunately, Covid gave us all a reality check and everything – EVERYTHING – was cancelled. Throughout the summer as some destinations began permitting regulated tourism, we had hoped our last tour to Montenegro with friends would pan out. But alas, they had a surge in cases and remained a restricted country, so our vision was dashed. In fact, many places around Hungary began seeing cases rise, so we were surprised (and thrilled!) to see that Poland was still permitting visitors and hadn’t shut its borders just yet. We decided to take full advantage of the low-tourist season in Poland and take our very last trip in Eastern Europe to Kraków. We were so excited and grateful! We had visited Kraków once before, two years prior (see blog here), but we didn’t get to visit any of the WWII sites such as Auschwitz or the famous Wieliczka Salt Mine. We knew the caveat to visiting Poland was laying low for 10 days upon returning to Hungary out of respect for the rules, but it was worth it to eat so much amazing food, tour the area, and have the city practically to ourselves. We take this pandemic seriously and don’t take any chances, and Kraków was taking it seriously too. The kids are obsessive about hand washing/sanitizing and we always, always wore our mask wherever we went!
With flu season on the horizon, cases rising, and countries on lockdown, this will probably our last family vacation until sometime in 2021. But that is fine by us. This Thanksgiving season, in spite of the disappointments in 2020, we have so much to be thankful for. Our goal in Belgium is to just settle into our new home and be together. As long as we are healthy, travel can wait.
One of the most memorable parts of this trip was the food. Kraków is hands-down the best foodie destination we have visited (in variety, quality, and value) as every single thing we had was delicious and nothing broke the bank! In our travels we learned that Poland is the world’s largest exporter of mushrooms. As our Polish friend Tomasz likes to stay, “All mushrooms are edible, but some only once.” Luckily, 4/5 of us love mushrooms! In 2019, Kraków was deemed the “European Capital of Gastronomic Culture” and it is clear to see why. We loved staying in the Kazimierz District (aka the Jewish quarter), as all of the restaurants we wanted to visit were within walking distance and most were recommended by friends who had traveled here before us. Let’s go on a culinary carpet ride through Kazimierz…
Warning: Don’t read this section while hungry!
Marchewka z Groszkiem
Marchewka z Groszkiem (translated: Carrots With Peas) is a terrific, authentic Polish restaurant that welcomed us graciously, even without a reservation. We were so hungry after our long drive that we were happy to see this place right around the corner from our Air BnB. It is a small dining area with a cozy, grotto feel. We ordered three plates of pierogies, potato pancakes with a variety of toppings (mushroom and beef), local brews, specialty lemonades for the kids, and a big salad. Everything tasted great, service was swift and super friendly, and the bill (including a generous tip!) was under $50 for the whole family. We even had leftovers to share with Bonsai (our yorkie)! The folks at Marchewka z Groszkiem will also give you frozen pierogies to take home if you order ahead. How great is that?
The next morning we walked up to Karma Cafe, a vegetarian, Earth-friendly joint on the west side of the Stare Miasto district, or Old Town. They have a second location closer to where we were staying, but that was their roastery, not their restaurant. We ordered up at the counter: coffees, pancakes for the kids, mango ginger smoothies, an omelette for daddy and two pieces of quiche for me. That quiche – let me just say – I can still taste it! The tomato and thyme was to die for. We all loved our meals in this tiny, but super cute little eatery.
Ciuciu Sugar Artist
Ok, this isn’t exactly a restaurant, but they are creating amazing concoctions here! We arrived at Ciuciu just in time to watch the sugar masters at work, rolling and pulling and sculpting a huge chunk of sugar into an impossibly long and thin line of candy. When cut into tiny bits, the impressive designs inside are visible, including a cactus (being rolled in the photos below), sayings like “I love you,” and intricate pictures of animals, flowers, and other objects. They’re the best! It is super entertaining and educational for the kids, but even better is tasting their tiny delights! We took home several bags of these sweet treasures.
