Cult Kraków for seekers of unusual things

A bird's eye view of Nowa Huta. You can see the buildings and street layout.
There are places and things that are unusual, iconic and attract visitors with their uniqueness and originality. We cannot define them; sometimes it is a film, sometimes a book, sometimes an exceptional dish. It is sometimes unusual architecture, streets or even a whole city at other times. That is what Kraków is like - original, full of unexpected places, events and flavours. It is a place for connoisseurs of culture and those open to discoveries.

Tourists rarely go to Kraków's districts of Nowa Huta or Zabłocie. However, places initially reserved for locals quickly became fashionable addresses for people escaping from the city's leading salons. They are looking for alternatives to the Wawel Castle, the Sukiennice and the Main Market Square, as well as restaurants with white tablecloths. They are ones that put on the ease, originality, unforcedness. Thus, in post-industrial buildings, independent galleries and projects were born, and people who did not want to follow the mainstream met there. Today, Nowa Huta and Zabłocie are places that are attracting more and more people thirsty for a different history than the royal stories. Combined heat and power plants and industrial districts exist in new arrangements, becoming a haven for Kraków's bohemians and places with a good cuisine. If you are curious about them, you are welcome. You will not be bored.

Nowa Huta. A paradise made of steel

The communists founded this town to crush Kraków’s power. Workers were supposed to live here, produce steel for tanks and vote the way the communists wanted. Nonetheless, the opposite happened - they were the first to rebel, and the most significant strikes broke out, and Kraków’s Solidarity was born here. Years later, it turned out that this part of the city was one of the best places to live. Come here if you want to see what a place designed by Stalin, but filled with local rhythms and unique culture, looks like. You'll see fantastic architecture, drink vodka in the most fabulous pub of the communist era, and you can even peek into an anti-nuclear bomb shelter and see the management building of the steelworks, which looks like the Renaissance palace of Italian nobles.

Nowa Huta lives its life. It is attractive not only because of its history but also because of the people: writers, actors, musicians and ordinary residents who cannot imagine any other place to live than Nowa Huta. I remember when Nowa Huta residents used to go to the pub for a concert or to the theatre at the Wawel Castle, but today, it is the other way round. Once a district of ghosts and pensioners, Nowa Huta has become the most hipsterish part of Kraków. See how, together with the city centre, they form an original system of communicating vessels. In the summer, you drive from Kraków to the Nowa Huta Reservoir, where the local Łaźnia Nowa Theatre puts on a real artistic feast under the clouds, and on cold days, you go to the Nowa Huta Cultural Centre to see exhibitions by some of the most original Polish artists - Zdzisław Beksiński and Jerzy Duda-Gracz. It is worth eating pierogi, aspic or pork chops in the milk bars, which still exist here. Then, go to the cult place Stylowa, where the communist Prime Minister Józef Cyrankiewicz, workers and the elite of the economic underground used to dine. You can listen to still alive stories about the strikes and protests of "Solidarity" and work "at the combine" where Fidel Castro, among others, was a guest. Nowa Huta is a place with a twisted history, which you will feel here. The one created in the mind of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin as an ideal socialist-realist town will surprise and delight you. The leading architects of the new paradise, where the metallurgical plant was planned, designed it so that its workers would live in a space without suburbs and backstreets, in compact and concentric buildings. Today, it is a gem of socialist realist style, admired by the world's urban planners. The heart of the town is the central square (formerly Joseph Stalin Square, now Ronald Reagan Square), which is the starting point of the most critical routes you can take for a walk. The buildings are monumental and massive, reminiscent of Renaissance palaces rather than cottages. Some plans for a town hall and clerical district fell through after Nowa Huta had been incorporated into Kraków in 1951. The steelworks expanded, and a few metres underground, a parallel town grew up. The construction of the bunkers began in the late 1950s when the political situation in Poland and the world was tense. The Cold War, the arms race and the threat of conflict meant that places to hide in case of war and air raids were created under blocks of flats, schools, kindergartens or hospitals. There are about 250 bunkers, but secret passages, dikes or lifts do not connect them; there are no buried rebels or enemies of the people or bricked-up unfaithful wives. Instead, there are command posts, hospital rooms with beds, IVs and striped pyjamas, gas masks, maps and telephones supposedly connected to Moscow...

