A Tale of Two Cities – Warsaw & Krakow, Poland

This has been the year of simply unbelievable deals in air travel. I wanted to take a short trip in October, but had no idea where to go – so many palatable options. Charleston and Savannah? Bulgaria? Ireland? The list of places I would love to go is unending.

A friend of a friend told me about a deal to Poland – starting around $300 on Austrian Airlines and Swissair. I began hunting and made a quick decision to take a few days off work to visit Warsaw and Kraków, as the price to fly into Warsaw on Austrian airlines (via Vienna) and fly back from Kraków on SwissAir (via Zurich) was only $380. An itinerary like this could otherwise cost $700-800, so I was sold.

The timings worked out perfectly – fly out of Newark at 5:50PM to arrive in Warsaw around 1030 in the morning, giving me nearly a full day, and the return flight departed at 2:45pm, giving me a full morning in Kraków before leaving. Two days in each city and a train ride between them.

This was my first time on Austrian and it is decent, but I definitely wouldn’t rate it as high as Swissair – maybe on the same level as Lufthansa. IFE was good, dinner was decent, with even a tiny portion of Sacher Torte, although for breakfast, we were given a plastic wrapped jumbo muffin that you would find in some price club.

I was in my usual state of anxiety about the connection. Part of the deal involved two very short connections. We arrived at 8:25am in Vienna, and my next flight began boarding at 8:55am.

Despite the fact that we had to wait for the bus to take us to the terminal, I managed to get through passport control (literally a breeze), security and get to my section of the airport in about 20 minutes, no running or anything. I can’t say anything about Vienna airport’s Schengen section. Not the worst and not the best. As expected, we were taken on another bus for the LOT flight to Warsaw (I only realized it LOT operated the flight after showing up to board).

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The LOT flight was slightly delayed and pretty basic – like most Europe flights in continent, meals were for purchase. They did offer Prince Polo chocolate bars out, though. It was only a 1:05 flight so I had no complaints.

Arriving in Warsaw

The only ATMs at Warsaw Chopin airport seem to be run by the same company, and unfortunately all offered a pretty lousy exchange rate, but I knew the exchange counters would be even worse.

In no time, I was in a taxi and on my way to the city center and the Mercure Grand Hotel – very important to not confuse with the other Mercure hotels in Warsaw. I was pleasantly surprised to make it in around 15 minutes (less than half the time it projected) and only pay 35Z for the ride.

For my short stay in Warsaw, my budget offered a long list of affordable, well rated options. I contemplated staying in the Old Town, but figured it would be more of a pain to get in and out of town and frankly, staying right in the touristy area can become maddening.

The Mercure started around 50USD and for my so-called “Privilege Room”, only 77USD with taxes. The hotel is still a good 10-15-minute walk from the real center of Warsaw, so the immediate surroundings were fairly mundane. I had to wait half an hour for my “Privilege Room” to be cleaned, so I helped myself to coffee at their Winestone restaurant. To be honest, after an over overnight flight, I badly need a shower just to make myself feel human again.

Exploring Warsaw

Per the advice of a work colleague, Uber is out in full force in Polish cities and the convenience of not having to use cash is always an upside. I never paid more than 10-15Z for my rides around the city. One lesson learned is that Über does not pick up in the Old Town. As I looked for one when I needed to get back to my hotel to check out and catch the train, I became panicked seeing no drivers available. Eventually the app informed me that I needed to drop a pin outside of the Old Town to get a driver, and I did just that.

The star attraction of Warsaw’s Old Town is the Royal Castle, and that became my first stop when I finally arrived in the Old Town. Admittedly, the castle is worth visiting for its lavish interior. On the one hand, the interior was remarkably quiet – very few large tour groups wandering, but it also does not give off the sort of the wow factor like Versailles or the Catherine Palace. I would align it a little closer to the Royal Palace in Madrid or Rosenberg Castle in Copenhagen – it is elegant and houses a lot of history, but  I can not imagine spending more than an hour or so inside. My personal favorite (pictured) is the gilded Great Assembly Hall. The other downside was how I felt myself being followed carefully by the eyes of all the Polish women who mind the individual rooms.

