Poland Rediscovered: Kraków, Auschwitz, and Warsaw
With its bubbly Baroque and cobbled charm, exciting Kraków is emerging as the "next Prague" — a vibrant city that's a surprise hit with many first-time visitors. Nearby, a visit to Auschwitz teaches a timeless, soul-searching lesson. And Warsaw, decades after it was systematically destroyed during World War II, is a lively, thriving capital once again.
St. Mary's Church
A church has stood on this spot for 800 years. The original church was destroyed by the first Tatar invasion in 1241, but all subsequent versions — including the current one — have been built on the same foundation. You can look down the sides to see how the Main Market Square has risen about seven feet over the centuries (church open daily in the afternoon).
In the Middle Ages, this was the place where cloth-sellers had their market stalls. Kazimierz the Great turned the Cloth Hall into a permanent structure in the 14th century. In 1555, it burned down, and was replaced by the current building. The Cloth Hall is still a functioning market — selling mostly souvenirs, including wood carvings, chess sets, jewelry (especially amber), painted boxes, and trinkets.
This hill is where Kazimierz the Great turned a small fortress into a mighty Gothic castle in the 14th century (only bits of its foundation remain, as the original fortress burned to the ground in 1499). But across the grounds of the castle you can uncover more fragments of Kraków's history, and have the opportunity to visit several museums.
This uniquely eclectic church is the product of centuries of haphazard additions…yet somehow, it works. It began as a simple, stripped-down Romanesque church in the 12th century. Kazimierz the Great and his predecessors gradually surrounded the cathedral with some 20 chapels, which were further modified over the centuries — making this beautiful church a happy hodgepodge of styles. The cathedral interior is slathered in Baroque memorials and tombs, decorated with tapestries, and soaked in Polish history.
Kazimierz (Jewish Quarter)
The neighborhood of Kazimierz, 20 minutes by foot southeast of Kraków's Old Town, is the historic heart of Kraków's once-thriving Jewish community. After years of neglect, the district began a rejuvenation in the early 2000s. Today, while note quite as slick and polished as Prague's Jewish Quarter, Kazimierz's assortment of synagogues, cemeteries, and museums helps visitors appreciate the neighborhood's rich history. It's also the city's edgy, hipster culture center — jammed with colorful bars, creative eateries, and designer boutiques.
On a balmy summer night, Kazimierz's main square, ulica Szeroka, is filled with the haunting strains of klezmer — traditional Jewish music from 19th-century Poland, generally with violin, string bass, clarinet, and accordion. Skilled klezmer musicians can make their instruments weep or laugh like human voices. Several eateries on ulica Szeroka offer klezmer music, typically starting between 19:00 and 20:00. To really focus on klezmer as an art form, pay a bit more to attend a concert, performed most summer nights in several synagogues (for the latest lineup, check for fliers around town, or ask at any tourist information office).
"Auschwitz" actually refers to a series of several camps in Poland — most importantly Auschwitz I, in the village of Oświęcim (50 miles west of Kraków), and Auschwitz II, a.k.a. Birkenau (about 1.5 miles west of Oświęcim). Auschwitz I, where public transportation from Kraków arrives, has the main museum building, the Arbeit Macht Frei gate, and indoor museum exhibits in former prison buildings. Birkenau is on a much bigger scale and mostly outdoors, with the infamous guard tower, a vast field with ruins of barracks, a few tourable rough barracks, the notorious "dividing platform," a giant monument flanked by remains of destroyed crematoria, and a prisoner processing facility called "the Sauna."
With a million and a half visitors each year, Auschwitz struggles with crowd control. Reservations are required — whether visiting on your own or joining a guided tour. It's free to reserve, but spaces book up very early.
Wieliczka, a salt mine 10 miles southeast of Kraków, is beloved by Poles. Deep beneath the ground, the mine is filled with sculptures that miners have lovingly carved out of the salt. You'll explore this unique gallery — learning both about the art and about medieval mining techniques — on a required tour. Though the sight is a bit overrated, it's unique and practically obligatory if you're in Kraków for at least two days.
Though legendary saxophonist Janusz Muniak passed away in 2016, his famous club is still the best for all-around jazz in a sophisticated cellar environment.
Jewish Sights in Warsaw
After centuries of living relatively peacefully in Poland, Warsaw's Jews suffered terribly at the hands of the Nazis. Several sights in Warsaw commemorate those who were murdered, and those who fought back. Because the Nazis leveled the ghetto, there is literally nothing left except the street plan, some monuments, and the heroic spirit of its former residents. However, the top-notch Museum of the History of Polish Jews has rejuvenated the area, making it even more of a magnet for those interested in this chapter of Polish history.
