The Saturday City: Overrated Krakow

By Nomadic Matt | Published January 7th, 2012

the fortress wall in krakowI’m just going to say it: Krakow, Poland is an overrated destination. Whenever I travel through Europe, people always ask me if I’m going to visit Krakow. “No,” I usually respond. “Ohh, you’re really missing out. It’s one of the best cities in the world,“ they reply.

This year, as I finally made my way through Central and Eastern Europe, I vowed to see Krakow. All of my friends couldn’t stop raving about how amazing the city is. A friend who studied abroad there years ago jumped with glee when I told her I was finally going.

But when I arrived, I was underwhelmed and incredibly disappointed.

It’s not to say that Krakow isn’t a great place. It is. It offers a beautiful historic center well-preserved from the middle ages, a crazy nightlife, decent food, and friendly locals. I enjoyed a lot of what I did and saw while there. The history of the old salt mines outside the city was fascinating, and I enjoyed the free historical tour through the old Jewish quarter. I loved the old castle and its botched and misshapen Italian piazza. And I spent a good day strolling through the tree-lined parked that rings the city center.

As a lover of underground city attractions, I marveled at the ruins of the old town square buried beneath the new one. It was interesting to see just how many meters “above ground” Krakow now stood.

And I especially loved the city night life. Every night my hostel, Greg and Tom (one of my favorites in Europe), ran pub crawls and vodka tastings. And no matter what day of the week it was, the pubs and clubs of Krakow seemed full.

the fortress wall in krakow

But all of that doesn’t make Krakow the greatest thing since sliced bread. Everyone talks about Krakow as if it is some marvel, some Emerald City-like city but if I were to list my top twenty places in Europe, Krakow wouldn’t even make the bottom of that list. When I think of historic and beautiful medieval cities, I think of Prague, Tallinn, Brno, and Sighisoara just to name a few. They all are far more beautiful and have a far better historic atmosphere to them.

I think Krakow gets hyped for a few reasons.

First, it’s hard to deny that it is pretty. People generally love medieval European cities and Krakow has a marvelously preserved historic center with old buildings, tiny alleys, and cobblestone streets. There’s even a fortress wall around part of it. Additionally, even the modern portion of the city is well-built, with seemingly little of the communist blandness that so stains most of the old Soviet Bloc.

Moreover, it’s a young city. There are a lot of students and travelers here so you find a lot of youthful energy coursing throughout the city. It definitely has that college town feel to it, which also might explain the other reason Krakow is so popular.

the fortress wall in krakow

There is a ton of cheap alcohol flowing throughout the city.

It was the one thing everyone mentioned to me when they talked about Krakow. “Krakow is a cracking party,” people would say. Hostels here exist to get travelers inebriated. Pub crawls with free vodka shots and cheap, cheap drinks occur every night. My hostel definitely tried hard to get everyone drunk. But then again, so do all the other hostels here.

Everyone comes to Krakow to party. They hear about it, they expect it, and they are ready for it. On my pub crawl, there were even baby boomer couples shooting down vodka. (I actually think that is really cool. Not because they are drinking heavily, but because they haven’t let age slow them down and aren’t afraid to hang out with the twenty-something travelers.)

When you combine all three of those things (especially drinking because young travelers and students love drinking), it’s easy to see why everyone travels around Europe raving madly about Krakow.

the fortress wall in krakow

But a party city doesn’t make a great city. While Krakow has many wonderful features in its own right, I was incredibly underwhelmed. I try to remain objective when I travel, especially when I know I am going to write about a place. I try to take cities for what they are, not what people say they are. Expectations can often lead to disappointment. I may get twinkle-eyed when I think about Paris, but let’s be honest – it’s expensive, overpriced, and the locals can be kind of rude. Bangkok? It’s my second home.

I don’t want to get wrapped up in the hype of a place. And there is some serious hype revolving around Krakow.

the fortress wall in krakow

If someone asked me to go to Krakow, I would certainly go back. And I would suggest that anyone reading this blog post go there and enjoy the city. You will have a wonderful time seeing the sights and absorbing the history of the place.

