We took an overnight train from Budapest to Krakow. We left Budapest around 8 PM and arrived in Krakow shortly before 6 AM. The nice thing about the overnight train is that it was not crowded so we had our own compartment. We saw Esztergom and Bratislava by night and then slept through most of the Czech Republic and Poland. The worst part about this train is arriving in Krakow at 6 in the morning. Krakow is not a morning city. We left our luggage at our hotel (they told us to come back at noon) and set out to wander the city. The Old Town of Krakow is surrounded by a landscaped ring which replaced the former moat and walls. The ring shaped park is called the Planty.
Krakow is a misty city. Every morning we were there was misty until at least noon. At sunrise the mist was so thick you could not see across the street at times. Nothing is really open in Krakow, even as late as 8 AM. Our food option appeared to be the pretzel stands around the train station.
So instead we spent about 3 hours wandering the old town and the parks nearby. Mist makes for cold and vaguely unpleasant walking but it's great for photography. Surprisingly few people were about, although we soon learned that everyone in the city is out at midnight so presumably they have to sleep sometime.
We based ourselves in Krakow for our entire stay in Poland. We stayed just across the ring road from the old town which was a bit more expensive than other parts of the city, but well worth it for the convenience of being able to walk to Rynek Główny in a matter of minutes. Rynek Główny incidentally is the main square in the center of Krakow.
St. Mary's Basilica is the dominant landmark on the square. Every hour during the day a trumpeter plays most of a Polish hymn called the Heynal. In the morning it's quite noticeable. During the early evening when there are thousands of people milling about the square it can barely be heard above the crowd noise.
Rynek Główny is one of the largest squares in Europe. It's bigger than it appears here because the Cloth Hall on the right is actually set in the middle of the square and there is more open plaza on the far side of it. Apparently it was a cloth market in medieval times, someone put a roof over it and it eventually became a permanent structure. Now it's a souvenir market mostly for things that say Krakow on them.
We did take pictures of Krakow in the evening when the mists were gone and one could actually see buildings off into the distance. We spent a lot of time in the main square partially because all roads lead there and partially because there's a huge concentration of restaurants. Almost the entire perimeter of the square is a continuous line of indoor/outdoor restaurants. For the most part you can always sit down and have a Zywiec (Polish brand of beer) and a few pierogies.
Some menus are a little different. This one, at an American Indian themed restaurant (in décor, not in cuisine) was so bizarre we had to take pictures. The food itself sounds relatively mundane but the English translations of the dishes have to be seen to be believed.
Did we mention pierogi? We accepted the improbable (if not impossible) mission of attempting to try all the pierogi in Krakow during our stay. We didn't succeed but we had a good time in the process. Pierogi can be sweet or savory and really have just about anything inside them. This platter is a mixed plate of cheese, strawberry and blueberry. We'd match this with a Zywiec because… well… actually we matched just about all of our Polish food with a Zywiec.
There is other food around besides pierogi. This is a traditional rye flour soup with potato, sausage and egg. We found Polish food to be much better than we'd anticipated. Our anticipation was based primarily on the output of one Polish grandmother and a whole lot of bad childhood memories involving cabbage and cabbage by-products. In fact, there's a good variety of vegetables available although in general this would be a difficult place to be a successful vegetarian. Even the bread often has meat products in it.
It's sort of hard to tell in this picture taken from the tower in Rynek Główny but the grand buildings in the distance here are perched on a hill. The hill and the complex of buildings are called Wawel and it was the seat of the Polish government roughly from the time there was a Polish government until about 1600. Wawel is a short walk from the Old Town.
The main approach is up a long cobblestone hill that passes through a couple of gates including the one seen here. It's worth the walk up here even without visiting any of the assorted museums and palaces atop the hill.
The Vistula River flows through Krakow and passes just at the base of Wawel hill. The banks of the river are well landscaped and were strewn with sun-bathing students even in October. This is a great place for a walk, if for some reason you're tired of walking around the Planty, the Old Town and the Wawel.
From a tourist standpoint we found the Wawel complex to be rather confusing. The cathedral (the big blue tower) where all Polish kings were crowned has an admission fee as does at least three separate museums in the palace (red roof). Tickets are bought in different locations, some of them have specific entry times and before you can go in you have to find the baggage check which is hidden away in a completely different corner of the palace. Possibly this all makes more sense if you've been sampling the local vodkas.
Speaking of local vodkas, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention the Krakovian nightlife. At night the entire city seems to appear in the old town along with a decent portion of London's population and assorted other visitors. All forms of nightlife are represented and it seems like you can't pass a single alleyway in the Old Town without finding a pub and a dance club.