Krakow is one of those cities that everyone raves about. It has a beautiful old town, friendly people, and adorable historical legends. But there’s also a darker side to Krakow that people don’t always get to see. During our 24 hours in Krakow, we’re going to get a little off the beaten track.
We’ll see the rarely-seen Communist architecture of Krakow, visit the tragic Schindler Factory, and then attempt to lift our spirits with some tasty local food and beer. It will be a jam-packed 24 hours in Krakow, and I guarantee you’ll never forget it!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in Krakow.
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24 Hours in Krakow
Where to Stay?
As a solo female traveler, I have a few very specific priorities when it comes to hotels. I want to stay in a place that has a staff available in case there’s an emergency. Next, I want to stay in a safe, convenient location. I didn’t travel all this way to spend all my time commuting! And I want the hotel to be clean and comfy, but affordable. I’m not on my honeymoon, so I won’t be spending all my time in the room. The Hotel Kossak fit the bill in every respect! I highly recommend it!
24 Hours in Krakow
Morning: Nowa Huta Communist Experience
As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I’m a big fan of taking tours with Urban Adventures, so I signed up for the Nowa Huta Communist Experience tour.. They’re always small-group tours led by locals, so you don’t feel like a sheep trapped with a giant herd of other sheep baa-ing your way through all the obvious tourist attractions. Plus, I tend to spend two months every summer traveling around Europe alone, so taking one of these tours is an easy way to make friends and relieve the solitude of the open road.
During our next 24 hours in Krakow, we’re going to see the gorgeous, historic side of the city that everyone loves. But today, we’re going to visit Nowa Huta, which is the major Communist-style neighborhood in Krakow. You’ll get to see an area that many tourists to Krakow don’t get to visit. The tour covered approximately 20 different things, but I don’t want to spoil them all. Instead, I will give you a small taste of Nowa Huta with…
approximately top 5: nowa huta
1) nowa huta museum
Our first stop on the tour was at the Nowa Huta Museum. This museum is dedicated to life in communist Poland. Even the building itself is a part of history. It was once a movie theater built in communist times. Movie theaters in communist times were often very fancy because they were supposed to be like palaces for the common people.
One of the exhibitions in the museum shows what a typical living room would have looked like in communist Poland. My guide, whom I shall call Joanna, grew up in Poland during the communist period, and she said that almost everyone’s living room would have looked something like this. Individuality was discouraged under the communist period.
Someone should make a miniseries about an interior decorator trying to make a living in communist Poland. It would be a true story of triumph over adversity.
A large part of the Nowa Huta Museum is dedicated to the threat of nuclear war during the Cold War. I grew up hearing stories from my parents about this time period from the American point of view. They had to do drills under their desks to prepare for nuclear attack. I never understood how the desks were going to stop a nuclear bomb.
At the Nowa Huta Museum, you can see vintage posters instructing you on things like how to properly shower after a nuclear attack. (PS, I do not think your shower would be working.) You can also try on these very stylish gas masks. I’m very grateful that I never had to grow up practicing nuclear drills with these masks because they hide my adorable eyelashes.
2) nowa huta architecture
After we left the museum, we continued our 24 hours in Krakow by exploring some of the communist architecture in Nowa Huta. One reason Nowa Huta looks so different from the rest of Krakow is that it was actually planned as a separate ideal communist city. I guess we should be grateful the communists didn’t knock down Krakow’s old town to build a city like this.
You can see broad streets and imposing buildings like the ones in Nowa Huta in pretty much any former communist city. The style is called socialist realist. Basically the two principles of socialist realist architecture are BIGGER IS BETTER and NO COLOR ANYWHERE. But Nowa Huta is one of only two fully realized socialist realist cities in the whole world.
Nowa Huta revolved around the Vladimir Lenin Steelworks that were built in Nowa Huta. Most of the men who lived in Nowa Huta would have been employed by the Steelworks. Nowadays the steelworks still exist, but they are no longer named after Lenin. You’re not going to see a lot of monuments to Lenin left in Krakow.
3) communist snacks
But we’re not just going to see where the steelworkers lived. We also get to snack like one! First up is the Street Food Snack of Krakow: the obwarzanek. (Don’t ask me how to pronounce it.) This soft treat is kind of like a bagel and kind of like a pretzel, but not exactly either. But according to all the Polish people I spoke to, you never put toppings on a obwarzanek or dip it into anything. Just eat it plain!
And of course, what Polish steelworker’s day would be complete without Polish vodka and pickles? I felt like a real Polishman having vodka with my breakfast, even though I am an American girl. Don’t forget to say Na zdrowie! (Lots of people think this is the way to toast in Russian, but that’s not really true. It’s a Polish toast.)
4) ludowy theater
Even though Nowa Huta was supposed to be the ideal communist city, there were still plenty of pockets of rebellion against the government. One of those pockets was located in the Ludowy Theater. This was the greatest avant-garde theater in Communist Poland. The directors of the theater had to sneak their subversive messages in by performing plays with an anti-authoritarian message. Some of the Polish governments were more relaxed and left the theater alone, but during the 1970s and 80s, the government cracked down more on political subversiveness.