But I’m not going to scream from a mountaintop about it.

comments 59 Comments

Miranda

I agree. I enjoyed Krakow but it’s hardly in my top 20 places in Europe, either. Was wondering how much of my experience was marred by bad weather, but the weather looks fine in your photos so I guess I was fairly objective after all. :)

NomadicMatt

It was cold but I had really nice wether during my visit. It rained a bit one night but that was all.

kr2

Mate how old r you and how come you give yourself right to judge a city far older and far more beautiful than most European ones. Saying Prague is better or somthing like that you make me say that all cities from Poland, Czech, Slovakia etc. r far more beautifull than all UK alltogether.
Stop waisting peoples time. From your picture I thinking you r too young to make opininios by travelling to few countries. Your knowledge database is rubbish.
Did you even know that Krakowski Rynek is the oldest medieval market in world?
I guess not. Go back home do your homework properly read some books and stop writting rubish about cities far more beautiful and uniqe than your narrow maind can see them.
Good luck boy.

Matt, thank you for your interesting opinion, I really enjoyed reading your opinion as it is sincere and can be an enriching input to discussion what tourism done to places around the world.
My first visit to Krakow was more than 20 years ago, and it was typical school trip. I am amazed how this city has been changed through this time. It was an ambitious, proud of its history city, as a former capital, always competing with Warsaw. Then Poland become free from communism, the country was changing quickly and Krakow become one of most visited places in Eastern Europe.
I must admit, it is a born tourist destination, nice architecture (not destroyed during WWII comparing to other Polish cities) and stunning landscape. It is also close to Tatra mountains, salt mines in Wieliczka and Auschwitz, which makes Kraków a perfect place for longer stay. Unfortunately, Kraków become victim of popular stereotypes about Poland; such as cheapness and vodka, vodka and vodka once more.
As I remember, firstly locals were amazed by growing numbers of visiting tourists. But then number of stag and hen-parties made this place unbearable. Newspapers loathed drunk Westerners bathin in fountains and running naked through the city square.
I think it is a good example how tourism can be blessing and curse in the same time for place. A lot of local businesses gained, but the city lost its charm.
Ending my too long comment, I’d like emphasise, as a Pole, that boozing is not the only one idea for living/ visiting Poland and I believe, that this stereotype change sometime. Also, it is sad, that tourist industry in Krakow tries to focus just on boozing, forgetting about rich past. It is a short-term strategy, because drinking parties will eventually swap Krakow to other cheaper destinations, but stereotypes and superstitions will not change easy.
Anyway, everyone: feel invited to Poland! It is maybe not top 20, but enjoy hospitality and learn about complex Eastern European history.

Betti

I’ve never been to Poland, so I cannot really comment on this – however, I’m baffled when getting pissed is the aim or one of the main aims of a trip abroad. why not stay at home then and knock oneself out with vodka shots? I bet it’s cheaper on the whole.
I just don’t get it.
maybe I’m getting too old :-)

NomadicMatt

I often ask other travelers the same thing. I see too much of it here in Thailand. Travelers come, head to the party islands, leave and think they experienced the country. I’m not going to say I got to really know Krakow but the blog simply related my first impression.

Courtney

Couldn’t disagree more. I far preferred Krakow to Prauge. I took a bike tour there that was one of the best tours I have ever been on, its not just the alcohol that is cheaper everything is, and growing up around a Polish grandma LOVED the food.

Michael

Kraków is in my top 5 cities in Europe and I’ve been to over 50 cities. It obliteraties Prague in terms of vibe, friendliness and overall atmosphere. (In my opinion of course). I just had a really good time in this city, it is one of the few cities that hasn’t been poisoned by western culture (yet).

Hmm. I’m gonna have to disagree with you here. I visited five years ago and am one of those people who constantly raves about it. I think it was less of a destination then. For instance, they didn’t have tours of the old Jewish Quarter. It was pretty rugged and cold. Still, I loved it for all the reasons you mentioned at the start of this article rather than the fact that it’s a cracking party. I went out to a few underground bars there, but didn’t really party, mainly just ate pierogies and took tons of photos. Maybe it just wasn’t your city, or maybe it was just build up a bit too much for ya. I always end up not being amazed by the places I build up in my head.

