Stepping into Kraków’s main market square is enchanting if not just a tad overwhelming. Bell-clad carriage horses clip-clop their way along the cobblestone streets while charmed tourists delight in the street scenes unfolding before them. The arcade of the Cloth Market echoes with the hum of shoppers searching for that just right souvenir. Locals and tourists alike mix and mingle in the Easter Market as they browse the stalls of traditional wares crafted by local artisans. And, everywhere you turn there are hawkers and street performers and local gentry flaunting their finest Easter hats scurring to the nearest church for mass. Standing in the middle of it all, it’s easy to see why Kraków is Poland’s cultural center. At first glance, it’s hard to believe that Poland, a former Eastern Bloc country, is still rising from the ashes of a not-so-distant turbulent past.
It’s not until you wander away from the fairytale plaza that the real Kraków begins to unfold. In any direction you choose you’ll find a grittier, darker side to the city, one whose story reads less like a fairytale and more like prose. The hint of a once vibrant golden yellow building facade struggles to shine through the smear of years of cakey soot. That same building, pockmarked from the implements of war and time, appears to be crumbling from its very foundation. With boarded up doors and a coating of graffiti art to seal its fate, it seems that this building has been all but forgotten in the name of time and progress. But, this is the scene you’ll encounter street after street, block after block. To me, this is what’s charming about Kraków; a city that despite the dark shadows of its past stands proud and determined to build itself anew.
But, this won’t be Kraków’s story for long. Poland is one of the few countries in Europe that has managed to push forward with progress despite the economic downturn. In fact, it has experienced growth fueled by a booming tourist industry. While it may still be one of Europe’s surprisingly budget-friendly destinations, this won’t last long. It is said that Kraków may very well be the next Prague, and it’s not difficult to imagine why. The streets of the romantic old town are laden with cobblestones and traveled by horse-drawn carriages. It’s where bell towers and church spires pierce the skies above, and all of which is surrounded by a lush, green city park that once served as a moat. Bustling streets are alive with shoppers and holiday makers, cappuccino sippers and fine diners. And like most European cultural hotspots, Kraków now boasts its very own boho neighborhood – the former Jewish district, Kazimierz. In this trendy, up-and-coming district you’ll find plenty of Jewish culture and history from the city’s original synagogue to Schindler’s Factory, which inspired the Oscar award winning movie, Schindler’s List. If it’s not history you’re looking for, you’ll find art galleries, trendy bars, and fusion restaurants housed in the once boarded up shops of the district’s original inhabitants.
Yes, change is a comin’ to Kraków, and when it does a piece of its authenticity will go with it. Go before it becomes the next Prague. When you do, take an adventurous ride on the public bus to learn of the horrors at the infamous Auschwitz Concentration Camp and to tour the magnificent Wieliczka Salt Mines. Eat your weight in doughy pierogis, knosh on a suculent kielbasa sausage, and simply wander before hordes of tourists have the same idea!