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The other highlight was Taras widokowy, a viewing deck that is high up enough to give a view of the main square of the old town and some highlights of the Warsaw skyline. Only 5Z and a a short walk up the stairs will take you there. Again, I was pleasantly surprised jsut how empty the deck was and how quiet the Warsaw Old Town was altogether.

I skipped any other “attractions” to simply wander the Old Town.The main square was shockingly quiet, and after just overcast weather at the Castle and viewing deck, it began to drizzle…pretty much for the rest of the day. I was lucky that the weather cleared up the next day so I had a second chance to snap somelovely photographs in dry weather.

 

I committed to the whole walk from the Old Town square back to the central area near the Mercure Grand. There are many buildings of interest, ranging from the university to churches and of course, a stop at famous A. Blikle for paczki, the Polish doughnut filled with rose jam. I must say, I was not terribly impressed by A. Blikle.

The downtown area of Warsaw is honestly like the downtown anywhere else, mixed with the fact that a lot of the architecture is very industrial and Soviet-style. One truly interesting leftover from the Soviet area is the Palace of Culture and Science, which has been refurbished into modern-day use. The reality of today is around the central area, you will find sushi restaurants, Marks & Spener and TJ Maxx – my only memories of interest are the famous palm tree and deep-fried pierogies, a first.

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Lazienki Park is another spot worth strolling through just to see the beautiful buildings and get a bit of greenery in this city.

Riding the Rails to Krakow

I booked my train ticket ahead of time on the PolRail web site (it requires you to register to purchase tickets). The only frustration is the timer on the web site, which cancels your purchase if you can’t input the information or correct it fast enough. It’s a race to beat the clock!

I have never flown business class and I have maybe. I more than once or twice stayed in a true 300-400USD/night luxury property. I could have saved money, but I wanted to try out the first class and paid a little more (about 120Z on the intercity).

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Warsaw Central Station
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Warsaw Central Station

I had my printed ticket on me, so there was not much to do but wait. Warsaw’s main train station is not overwhelming – there are only a small number of platforms, so it was easy to walk down and get on the right one, with the usual Costa Coffee, Starbuck and convenience stores built in.

The first class car had plenty of open seats left, so it was a comfortable journey in the spacious seats, as I periodically shifted to the other side for the nicer view. Shooting against a sun against a window is a formula for failure, but with the sun at the back and a clean a window, photos can come out surprisingly good. The journey passes through largely rural Poland, and with the starting of the foliage change, it was a treat to see some of the smaller towns, villages and farms along the way.

What I didn’t realize was that a full meal service is included. First, the staff brought around a moist towelette, water bottle, beverage of choice, a Lindt chocolate and a granola bar-type thing. For the main course, we were given the choice between bacon and eggs with toast or warm croissants with a cherry compote. Having eaten breakfast, I opted for the croissants. They were served on a proper plate with silverware, and despite my best efforts, I ate almost all of the two large croissants.

Arriving in Krakow

After pulling into Kraków station, it was only another 10 minutes to the Sheraton Kraków just Southwest of the Kraków Old Town.

I am still questioning why I picked the Sheraton. I had one hotel in mind on the main square, but the noise complaints about hotels in that area had me worried I wouldn’t get sleep, so I figured the Sheraton would be comparatively quieter (and it was). It also ended up being way too big for my taste and with everything being a good 15 minute walk away, you are sort of left as a captive audience. Add to the room rate were an overpriced breakfast at 60Z, “discounted” that I ended up taking so I wouldn’t have to walk 15 minutes in the morning to find breakfast, and paid wi-fi, which I refused. This is actually the first time I’ve seen a non-US/Canada hotel charge for wi-fi. Another strike for a chain hotel. Per my colleague’s advice, I really should have opted for an apartment hotel.