NomadicMatt

I don’t think it was the it place to visit 5 years ago. It is now. That being said it does have many wonderful aspects to it but I prefer Warsaw to Krakow.

Michael

You prefer Warsaw to Kraków? wow that really says it all then…

NomadicMatt

What does it say?

Just out of interest Matt, I’d like you to list your top 20 European destinations? Prague has been on my list for some time, but friends were there in September and found it overcrowded and seriously expensive.

I think you’ve been a little unfair to Krakow. Was anybody asking you to shout it from the mountain tops? I personally have found it a very charming city, but then I spent most of my time exploring its many churches, synagogues and the Jagellonian University. I’m certainly biased but I’ve done very little vodka drinking in the city (though more than my share in the Tatry Mountains)

NomadicMatt

If you go to Prague in the shoulder seasons, it’s very beautiful and not that crowded.

Honestly, I really liked Krakow. I spent hours just wandering the tree lined park people watching. While it has a reputation for being a party place, I got the vibe that this city was quite conservative. Not something I expected when I got there. People tend to dress conservatively and thought it was rather mellow. I admit that I didn’t experience the nightlife – not an aspect of most cities I really care to explore.

Watching the people, I thought it was welcoming and people enjoyed being there. With the university there, it felt young but also vibrant. There is lots to see and do and you can really appreciate what it has to offer. Maybe it is an expectations thing because I went into it with absolutely no expectations. After spending time in other cities in Eastern Europe, Krakow was young, refreshing, and surprisingly pleasant. It didn’t have that wow factor but felt like a place I would call home.

In many terms, agree with You. Krakow is not on top 20 list, but it is a very charming and warm city. City worths to came back in.

Rob Davies

I actually prefer Warsaw so much more. One of the more interesting cities I have visited in Europe.

NomadicMatt

I loved Warsaw. Could have spent ages there. I found it much more interesting than Krakow.

I visited Krakow five years ago and stayed a couple nights. Although I was there mostly as a jumping off point for visiting Auschwitz, I thought it was a charming city. I stayed in a hostel, but I don’t remember much booze or a party scene there, aside from perhaps a half-dozen young Englishmen enjoying a rather tame stag party weekend. Perhaps things have changed. I did spend a few hours in a cafe in the historic center while I drank a couple beers and watched beautiful people and horse-drawn carriages pass by. Greatest city in the world? Hardly. However, I’d say Krakow is not overrated simply because I haven’t heard an unusual number of folks talking about it.

I really enjoyed reading this and it totally justified my decision NOT to go to Krakow on my recent swing through Poland. I like to have a good time but I am not a huge partier and definitely look to do more in a city than just get drunk every night. Glad I spent my week in Poland in Warsaw instead – I personally think that is one city that’s underrated. :)

NomadicMatt

I enjoyed Warsaw a lot more. I agree – very underrated.

I preferred Krakw to Prague. But that was mainly because Prague was full of backpackers getting drunk and Krakow, at the time, wasn’t so much.

I think you’re getting jaded, Matt.

NomadicMatt

Krakow is now full of drunk backpackers.

:-(

I enjoyed Prague despite the drunk backpackers, no doubt I would enjoy Krakow despite the drunk backpackers too. But it is still depressing to hear.

Have been to Budapest? I hear good things about it.

NomadicMatt

Budapest is phenomenal. Better than Prague and Krakow.

NomadicMatt

That’s my feeling – solid city, worth a visit, nothing special.

Courtney

As the person who studied abroad there, and raved about it to Matt, I can definitely say I can see where he’s coming from. I think that anyone who has been able to call another country their second home, rather than just a place that they come and spent a couple of days in, would have a different love and affinity for it. Because I think that the truly amazing part of the city is the everyday people. I studied there, and then came back to stay as a traveller a couple months later- and experienced the city in a completely different way. I am glad you went, Matt. Next time, I’ll go with you and show you the other side of Krakow. :-)

Great article! I think people often get het up in the perceptions of a city rather than what the city is actually like. I would like to saw I feel the same about Paris and London but actually I despise the both of them I have no admiration for either.

