5 THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE VISITING KRAKOW, POLAND
1. VISIT THE OLD TOWN SQUARE
Arriving to Kraków mid-day we settled into our Airbnb. We were close enough to the Old Town, home to many of the main sight-seeing spots. So, we left to check out the most recommended place to visit here in Kraków, the Old Town, or Main Square. Just like most of the cities we visited (and in the future, will be visiting) they all had a walled "inner square" part of the city, always referred to as the Old Town. This enclosed square held the majority of the preserved architecture from the "original" city. [**] It is also home to the original medieval square of Kraków. It is located in the center of the city, behind tall stone walls, which were built to protect it against invaders. In this large open square you will find many shops, restaurants, and bars. At the Main Square, you can visit the Cloth Hall (A long, covered flee market in the center of the square), Town Hall Tower, St. Mary's Basilica, Church of St. Adalbert, along with simply admiring the beautiful architecture of the surrounding area.
[**] QUICK HISTORY LESSON: Although the original Main Square was almost totally destroyed by the Mongol Invasion. Not long after, it was reconstructed to mimic its previous structure.
2. HOW TO EXCHANGE MONEY
When arriving in Poland you may look in your wallet and notice the lack of Złoty (Polish currency). Your next thought might be "Oh, I will just go to the bank and exchange this *current currency* into Złoty. No, no, the bank might rip you off with the exchange rate and the ratio between buying and selling of the currency requested. There are a lot of these little places called Kantor. They are located basically every 200m on any main street. These are the places you need to go to exchange your money, however you can't use these places like an ATM and take money out from a card. They are strictly to exchange physical money, but they do not accept coins. It was recommended to us to go to a Kantor rather than going to a bank, this way I am recommending it to you.
3. EXPECTING PEOPLE TO KNOW ENGLISH.
Yes, English is a pretty universal language when traveling. When traveling to a location where you do not know the language spoken, the next thought is to resort to English. Here in Kraków, this is not the obvious case. Unless they are below the age of 40, they will not give you the time of day to even react to a simple "Excuse me" when passing in the streets to ask for directions. I found this was the case in many of the Central-Eastern European countries. Because it was German occupied during the war, they grew up learning German or Russian, not English. However, the younger generation does know English more, so look for them when asking for help.
4. VISIT AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU
When traveling to Kraków we knew beforehand that it was a city with a strong history influenced by the World War II. Before going, we were recommended to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. So, we did. This brings me to my first recommendation before visiting these powerful places. From experience, I recommend that you should look into visiting the sites at least a few days before you want to go. It fills up because of the groups and the different tours visiting the area. Second, we went with a half-day tour because it was the only one available, BUT GO ON YOUR OWN. I am not positive but read that if you wanted to go on your own you had to arrive before 10am or after 3pm. Unfortunately, we did not confirm this but if it is true then take the bus and go before 10am, FOR SURE. What we paid for with our "half-day tour" was solely an overpriced ride to the sites and back. Once we arrived we were handed off to a tour guide, who had zero passion about explaining the content in the sites and did not care if we had any questions. The headsets barely worked and once we started the tour we were hurried along like a herd of animals, and yelled at when we simply took our time. This is an emotional place that you want to visit and take your time with, not feel rushed along with a group; and this is exactly what we felt. Not to mention, we only visited a fraction of the blocks in the area. Such a disappointing visit for such a powerful part of history. I recommend to go on your own, take your time, and really take in every emotion you get from these sites.
Before traveling to Kraków or anywhere east of Italy, I had little knowledge about the cuisine. I only assumed there was a lot of meat and a lot of soup consisting of root vegetables. Well, this is not entirely wrong. In Poland, There are many typical meat-heavy dishes. However, in highly tourist areas, restaurants have adopted familiar dishes from almost anywhere. So, don't worry, it is not hard to find a pasta dish at the local Polish Restaurant. If not Pierogis, a pasta-type filled dumpling, are a delicious alternative.