Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Poland's Second City Outcharms the Capital

The legend of Cracow begins with one small boy named Krak and one large man-eating dragon. The dragon, who lived on Wawel hill, terrorized the locals for years by regularly plucking a few people from the village for dinner. One day, the boy crept to the banks of the nearby Vistula River near the dragon's cave and laid out an aromatic and enticing cooked lamb, which he cleverly stuffed with sulfur. The dragon, being a glutton, gobbled up the lamb, and when the sulfur began to gnaw at his insides, the dragon went to the river and drank until he exploded into thousands of pieces.

Thrilled to be dragon-free, the people came out from their village hovels and founded a city out in the open, which they called Cracow in appreciation of the boy who killed their dragon.

Although the town the created may not be hospitable to dragons, it is a perfect escape for weary Muscovites in search of old world charm and cafe culture. The streets of the old town are narrow and cobbled, and most of the city's centuries-old architecture still stands as testimony to its rich culture and history. Besides the simple pleasure of exploring winding streets on foot, art and history exhibits abound, the food is inexpensive and filling, and nature buffs can explore the breathtaking scenery nearby. So if you are planning to visit Cracow, don't confine yourself to a weekend. It's not nearly enough time.

Cracow is wound around Wawel Castle at the southern end of the old town.The castle has 71 rooms, and within its walls is the Wawel Cathedral, a religious structure so overwhelmingly ornate it might convince even the staunchest atheist to convert. Built in the 14th century, it is bathed in the murky light of candles. The 18 chapels flanking the cathedral are decorated in a confusing medley of architectural styles from Cracow's classical gothic to Romanesque to Byzantine Orthodox, all of which is evident on the outside from the mismatched spires and stained-glass windows. Once the coronation site for Poland's kings and queens, the church now displays a salvaged 11th-century underground crypt holding kings, queens, bishops and Polish national heroes.

Across the way from the cathedral entrance is a modest four-room exhibit of chasubles and goblets. It is the museum to Pope John Paul II, previously known as Cracow's Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, who preached in the neighboring cathedral.

Further north within the old town is the town square, where you will find Cloth Hall, a large brick marketplace built in the middle of the 14th century. One of Cracow's most beautiful buildings, it is decorated with gargoyles and other grimacing creatures to ward off evil spirits. Still a marketplace for handicrafts and art, Cloth Hall is a great place to pick up souvenirs like ornamental chess sets, hand-carved trolls and wool sweaters for under $20 each.

Across from Cloth Hall is St. Mary's Basilica, built in 1221. St. Mary's is most easily recognized by its two towers, one of which is taller than the other. The explanation for this mismatch lies in a legend of two brothers who were commissioned by the Polish king to build the world's most impressive church. The older brother worked quickly and soon finished his tower with shouts of bravado and steins of free beer. But he then realized that although the younger brother's tower grew more slowly, it had a stronger foundation and would eventually surpass his own completed tower.

The older brother sat in the local inn, nursing ales and brooding over how to foil his brother's success. One night, the younger brother came into the inn, and a quarrel broke out between the two. The older brother plunged a knife into his brother's chest and then ran from the inn to St. Mary's, where he then turned the knife on himself. After that, no one dared finish the younger brother's work, and the city council just capped his tower with a spire and left the church at that. The knife that killed both brothers is suspended under the vault of the Cloth Hall as a warning sign for future generations.

For those in search of more contemporary warnings about the dark side of mankind, it's worth visiting Cracow's Jewish quarter as well as Auschwitz and Birkenau, which are close to the city.

The Jewish quarter, located just south of the old town, was created in the 15th century when the Jews were kicked out of the main city. Despite bouts of persecution, Jews prospered here until Swedish occupation. The quarter remained Jewish until the Nazi occupation, when it became a walled-in ghetto and a center of tragedy, starvation and death for many of the city's 60,000 Jews. At Plac Bohaterow 18 is a small museum on the ghetto, including information on German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who saved more than 1,000 Jews by employing them in his nearby factory. Today one of the only visible signs of the remaining Jewish community is the Remu'h Synagogue, at Ulica Szeroka 40, which continues to be open for worship.

Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi prison and concentration camp, is a two-hour bus trip from the city. In the camp's seven years of operation nearly 4 million people died. An exhibit in several brick buildings soberly retells the camp's horrors in photographs, narration and objects taken from inmates -- organized piles of spectacles and worn-in boots, rooms full of human hair and halls of prison portrait photographs with each person's date of arrival and, in most cases, their death about a year later.