Warsaw Uprising Sights
While the 1944 Warsaw Uprising is a recurring theme in virtually all Warsaw sightseeing, two sights in particular are worth a visit for anyone with a special interest: The Warsaw Uprising Monument (at plac Krasinskich) and the thorough, modern Warsaw Uprising Museum (inconveniently located a 10-minute tram ride west of the central train station — but well worth the trip for history buffs).
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we're in Poland with such a rich history and a promising future. Dzień dobry.
Every country's had its ups and downs. But Poland's been particularly hard hit through the ages. Thankfully, these are good times for Poland. It's a member of the European Union, its economy is thriving, and it's never been more fun to visit.
Poland's two must-see cities are Warsaw and Kraków.
Enjoying the highlights of Poland, we'll visit its grand cultural center, Kraków, make a pilgrimage to Poland's holiest site, remember the horrors of Auschwitz, descend into a magical salt mine, feel the jazzy beat, be inspired by WWII heroics, slam down a Polish tradition…
Rick: Woah yeah!
...and experience the phoenix of Europe — Warsaw.
In the northeast corner of Europe, Poland is one of the largest countries on the Continent. We'll visit its historic capital, Kraków, side trip to a salt mine, and to a concentration camp, then head for Poland's modern capital, Warsaw.
We start in Kraków — it's like the Boston of Poland: a charming and vital city buzzing with history, college students, and tourists. Even though Poland's political capital moved from here to Warsaw 400 years ago, Kraków remains the country's cultural and intellectual center.
The city's history is rich, its sights are fascinating, and the prices are some of Europe's lowest. This is a country where the most expensive café on the most expensive perch serves drinks for a fraction of what you'd expect.
The charm of today's Kraków lies in its medieval roots.
Kraków grew wealthy from trade in the 12th century. Traders passing through were required to stop for a few days and sell their goods at a discount. Local merchants then resold their wares at a profit…and the city thrived.
In the 13th century the Tartars — a.k.a. the Mongols — swept in from Asia and destroyed Kraków. Resilient Krakovians took this opportunity to rebuild their city with a near-perfect grid plan — a striking contrast to the narrow, mazelike lanes of most medieval towns.
Eventually Kraków's power waned. Warsaw emerged as the dominant city in Poland and Kraków remained a provincial backwater of the Habsburg Empire, ruled from Vienna. While Warsaw was in the sphere of Moscow and therefore more Eastern and conservative, Kraków has long been more Western and liberal.
Kraków emerged from World War II virtually unscathed — it slumbered under communism until Poland won its freedom in 1989. Today this city is Poland's leading tourist attraction…with plenty of top-notch sights.
After the Tartars destroyed their city, Krakovians built this imposing wall. The big, round defensive fort standing outside the wall is a barbican. It provided extra protection at the town's main gate.
By the 19th century, the city wall was no longer necessary. Locals tore down most of it, filled in the moat, and planted trees. Today, this delightful and people-friendly green belt — a park called the Planty — circles Kraków's Old Town.
To get away from the tourists' Kraków, bike or hike around the Planty and up the park that lines the Vistula River. If you think you're good at chess, challenge one of these guys.
Nearby, the imposing St. Mary's Church — with its soaring lookout tower — has long been an icon of the city. Each midday, crowds gather for a medieval moment as a nun swings open the church's much-adored altarpiece. This exquisite Gothic polyptych — an altarpiece with pivoting panels — was carved in the late 1400s by Veit Stoss. One of the most impressive medieval woodcarvings in existence, it depicts the death of the Virgin with emotion rare in Gothic art.
St. Mary's Church faces Kraków's marvelous Market Square. One of Europe's most gasp-worthy public spaces, it bustles with life. This square is where Kraków lives…kids practice breakdancing, horse carriages take you for a ride, and folk bands add traditional color.
When built, in the 13th century, this was the biggest square in medieval Europe. Back then you couldn't just sell things anywhere. Everything had to be sold here on the market square.
Or in the Cloth Hall. In the Middle Ages, this was where the cloth sellers had their market stalls. Today — whether you're looking for a fancy egg, some traditional embroidery, or a little amber — it's your one-stop souvenir-shopping arcade.
I find Polish culture and history both compelling and confusing. My friend and fellow tour guide, Kasia Derlicka, is joining us to be sure we get things just right.
Kasia: Let's go to a very special place. It's close to every Polish heart. It's Wawel, and Poland actually begins in Wawel.
Wawel Hill is sacred ground to the Polish people — a symbol of Polish royalty and independence. A castle has stood here since the 11th century. Today Wawel is the most-visited sight in all Poland. The highlight of the entire castle complex is the cathedral.