I’m (hopefully) going to Poland in April so maybe I’ll stop by xx

Charlie

I’ve been to Prague and Budapest twice (latest was last month). Prague is amazing and if Krakow is even close, I’m going there. BTW,Budapest is fine, but can’t compare to Prague, or even Dresden.

Charlie

One more thing, my wife is Estonian and Tallinn , except for the daytrip Cruise ships, isn’t all that visited by Americans. The old town is as pristine as it gets. Plus the most beautiful women anywhere (and I married one).

NomadicMatt

I totally agree. Estonian women are breathtaking.

Brian

After visiting L’viv, I found Krakow pretty disappointing. They’re both similar in architecture and culture, but L’viv just felt more real. I’ve never bonded with the locals in any city as much as I have in Krakow, but I felt like the atmosphere was a bit contrived and Disney-like. I don’t regret visiting Krakow, but I probably would never go back.

I love Krakow, went there 2 years ago and i think is amazing….

Mac

really?!! You call that a review? Honestly theres maybe 3 or 4 real arguments that youve mad. The rest is just talking about what you like or dont like with almost no content to it. About alcohol. If You go to places to drink you’ll find places to drink. I suggest get some more education in writing and journalism before you try to.

NomadicMatt

Thanks for the advice! Looking forward to reading your thoughts on Krakow too!

canadiensdemtl

matt, no offence but it sounds like the only reason you didn’t enjoy it that much is because of how many other place’s you’ve been to, which krakow does not compare to. that, and the expectations you had about it. ahh the curse of the traveler, finding hard to appreciate the ordinary or anything other than extraordinary things. congrats to you for staying objective, and true though.

I rather enjoyed Krakow and I am definitely not a drinking-party kind of gal! I did notice the many parting groups but just ignored them, and I had a very nice trip. Would gladly return again! I especially loved the Kazimiertz neighborhood.

Rob

I think everyone has own opinion and own experience. I visited many places in Europe and I must admit that Krakow is one of the best. I love to go back to this city. Krakow has very unique atmosphere, just charm. I agree that there are many parties in this city there are huge number of students and tourists, but you can find quiet places as well. The city offers many attractions for different kind of people. To me definitively Krakow is not overrated but everyone has own opinion!

Lucas

I’ve been to Krakow a few times and it’s a lovely place. Is it overrated? I dunno. Once any place becomes popular it’ll likely be overrated in some people’s eyes. I can’t imagine how anyone could ever regret visiting this place though. Great architecture, food, clubs, you name it. Warsaw is probably more interesting and has a lot more going, but then again, it’s a much bigger city with a completely different flavour. Quite frankly I never understood the Warsaw vs. Krakow arguments. They’re both worth visiting.

John

It seems as if 95% of your article consists in giving examples of and reinforcing the view that Krakow is great based on all the things you have heard from numerous people: excellent nightlife; beautiful architecture; amazing attractions and so on. The rest then only dismisses this as annoying simply because too many people are talking about how great the city is.

Seems like the classic case of a hipster trying to swim against the mainstream. Dropping a few names of less visited cities while you’re at it.

NomadicMatt

Hipster? There’s no need to insult me!

Super8

Exactly my impression of this article. I was puzzled that you found so many aspects of the city positive, yet the overall tone of the article is negative.

So much of a traveller’s perception of a particular city is influenced by pre visit expectations, so I fully appreciate how hearing too many great things about a particular place can often lead to disappointment. I’m pretty surprised you felt that after visiting Krakow, but not, say, Prague??

I must be reading different travel literature/speaking to a different breed of people, but I’ve certainly heard more hype about Prague than Krakow. The funny thing is that from people who have been to both cities, Krakow is usually held in higher esteem.