HAMSA HUMMUS & HAPPINESS
Hamsa Israeli restaurant has a great reputation in Kraków, and interestingly, was opened by three non-Jewish friends who wanted to bring the food and culture of Israel to share with the people of Kraków. It has an enormous, impressive menu, and the service was swift and super friendly. Honestly, we didn’t dine anywhere that had bad service. We ordered a large lamb tajine, humus platter with falafel and beautiful bread, a pastrami sandwich, beetroot carpaccio and a salad. Gosh, when are we going to learn to scale down our orders?! Everything was so good, and even though we shared each dish family-style, we still couldn’t manage to eat it all. Again, Bonsai was lucky to get leftovers. What a fun place to eat – classic dishes, delicious food, and surprisingly low prices.
Alchemia od Kuchni
We walked all over the Kazimierz district to get to Alchemia for brunch. I am pretty determined to find Eggs Benedict wherever we travel, and this place promised to deliver. The dining room was quaint, but the city was so quiet we were usually the only ones in these restaurants. Only one other table had customers! The kids indulged in hot cocoa while we waited for our meals – the girls ordering Eggs Benny, daddy Eggs Florentine and Beau a big English Breakfast! Amazingly, with coffees and drinks and all of our big meals, it only cost $35 for our family of five to dine here. What a bargain! Thank you, Krakow! Oh, and the Eggs Benedict definitely passed the test. Mouthwatering!
EDO SUSHI BAR
The kids were begging for sushi, so we found this restaurant next to its sister restaurant Edo Asian Fusion, and decided to try it. Although we didn’t have a reservation, the staff at Edo Sushi Bar ushered us right into one of their private back rooms where we sat traditional-style on the floor to dine. We went way overboard ordering again but this time not a single roll of sushi was left behind! It was by far the best sushi we have had since living in Europe, so it was more than worth the splurge. Willow even tried eel for the first time (one of my faves!) and loved it! I am so grateful for adventurous eaters.
One afternoon before going on a little golf cart city tour, we stopped into Hilo for poke bowls at this cute little Hawaiian eatery. Beau had a hankering for a hamburger so he went in that direction while the girls had udon noodle bowls and Derek and I opted for poke. It didn’t disappoint! The kind waitress even brought Willow paper and colors to keep her occupied while we waited for our meal. Very satisfying and fun to try so many different foods all in one district – let alone in one restaurant!
Poco Loco Tequila Bar
Poco Loco was a hit from the moment we walked in. The light hearted, colorful atmosphere was inviting and fun. We ordered up tacos, a burrito bowl, and a huge platter of burritos, quesadillas, nachos and guacamole to share. Just, yum. How many more flavors can we fit into one five day getaway!? Definitely go to Poco Loco. Even with drinks and a tip, the entire meal was only $45! Fresh, festive, and fabulous food!
Another conservation-minded company is Massolit. They have several vegetarian locations across the city including Massolit Cooks, Massolit Bakes, and Massolit Bakery & Cafe. We visited the Bakery & Cafe and weren’t at once impressed with the seating or menu options (although the location is super cool and wow – all those books!), so we decided to check out Massolit Bakes instead to fuel our morning morning walk around the Podgórze District. And boy do they ever bake! We tasted half of what they had available and stuffed ourselves with chocolate chip zucchini bread, chocolate croissants, cinnamon rolls, a bagel sandwhich and quiche! Just, yum. This place is especially dog friendly too, as we noticed every single person coming in with dogs while we were there (that’s a lot of dogs!). Of note is that this location doesn’t really have seating – only a couple of stools at a grab-and-go style bar. We were fine with that, but if you’re looking for a more relaxed atmosphere, you’re better off going to Massolit Cooks, where they have a proper dining room.