Wawel Cathedral is Poland's national church — its "Westminster Abbey." To Poles, this church is the national mausoleum. It holds the tombs of Poland's greatest rulers and historic figures.
Poland is devoutly Catholic. 75% of its nearly 40 million people are practicing Catholics. Pope John Paul II was a hometown boy and served right here as archbishop of Kraków before being called to Rome. Catholicism defines the Poles, holding them together when nothing else could.
Kasia: Imagine, Poland was crunched between Protestant Germany and Orthodox Russia. During the partition in the 19th century, we didn't even show on the map but we survived — thanks to being Polish, and thanks to being Catholics. And during Communism it was also very difficult and very dark, but we expressed our freedom and our political dissent by going to Mass.
Compared to the rest of Europe, Polish churches are alive with people practicing their faith. Respectful tourists are welcome. Some come to worship and others to remember leading figures in Polish history, such as Kazimierz the Great.
If you're going to remember one Polish king, remember Kazimierz the Great, who ruled Poland from Kraków in the 14th century. Kazimierz was one of those larger-than-life medieval kings who left his mark on all fronts. He was a great warrior, diplomat, patron of the arts, and womanizer.
His scribes bragged "Kazimierz found Poland made of wood, and left it made of brick and stone" — he even made it onto the 50-złoty note.
Most of all, Kazimierz was remembered for being a tolerant and progressive king. In the 14th century, when other nations were deporting Jews, King Kazimierz actively welcomed them. He granted them special banking and trading privileges, and established the long-standing tradition of Poland being a safe haven for Jews in Europe.
The neighborhood of Kazimierz — named for the king — was a thriving and autonomous Jewish community for centuries when most of the world's Jews lived here in Poland. In the 1930s, a quarter of Kraków's population was Jewish.
While few Jews actually still live here, the spirit of the Jewish tradition survives. Perhaps the best way to enjoy that is at a klezmer dinner concert.
Several restaurants offer Jewish music from 19th-century Poland with their traditional cuisine. As Polish and Jewish culture mingled here for so many centuries, it's hard to distinguish between Jewish and Polish cuisine. But with ambience like this, it's clear the Jewish heritage here is a rich one.
While Poles and Jews managed to live together relatively well, the story became a nightmare with the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. This thriving Jewish community — like most in Europe — was decimated during the Holocaust.
The fragile remains of the community, historic exhibits, and its synagogues provide a meditative look at how the town was walled in, and its residents eventually shipped off to nearby concentration camps. Ultimately less then 10 percent of Kraków's Jews survived the war and the death camps.
The Jewish cemeteries of Kazimierz were defiled by the Germans, bulldozed by Nazi tanks. Headstones — broken under tank treads — now create a moving mosaic wall and Holocaust monument.
But the most powerful Holocaust memorial — I think in all of Europe — is the concentration camp here at Auschwitz, an hour's drive from Kraków.
Auschwitz was the biggest and most notorious concentration camp in the Nazi system. Seeing the camp can be difficult. But Auschwitz victims and their families want tourists to come here, to experience the scale and the monstrosity of the place in human terms, in hope that the Holocaust will never be forgotten.
The Nazis turned this army base into a death camp. They murdered over 4 million European Jews in Poland. Over a million people — the vast majority of them Jews — were systematically exterminated here at Auschwitz. The notorious gate welcomed inmates with a cruel lie: Arbeit Macht Frei…"work will set you free."
Former cellblocks tell the story. People were told they'd be starting new lives and to bring luggage — clearly labeled with their names. After they were killed, everything of value was sorted and warehoused. Eyeglasses evoke how individuality was trashed. Crutches and prosthetic limbs remind us that the first people exterminated were mentally and physically ill German citizens; children's clothing — the Nazis spared no one — and a seemingly endless mountain of shoes…it's hard to comprehend the numbers.
Halls are lined with photographs of victims, each marked with dates of arrival and dates of death — inmates rarely survived more than a couple of months.
The crematorium is marked by its chimney. Up to 700 people at a time could be gassed, but it required two days to burn that many bodies here. The Nazis didn't like this inefficiency, so they built a far bigger camp two miles away.
Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, was a vast factory of death holding 100,000 people. A few buildings survive. Train tracks lead efficiently past the main building, into the camp, and to the dividing platform.
A Nazi doctor stood here and evaluated each prisoner as they stepped off the train. If he pointed to the right, the prisoner marched — unknowingly — directly to the gas chamber. If he pointed to the left, the person was judged strong enough to work and would live a little longer. It was here that families from all over Europe were torn apart forever.