Drunk backpackers and stag parties?? Welcome to Eastern Europe.. or European cities in general. Krakow had only a fraction of that stuff when compared to Amsterdam. Besides, I’d take that over the mile long ques of tourists in Paris any day. The mass of local students far outweighs the number of backpackers anyway.

Guess it all comes down to personal experiences, and if you didn’t have as great a time as you expected, it’s nice to read an honest appraisal.

Personally Krakow is one of my favorite cities. It had a certain charm and atmosphere which I couldn’t pin point but made my stay incredibly enjoyable. A day trip to Zakopane and then Auschwitz made it all the more memorable.

I may have been one of the few backpackers who went to Krakow and didn’t go out partying, but for me, Krakow was a fascinating place. I would hardly call it one of Europe’s top destinations, but it did exceed my expectations. What caught my attention the most was the uncomfortable fusion between old and new, Cold War and Western, poverty and luxury. I feel like the city is haunted by a heavy past, most noticeable when you venture into the Jewish district. It seemed impossible to ignore all of the tragedy that the city and its and inhabitants have experienced, unlike other war-torn European cities like Rotterdam or Cologne, where most of the traces of wartime damage have been erased.

Patrick Smith

As always, I really like your impressions of locations! You give a good explanation of your impression along with supporting reasons. Thanks!

We really loved Krakow. Thought the city was cutely medieval:-) Loved the churches and walking the town, and the salt mines were really great. Visited it two years ago along with Slovenia (loved Llubliana (sp?), Budapest, Krakow and Prague. Also went to Salzburg but left after our first night- thought it was boring.

Jan

I have not heard a word about Krakow until I mentioned it to a traveller in Prague. My reason for visiting Krakow was the close proximity to the Tatra Mountains and of course Auschwitz and Birkenau. My experience in Krakow was not the best but I do think it’s a beautiful little city worth a visit if you can look past all the drunk monkeys that show themselves at night.

So I guess I haven’t really traveled Europe enough to know where the best places are, but I personally love Krakow. I went a few years ago with zero expectations and had a lovely time. It probably helped that we were staying in what was essentially a five star hotel (with incredible breakfast) for a ridiculously cheap price. I guess it’s partly your state of mind that effects how you feel about a trip but at the time I went I was desperate to travel somewhere and I have fond memories of the place.

Erin

See, this is why I try (and often fail) to avoid listening to hype about anything. If someone raves about a movie to me, I can guarantee you that I’ll get really excited to see it and then be incredibly disappointed. Travel can be just like that. I visited Krakow several years ago and had a delightful trip. I’d never heard a thing about it before and was much more excited for the Berlin leg of our trip, so found myself pleasantly delighted by the city. Perhaps I liked it so much because it was Easter so we enjoyed the Easter market and it wasn’t full of backpackers (drunk or otherwise) at that time of year. And it snowed, which always adds magic for me, I love snow. If someone had hyped Krakow up to me beforehand though, I’m sure I’d have been terribly disappointed because, while we had a nice time, it wasn’t the most exciting part of our trip.

Matt Sablan

Sorry dude, but I just think it is not humanly possible not to be amazed by Krakow. I’m from Sweden, granparents from the US – I’ve travelled a lot and I can tell you if you didn’t fall in love with Krakow you just happened to see the cities in one of the few days in the year it doesn’t look stunning. Maybe it was raining, maybe there was some big concert messing up the market square, or maybe it was a bad feeling of yours ruining the fairy tale scenario, but one thing’s for sure: Krakow, and Poland, are majoritarily underrated destinations. I don’t know what was your personal experience, maybe someone’s bragged way too much to you about it – but that just shouldn’t be a reason to write a whole post about. Hope next time you go to Krakow you see it with different eyes, it gets prettier and prettier each year :)