Of course, after the end of the Communist period, the Ludowy Theater could pretty much do what it liked. In fact, the theater still operates to this day, and it still wins awards. But unless you speak Polish, you probably won’t get that much out of attending a performance. Best to just admire the exterior and the courage of the artists who have worked here.
5) nowa huta market
Krakow isn’t just famous for its beautiful architecture and its unpronounceable bagel-pretzels. It’s also famous for its open-air markets. Bieńczycki Plac Targowy is a place most tourists will never visit. You can find many vegetables here at amazing low prices, all grown by local farmers. Joanna told me it is said that the former Queen of Poland, Bona Sforza, brought vegetables from Italy. That’s why Polish children blame Italy when they have to eat their broccoli. 😉
We were going to eat one of the most famous street foods of Krakow here, a zapiekanka. But the shop that sells them at the market ended up being on vacation. This is always one of those things that surprises me when I visit Europe. I’m from New York City, and our businesses NEVER go on vacation. Who needs vacation when you can be making money? So Joanna brought me to a different place in the old town to get one at the end of the tour.
Zapiekanka are sometimes called “Polish pizza”, but as a New Yorker, I can definitely say it is not pizza. Basically you take bread, top it with mushrooms and grated cheese, and cook it until the cheese melts. Then you top it with ketchup. (This is why it’s not pizza. You never put ketchup on pizza.) This snack was popular in the communist period because it was cheap and easy to make. Now it’s still popular for similar reasons, but also because it makes good drunk food. All those carbs and cheese really soak up your beer.
6) lord’s ark church
And now we come to the most impressive sight we will see during our 24 hours in Krakow, the Lord’s Ark church. Because Poland was a communist country, it was also supposed to be an atheist country. However, many Poles were still devoted to the Catholic church and did not want to be atheists. Even though Nowa Huta was supposed to be a communist city with no church, the locals wanted a house of worship.
After many protests, the communist government agreed that there could be a church in Nowa Huta. But the locals had to provide all the materials themselves. The government thought this would be impossible, but the people of Krakow made it happen. If you look at the walls of the church carefully, you can see it was built stone by stone with tiny little rocks.
Other Christian communities helped donate to the church as well. These bells were donated by Christians from Belgium and the Netherlands. And of course, the most famous Polish Catholic, Pope John Paul II, helped support the church as well. He even consecrated the church personally, back when he was a cardinal.
24 Hours in Krakow
Afternoon: Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory
At the end of the tour, Joanna took me on public transportation back to the old town. I was excited because the seats had this gentleman who looked like a wizard of them. But Joanna said he is the Lajkonik, a symbol of Krakow.
No one knows exactly where the Lajkonik comes from, but since he is wearing Tatar clothes, he is probably related to the Tatar invasion of Poland during medieval times. So I guess this means there’s never been a time when everyone wasn’t invading Poland.
After the tour, we will not need lunch because of all the snacks on the tour. Instead, we will continue our 24 hours in Krakow at one of the saddest places in the city, Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory. This building, and Schindler himself, became much more famous after Steven Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List came out. But Schindler himself is a more controversial figure in Polish history than the movie indicates. Allow me to explain further.
three facts: schindler’s factory
1) why are we visiting a factory?
Schindler’s Factory is no longer a factory, though it used to be the Schindler enamelware factory. It’s now a museum dedicated to Oskar Schindler, the Jewish people he worked with, and the Nazi occupation of Krakow. If you’ve seen the movie Schindler’s List, you’re familiar with the basics of Oskar Schindler’s story. Schindler was a German Nazi and an unsuccessful businessman. Basically every business he tried failed.
Schindler did not start out as any kind of humanitarian. He had an idea to operate an enamelware factory in Krakow during World War II. (This factory had formerly been owned by Jewish men, but they’d been forced into bankruptcy by the Nazis.) Schindler used Jewish labor to run the factory, initially because it was cheap.
But as the war went on, Schindler became determined to help as many Jewish people as possible. In the end, he saved the lives of thousands of Polish Jews who would have been sent to death camps if Schindler didn’t claim that he needed their labor to run the factory.
One of the Jewish people he saved, Poldek Pfefferberg, became determined to share Schindler’s story, and he pitched it to every writer he came across. One day he met the author Thomas Keneally, who decided to write a book about Oskar Schindler. And that book was turned into the movie Schindler’s List.
There is some memorabilia from the film in Schindler’s Factory. But to me, the most interesting was this photo above with the child in red. That’s a real photo of Polish Jewish children from the 1930s. The docent at the museum said this photo was the inspiration for the girl in the red dress in the book/movie.
2) so why is schindler controversial?
In Poland, Oskar Schindler is quite controversial. Did I mention that he was a Nazi? But he was also apparently a Nazi spy who aided in the German takeover of Poland. That’s bound to earn some resentment.
And of course, there were many Polish people who risked their lives to save Jewish people. Poland has more people listed as the Righteous Among the Nations than any other country in the world. (Righteous Among the Nations are those non-Jews who put themselves in danger to save Jewish people during the Holocaust.) So there is some resentment that a German is more famous for saving Jewish people than any Polish person.