Up to a thousand were packed into each of these buildings. Each inmate had an ID number, a barrack number, and a bed number. Two chimneys connected by a brick duct provided a little heat.
The bricks are worn smooth by countless inmates who sat here to catch a little warmth in the middle of a bitter Polish winter. I can't imagine how cold they must have been…wet, hungry, and dressed in rags.
The Germans bombed the sprawling gassing and cremation facilities as they retreated. The ruins stand as a memorial.
The gas chambers — where the mass killing was done — were disguised as showers. People were given hooks to hang their clothes on, conned into thinking they were coming back. (The Nazis didn't want a panic.) Then the inmates piled into the "shower room." At Birkenau the Nazis gassed and cremated over 4,000 people per day.
The camp monument represents gravestones and the chimney of a crematorium. Plaques — in each of the languages spoken by camp victims — explain the purpose of this memorial.
The memorial reads, "a cry of despair and a warning to humanity." Since liberation day in 1945, millions have visited this place. Hopefully they take away a determination to learn from the holocaust, and never let it be repeated.
Driving through the countryside back to Kraków refreshes travelers with a look at today's peaceful rural Poland. Few travelers take time to see the countryside. Stop the car…get out…enjoy an intimate look at Poland's welcoming country life.
The small houses are traditionally used by three generations at the same time. Nineteenth-century houses — the few that survive — often sport colorful stripes. Back then, parents announced that their daughters were now eligible by getting out the paint. Once they saw these blue lines, village boys were welcome to come a courtin'.
The remarkable Wieliczka Salt Mine — just outside of Kraków — has been producing salt for eight centuries. Today it's busy not with miners, but with tourists.
After descending 200 feet below the surface, you follow your guide on a mile-long downhill stroll, getting a memorable peek at life in the mine. It's vast: nine levels…1000 feet deep…over a hundred miles of tunnels. For centuries, generations of Wieliczka miners spent their daylight hours underground, rarely seeing the sun.
Proud miners carved figures of great Poles out of the salt. You'll see legends from the days of King Kazimierz, when one-third of Poland's income came from these precious deposits: the famous astronomer Copernicus, and even the region's favorite son, Pope John Paul II.
Guide: The total number of chapels in this mine is over 20. This is the oldest chapel in this part of the salt mine, Saint Anthony chapel from 17th century. Everything here around us is made of salt — even the chandelier is salt crystal.
Guide: Visitors expect salt white, but it's black, but it's salt. If you don't trust me you can taste it. And salt preserves everything. Take me as example, I'm 65 years old and I'm still fresh, still young.
The mine's enormous underground church, carved in the early 20th century, is still used for Mass. Everything here, including the ornate altar and the grand chandelier, is hewn from this underworld of salt.
When the tour's over a small but industrial-strength lift beams you up.
Back in Kraków, cap your day in one of the town's many jazz clubs. Like much of Poland, Kraków pulses with cool jazz nightly.
Back in the 1950s, Janusz Muniak was one of the original Polish hepcats. Now he owns the Jazz Club U Muniaka, and jams regularly here in a mellow cellar.
After a three-hour train ride from Kraków, we arrive in Warsaw.
Warsaw — pronounced "var-SHA-va" in Polish— is Poland's capital and biggest city. Its outskirts sprawl with Communist-built apartment blocks. Downtown has a Gotham City ambience — with busy boulevards, expansive squares, and blocky buildings.
The Palace of Culture and Science — Poland's tallest building, at over 700 feet — is a Warsaw landmark. It was a "gift" from Stalin in the 1950s that the people of Warsaw couldn't refuse.
Because it was to be "Soviet in substance and Polish in style," Soviet architects actually toured Poland to absorb the local culture before starting the project.
To show their…gratitude…the people of Warsaw nicknamed it "Stalin's penis."
And nestled in the center of all this utilitarian concrete are plenty of urban charms. Warsaw's Royal Way — a mostly buses- and taxis-only shopping boulevard — is a local favorite for strolling, and browsing, and ultimately leads you to Warsaw's historic Old Town.
The castle long served as a royal palace. Sigismund III — the great king who moved Poland's capital from Kraków to Warsaw in 1596 — stands overseeing everything. And the city's legendary mermaid welcomes friends while keeping out foes.
The grand city of Warsaw experienced more than its share of hardships in the 20th century. As with the rest of Poland, the real tragedies came with the Nazis and World War II. During the Nazi occupation there were two heroic uprisings: First, the Jewish Ghetto Uprising. Then, about a year later, the entire city rose up against the Nazis in the Warsaw Uprising.