Peter

I live in Krakow; the city is a shithole, the air is terribly polluted, and the people are pretty nasty. Even with its swarms of tourists, Prague is more pleasant. Budapest is far superior as well (in every respect-architecture, culture, history, people, etc.). In fact, the only redeeming quality for Krakow may be its relatively low cost as a travel destination when compared to other medeival cities in Central Europe. As for Krakow’s place in Polish history, advocates for the city greatly exagerate its importance: Krakow ceased to be a capital city over four centuries ago, and during the period of partitions was little more than a secondary or tertiary city for the Austrian ruled territories of Poland. If you find yourself in Poland, skip Krakow and head for Wroclaw or Warsaw. Hell, even Gdansk is more fun, and if you’re feeling crazy, try Bialystok or someother lesser visited, relatively large Polish city. Krakow can be omitted without loss

Daniel

Peter,
Please leave Krakow!

Peter

Daniel,

I appreciate your position and your willingness to share it, and I consider it unfortunate that you took offense. However, my leaving Krakow would change NONE of the faults of the city that I mentioned, with the exception of removing one unpleasant person from the city (myself). That would still leave tens if not hundreds of thousands of unpleasant people in Krakow. Do know that Krakovars are known throughout Poland for being elitist, unpleasant, often arrogant, and rude. Were I to leave the city, Krakow would still have some of the dirtiest air in the European Union, an exaggerated sense of its importance in Polish history, architecture that is not particularly stunning, and a population that is often unpleasant.

Matt, I don’t know what all of your friends that raved about Krakow exactly meant, but I had a chance to get to know this city more than a regular tourist (or even a regular citizen) and I can assure it’s not only about culture, historic center and crazy nightlife, as most people think. The Old Town and Kazimierz district is only a small part of what you could in fact make out of it. As much as I enjoy your blog and find your tips useful, I believe you could use this short note in case you happened to visit Krakow once again someday: http://meetyourplanet.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/what-poland-feels-like-part-ii/ . I’m also very curious if your post would be any different if you saw the rest that I’m actually talking about :)

Aloha!

Traveler

If as you have said, “all” your friends can’t “stop raving about how amazing the city is” … maybe the problem is not the city. Maybe the problem is you.

I get that you probably meant your opening statement to be an exaggeration, but all the same, the notion that you’re pointing to is that most are not only satisfied, but enchanted by Cracow. Admittedly, I belong to that group.

If Cracow disappointed you personally, sorry… but that hardly makes it overrated on any “objective” level that you seem to claim. I suggest you give this great city another go.

john

Not only did I fall in love with Krakow, I plan to buy a place and spend part of my retirement there. Overrated, hell no!

Yey !

I discovered Krakow when I arrived a month ago to study there, for one year. I probably don’t know as a tourist how it looks like, because when you live in a city you get a total different point of view about things, and you have an other conception of time and space in it.

I study in Paris, I was born there, now I live in the suburb (which is way more supportable than in Paris), and I can say you can’t live there. You just suffocate in this city, especially as a young person, it’s just a huge museum. Don’t get it wrong, it’s beautiful, I like my french culture and you can enjoy it in Paris, but it’s overcrowded, full of people and noise all the time, you spend half the time in the metro, everything is dirty.

And now I think I can say that in comparison you can live in Krakow. You have a place as an human being, you’re allowed to live there even when you’re not a tourist, you can go to a restaurant and not wait 3 hours to get a place, you can meet with friends in bars, you can go to the opera and do not face the old Parisian society. You can walk from a point to another one.
It’s not full of people everywhere you go, and you have more “industrial” places, but also parks, medieval monuments, and it’s ok.
I love this city, I’m falling in love with it more and more, every time I’m walking in it.

Yes, you’re right. I’m a local here in Krakow and sometimes get the same idea – that Prague, Budapest etc. are more attractive. But anyway Krakow has its own atmosphere different to other towns. And for some travellers it’s enjoyable very much, for others not so much.

Hey, really interesting post, if anything you sold this place more to me haha. Just wondering, if you think Krakow is overrated, and there any other cities in Poland you’d rather recommend?

henryk

so that’s why you should visit Wroclaw!!! in Krakow there is tooo many tourists and in Warsaw everything is far apart… Wroclaw is the best place if you really want to know Poles and our country… :D

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