Exploring Krakow

Day 1 in Krakow was dreary and drizzly. It was not quite as bad as Warsaw, but rain tend so have a very bad effect on my mood, not to mention ending up damp. Like most other visitors to Krakow, I took a beeline straight for the Old Market Square, the heart of the Old Town (Stare Miasto). It was hard to appreciate the beauty of the square in overcast weather, but it is extremely well-maintained, with the Cloth Hall stuck in the center and a lot of open space – the only vendors allowed in the square seemed to be the sellers of flowers/wreaths in one section and on ocassion, the carts selling the famous Polish bagel.

I would say the highlight for me in the Stare Miasto was St. Mary’s Basilica. The gothic alterpiece, the complementary design of the gold and azure together, it just stimulates the visual senses. Some cathedrals are beautiful based on their exterior, some on their interior and some have both – I would say St. Mary’s falls into the interior group, but this interior is one of the most beautiful I have come across in my travels.

With the weather being miserable, wandering around to admire the architecture was pointless. I made my way to the Rynek Glowny Underground Museum. If you are a history lover like myself, this is a great place to see excavated remains of the historic city, right under the main square, besides interactive exhibits which presen  the way life was onced lived in medieval Kraków.

Wawel Hill and A Brief Spell of Sunshine

Staying at the Sheraton, it was less than 10 minutes to get up to Wawel Hill. The courtyard of the hill was either crowded or quiet depending on one of the huge tour groups had passed by or not. The beauty of traveling on your own – you can wait for them to leave and appreciate the place in peace. I received an unexpected but pleasant surprise – the clouds started to recede and finally, I had the pleasure of some blue skies. The hill is worth a walk, but I did not bother with any of the museums and just took everything in – the “green” walls, the design, the flowers, and the changing of the colors all around. I ended up missing the Roman courtyard altogether as a result!

Of course, I also took the chance to see the old town in the nicer conditions, but I quickly bored of it. The main square is a bit cheesy, but if you look hard, there is real life – a couple taking their wedding photos, a concert with Pope John Paul II and Mother Theresa looming in the background, and even strip club hawkers who would approach me every time I walked up or down Grodzka – every single time, the same girl, who didn’t seem to get the hint that I was not looking for a strip club.

Dining in Kraków

Unless you go to a cafe or fast food place, you are counting on a leisurely 1 to 1 1/2 meal. As a solo traveler, sometimes you make friends, sometimes you don’t, and it all depends on your personality and desire to meet people. For this short trip, I mostly kept to myself and did my own thing, so spending an hour sitting by myself in a busy dining room was not what I was looking for. Add to that, eating full, heavy meals three times a day just wears on the body.

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Buffet Pub Fare

Pub Grodzka 6 – during one of these “I’m hungry but don’t want a huge meal” points, I stumbled into this weighed buffet place. There was a deliciously greasy array of Polish favorites, from pierogies to stuffed cabbage to kielbasa. It was easy to make a nice little meal, although this is not by any means a touristy restaurant, so don’t expect any translations. Once you pick your food, you pay and sit down where you like, and waitresses will take your drink order – well maybe they will. The food is pretty good and  you can eat quickly.

Szara Ges – This was my “indulgence meal” in Kraków. The restaurant is modern Polish and revolves around Ges, which is polish for goose! The restaurant is very elegant and was surprisingly quiet, with what looked like a few local families coming there to eat on their day off. The service was prompt and at 57Z, I was presented an entire goose drumstick, dressed with seared vegetables, dumplings and a compote. It was just delicious, and I was given a window booth to watch life go by in the main square.

Antler Poutine & burger – for “faster” food, there were a handful of well-rated burger spots in Stare Miasto. I opted for Canadian-inspired Antler, which names its burgers after Canadian cities like Ottawa, Montreal, etc. It was quick, and ok, I can’t say I loved either the burger or the poutine (topped with grated cheese instead of curds, which would be sacreligious for poutine-lovers).