Pierogi MR Vincent
This teeny tiny restaurant is one we tried to go to but they were full every time we walked by – a testament to their quality! Finally Pierogi Mr Vincent had room for us one day at lunch time and we squeezed inside. The one little old lady who was the server was the only person we encountered who spoke no English at all, but she welcomed us warmly and sat us at two of their six or so tables for dine-in. Didi was such a good sport when an entire glass of water spilled on her (it’s almost like she’s used to it by now…?) and the waitress helped by hanging her shirt over a heater. This place was impeccably decorated to feel like we were walking into the world of Vincent Van Gogh, down to every detail. I’m surprised I even got a photo here because we were stuffing our faces with plate after plate of pierogies from sweet to savory – definitely the best we ever had. Pierogi Mr Vincent had more combinations than I remember anywhere else, too! Highly recommend.
The last place we ate was Ranny Ptaszek, a cute little vegetarian breakfast bar with only 3 tables for inside dining and four tables for sidewalk dining. It was well worth eating al fresco in the chilly morning air to have these gorgeous dishes: scrambled egg toast, chickpea and egg mash loaded with cilantro and parsley and a veggie sausage, roasted pumpkin veggie quinoa bowl, hummus and pita bread, and shakshuka! This place knows what they’re doing. What a delicious feast to send us on our merry way! And all of this, plus complimentary pickled veggies and specialty coffees for only $27. I can’t get enough!
I sure hope all of these amazing eateries can survive the drought during the pandemic. We did our part to try to keep them in business.
About 15 minutes from our apartment was the Wawel Royal Castle at the south entrance of Stare Miasto, or the legendary Kraków Old Town. The castle looms above the Vistula River and is accented by the famous fire-breathing dragon, that this time we only viewed from above. We passed the castle many times on our outings, then finally walked up and through it on one of our last days.
The Rynek Główny is the largest Main Square in Europe! It is separated into two main sections by the Cloth Hall with the St. Mary’s Basilica, Church of St. Wojciech, and Church of St. Barbara In Krakow on one end and the Town Hall Tower on the other. It boasts sculptures, statues, a huge hall with shop kiosks, tons of restaurants and stores, and in the winter time, one of the best Christmas Markets in all of Europe. It is a sight to behold indeed!
Branching out from the Main Square are streets weaving like a web out to the border park that surrounds the entire Old Town district. Wonderful shops and eateries line the streets, as well as the occasional street artist or musician. St. Florian’s Gate is a the northern side of Old Town and was completed in the 14th century. The entirety of Stare Miasto is on the UNESCO World Heritage list as a treasured site, which is understandable given its beauty, history and charm.
Just outside St. Florian’s Gate is the Kraków Barbican, a defense gateway built in the 1490’s that remains in impeccable condition. Nearby the Barbican is Grunwald Monument, dedicated to the medieval Battle of Grunwald that was among the most important in Polish history.
It was a beautiful day when we finally walked up and through the castle taking in the views over Kraków. Everything was closed so we couldn’t go inside, but it was enough to wander the courtyards and check out the varying architecture that spans the last 700 years.
We stayed in the Kazimierz District (which we highly recommend) as it was the best location to walk to all the restaurants we wanted to eat at. The streets have endless eateries and shops plus graffiti galore. There is a terrific playground at Plac Zabaw that, under normal circumstances (not a pandemic) would be super fun for the kids to play at. This whole district borders the river Vistula and has two large Synagogues from the 15th and 19th centuries as well as a big, beautiful Basilica (of Corpus Christi) built in the 15th century.
Graffiti galore (below) and the view from the rooftop of our Air BnB in Kazimierz.
One night we went to this pretty silly indoor mini “galactic” golf course that, in all honesty, looked kind of like walking into a crack house (or what I would imagine). It was sketchy to say the least, but once inside the kids had fun! The novelty was more about the black lights than the actual experience, but since it wasn’t busy there, the kids had their way with the miniature mini golf course.
