Where to go in Europe: Why Krakow is 2020's hottest destination
By Dan Koday, Jan 2020
Based on its dragon folklore alone, it's no surprise that Krakow already wows 14 million visitors annually. If this Polish city hasn't crossed your mind as you've been thinking about where to go in Europe, here are a handful of reasons why we think Krakow is going to top your list in 2020.
What to Photograph
Main Market Square
Rich with history, oozing with charm and teeming with a youthful energy thanks to its 200,000-strong student population, Krakow is where old meets new in the finest of ways. Start your tour at the city's very old main square. The medieval village is arguably Krakow's most Instagrammable spot: Turn in any direction here to see St. Mary's Basilica, the most revered church in a city that boasts more than 100 of them; the Gothic Town Hall Tower; and Cloth Hall, an arcade-style market filled with crafts, jewelry and more local treasures.
Wawel Royal Castle
Castles should be at the top of your list of where to go in Europe, especially when legend says that a dragon's lair sits beneath one. Such is the case at the Wawel Royal Castle, a red-roofed compound complete with domed and turreted buildings in Romanesque, Renaissance and Gothic styles. But the real draws are the Dragon's Den, a limestone cave beneath the castle that is said to have once been the home of the mythical Wawel Dragon, and the Cathedral Church, where you can spot the dragons' supposed bones next to the entrance.
Any visitor to Krakow should be on the lookout for Lajkonik, a bearded man in a pointed hat astride a wooden horse. He's one of the main symbols of Krakow, and he makes for a pretty impressive photo op if you can catch him in action. In June, the Tatar rider is celebrated with a parade filled with music and dancing.
Other memories to be made in Krakow: listening to a Chopin piano recital in a concert hall named for the famous Polish composer; marveling at da Vinci's "Lady with an Ermine" and Rembrandt's "Landscape with the Good Samaritan" at Czartoryski Museum; and taking a free tour of the prestigious Jagiellonski University, one of Europe's oldest higher-ed institutions.
What to eat
If you're craving street food, then keep your eyes peeled for pierogies (sausage, pickled cucumber and cabbage dumplings), sour rye soup and homemade liquors. But most importantly: obwarzanek. If a bagel and a pretzel had a baby, this signature dish, which has been around since medieval times, would be it. There's a museum dedicated to the baked good that offers a workshop where you can learn how to make your own Krakow bagel, as they're affectionately called.
The trendy, student-dominated cafe culture in Krakow is one of the many reasons people keep coming back. Spend a relaxing day at the English-language cafe and bookstore Massolit, surrounded by shelves filled with literary classics and modern-day best-sellers. People-watch from a perch at the hidden Zarówka Cafe, or simply sip a cappuccino outside in the private, cobblestoned urban garden.
The same effortless spirit carries over into Krakow's restaurants, which are big on taste but not on pretense or cost. The traditionally minded Starka has rich red walls, tufted benches and a handsome bar that serves homemade small-batch vodkas. The prices and environment are still approachable and welcoming at the more sophisticated Albertina, where white tablecloths are set against exposed brick walls and vertical gardens and where menu highlights include Polish and international dishes and a specialty lobster menu.
Where to stay
Even the most luxurious Krakow hotels are relatively affordable, making them ideal for budget travelers looking to upgrade. One look at the design touches at the Balthazar Design Hotel will make you want to redo your space the moment you get home. The Bonerowski Palace houses traditional Old World charm in a central-to-everything 13th-century building, and it's ideal for romantic stays.
The hipster crowd checks in for minimalist rooms with some of the coolest wood beds you'll ever see at Hotel Stary. A few minutes away, the Sheraton Grand Krakow gets high marks for larger (at least by European standards) contemporary guest rooms, many of which overlook the Vistula. There's also a year-round indoor pool and a rooftop lounge overlooking Wawel Royal Castle.
With its one-of-a-kind landmarks, mouthwatering local eats and inviting accommodations, Krakow will have you wondering why you didn't consider this European gem earlier.
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