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Buffet Pub Fare

Slodki Wentzl – if you are going to make a dinner out of a buffet place, treat yourself to a nice dessert, right? Unfortunately that took about as much time as having a nice sit-down dinner would have, but Hotel Wentzl has both a restaurant and cafe which are well-rated and nice inside. I opted for “Kraków Cheesecake”, which was surprisingly served warm (I thought thy just forgot about me at some point) and stuffed with chocolate and dried fruit.

Gorace Paczki – right next door to Pub Grodzka 6 is a popular place for the famous polish doughnut, the paczki. I knew it was the real thing when a couple of older polish women elbowed me out of line. The paczki here were wonderful – messy, soft, full of rose jam and my dream come true – topped with rose icing as well. They were even better than those from A. Blikle in Warsaw. Bring a wet wipe.

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Buffet Pub Fare

I found Kraków more than convenient, with Delikatesys and Tesco Express locations everywhere for those basic goods like snacks and water, and perfectly good cafe chains like Costa Coffee and Nero Cafe for quick coffee, sandwiches and pastries. Of course, there are plenty of nicer cafes too, but they looked both touristy and slow.

The food stall and food truck craze is over here, too. Down in Kazimierz, food trucks set up in one of the main squares, including an old red double decker bus converted into a restaurant. Kazimierz has a less overwhelmingly touristy vibe, so it is a great place to unwind and people-watch a bit (and not just tourist group-watch). 2 Okna Cafe on Josefa is a great place to do that

Shopping in Kraków

I am not a big shopper by any means, but occasionally something catches my eye which I love. The main shopping hub in the Old Town is inside the Cloth Hall right smack in the middle of the town square. I have to say that pretty much every stall inside looks exactly the same and is chock full of Chinese souvenirs. Not to mention it ends up so crowded that trying to buy anything there is unpleasant.

But surprisingly, right on the outside of the hall I found a few shops with nicer items – traditional nativity scenes, hand-painted ornaments and what I really in love with – the shadow boxes. These are honestly some of the coolest things I have seen, where the scene inside the box is created using real materials – pieces of mirror, cloth, copper, etc.

The other places I liked were Dekor Art north of the square for legit Polish pottery, and a few of the nicer places on Grodzka coming up from Wawel Hill. All of them were a refreshing change from the typical stores full of mass-produced junk.

For a fun chocolate gift, I brought back a few of the assortments from Karmello. The chocolate is good but do not expect the finest chocolate in the world, either. The varieties are a lot of fun though – lemongrass vodka truffles or a mustard praline, anyone? And at 25Z for a box of 25 pieces, what a bargain.


Kazimierz – the new cool

The Old Town square of Kraków is beautiful, but the tourist hordes started to drive me up the wall – well maybe a mix of that and the awful human statues that seem to infect every major European city. Once I was fed up, I walked straight down and quickly rediscovered reality as I approached the historic Jewish district and new hipster area of Kazimierz.

I visited Vad Yeshem, the holocaust museum in Jerusalem earlier this year, and it was the first time I realized just how significantly larger the destruction of the Jewish population in Poland was, compared to other countries. With most remaining polish Jews emigrating to other countries, the Jewish aspect to it now feels historic more than anything. Sill, there are a synagogues, a Jewish cemetery and even restaurants that go along with the historic Jewish theme.

Kazimierz still attracts tourists, but not even remotely close to what you find in the Old Town square or on Wawel Hillz it is more sparse and peaceful here. Instead, I fell in love with the coolness of the neighborhood – beautiful murals, small cafes and bookshops and food trucks everywhere.

A Classical Night

I have some taste for classical music, but not really a passion. I have been to cities like Vienna but never took the time to attend one of the small concerts hl d in churches or salons. This time, I did not want to miss out on the experience, so I attended the 7pm evening concert held upstairs at Restauracja Wierzynek (60Z). The concert lasts for a little under an hour and includes pieces from Chopin and other artists and a cold (!) glass of red wine. All in all, it was a nice experience but I would love to attend a concert in one of the churches and hear the acoustics and feel the ambience as well. It was definitely touristy – and if you end up with a large group, they have a tendency to not really care about manners – one woman in this group was busy going through her purse mid-performance, and during another performance a guy walked up to leave his empty wine glasses at the bar – seriously.