Several powerful museums are dedicated to telling the story. By the 1930s, Warsaw — with 350,000 Jews — was one of the largest Jewish cities in the world. The Nazis arrived in 1939. They crammed Warsaw's Jews into a single neighborhood and surrounded it with a wall. As more Jewish people were moved in from the countryside, Warsaw's ghetto was soon the miserable home of well over a million people.
By 1942, half of the Jews in the ghetto had died of disease or starvation. The Nazis began moving people out at the rate of 5,000 a day to nearby death camps like Auschwitz. The population of the ghetto was down to about 60,000 when those who remained realized that they would die even if they did nothing. They decided to stage a courageous uprising.
Hopelessly outgunned by the Nazis, the uprising was crushed, the ghetto was demolished, and its residents were killed.
Because of the ferocity of Nazi hatred, nothing remains of the ghetto except the street plan and the heroic spirit of the people who once lived here. Ghetto Heroes Square — now surrounded by bland Soviet-style apartment blocks — marks the heart of what was the Jewish ghetto. The monument commemorates those who fought and died "for the dignity and freedom of the Jewish Nation, for a free Poland, and for the liberation of humankind."
About a year later, the rest of the city staged another ill-fated uprising: the Warsaw Uprising. By 1944, as the Soviet Army drew near, it was becoming clear the Nazis' days in Warsaw were numbered. With the expectation of help from Soviet tanks which were gathering just across the river, it seemed like the right time to attack.
This monument recalls the 50,000 Polish resistance fighters — the biggest underground army in military history — who launched a surprise attack on their Nazi oppressors. They poured out of the sewers and caught the Nazis off-guard, initially having great success. It was rifles, knives, and Molotov cocktails against air force, tanks, and artillery as they battled courageously for 63 days.
But the Nazis regrouped, and brutally put down the Warsaw Uprising. A quarter of a million Poles were killed.
Through all this, the Soviets sat here, across the river. They watched, and waited. As the smoke cleared and the Nazis retreated, the Red Army marched in and claimed the pile of rubble that was once Warsaw.
To me, the thriving city itself is the best memorial to those Warsaw heroes. Today, as you explore, it's hard to imagine that by 1945 nearly two-thirds of the city's prewar population was dead, and not a building was standing in Warsaw's "Old" Town. Virtually everything you see is rebuilt.
Before the war, Warsaw's Old Town Square was one of the most happening spots in Central Europe. And today, even the higgledy-piggledy charm of the buildings has been painstakingly restored. The colorful architecture reminds locals and tourists alike of the prewar glory of the Polish capital.
The Old Town's many restaurants provide a good introduction to Polish cuisine…and central to that is vodka.
Vodka, after it's chilled properly, pours thickly into the glass. We're having some traditional Polish dishes that go well with vodka: herring, cold cuts, Polish pickles, and steak tartare.
Rick: So, vodka has long been part of Polish culture?
Kaisa: Yes, it's a traditional Polish drink, and actually it makes a lot of sense. In the old days, when the winters were long and very cold, we needed it. It was our warm-up. It was essential to survive this harsh climate.
Kaisa: Do you know how to drink vodka?
Rick: Show me.
Kaisa: Ok, first of all, na zdrowie (toast).
Rick: Na zdrowie.
Kaisa: And please don't sip it. We don't sip vodka. It's bottoms up! Are you ready?
Rick: I'm ready.
Kaisa: Okay, let's do it. Na zdrowie.
Rick: Na zdrowie…Ohh.
Rick: Yeah. Now what?
Kaisa: You can chase it.
Rick: Oh my! Why don't you sip it? I mean it's just like…wow!
Kaisa: What a question! So it hurts only once.
Rick: It hurt only once, that's for sure.
Warsaw's huge, idyllic Łazienki Park is sprinkled with Neoclassical buildings, peacocks, and young Poles in love. It was built in the 18th century by Poland's very last king, King Poniatowski, who wanted it both for his own summer residence — his striking Palace on the Water — and as a place for his citizens to relax.
A monument to Fryderyk Chopin, Poland's great Romantic composer, graces the park's rose garden. Chopin sits under a wind-blown willow tree. He spent his last years in Paris, where he wrote most of his greatest music. But locals cherish the thought that Chopin's inspiration came from memories of wind blowing through the willow trees of his native land, Poland.
The resilience of Poland's culture and the warmth of its people inspire me. And learning from this country's recent past, I'm reminded we have much to be thankful for and much to be vigilant against. Travel engages me with our world, and helps me feel fully alive. That's why I like it. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time…keep on travelin'.
Kraków remains the country's political, economic, intellectual, industrial — oh man, I'm almost there.