First Time Travel in Europe Part II: Krakow & Amsterdam
Read on to find out how to live like a local in two more of Europe’s most vibrant cities.
Krakow has been one of the only Polish cities to remain remarkably unscathed from the destructive forces of World War 2 and Soviet supervision over the years. It has now become quite the magnet for those pesky young hipsters that were previously strictly confined to Brighton and Berlin. But seriously, hipster or not, there’s a lot to see in this diamond in the rough.
Where to stay?
Greg & Tom’s ‘party’ hostel. Accepting the kind offer of a drink upon arrival, expecting good old water, we were pretty much force fed a vodka-banana-smoothie combo. We had anticipated a 24/7 inebriated hostel, but pretty quickly found out it was not the official party hostel; it was the sister hostel. You might view this as a plus or negative, but just be sure to check which Greg & Tom’s you book when you do. Otherwise, Greg & Tom’s is highly recommended. Spacious, a fun double shower bathroom, with both breakfast and dinner provided: it didn’t even burn a hole in our pockets.
What to do?
Old Town Market Square. Otherwise known as the ‘heart of Poland’; take a wander through the old town but be sure to finish up in the square. The neo-Gothic Cloth Hall (or ‘Sukiennice’) marks the centre and encloses a market with some great trinkets – I opted for a tarnished silver ring. As evening falls, the square is softly lit and you can grab a drink from one of the many bars lining the courtyard. The snuggly blankets provided are a much welcome bonus, particularly if travelling during the winter months.
Schindler’s factory. One of countless museums surrounding Krakow, the once enamel kitchenware factory has now been transformed into a large-scale exhibition, with countless artefacts and even an informative short film. It is pretty special to experience a positive site of reflection on world war 2, where Schindler employed countless Jews so they were exempt from deportation to extermination camps. The factory is free entry on Mondays, but get there early! On a more melancholy note, Auschwitz tours are also worthwhile. Although an emotional experience, you are given the opportunity to see both Auschwitz I (Base Camp) and Auschwitz II – Birkenau (Extermination Camp) and it really puts things into perspective.
Wawell Hill and the Citadel. Spend a day exploring this complex in Lesser Krakow. Again, hire yourself a bike – there’s a great rental place on the square (with a guy who will also advise you where to go out that night) – and amble along the wide river banks to the Castle. Taking the steep climb to the top of the Citadel provides strategic viewing points for a stunning panoramic view, for you photographers out there. A supposedly fire-breathing dragon sits along the river bank. If you fancy joining lots of eager kids, hang around for the fire. Alternatively don’t bother – we waited for about an hour and didn’t see a thing. Not even a mere puff of smoke.
Amsterdam – notorious for its coffee shops and ladies of the night – actually has a lot of decent cultural sights on offer too. From Canal tours to Dam square and with over 50 museums, the varying attractions draw in millions of tourists a year for a reason.
Where to stay?
We were greeted at the White Tulip Hostel by possibly the friendliest man in the world, trying to marry us off to other customers within a matter of seconds. We were then tagged, like homing pigeons, with hostel wristbands by said happy man – ‘In case you get lost just point to this’ – much to our dismay. Although the hostel was a little scrappy and didn’t provide towels, the jovial atmosphere and helpful array of attraction information made up for it.
What to do?
Anne Frank House. It really is a must-see if you visit. Predictably, the exhibition is eerie, particularly (I found) the chilling height chart marked on the walls of the house by Anne and her siblings. As we visited in winter, the queue wasn’t an issue, but I’ve heard it gets super busy during summer, so don’t just stroll up and expect to get straight in (unless you’re Justin Bieber of course … ahem). At the same time, you won’t need to free up a whole day for your visit. After all, it is only a small house and just a short walk from the square.
Red Light District. We inadvertently ended up an uncomfortably cosy distance from the red light district and only braved a visit after a few days. Unsurprisingly, we felt a little awkward gawping at the girls and the Madams tapping the windows with a stick, but you sort of just have to accept it. As it has been transformed into a sort-of tourist attraction, we had to admire the open acceptance of this way of life; no secrets like elsewhere. It is considered a safe area but do not try taking photos; there is a strict policy against this.
Tin Pan Alley Restaurant. We found this little gem on our first day and were eager to visit again. The restaurant is reasonably priced with a great selection – but this wasn’t what won us over. No, it was the mints! Our waitress genuinely let us stuff our pockets full of complimentary mints whilst she drew us up a map for us of where to go out and which nights to visit each. What a dream.
Hit the Vintage Shops. I had no idea, but Amsterdam has a vast array of bric-a-brac boutiques lining the notorious canals. Check out ‘meCHICas’ for some one-off tees and dresses with Van Gogh’s artwork printed across them (a lot cooler than it sounds) or just pop into the jewellery stores for some antique-yet-reasonably-priced body décor.
Hopefully this has inspired, not discouraged, you from just packing that rucksack and taking a little trip to Eastern Europe. Even if it’s just for a long weekend, it’s affordable, straightforward and really a ‘must-do’ to add to your summer checklist!