The Podgórze District is pretty huge and encompasses a big section of Kraków. It is known as the area where the Nazis pushed the Jews of the Kazimierz district, creating the enormous Kraków Ghetto, depicted in the movie Schindler’s List. We crossed Father Bernatek’s Footbridge (now covered in “locks of love”) over the Vistula River to check out several sites in the district.
Of note is the one remaining section of the Ghetto Wall (pictured above), as well as the Plac Bohaterów Getta, or Ghetto Heroes Square, a monument commemorating the Jews of the Kraków Ghetto. Nearby is Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory (below) that has been reconstructed and turned into a fascinating museum depicting the life of Jews in Kraków before, during, and after WWII and the Holocaust. Nobody loves Kraków like my friend Ashlyn of MiddleWorldAdventures, so go check out her series of posts on this great city if you want to learn more!
A bit further south (and across a major highway) is the elevated green park area adjacent to the Kamieniołom Liban (quarry) that boasts one of the best views overlooking Kraków: the Krakus Mound. It is unknown when or how this mound made its origin, but it was a lot of fun for the kids to climb, and it was a nice break from all the city walking. We may or may not have snagged a ($4) UBER back to town after the kids used all their energy playing in the trees…
The beautiful St. Joseph’s church is also located in this district, impressing onlookers with clusters of medieval spires on this early 1900’s gothic-style building.
schindler enamel factory & museum
We were so glad to see this museum was open and taking good precautions during the pandemic. We were one of only 3 families weaving our way through the rooms of exhibits and we were glad to have it that way. Social distancing matters! The different rooms were separated by date and significant event. We all learned so much – it really was so well presented with rooms and rooms of memorabilia. We learned that the only part of the factory that is exactly as it was are the entryway gate doors, pictured below.
Below is Schindler’s desk and a huge cube made of pots and pans made in the factory. Inside were the names of the 1,200 Jews Oskar Schindler worked to save. It is true that he may have begun his journey to Kraków as a Nazi-sympathizing opportunist, but the gravity of the situation gripped him and he eventually spent all of his money to protect and save his workers.
It was good for the kids to see the tokens of remembrance and exhibits that made life the war come to life. They asked good questions and I think they understood it in a way that was right for them. I look forward to asking them in a few years what they remember. Maybe these photos can help!
In addition to Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory Museum, we were able to drive about an hour outside of Kraków to Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp – the largest complex of all the Nazi extermination camps. This was, of course, a somber visit, and one we didn’t take lightly. We visited Dachau in Germany 2 years prior, so the children remembered what they learned there and understood this is a place to honor the souls who lost their lives here so brutally. Derek wasn’t with us for our visit to Dachau, so I think it had the biggest impact on him. It was chilling to walk through the gates – the same ones cattle cars full of people were moved through on trains to their fate. Over one million people were killed here, mostly Jews and prisoners from Poland and neighboring Hungary, Soviet Union and Romania. As important as it is to witness what happened here, it is also essential to hear from the survivors whose testimony serves as a window into the past. We have read numerous books by survivors; standing on that bloody ground brought a whole new perspective to their stories.
We had all learned of the horrific way masses of people were transported to concentration camps, but to see the actual train lines and lone cattle car sitting there on the track sends a shiver down the spine.
On the far west side of the camp, a lumbering war memorial covers a vast area with plaques written in every language. It is a haunting reminder of the atrocities that are possible when racism, fascism, greed and hatred goes unchallenged – a lesson we must never forget.
What struck us the most was the sheer vastness of the camp. When you understand how many people were cycled through here to their deaths it is terrifying, but to see it in person and realize you can’t even see the far end of where the camp border lies, it is mind boggling. Dachau, although established much earlier than Auschwitz, was a much smaller operation in comparison (15,000 were killed compared to 1.1 million) and is much better preserved. When the Nazis realized they had lost the war, most of the buildings at Auschwitz-Birkenau were burned, blown up, or otherwise destroyed. Consequently, the Birkenau extermination camp area is mostly rubble. Many would say that what is left of this site is slowly crumbling to the ground, so it is important to go sooner than later to pay your respects. Below are photos from our trip to Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany near Munich for comparison.
