We’d been planning our first trip to Krakow, Poland for months so were quite happy to finally arrive. Our friend Pam, coming in from a different airport, had already been there a few hours. After getting situated in the apartment, she had gone out and done the smart thing every traveler should do: asked a local.
Pam spoke with a 20-something named Ania who suggested we try a few restaurants. The first place, called Pod Aniolami, was billed as traditional Polish cuisine. I have to rate the food as OK. The service was speedy and friendly, and the price was reasonable. We had gone downstairs in the restaurant, into what reminded me of the old wine cellars I see so often at home in Italy. To be honest, it felt a little bit like a dungeon to me and that detracted from the experience, I think. I’d suggest if you insist on eating here to stay upstairs in the more spacious and better lit dining areas.
We also had a meal at a place called Resto Illuminati. I am trying to think of over-the-top adjectives to describe it: fabulous, fantastic, amazing, awesome, terrific, and wonderful. They don’t really cover it, though. Let me put it this way: I am in my late 50’s, travel professionally, and have dined in thousands of restaurants, from beach-side shacks to multiple-starred luxury digs. Resto Illuminati is without a doubt in the top 20 restaurants I have ever visited.
Ambiance was exquisite, service was perfect, the inventive dishes simply extraordinary. All at a fair price, too. We’ll go back to Krakow – that is certain – and will eat here again, probably twice.
I spent some time sitting in the main square being entertained by street musicians, those creepy guys who are costumed and painted who then just stand there waiting for you to drop coins into a hat, and the steady flow of tourists wandering into the schlocky “Cloth Market.” Ania had said it was mostly cheap souvenirs, and she was right. If you are looking for a shot glass (I always am looking for a shot glass, by the way) or a shirt that says I (heart) Krakow, the cloth market is fine. If you want to buy something nice, shop on one of the streets that radiate out from the main square.
I also met a guy named Damian. He works for an outfit called Free Walking Tour.com. I was a little bit skeptical about a free tour, feeling that you often get exactly what you pay for. But Damian was fabulous. I went with him on the excellent Communist Krakow Tour. It was 4.5 hours long, included rides on public transport, walking through an entire city within Krakow (called Nowa Huta) with its planned streets, organized neighborhoods and massive steel mill. All of this was designed and built shortly after the Soviet Union had occupied Poland. They underestimated the resilience of the Polish people, though and Damian’s description of the slow but relentless rebellion against the Soviets was a real testimony to the strength of the human spirit.
We tried (with a different guide) the Old Town Krakow tour. Skip it. You’ll spend most of your time in that part of the city anyway, and any guidebook or pamphlet from the tourist office will tell you anything you need to know while you shop, eat, visit the castle, stop in a museum, or just soak in the fun vibe that is the city center.
Krakow, with its young population, is a vibrant and exciting place. But with its fascinating history of art and culture, it is a dignified and elegant city too. As I said, we had been planning our visit for months. Now we are planning our return visit!