Beatniks and Beyond: An Alternative Guide to Kraków
Kraków has more historic buildings than any other city in Poland and the unique coffeehouse culture is legendary. The nightlife here makes the city seem like a timeless place where day turns into night and night into day
1. Avoid tourist traps and tacky clubs
Most places around the main square are overpriced tourist traps and tacky clubs guarded by bald bouncers that are ready to pick up fights with belligerents. If you find yourself on the tourist crowded Florianska Street, a good place to escape to is the original Klub Pauza . Another place worth checking out is the relatively newly opened Tak Było on the parallel Szpitalna Street. Sit outside and grab a coffee during the day and depending on the night and DJ, the place already attracts a crowd.
The neighboring Plac Szczepanski is a good alternative choice of Square to check out. Enter here and enter Kraków’s very own Bermuda triangle. The Plac maintains a very active nightlife all year round and during the summer it hosts silent discos. Coming from the Main Square, be sure to stick to the left side. The café/bar Bomba na Placu (Bomb on the Square) has been around long enough to host some of Kraków’s nosiest and best attended dance parties. The suffocation levels on the dance floor downstairs can be quite extreme but showing off dance moves is not limited to this space as dance parties are always moved to the upper levels as well as the sidewalk. Right next door to Bomba is the ever so trendy Charlotte Bistro. Surprise, surprise the Varsovian café/bakery has opened its doors to cater to the needs of Cracovians. Oftentimes, the crowds mix and it is hard to tell who started off where and who came with who. Move into the passage to the left of Bomba and enter the garden of Betel. The café/bar hosts some of its very own parties that spill from the makeshift dance floor inside to the courtyard.
2. Check out galleries and vernissages
Right around the corner from the Plac Szczepanski is Kraków’s renowned Bunkier Sztuki. Bunkier, an art gallery whose history dates back to the 50s, has its own café/ restaurant. Day and night, Kraków’s numerous artists and creative spirits discuss the latest cultural news here.
As you leave the Main Square area be sure to stop by the Małopolska Garden of Art/Pauza in Garden Café. Though MOS opened its doors just two years ago it has already gained a name for itself in Kraków’s cultural scene. MOS is one of the city’s newest architectural masteries and the space holds a theater, library, and art gallery. It collaborates with Kraków’s many festivals such as the Kraków Film Festival or the Off Plus Camera International Film festival and their movie theater always provides viewers with an interesting repertoire. Arrive in Pauza in Garden, the café attached to the MOS, just about any day of the week and catch a lecture or discussion on topics that range from animal care to architectural innovations. The café also serves as a gallery space and vernissages are very heavily attended events here.
3. Head to the Jewish district
Plac Nowy, the heart and center of the nightlife in Kazimierz (Kraków's historical Jewish district), is brimmed with cafes and bars that are worth discovering both during the day and at night. Check out the funky furniture and quirky decorations crafted by local artists at Klub Finka or sip a spritzer at Kolory Café and feel like you’ve been teleported to Paris. Dance on top of Singer Café’s tables into the early weekend morning hours. Alchemia reigns as one of the area’s infamous establishments. It seems as if time has stopped in this legendary bar. The mismatching creaky chairs, eerie ancestral photographs, wax stained tables, and precariously leaning over candles add to the place’s mystical character. The downstairs area holds concerts almost every night of the week with music genres that are variegated enough to suite anyone’s taste. The bar recently opened an adjacent dining area, Alchemia from the Kitchen which serves tasty meals into the late hour.
Neighboring Alchemia is Miejsce. This is a good place to venture into during the late night hours. The sun never seems to set over this establishment. Retro designed chairs reminiscent of the 60s fill the bar. As the friendly bartenders pour drinks, watch out for the hanging lamps that are precariously swung around as the night progresses. Miejsce’s owners run their very own vintage furniture store right down the block on Miodowa Street that is worth checking out during the day. If you haven’t had your fill for the night, Piękny Pies on Bozego Cialo is another venue that is never empty.
Exiting Plac Nowy be sure to walk down Jozefa. The street is a kaleidoscope of constantly changing bars and cafes. Eszeweria is most notable. It holds one of Kazimierz’s most charming summer gardens. Pop up designer concept stores and vintage shops are very abundant here as well.
4. Cross over to the other side of the river
Podgorze, once a rarely visited area on the Vistula’s South bank, is slowly attracting more visitors with its restaurants and cafes lining its rundown but picturesque streets. Numerous green parks and river boulevards provide an escape from the crowded city center. The hauntingly beautiful and slightly run-down old mansions on streets that seem to twist into mazes give the area its mysterious feel. There is an abandoned fortress to discover, the Liban quarry to explore (it still holds the abandoned remnants of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List highly realistic Plaszow Labor Camp set), and the Krakus mound to climb.
Two museums that cannot be missed when visiting Krakow are located in Podgorze: MOCAK, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow and the recently opened Cricoteka Tadeusz Kantor Museum. Be sure to check out the photo exhibits at Bal, a gallery/café right next to MOCAK. Go on to grab a drink at Drukarnia, one of Podgorze’s most established café/bars. Cargo Coffee is one of the newest additions to the coffeehouse scene. The warehouse converted coffee shop has a very different feel from most places in Kraków. The industrial, high-beam rugged décor evokes a port town feel. Various coffee appliances and coffee bean containers add to the atmosphere.
A trip to Podgorze is incomplete without paying a visit to Forum Przestrzenie. Forum, which for decades stood as an unattractive lifeless hotel used for hanging banners and advertisements, has transformed into one of Kraków’s trendiest spots. The massive USSR style building’s upper levels are unfortunately closed to the general public, but the downstairs venue is popular both day and night. Pop up local designer shops have made their home here. During the summer, the space before Forum becomes a rocky beach where locals lounge on beach chairs, order food and drinks from the bar inside, and enjoy the Wawel castle view. Local food fests, film screenings and yoga classes are popular here as well. During the winter, one can rent a pair of skates and enjoy the artificial ice skating rink set up in front of the building. At night, the place becomes a music venue where DJs from home and abroad keep the crowds dancing until the morning hours. Forum is home to Krakow’s many major music festivals such as Unsound and recently Warp Records 25th anniversary celebration took place here.
There you have it, an alternative guide to Krakow, always known as Poland’s city of artists and bohemians. Presently, thousands of tourists from across the globe override parts of the city. Somehow, it manages to maintain its uniqueness. Steer clear of the beaten cobblestones and discover all the surprises this particular city still has to offer.
Written by Monica Semczyk, October 2014