To conclude, Kraków's Nowa Huta district may soon be on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Tatrzańska Street. Stairs to gather minds

Kraków also has its famous staircase. Not as popular as the Spanish Staircase in Rome or the one leading to the Casino de Paris, but mysterious and with its own dark history. Do you want to see it? It used to be a notorious place; the execution alley on Lasota Hill called Na Zbóju. It is a place where merchant caravans were robbed in the distant past, and later, where executions were carried out. Here stood the town gallows, on which many thugs were hanged, but not only. The peasant uprising leader in Podhale, Aleksander Kostka-Napierski, was impaled here. Since 1932, a small and charming street called Tatrzańska has led to Lasoty Square. It connects Rękawka and Andrzej Potiebni Streets with Lasoty Square. It leads between grey tenement houses and the mountain slope leading to the St Benedict’s Church. You can take it to Lasota Hill, and it will not be such an ordinary walk. The 55 stairs you start up are painted in the colours of the rainbow. On each one, a sentence is inscribed, the authors of which are famous Polish artists, mainly connected with Kraków. 

Hotel Forum. Beaching with a view of the Wawel Castle

This is one of the most mysterious buildings in Kraków. Even though the exclusive hotel was under construction for over 11 years. It was opened just before the fall of communism and functioned for 13 years; i t has not welcomed guests for 20 years but it is alive and one of the most energising places in the city. At first, that was due to structural defects, and then the nearby Vistula River was blamed as its waters were said to flood the hotel cellars. See this building overlooking the Wawel Castle and Kościół na Skałce (the Church on the Rock)! Although it is the city's most expensive plot of land, most of the former hotel rooms are still deteriorating here. Fortunately, a few years ago, the former hotel became a favourite spot for those looking for an original space, entertainment, art and relaxation. In the former rooms, there are saunas; in winter, an ice rink is built in front of the hotel; and in summer, hundreds of Kraków inhabitants and tourists rest on deckchairs. This is Kraków's most famous sunbathing area. Time passes here like the Vistula River, just slightly slower. Hotel Forum has become a haven for a new design, young artists and alternative music. The place is perfect to go for food, concerts, fairs and exhibitions. If you are looking for vinyl or clothes from a bygone era, this is the place for you. 

Counter-trade. Parsley Market 

Who would have thought that the unattractive parsley plant would symbolise new food trends and shopping fashion? The Parsley Market is where food comes straight from the farmer to the basket. Just as in the past, when, in the town of Podgórze on the right bank of the Vistula, you went to Podgórze butcheries to buy a pig, a chicken for broth or tomatoes, today you go with your bags to Niepodległości Square on Saturdays to stock up on tried-and-tested products from your local farmer. The philosophy of this place is not complicated. It is to be natural, i.e. ecological and chemical-free. Squash, carrots and cauliflower come to this parsley oasis from small, local farms located up to 150 kilometres from Kraków. There are no middlemen here, you buy directly from Ms Jola from Zator, Mr Jan from Lipnica Murowana or Ms Kasia from Liszki. The market is addictive, and if you try juices from the Bargiels or cheese from the Seweryns, you will come back for more. Loaves of bread, fish, honey, cold cuts, eggs and cereals do not have anonymous faces. Behind them stand real people and their stories. Jacek Bender from Regulice, known by some as Brodacz, from whom you can buy kale or mustard, has reduced machines to a minimum and harvests with a sickle and scythe. And Andrzej Wnęk from Lipnica Górna, one of the pioneers of ecology, provides only bread made from the flour of cereals grown on his farm and ground with stone querns. 

