A little while back, I said that Croatia was my favorite country in Europe to visit. I’m not sure if that’s true anymore. I think Poland might have given Croatia a run for its money. It is, I will admit, very hard to compare the two: Croatia has beaches and waterfalls whereas Poland had a beautiful Old Town in Krakow and snow capped mountains. I will say that, however, Poland was a better overall destination than Croatia.
I touched down in Krakow and I went to find my hostel. I usually don’t advertise which hostel I stayed in, however I will this time: The Little Havana Party Hostel. I think it was perfect for my kind of traveling: solo and ready to meet people. I made more friends here in a night than I did at all my other hostels in Europe combined. They have promotions like a free beer each night you’re here at 9 PM, a free slider at the partnering restaurant downstairs, and their own city tours and excursions. I was not paid by the Little Havana Party Hostel to include them within this blog.
My first day in Poland was the one that was going to have the nicest weather, so I took an excursion to Zakopane and the Tatra Mountains National Park. I had no idea about this park until I arrived in Krakow, and I am so happy I went. My day in the Tatra Mountains has easily been one of my favorite days thus far along my journey.
My first hike was to Morskie Oko, a glacial lake in the middle of the mountains. I will say, that this hike is fairly boring. You walk along a concrete road for 90% of the hike and it is a bit more crowded than other areas of the park (although not as bad as plenty of other hikes). Although upon arriving at the lake, you will be amazed at the beauty of the sapphire blue waters that cut through the snow capped mountains that surround it.
Allot enough time to do the yellow trail too, in total, I hiked for about 7 hours (parts I went pretty quickly). The Yellow Trail starts at Morskie Oko and leads to Szpiglasowy Wierch, the peak of a mountain that overlooks five more of these glacial lakes.
While the trail to Morskie Oko was boring, this trail was anything but. I had to traverse over glaciers that covered my path, climb atop narrow and steep rock paths, and even cross a few streams of glacial melt on the way to the top. The hike was demanding, bring layers and hiking sticks (two things I did not have). However, the view from the top is simply unforgettable. I had never been on top of mountains that high, looking over valleys and lakes and glaciers so beautiful. It was easily the best hike of my life.
My next day, I stayed within Krakow. Krakow has so much to offer as a city, much more than I was expecting. If I could’ve, I would’ve spent at least a week for Krakow and its surrounding areas. Unfortunately I only had three days so I spent one of them in the city.
The most impressive part of Krakow is the St. Mary’s Church. Sure, there are a lot of impressive churches in Europe, if you spend an extended amount of time in Europe, it seems like that’s all you ever see. However, I highly recommend this one. It was one of the most impressive churches I’ve seen. The inside is incredible and it also hosts the largest gothic altarpiece in the world, dedicated to St. Mary.
Krakow is also just a lovely city to walk around. Beautiful architecture and pleasant side streets are discoverable all over the city. Landmarks like Wawel Castle boasts surprise sights all over (including a dragon that breathes real fire!). In the Jewish Quarter, there is a nice walking route to learn the history of the neighborhood. The main Jewish Synagogue is also beautiful inside and out, with stories of notable Jewish Krakow residents who you would have never heard without being inside.
Krakow is also home to the Oskar Schindler Factory, a landmark where one man was able to save over one thousand Jewish residents from being sent to the concentration camps. The museum is set up as a chronological order of the German occupation of Poland and the treatment of the Jewish population during that time. I spent about 1.5 hours there, and wish I had about three. By the end, I found myself running through the museum in order to make my tour that was leaving.
My final day in Krakow was spent at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp, which is about one hour outside of Krakow. The tour started on the Auschwitz side of the camp. The Auschwitz camp has been turned into a museum, which will guide you through different exhibitions. These exhibitions aim to show you what life was like during the time and also show you scale of the mass genocide that occurred at the camp. For example, one exhibit shows tens of thousands of pairs of shoes in two long glass cases on either side of a hallway, which showcased only a small percentage of the lives lost. During your time in Auschwitz, you will also see the gas chambers used to kill hundreds at one time.
On the Birkenau side, which is massive in size compared to Auschwitz, the camp is less museum oriented, and is closer to what it looked like during the days of the Holocaust. You go inside the different blocks to see sleeping arrangements, the railway tracks that shuttled victims inside the camp, you see the destroyed gas chambers, and a memorial to the lives lost, offered in dozens of languages.
As you can imagine, a day spent at Auschwitz-Birkenau is an emotional one. I advise that you only visit if you are emotionally ready to take on what comes with a visit to a site where about 1.5 million lost their lives. I think it is important to note that “emotional-readiness” has two sides to it, both sadness and respect. Unfortunately, you will likely see a number of people going around and taking selfies and posing inappropriately. The worst I saw was a pair taking a smiley selfie right in the middle of one of the gas chambers.
While I don’t mean to be preachy in this blog post, I think it’s important to note that a visit to Auschwitz is an emotional one, but it should also be a respectful one. If you want to take photos, take them of the camp (where it’s allowed) for your own memories of what you experienced that day.
No photos of Auschwitz-Birkenau are included in this blog post.
Moving on from the heavier topics, I highly recommend a visit to Krakow. It is one of my new favorite cities in Europe. I think it has everything, a beautiful Old Town with a lot to do, amazing food, important historical sites, and beautiful nature close by. Krakow was the whole package for me. The city is incredibly affordable, most of the attractions are under 10 euros, and the food is both affordable and delicious. I wish I had more time in Poland, but for now I’ll just promise myself that I’ll return one day.