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Piano concert at Wierzynek

Other Neighborhoods 

As I started my final day, I decided I needed some more reality, so I took a stroll along the Vistula River. Kraków has built a lovely path along the river and you catch the occasional biker and even more rare jogger getting in their exercise. This was a  also a chance for me to see some other areas, such as Debniki and the southern part of Kazimierz (where I would love to stay next time). Feeling ambitious, I also made quick visits to the Franciscan Basilica and the Wawel Cathedral, both which are nice, but not distinctive enough that I regard them as essential to a Kraków visit. Keep in mind in this deeply Catholic country, churches are not merely tourist attractions – masses were scheduled everyday, on Sunday several times. I actually could not really explore the Franciscan Basilica much because of an ongoing mass.

Kraków to Home 

I picked the perfect time to leave the city – it started to finally rain again! 😦 I made my way to the airport at 12 and in only 15 minutes, I was in line ready to check in. In a classic case of groupthink, a giant tour group was in one line when clearly two were marked, and everyone just started to continue lining up behind them. I switched over to the other line following another person and we bypassed everybody. It is amazing sometimes how we just follow what others do despite information to the contrary being in front of us.

The only negative for the Krakow airport was a lengthy security line, but since I was there practically 2 1/2 hours early, I took advantage of the Schengen Business Lounge. I didn’t bother to try one of the Polish bread rings and finally got the chance. Eating plain bread just is one of those things I don’t get. The lounge had basic snacks, but nothing crazy – chips, prince polo bars, coffee and cold meats.

I was pretty anxious about the 45 minute connection at Zurich Airport, but was surprised that my flight back to Newark was not even boarding by the time I reached the gate – and that included a bus ride from the plane to terminal, schengen exit passport control, and an inter-terminal train ride. Do the Swiss get credit for working like clockwork or what? I was happy to be going home – but secretly had a Switzerland plan if I ended up stuck in Zurich.

I have flown Swissair before and honestly they are one of the best economy fights, maybe even the best economy outside of Asian carriers. Lunch options included a decent gnocchi (or chicken) and a snack of a hot calzone and movenpick ice cream was handed out towards the end of the flight, similar to the last time I flew this route with them.

Conclusion

All in all, given the airfare I found, this quick trip to Poland was worthwhile, but I can’t say I loved either Warsaw or Kraków. I surprisingly thought Warsaw’s Old Town was more beautiful than that of Kraków, which I found incredibly uninteresting save for St. Mary’s Basilica and Wawel Hill.

Unfortunately, most of modern-day Warsaw just lacked charm of any sort – I guess a leftover from the past. What impressed me about Kraków was Kazimierz, which most people probably skip altogether. This was just one very cool neighborhood.

The cost of eating, sleeping and transportation will come as a pleasant surprise to most people visiting from industrialized economies.

Solo Traveler Comments on Krakow & Warsaw:

Pros

  • Costs are extremely inexpensive – that goes for hotels, train tickets taxis/ride-sharing services and food. Even at nicer hotels and restaurants, you will pay far less than you would in neighboring Germany or even Greece.
  • There is a great variety of food options, and Polish food is rich, filling, delicious inexpensive without looking too hard.
  • The architecture and history is beautiful, but even with Krakow, not overwhelming either. I’d personally pick the likes of Prague or Budapest over it.
  • Like other major European cities with tourism infrastructure, traveling solo is easy. There are plenty of taxis/ride-sharing services, English-speaking assistance, and relatively few safety issues, even at night.

Cons

  • The outward persona of locals can be a little off-putting for visitors.
  • If you are a traveler of color, you are likely to notice being treated as a little more invisible than your fellow Caucasian traveler (It is not THAT bad, however)
  • Krakow, even in the off-season, is inundated with tourists. The main square has become the prototypical European “town square” tourist trap.

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