Pod Baranami Cinema. Paradise Cinema

Located on the Main Market Square, it is said to have been an inn where rams were kept. This would make sense, looking at the emblem of the tenement, on which you will see two rams joined by their heads. Famous poets of the Polish Renaissance and fathers of the Polish language, Jan Kochanowski or Mikołaj Rej, would feast in the inn. A Renaissance palace was built on the site in the 16th century; it changed owners in 1822 to become the property of the Potocki family, one of the most potent magnate families in Poland (they owned it until the outbreak of World War II). After the war, the building became a communist house of culture, in the basement of which the surrealist cabaret Piwnica pod Baranami functioned. In 1969, in the Potocki Palace, an independent studio cinema was opened, immediately loved by fans of ambitious repertoire who hate multiplexes. In Piwnica pod Baranami, you can also watch Bond adventures. The creators of the cinema do not want to close themselves to any labels, especially those which are discouraging. Therefore, apart from art cinema, you can watch Star Wars at the Palace, but without the popcorn. The tradition of cinema is, on the one hand, a continuation of the work of the Graffiti Film Centre, i.e. Wanda or Atlantic cinemas, but also open to other manifestations of culture. Openness and dialogue, in which the most fundamental thing is to infect others with passion, not forgetting about the youngest audience with entirely different needs.

Zabłocie. This is where the industrial heart of Kraków beats.

Once an industrial district of the city, today a modern post-industrial city with trendy pubs and lofts, where the price per square metre gives you a headache. The most fashionable location in the city attracts people who avoid banality and boredom. Only a dozen or so years ago, it was associated with dark streets, abandoned factories of cosmetics, sugar, disused salt warehouses and glassworks. In some places, in the old spaces, there were alternative clubs, which could not afford to rent a place in the city centre, and here they could have it for a pittance. It was just such a place, grey and neglected, that hundreds of buses used to pull up to park near Lipowa Street to see the Enamel Factory and the place where Oskar Schindler rescued Jews. Today, they also drive up, but they park in a completely different reality. After a facelift, Zabłocie is now a place teeming with life, with excellent restaurants, art studios, modern museums and concert venues. Within the walls of the former Oskar Schindler's Enamel Factory is a unique museum telling the story of Kraków during World War II, with an exhibition on Schindler. And directly attached to this building is the  MOCAK Museum of Contemporary Art. The author of the design for the impressive building, the Italian Claudio Nardi, created a body of work that, with a typically Italian approach to architecture, tried to relate to the existing ones, emphasising the cultural character of the place. MOCAK blends in with its surroundings, maintaining continuity between what existed here before and modernity. This place is also a lovely café, a library, a meeting point and a workshop.

Vistula Boulevards. The Emperor's Drowned Dreams

Once part of a 100-year-old project to connect Vienna and Lviv by rivers, today it is the most open space in Kraków. The dream of the boulevards being part of the Danube-Oder-Vistula-Dniester canal was shattered by the outbreak of World War I and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Thus, the most ambitious investment of the Habsburg monarchy was never completed. After World War II, the Vistula Boulevards began to take on a pedestrian character, and today, thanks to the Vistula Cycle Route being part of the EuroVelo road, they have become a favourite place for active leisure for cyclists, in-line skaters and scooter enthusiasts. The Boulevards are now teeming with life, although chess games are still played outdoors on the Dębnicki Bridge. In the evenings, you can sit on deckchairs on one of the barges moored along the shore or at the city beach next to the Kotlarski Bridge. The Boulevards also include the iconic Bernatek footbridge, with hanging sculptures and lovers' padlocks, connecting the left and right banks of the Vistula, the districts of Kazimierz and Podgórze. Food trucks that line up in the summer just by the river, concerts under the Wawel Castle, summer open-air cinema, merry-go-rounds under Hotel Forum, and an unforced atmosphere can be found there. A casual, laid-back atmosphere that distinguishes the promenade from, say, Kraków's Market Square. 