About 3 kilometers from the prison sits Birkenau, the complex's concentration camp and the place where most of the prisoners died. The camp remains untouched and is a chilling reminder of the past. Visitors can roam the camp and museum freely, or take a guided tour in English. Admission is free but children under 13 are not allowed.

For a less heart-wrenching trip outside Cracow, consider traveling about 15 kilometers to Wieliczka, a small town that is also the home of salt mines that are more than 1,000 years old. A two-hour tour of some of the mine's caverns shows centuries-old salt sculptures of kings, underground chapels and palaces, and jolly dwarfs and trolls that served for centuries as guides for miners. Tours in English are available in July and August, or upon special request and payment of about $50. The mine is well worth a visit, although the two-hour tour is a bit lengthy. Entrance is about $6 for adults, and $3 for students and children. You can walk to the mine along a scenic farm-country road, hitch a ride on a horse-drawn wooden cart, or take a 20-minute bus ride from the central bus station.

Further out by about three hours is Zakopane, a favorite hideaway of generations of Polish authors and painters. Mist-covered mountains and a quaint town center provide an ideal place for relaxing. The mountain trails have something for everyone -- you can take a leisurely day hike or a much longer mountain trek, which can last for weeks and involve long day hikes from mountain hut to mountain hut across the peaks of the Polish-Slovak border.

Where to eat

Finding good restaurants in Cracow is ridiculously easy, as every other door seems to let loose savory aromas or display enticing, low-priced menus. There are pizza joints, pubs, Chinese restaurants, Polish kitchens and Greek grills, plus an ample sprinkling of pastry-serving cafes offering cappuccino and fresh flaky crusts for no more than $1.50 an indulgence.

You can't visit Cracow without trying one of the city's many Polish kitchens, which serve excellent traditional goulashes and stews, most for under $3 or $4. Wspolnota Polska on Rynak Gl. 14 offers Polish favorites like tripe, stuffed cabbage rolls and steak chops ranging from about $2 to about $6. For a faster Polish fix, there is Adlospis on Ulica Grodzka. Their English menu and self-service salad and potato pancake buffet is as good and greasy as it gets. Next door is one of Poland's landmarks, a milk bar where you can literally stuff your face with home cooking for under $2.

For cozy luxury, Ariel's Cafe in the Jewish quarter is a must. The ornate upholstery and mahogany mantelpieces, the flickering fire and a spunky chap-licking black kitten are more than enough to lull anyone into relaxation. The menu offers Jewish and Polish specialties, such as stuffed goose necks and turkey with almonds, for about $6 each. Leave room for coffee and dessert, particularly the pasha, a rich pastry with a fudge-like consistency that is topped with raisins, chocolate whipped cream and nuts.

If you have a hankering for something more exotic, just below the center square on the corner of Ulica Domicanska and Grodzka, is a cluster of Middle Eastern eateries. Tunis Grill is great for falafel on the go. Across the street is Andalous, where you can order a full vegetarian or a meaty kebab meal for under $4.

Where to Stay

The old town and the areas surrounding it are full of small, comfortable and clean hotels with rooms from $17 to $100 a night. If you arrive in the city by train, you can't miss the bulletin board in the station with the latest news on which hotels have vacancies and how much each hotel charges. In town, there is also a tourist information center on Ulica Florianska, but it offers little more than free maps and less-than-friendly consultations.

The least expensive hotel in town is Wawel Hotel on Ulica Poselska. A double room without a private bathroom costs about $20, and if you require a private bath it costs $40. The old building seems in serious danger of falling down a hill, with its sloping hardwood floors and crooked wooden sills, but the sheets are clean and the closets filled with extra blankets.

How to Get There

Americans, Europeans and most other foreigners don't need a visa for Poland. Russians require a voucher, obtainable from the Polish Embassy in Moscow. There are no flights directly to Cracow. Aeroflot offers the cheapest tickets to Poland, flying to Warsaw for $150 one way, double that for round-trip. From Warsaw you can take a three-hour train for about $15.

Trains from Moscow to Warsaw take 24 hours and cost about $200 round-trip in a sleeper car. You will need a Belarussian transit visa, unless you are carrying a valid Russian visa.

In case the lack of direct flights makes you consider staying in Warsaw, think again. Poland's capital was largely destroyed in World War II, and although its old town has been restored, most of the city consists of Soviet-style concrete blocks.

When to Go

I traveled in late November and found the city peacefully quiet, with few tourists. The city is more crowded in the summer months, but never as overwhelmingly packed as Prague -- even though it is just as pretty.