Krakow was an accidental holiday for me. I tell people I was there to shoot a film festival, but really I went there because my girlfriend is from there, and I ended up staying long after the film festival had ended just to explore this incredible city. I will warn you: check the temperature before you go. It’s quite often -20ºC in winter, and by contrast, can get up to 35ºC or 40ºC in the height of summer.
Kazimierz is a good place to start. The beers are cheap, the nightlife lively, and there’s always a good snack available until late. Try some hot beer. On a cold night it’s surprisingly appealing, the herbs and spices making it the lager drinker’s equivalent to mulled wine. It’s served well in Alchemia, a bar on the corner of Plac Nowy in Kazimierz where the smoking area is hidden behind the false doors of a wardrobe.
If you’re in search of a little more of the city’s recent history, hop the number 22 tram and head for Nowa Huta, the district built under Stalin to house the workers who came from all over the country to work in the Soviet steelworks. Apart from wandering the socialist-realist architecture of this strangely beautiful artificial town, head to Aleja Róż, the wide avenue at the heart of the suburb which takes its name from the now-departed rosebushes. There you should visit Stylowa, the café where musicians used to meet up and discuss Big Beat, the name they invented to stop Communist authorities from realizing they were all talking about rock ‘n’ roll, which was banned. Go one step further and ask for some orangeade, the rockers’ tipple of choice.
No trip to Krakow would be complete without three things: pierogi, smalec, and vodka. Pierogi is traditional Polish cuisine, little dumplings full of cabbage, white cheese, or pork. It’s cheap and filling, and delicious too. When eating pierogi, try the smalec. Forget that it’s just pig grease and focus on the deliciousness. Then order shots of wiśniówka (cherry vodka) and you can pretty much apply for your Polish passport.
If you’re not too bleary-eyed and short of breath from all of the great food and cheap beer, try a walk up to Kopiec Kościuszki, the man-made hill built in the 19th century as a present to commemorate a leader who fought in Poland and the United States. It’s a great view over the whole city and offers a good excuse to head for the nearest bar when you get back down.
For accommodation you should be looking at around $15 per night for a budget bed. Eating out in a mid-range restaurant will set you back about the same with wine. Most importantly, by no account should you miss out on visiting Piękny Pies as the hour gets late: it’s a club that single-handedly manages to explain why Poland should be at the top of every young backpacker’s budget list.