I’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, 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 park 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 nightlife. Every night my hostel, Greg and Tom’s (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.
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 spot, but if I were to list my top 20 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 Sighi?oara, 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: 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.
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.
I don’t want to get wrapped up in the hype of a place. And there is some serious hype revolving around 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.