The pubs, or the bull's testicles and grilled sausage known the world over

Here, trends are almost seasonal. And that is a good thing. Because thanks to this, gastronomic Kraków is alive, and it serves dishes from early in the morning until late at night. In recent seasons, for breakfast, you can go to Ranny Ptaszek (4 Augustiańska Street) for shakshuka, or to Miodowa Street to Hamsa. Some still prefer Charlotte on the Szczepanski Square, where you eat fresh baguettes overlooking a city fountain. And then you can venture into other places. Kraków, which for several years has been the kingdom of food trucks, has many backstreets where you eat straight from the truck, sitting on wooden or plastic beer crates and drinking beer. It is worth visiting the square at the old, historic tram depot at St Wawrzyniec Street, where, among others, Belgian fries specialists (fried twice in lard), masters of eco-hamburgers or famous Asian bowls have parked their carts. Those looking for extreme challenges can visit Brzozowa 17, where Karakter has been created at the Wawel Hill. It refers to tradition but combines it with the latest trends and fashions. The character of Karakter is evident in the sauerkraut cream with pork fat or bull testicle pate served with creamy hazelnut sauce and grapes with rosemary. I leave the butcher's steak, beef ribs roasted for eight hours. Those who are not so bold can eat at Alchemia on Plac Nowy or at 27 Krakowska Street in the trendy Nolio located in the Nuremberg House. The Miastowa restaurant on the Market Square and the vegetarian Karma on Krupnicza are still going strong. Other trends continue to include gratins (zapiekanki) from Okrąglak, kumpir near Hala Targowa and the ever-attractive grilled sausages, especially after beer and wine, and the first food truck in Kraków, which has been described all over the world. 

Murals, or we will take you to Hades

There are several hundred of them. Some are anonymous, accidental, surprising, and others are created as part of festivals, artistic events and great alternative movements. And they are not new at all, because street art has quite a good past in Kraków. For example, at Pawia Street, you can still see a mural created during the communist era and which was an advertisement for the cosmetics company Miraculum. It is one of the oldest murals in the city. A few years ago, the city counted 300 murals, such as "Robots" on the façade of a tenement house at Zwierzyniecka Street, which appeared in 2015 and covered a wall that had been painted over. A box of electrical wires, forming the body of one of the robots, was effectively integrated into the mural. The author of the "Robots" project is Małgorzata Rybak. The mural was created as part of the actions of the Świadoma Przestrzeń foundation and the "101 Murals for Kraków" project. I like and appreciate Kamil Kuzko's mural "Hermes", leading the heroes to Hades. You must come to the corner of Chodkiewicza and Grzegórzecka Streets to admire it. It is worth it, as it is impressive. Once niche, today popular, murals change the character of a space, are a tourist attraction and carry important messages, just like the famous mural at 14 St Lawrence Street, depicting a dignified lion with the face of a lost child. The print motif by Israeli artist Pil Peled refers to the Lion of Judah, the Jewish national symbol. The author says the following about his work: The child is a small, frightened nation. Combined with the lion - a symbol of strength - it recalls the eternal struggle of the Jews. The mural also reveals the child in each of us. It makes us aware of the need to fight our fears. Judah symbolises strength and righteousness. Juda gave his name to all Jews.

You must see the Kraków Street Art Trail

Maczanka, or the hamburger was born in Kraków

Maczanka is a creation consisting of a cut bun, poured with meat sauce, stuffed with a slice of roasted pork loin or pork neck with caraway seeds. Before Louis Lassen borrowed the recipe from New Haven and made a fortune on it, the Kraków version of the hamburger was already eaten near the Wawel in 1892 in Kosha's restaurant on the corner of Grodzka and Poselska Streets (the experts of Kraków, Mieczysław Czuma and Leszek Mazan, give credit for it). Today, this Galician dish is experiencing a spectacular reactivation in both exquisite and street versions. Be sure to try it in the street version from the magicians of Andrus Food Truck. Their ideas for deconstructing this dish seem endless (they will add bundz and moskol, roasted beetroot mousse or rowan jam made by themselves). You never know what they will surprise you with. I recently had a sop with goat's cheese and smoked carrots. It was heaven in the mouth.


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