Peter and I have recently started traveling to secondary cities. These are cities that are popular medium-sized cities that don’t get the huge tourist crowds of major cities.
We spent a long weekend in Krakow, Poland, and choosing it over the capital, Warsaw.
While visiting secondary cities has become a preference of ours, traveling to and from secondary cities leaves a lot to be desired. We live 10 mi / 16 km from Heathrow Airport, the world’s 5th busiest passenger airport yet Heathrow never seems to offer direct flights to secondary cities.
Due to this, we’ve begun flying out of London’s smaller airports like Gatwick (50 mi / 80 km away) and Stansted (45 mi / 72 km away).
It took us just under two hours to get from our flat in west London to Stansted Airport in a private taxi. To be fair, it would have taken the same amount of time and cost about the same if we would have taken public transportation. Public transportation in England is expensive.
With smaller airports come smaller, budget-friendly airlines. These are airlines with super low fares that then kill you with add-on fees, reduced legroom, and baggage size and weight restrictions.
First, the advertisement of “super low fares” is a marketing gimmick. Airlines will release a few seats in the middle of the night for that price but it’s unrealistic to think that you can fly around Europe on £9 one-way fares.
As an example, we booked one-way flights with Ryanair to Krakow (we returned via another airline). We paid $121 per flight, so $242 for both of us. Two one-ways (or if you think of it as one round trip flight) for $242 is not super low.
It is especially not “super low” when indirect costs are factored in like the transportation costs to get to/from the report English airports. And sometimes, an overnight stay at a hotel at the airport before departure is required because of the very early departure time.
Once you factor in all of the indirect costs, budget-friendly airlines are no longer budget-friendly. In fact, they end up being the same price as, say a British Airways flight departing from Heathrow that includes a checked bag, meal, and drinks. Not to mention, more convenient.
Second, with budget-friendly airlines come budget interiors. These interiors can be an assault on your eyes.
The seats are generally uncomfortable, they have plastic backs (nowhere to store things like a water bottle), don’t have outlets, don’t have seatback trays, and don’t recline. For the record, I’m 100 percent on board with seats that do not recline.
Third, the process for boarding budget-friendly airlines can be different than what you’re used to. This was the case with our Ryanair flight flying out of Stansted, causing us to almost be denied boarding.
When flying Ryanair from Stansted, all non-EU/EEA passengers must go to the bag drop desk prior to going through security to have their passports and other documents verified. We are USA passport holders, so we were required to do this… except we failed to read this fine print on our boarding pass.
After traveling nearly two hours to get to Stansted, we hopped out of our taxi and went straight through security and to the gate.
Here’s a scan of my boarding pass containing the fine print.
We arrived at the gate with our unchecked documents and were immediately and simultaneously berated by two gate agents for “holding up the boarding process.”
I was embarrassed. Peter was angry. The entire situation was stupid and uncalled for and I should have lodged a formal complaint with Ryanair against the two gate agents.
The gate agents told us to “step aside” so that the rest of the passengers could board the plane. This was their way of further publicly punishing us. After all remaining passengers boarded, they turned to us, checked our documents, and allowed us to board the plane.
We arrived very late on a Thursday night, hopped in a pre-booked taxi, and arrived at our hotel a short time later.
The following day (Friday) we went on a full-day tour to Auschwitz, Birkenau, and the Wieliczka Salt Mine which I’ve written about in a separate post here.
Our third day in Poland (Saturday) was spent walking around Krakow and drinking a beer here and there. Maybe too many beers.
We stayed at a hotel that was located across the river from the old town but looks can be deceiving. It was a 15-minute walk one-way from the hotel to the old town. This was too long of a walk in the greatest of weather and the weather during our visit was unpredictable. It felt like we were constantly walking back and forth to the hotel to change into hot weather clothes, to change into cold weather clothes, or to change into rainy weather clothes.
Each round trip to our hotel cost us a minimum of 45 minutes. One bright side to our hotel walks was that we passed by Wawel Castle.
Wawel Castle is the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in the world. The castle is a collection of buildings, all varying in architecture and design and though it’s not as large as other notable castles, it does have a commanding presence.
For centuries, the castle was the residence for kings but since 1930, it’s been a museum, multiple museums in fact.
I love old towns. Medieval Krakow was surrounded by a defensive wall that had 46 towers and seven main entrances. It took two centuries to build the fortifications!
By the 19th century, most of the fortifications had been demolished and the moat encircling the walls was filled in and is now a green belt.
The old town of Krakow reminded me of the old town of Prague but smaller and cheaper than anywhere we’d visited previously, including Lisbon which I found to be extremely cheap.
Krakow is a popular destination for British bachelor and bachelorette parties and now I understand why – there are plenty of bars and pubs, everything stays open late, and it’s cheap.
To put things into perspective, a pint of beer in Krakow was about $3 whereas the same pint of beer in London would be $6.
All old towns have a main square and the main square in Krakow’s old town is the largest medieval square in Europe.
There are several prominent buildings that surround the square. One of them is the Church of St. Mary (Saint Mary’s Basilica). Its foundations date back to the 13th century and its two steeples tower over neighboring buildings.
Every hour, on the hour, a trumpet signal plays from the taller of the two steeples. The tune cuts off mid-stream to commemorate a famous trumpeter who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before an attack on the city.
Another prominent building is St. Andrew’s Church. It was built between 1079 and 1098 and is one of the oldest buildings in Krakow and happened to be my favorite. It’s just so… European….
The final stop on our short sightseeing day was to the Jewish quarter. For centuries, this area was an independent city. The northeastern part was historically Jewish and its residents were forced by German occupying forces to relocate to the Krakow ghetto which was located on the other side of the river.
The boundaries of the quarter were defined by an old island. Back in the day, a branch of the river created the island. The river branch was later filled in and the island was no longer an island.
Today, the Jewish quarter is a trendy area but I personally did not get trendy vibes. I felt the area was a little run-down but as Peter suggested, this area may be more popular at night than during the day.
We drank a couple of beers in the Jewish quarter and the closed out our Saturday at a restaurant just outside of the green belt where I ate the best pork schnitzel of my life.
Our dinner included two appetizers, two mains, two beers, and two desserts and our bill was less than $100. That’s an insanely low price for that quantity of food in Europe, especially at a higher end restaurant in the tourist zone.
Sunday brought espresso at a book shop and then an early flight back to England. Thinking about the time we spent in Krakow, I’d say that one full day is not enough time to explore Krakow (the city) but two full days is probably too much time.
If we had a do-over, we’d book a hotel that is closer to the old town and would reserve two full days for sightseeing in Krakow in addition to a full day for a tour to Auschwitz, Birkenau, and the salt mine.
Eat, drink, and shop recommendations
Finally, a few recommendations for Krakow.