There are two main areas of Auschwitz. One is preserved and considered a museum now, although we didn’t take a proper tour with the children as it is a 3 hour long commitment. I know we will appreciate it someday to gain a deeper understanding of the grounds and walls around us. Instead we explored on our own, and given that it was practically deserted, we didn’t know exactly which buildings we could go into (it wasn’t very well labeled – hence a tour guide would have really helped). This part of the camp is the original section of Auschwitz; when it became overcrowded, Hitler began building Birkenau, the vast encampment nearby (in the photos above). This original area is much better preserved. If we had gone inside the buildings pictured below, we would have seen the heart breaking inventory of shoes, clothing, furniture, luggage, glasses and other belongings confiscated from concentration camp victims as they were ushered to their deaths either by work, medical experiment, disease or “final solution” extermination.
Below, the infamous gate “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Sets You Free) into Auschwitz gave us pause.
We only had a few hours to spend here, but I would recommend coming, booking a proper tour and spending at least a half day absorbing the history here. There are many stories to read of survivors (Didi, below, read every single one outside the museum and told us about them on our drive back to Kraków) and so much information to take in that it is important not to rush. It is meant to leave an impression, and it absolutely did.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Another impressive but much less somber place we toured was the salt mine of Wieliczka. This ancient mine began in the 13th century and was excavated until just 13 years ago, when it became exclusively a museum. It also happens to be a vast, deadly place; our tour guide explained that due to the build up of methane, over time nearly 10% of workers perished in explosions. I’d say that is a high risk job! The first leg of the tour is a descent down almost 50 flights of stairs…
The mines go DEEP. There are nearly 300 km of tunnels and the depths reach those that match the height of the Eiffel Tower! Horses were used inside the mine and they were never allowed to leave so they would get used to the working conditions. The mine is one of the original UNESCO World Heritage sites at over 700 years old. Everything inside – walls, flooring, sculptures – is made of salt! With the exception of some steel bracing and wooden structures for scaffolding, that is a lot of salt.
Perhaps most impressive are the chapels in the mines. As workers spent days down here, they needed a space to worship. And, given the deadly nature of the job, they took their faith very seriously. There are four intricate chapels carved out of the salty walls, but the most amazing is the main chapel that took nearly 30 years to build – by the hand of one man and then his brother who completed it. The sculpting work is incredible and the chandeliers, also made entirely of salt, are glorious! This (and other locations in the mine) is now a place that can be rented out – some 330 feet under ground – for weddings and events! The deepest point is over 1,000 feet under ground. It was incredible to look up at all the wooden structures that held the mine in place and trust its safety. Beau was definitely uncomfortable on several occasions and when we finally emerged he celebrated! HA!
Once we finished touring the salt mines, we took a quick detour to the “Graduation Tower,” a site where a large pool of salty brine is pumped through walls and walls of wooden sticks to help purify it. We walked all along the top of the tower and watched as the troughs filtered the brine down through the winding walls. I was surprised there really wasn’t a smell anywhere in the mines or here at the tower in spite of the thick, brown, salty sludge pooled all around and under ground. It is quite amazing what nature can produce!
This truly was a trip to remember. Not only was it our last getaway from Hungary, but it will likely be our last proper family vacation for a while. I’m glad we could combine it with some extra educational pursuits (aside from all the yummy food) for our homeschooling kiddos. Although we will remain in Europe for the time being, it will be much more difficult to make it all the way to Kraków from Belgium, so this really was serendipitous timing. We are so grateful for this time together in such an incredible place!
Note: We really loved the place we stayed and highly recommend it (comfortably sleeps 6-7 at $100/night, great location, safe, pet friendly, parking included for smaller vehicles, comfortable, friendly service and all the amenities): Penthouse Harmonica by Loft Affair.