Krakow smells good.
Now there’s something I never thought I’d say about a city. There are the salivating aromas from the baked goods and other food. There are also the floating fragrances from the all-day flower market in the Main Market Square. But it’s more than that.
When my friend Emese and I traveled to Krakow this summer, I found myself saying that something smelled good again and again. (I hope not so often that Emese wanted to strangle me.) Sometimes I could easily identify the source. Other times, it was a fleeting smell that aroused my senses.
Plus, there was an absence of bad smells. You know those bad big-city smells of pollution, like car exhaust, trash, cigarette smoke, or even stale urine. Only once did I get a whiff of something off, but that was a natural smell—a gift from one of the horses that pulls the carriages around the city center.
It’s not as if Krakow is a pristine city. Don’t get me wrong—it’s definitely a clean city. But it’s not an eat-right-off-the-sidewalk kind of place, which doesn’t exist anywhere. I don’t know what makes it such a nice smelling city, but I do know there are many reasons why you should visit beyond the good smells: history, sights, people, food, and, yes, vodka.
With archeological findings dating back to the Old Stone Age and the largest Medieval square in Europe, Krakow can boast some history. The Main Market Square, Wawel Hill, and Kazimierz are just some of the areas packed with sights that tell of the glory and tragedy the city and country have experienced. And don’t forget the city’s beloved local boy turned saint. We stayed five nights and while we saw a lot, there is so much more to experience.
What’s the one thing that Krakow doesn’t really have? Polish wine. But that’s not Krakow’s fault. There’s not much Polish wine out there anywhere—believe me, I was looking. In fact, when I spoke to a local about wanting to try Polish wine, she burst out laughing.
I finally did find some Polish wine. The winery, Winnica Srebrna Góra, is actually in (well, on the periphery of) Krakow. The white—Cuvee Blanc 2012—was surprisingly good. It was light and refreshing with some mineral notes. The red—Regent 2012—needed a little work. It was a bit rough and could benefit from fewer tannins and more overall balance. But there was definitely potential. I even bought another red to take home and hope to try it soon (once this hot weather literally and figuratively chills out).
No matter—I quickly became a Polish vodka fan, particularly the lemon, hazelnut, pineapple, pear, and raspberry flavors. Emese and I found a tiny vodka bar—Wódka Café Bar—in the city center and loved it so much, we went there three of the five nights we spent in Krakow. While the main attraction was the vodka—you could buy flights of six tiny glasses filled with any of the 100+ flavors—Maciek, the engaging, knowledgeable, yet low key bartender, and the interactive international crowd were also draws.
We learned about the vodka bar as a result of our walking tour. We participated in three Free Walking Tours: Old Town Krakow, Foods of Krakow, and Jewish Krakow. Although each guide was very different, they were all informative, personable, and engaging. Similar to the Wódka Café Bar crowd, tour participants were interactive and international.
In terms of food, I have one word: pierogi. Actually, I have a second word: delicious. My favorite food is potatoes (my Irish heritage dominating here), so you can imagine my delight with pierogi filled with potatoes and cheese or potatoes and bacon. Yum. Yum. Yum. There are other savory fillings, including spinach and cheese (also good). We even found fruit-filled pierogi, such as blueberry and strawberry. And if you’re ever in Krakow, visit Przystanek Pierogarnia. It’s a tiny—and I mean maybe you can seat five people in the place if you’re lucky—mom and pop pierogi place. The pierogi are excellent and inexpensive, and the owners are friendly and bilingual (or maybe multilingual).
The chocoholic in me was sated with some artisanal chocolate shops. There were more than expected. My German roots were drawn to the pretzel-like offerings found at kiosks all throughout the city. Obwarzanek look like braided circular pretzels with either salt, sesame, or poppy seed toppings. All were good.
While based in Krakow, Emese and I also visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and the Wieliczka Salt Mine. More about those in the next two posts, respectively.
If you haven’t been, I highly recommend a visit to Krakow. Where else can you find a city that has it all—friendly people, international personality, lively character, profound history, beautiful sights, deep culinary traditions, and spirited libations—and smells good too.