What piqued my sense of wonder in Poland’s southeast was that Kraków’s Jagiellonian University was where Nicolaus Copernicus had studied—the very man who postulated that the Earth revolved around the Sun. I had our Polish friends to thank—they had arranged an “Old Town Quiz” for us to take that would teach us about the nooks and crannies of Kraków, complete with intriguing trivia.
Kraków and its surroundings are the top choice of many a visitor to Poland. Learn the city’s historical secrets, walk into the sobering Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and finally, descend 135 m into the earth to visit salt mines that have been in operation for 700 years. I’ll even recommend some of the heartiest meals we’ve ever had, Polish style—a gastro-tourism must.
The old town of Kraków was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1978. It has had a long history as a center for knowledge and education.
Following my fascination for trailing in the footsteps of historical greats, I was ecstatic as we stepped into the courtyard of Jagiellonian University. I looked around and could almost imagine Copernicus walking past one of the archways. Jagiellonian University was founded in 1364 and is known to be the oldest university in Poland and the second oldest in all of Europe.
While in Kraków, soak in all of the Main Market Square—Rynek Glówny, as the locals call it. From here, you will see the Cloth Hall, a structure that dates back to the Renaissance and now a bustling market for tourist souvenirs. Don’t miss the lofty St. Mary’s Basilica or Kosciol Mariacki at Mariacki Square. The Town Hall Tower and bustling Florianska Street—Ulica Florianska—are also top sights. The latter is what we made our “home base” during our visit to Poland.
When you’re looking at the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, count the statues that are lined up in front. How many are there, and who is missing? Finally, Wawel Castle and its grounds are not to be missed. Polish rulers lived on Wawel Hill as far back as the mid-11th century, and traces of Romanesque architecture can still be seen in the area. Casimir III the Great expanded the castle considerably in the 1300s.
Kraków was one of the few cities that escaped the throes of World War II’s devastating bombs, but was not entirely spared the scars from the Nazi Occupation. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were shuttled from this town to the nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
Another part of the tour showcases mountains of hair that had been cut off before people were ushered into “showers”—what the Germans called the gas chambers—including personal items such as suitcases, shoes, spectacles, and children’s teddy bears.
I had been excited to get here, knowing what a big role in 20th century history this camp had played. But once through the entire camp, I felt a heavy spirit fall upon me and could not bring my camera up to take pictures of many of the rooms. It was as if the absence of sound and a lack of snapshots were a more respectful way to remember those who had gone before us here. We ended deep in the snow, looking at the monument built to remember the Jews who had breathed their last there.
Another day had us on an easier day trip some 15 km out of Kraków to the Wieliczka Salt Mines. Still in operation since it went into business in the 13th century, it is the oldest still existing enterprise worldwide and is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Whether it’s in the dead of winter or during the festive season of spring, Kraków and its neighboring destinations make for a distinctly different delve into Europe. You’ll have history, adventure, fantastic food, and drinks—what more could a traveler need?
Photographs by Lily C. Fen and Julia Alexandra Chu