If you’re a history buff who is about to visit Eastern Europe, then Krakow is the place for you. The second largest city in Poland, it is home to a rich array of Polish academia, arts and culture. My only regret – that I didn’t spend enough time in this incredible place!
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Listed on the UNESCO’s World Cultural and Heritage List, the Wieliczka Salt Mine is something that has to be seen to be believed. After walking down 380 steps (and almost fainting of dizziness as you go round and round and round), you will finally reach the 135 metre deep tourist route. I’m not entirely sure how a claustrophobe would handle a visit to the mine, but I personally forgot I was underground as soon as I reached the end of the stairs. The 700-year-old mine was absolutely incredible and reminded me of a village. It contained numerous prayer spaces, salt crystal chandeliers, cafes, and waterways.
Founded thanks to an archaeological study conducted between 2005 and 2010, this museum is located under today’s Main Market Square. Likening my experience to a real-life ‘Cities of the Underworld’ episode, I walked around gobsmacked that a museum could have been so meticulously constructed around virtually pristine medieval stone and brick walls. Hundreds of other artefacts were also on show, including 14th Century pottery, coins and tools. I was also amazed at the shoes on display – people certainly had smaller feet 700 years ago!
Cloth Hall (Sukiennice)
Once a medieval trading hall, the Cloth Hall is now a tourist’s delight. It is full of hand-painted eggs, bright textiles, gorgeous wooden puppets and amber carved into every shape possible. I came away with some beautiful Polish lace squares and an amber owl pendant.
Wawel Royal Castle
Sitting on a hill south of the Old Town, the Wawel Royal Castle is hard to miss. After exploring the palace, chapels, cathedral and various courtyards, feast your eyes on the Polish Crown Jewels in the treasury! I want to explore this beautiful site in more detail during my next visit to Krakow.
Jewish District and Oskar Schindler’s Factory
Do yourself a favour and take a free (pay what you think it is worth) walking tour through Krakow’s Jewish District. Beginning in the Market Square, my guide was extremely knowledgeable about the history of the surrounding buildings as well as the horrendous treatment of the Jewish community by the Nazi invaders during World War II. We saw many landmark Jewish sites, including the Krakow Ghetto Chair Memorial (located at the Plac Bohaterow Getta square). Our tour then ended at Oskar Schindler’s Factory Museum, where we learnt more about how former Nazi Schindler saved the lives of many Polish Jews by employing them in his enamel factory. However, our tour guide was quick to warn us about the Hollywood version of Schindler that we’ve come to know. He therefore left us with this question which I still think about today – was Schindler a hero or an opportunist?
Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp
I still find it difficult to talk or write about my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp, which is located in Oświęcim, west of Krakow. Words cannot express my deep sorrow for the 1.1 million Jews, homosexuals, gypsies and Soviet prisoners of war who were murdered at this site. Walking around the camps and seeing the prison blocks, execution yard and only remaining gas chamber, I could not even begin to imagine what life (can I even call it that?) was like in this ghastly, awful place. We were taken into rooms where people’s priceless possessions were simply sorted by the materials they were made from – huge glass displays full of spectacles, suitcases, shoes… I cried tears of shame about the human race. How could one human inflict so much fear, terror and pain on another human? As our guide pointed out, we were not tourists that day – we were visitors. We were visitors who would ensure that such crimes against humanity are never repeated.