Krakow a crown for Poland

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The top stop in Poland is Krakow. And enjoying a drink on its marvelous main market square, you’ll know why. The biggest square in medieval Europe remains one of Europe’s most gasp-worthy public spaces.

Knowing this is one of Europe’s least expensive countries, I choose the fanciest cafe on Kraków’s fanciest piece of real estate and order without even considering the price. Sinking deep into my chair and sipping deep into my drink, I ponder the bustle of Poland, just a decade and a half after it won its freedom.


Entering through the main gate past a section of the wall that serves as an outdoor gallery for struggling art students, you walk down Florianska Street, passing one McDonald’s worth a visit. Renovaters of the building discovered a Gothic cellar. They excavated it and added seating. Today you can super-size your ambience by dining on a Big Mac and fries under a medieval McVault.

Even better, a block away, step into a bar mleczny or "milk bar." In the communist era, the government subsidized the food at these restaurants to provide working-class Poles with an affordable meal out. The tradition continues, and today Poland still subsidizes your milk-bar meal. Prices are astoundingly low (soup for less than a zloty: about 25 cents), and while communist-era fare was unappetizing, today’s milk-bar cuisine is tastier. Just head to the counter, point to what you want, and get a quick and hearty meal for half the cost of McDonald’s.


A 20-minute walk beyond Wawel takes you to the historic center of Jewish Kraków, Kazimierz. After King Kazimierz the Great encouraged Jews to come to Poland in the 14th century, a large Jewish community settled in and around Kraków. According to legend, Kazimierz (the king) established Kazimierz (the village) for his favorite girlfriend — a Jewish woman named Ester — just outside the city walls. Kazimierz was an autonomous community, with its own Town Hall, market square and city walls.

Kazimierz still has an empty feeling, but the neighborhood has enjoyed a Renaissance of Jewish culture since the popularity of the movie Schindler’s List (which was filmed partly in Kazimierz). The spirit of the Jewish tradition survives in the neighborhood’s evocative synagogues, soulful cemeteries and lilting Klezmer folk concerts put on by local restaurants.


Author: Rick Steves is the author of "Europe Through the Back Door" and many other guidebooks.

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