Schindler was also a notorious womanizer. His wife Emilie, often doesn’t get enough credit for helping save Jewish people along with her husband. And she worked tirelessly with her husband to rescue Jewish people despite the fact that her husband was flagrantly cheating on her the entire time.
I do like that the Schindler’s Factory museum includes the names of all the Schindler Jews on the walls on the museum. That helps ensure that those people and not just Schindler will be remembered.
3) is schindler’s factory appropriate for kids?
I think not. There are exhibits in the museum dedicated to Plaszow concentration camp located outside Krakow. If you’ve seen the movie Schindler’s List, you will remember the brutality of Ralph Fiennes’s character Amon Goeth who ran this camp. I was shocked to see that some reviews of the film thought Goeth was too “over the top” evil to be believable.
In real life, Goeth was much worse than in the film. He treated his prisoners so brutally that he was actually relieved of his command by the Nazis. Can you imagine how brutal you would have to be for the Nazis to dismiss you? I hope you cannot. Whatever Schindler’s faults were, it is impossible not to admire his courage in standing up to a monster like Goeth.
24 Hours in Krakow
Evening: Food By Foot Tour
Ordinarily, I do not like to have two tours in one day. An ideal 24 hours in Krakow for me would have one walking tour, one museum, and then a nice dinner at a restaurant. But I make an exception for evening food tours. An evening food tour is just like dinner at a restaurant, except you have a progressive dinner at several restaurants. Plus you get to meet people!
I was joined on the Urban Adventures Food by Foot Tour by the guide, whom I shall call Margaret, and a friendly lady from the United States making her first trip to Poland. We had a fine evening chowing down on…
approximately top 5: polish food
1) craft beer
The first stop on the food tour was a cozy little bar called Bonobo. You know the hipsters have arrived in Krakow because they have brought craft beer with them! I always like local beer because it tends to be more flavorful than the mass-produced stuff. I’m no beer snob; I just don’t want to drink something that tastes like either warm or cold pee.
Also craft beer has better names. My favorite was Czarny Kot because it means black cat, and I love cats. It’s my dream to be a crazy cat lady when I grow up.
Of course, what is any beer without a bar snack? We paired ours with more obwarzanek, those famous Not Bagels from Krakow, as well as oscypek, a salty, smoked sheep cheese. Basically these are the Polish equivalent of bar buts or buffalo wings. It comes from the Tatra Mountains on the border between Poland and Slovakia. I bet you couldn’t definitely start a fight in a bar in Poland by claiming that oscypek is better in Slovakia.
2) beautiful soup
It’s not a proper Eastern European meal without soup! That’s just science. I thought the soup tasting was a very cool idea because we could sample four different kinds of soup, from borscht to zurek, which is made with fermented rye. Some of the soups available on the tour will change, depending on what is in season. I chose the zurek of course because I can’t resist a food I’ve never heard of before!
I am used to sour soups like this because my father’s family is from Romania and sour soups (called ciorba) are a Big Deal there. But I had never tasted a soup that reminded me of sourdough bread before! And then there were eggs on top! That just shows how practical Polish peasants are. You’re getting your carbs, your veggies, your protein, and your fat all in one soup. An excellent preparation for a day working in the Vladimir Lenin Steelworks!
3) delicacies of kazimierz
Our next stop on the food tour was in Kazimierz. This was the historically Jewish neighborhood of Krakow. In fact, it used to be an entirely separate city. It was named for King Casimir III, who encouraged Jewish people to settle in the city. Of course, after the Nazis came, the Jewish people were all removed from Kazimierz, so it’s no longer a Jewish neighborhood.
But there are murals left in honor of famous people who lived here. My favorite was the giant mural of makeup guru Helena Rubenstein. I think she’d appreciate how fabulous her lipstick looks in this picture.
But we aren’t just here to look at murals. We also have to eat! And the most famous Polish food is the legendary dumpling known as the pierogi. In a nod to the Jewish roots of the neighborhood, we paired the pierogi with potato pancakes, aka latkes.
It was here that I truly learned the magic of the pierogi because you can fill it with anything. You can make it savory by stuffing the pierogi with veggies, meat, or cheese. But fill ‘er up with fruit and top it off with sour cream, and you’ve got a fine dessert pierogi. Surely dumplings are nature’s perfect food!
But you mustn’t think that dessert pierogis are the only sweets on this tour! We finished up with a truly authentic Polish dessert, orzechowiec, a surprisingly light nut cake. (The cake part is light. I usually don’t like cake because it’s heavy and bleh and I’d rather be eating pie. But there’s lots of cream in the orzechowiec, so it’s not health food. This dessert is so Polish that if you Google orzechowiec, you’ll find almost no results in English. Don’t miss the chance to taste it in Poland.
And of course, no 24 hours in Krakow is complete without a shot of Polish vodka. “Vodka for breakfast, vodka for dessert,” as my grandmother always used to say!
That’s a Perfect 24 Hours in Krakow!
What would you do with 24 hours in Krakow? Is it strange to go from a museum about Nazis directly to a food tour? And why was my grandmother drinking so much vodka, anyway? Please leave your thoughts below!