During the past few years, I have had the good fortune to live in what I found to be a very interesting city. It is a city that, despite its small size, packs a considerable amount of cultural attractions. It is also a place that is becoming more and more recognized these days, particularly in Europe, where every day more and more visitors come. Mostly these tourists are coming for cheap stag weekends from Britain, enjoying great beer and nightlife at a fraction of the price they would pay at home. But there are an increasing number of people who take advantage of the lower-cost flights to sample the special atmosphere and surrounding attractions of the place. And then there are young people who take advantage of both, sightseeing during the day and getting to know the great nightlife of this bustling student city by night.
I first arrived in Krakow in December of 2004, intending to finish a TEFL certificate in Prague and to start a new life there. As I had previously lived in Berlin and had visited Warsaw and Prague before, I felt fairly comfortable in the region and was attracted by the old-world charms that exist in Central Europe. Krakow was a place I had heard of but had never visited, overshadowed perhaps by the much better known (at the time) cultural center of Prague. I first came to Poland in October 2002, and while it was interesting for me, I can't say that I was so impressed by what I saw that I thought about living there. A trip to Prague (though not my first) came the following Spring, which thoroughly wowed me to say the least. I found the place to be incredibly beautiful, rich in culture, history and art, and with a bustling cosmopolitan spirit. This is probably what has attracted so many people there, not just tourists but the many expatriates, of whom at least 60,000 are American, to seek it out.
When I returned home after college, it was this combination of cosmopolitan spirit and old-world charm that again attracted me to the place. I had heard about people teaching there, as a friend had recently finished a TEFL Certification there and had started working and enjoying the eclectic atmosphere. This included not only taking in the local culture, but also the fascinating mosaic that is the expatriate community, which exists in many of these places, and is truly a world of its own.
The few days I spent in Krakow at the end of 2004, which included ringing in the new year in one of the largest medieval squares in Europe (though not large enough to accommodate all the people there) was definitely an experience to remember. All the Poles I met there were very friendly and open, and I found the city to be small but beautiful. Upon coming to Prague, and living there for the months duration of my course, I found an equally beautiful city but with many differences. The size of the city was one thing (Prague has 1.2 million people, Krakow only 700,000) but also the sheer extent of the tourism and commercialism that had affected the place. While Prague certainly still has a great atmosphere, I found it just a bit too much for what I was looking for at the time. I wanted a more genuine cultural experience, where I wouldn't hear English everywhere and see other Americans on a daily basis wherever I went.
So I returned to Krakow in February 2005 and found a job and an apartment fairly easily upon arrival. Having learned my mistake by going to the big-name Real Estate Agencies in Prague, where I was required to pay one months rent over to the agent, I instead went to the Student Agency in Krakow, which charged little or no fee. These agencies are used to dealing with students so there are also usually more bargains to be found. I was also able to quickly select the place I wanted, from a list of available places listed by area, size, and amenities available. I was able to rent a 90 m2 apartment, right in the center, for a little over $300 a month, plus utilities. I recommend taking your time to find these apartments, as the ones listed with the agencies catering to foreigners will definitely be higher. It is of course always possible to reduce the cost by getting a flatmate to share the place, which has its social benefits as well, as I found it was nice to live with another English-speaker in an otherwise linguistically foreign place.
I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised in the beginning about my new life in the city. Poles are fairly friendly and it is not too hard to strike up a conversation, particularly if you are a foreigner and can speak English. As in many other places around the world, the young people are fairly good at and interested in practicing their English with a native speaker. I also found that it is a great place to meet and interact with other English speakers, who are usually more or less united by the experience of being in a foreign country and speaking the same language. I know many English people who say that it is much easier to meet people from all over the world abroad since foreigners are usually more open to meeting other foreigners.
The offerings of the city and its surroundings are varied and fascinating: parks, museums, bars, restaurants, clubs, the Main Square, Wawel Castle are all within easy walking distance of each other. Not far from Krakow also is the town of Zakopane, nestled at the foot of the High Tatra Mountains and a major ski center for Poland. Across the border in Slovakia await even more spectacular peaks and legendary spa towns where you can soak up the waters, get a massage, ski and relax at a fraction of the price you would pay in the Alps. And of course it is possible to visit the other fascinating cities in the area, Prague, Bratislava, Vienna and Budapest are between 6-9 hours away by train. Low-cost airlines connect the city with Berlin, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Glasgow, Dublin, Barcelona and Rome, among others. So-called autokar services have also recently opened, providing for even cheaper and faster connections to Vienna and other cities. A friend of mine recently used one of these services to go from Krakow to Vienna and back for 60 Euros! These are usually a minibus service.
In Krakow itself, you would be surprised at the variety of cheap services and entertainment that are available. A pint of good cold beer usually costs $2 and in some places as low as $1.30, although across the border in Slovakia it can be bought for even half that price. Except for a few places on Saturday nights, and the occasional concert, there is almost never a cover fee to get into a club. There is also a philharmonic orchestra, an opera house, many art museums, and classical concerts which take place, usually in one of the many churches around town. I know of a place in Krakow where an hour-long massage will cost you $6!
When it comes to food, you will find many places where a meal is available for as little as 4 dollars, sometimes even as low as three. Usually, this is standard meat and potatoes polish fare, but there is also an inexpensive restaurant serving vegetarian food buffet style, where a big plate costs you only 4 dollars. Other things such as pizza and Italian food can cost a bit more, and it seems that most ethnic food is aimed at the tourist dollar, which means it is rarely a bargain but still reasonable considering Western prices.
As for lodging, I have to say that I believe, far and away, the best deal is with apartments. Whether you are one or two people or a much larger group, the space and amenities available (including full kitchens, refrigerators, and sometimes washing machines) make it the best option when it comes to comfort while staying the city. The prices are usually the same as a comparable hotel room, which usually is far less spacious. Most food products, including fresh bread and cheeses, are available at local markets, offering further savings should you choose to go this route.
As far as arriving in Krakow, there are now more cheap airlines serving the city than ever, making it possible to reach the city from all corners of Europe, sometimes only paying taxes on the flight, particularly if you can buy in advance. With the tourism in the city nearly doubling in the last year, competition among low-cost carriers means big discounts for you. Because of these cheap flights, more and more people who would normally not come to the city have started coming, and many are returning time and time again once they discover what the place has to offer.
While not yet as popular (or, one might say, overly touristed) as Prague or Budapest, Krakow has its own definite charms and also is located in a very popular area with many sights to see, such as the Tatra Mountains, Wieliczka Salt Mine and the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. The latter should be a must-see for anyone coming to the region, and is one of the main draws, despite the very tragic and somber atmosphere of the place.
All in all, I definitely believe that Krakow should be on your big list, even if you have been to Prague or Budapest already, and that you should consider spending some time here in a perhaps lesser-known, but equally captivating city!