Between Kazimierz and Podgórze, a true identity renaissance of the city of Krakow is unfolding. Let’s discover the most significant outskirts in European history.
You know, I love the outskirts. Especially those with a fundamental role in the presence of “centers,” whatever they may be. And that’s why I couldn’t wait to tell you about Kazimierz and Podgórze. Krakow has turned its outskirts into a refuge, not only for locals but also for students and travelers in search of moments of beautiful authenticity. Not that the very central Rynek Główny, the heart of Krakow with its medieval architecture and layout, isn’t authentic, especially considering it’s one of the most beautiful squares in the world, not just in my opinion. But Kazimierz and Podgórze are those parts of the city that… tell a different story.
They greet each other from the two sides of the Vistula (the same river that crosses Warsaw, where the legend of the warrior mermaids was born), Kazimierz and Podgórze are two ends of a sorrowful story tied to the contemporary age.
The first bank of the river coming from the “center” is the historic Jewish quarter, and the second is where the ghetto was later constructed, where Jews were forced to live until they were deported to extermination camps scattered throughout Poland. But beyond the wounds of recent history, these two neighborhoods have much older stories to tell, tales of encounters and crossroads, and they also have a recent history that fascinates and electrifies everyone! I had the fortune to get to know them better thanks to Polonia Travel and the expert local guide, Monika Cymbranowicz, who kept me company during a blog tour.
What to do and see in Kazimierz
Once a separate neighborhood, the quintessential suburb, today, all maps of the center of Krakow also include this district, which is doubly connected to the city. Not only because it was the backdrop for significant events in the past, essential for understanding the present, but also due to its newfound vitality that makes it attractive and coveted by students, tourists, and locals who want to fully experience the city’s vibrancy. Here, bed and breakfasts and boutique hotels coexist with small artisan shops, nestled among must-visit places for enthusiasts of creative design.
There’s no place that’s the same as another, and everything revolves around the creativity of design, even with alternative materials, somewhat like in Pest (Budapest) and its ruin pubs. Among these, I recommend Kolanko No. 6, where you can taste the best pumpkin soup in Krakow. If you’re more into hidden gems, look for Propaganda, one of the oldest pubs in Kazimierz, rich in details from the time of the communist regime, and offering live music on several days of the week.
A must-see, Plac Okraglak (or Plac Nowy). A second heart of Krakow, this square encompasses a round (circular-based) building, in Polish, “Okrglak,” which used to be the kosher meat slaughterhouse but now houses various vendors of the same delicacy: zapiekanka. To explain what a zapiekanka is, I must start with the etymology: the verb “zapiekać” means “to cook the ingredients of a dish in a way that they melt together and become crispy.”
So, this delicious example of Polish street food consists of a slice of bread (like a large baguette) topped with mushrooms, melted cheese, and sauce.
Actually, you can choose from various toppings, and the vendors at the mega kiosk in Plac Okrglak certainly aren’t lacking in creativity and variety. Just try to imagine the aroma of roasted bread and melted cheese as you approach this place. Kazimierz is also an important cultural area, not only for the uniqueness and diversity of its synagogues and Gothic and Baroque churches in the Christian quarter (such as St. Catherine’s, Corpus Christi, and St. Stanislaus) but also for the enthusiasm of its events and festivals throughout the year. Among these, in June and July, there’s the Jewish Culture Festival, a celebration of a blend of contemporary arts and culture.
What to do and see in Kazimierz in bullet point
- Stroll around the pubs
- visit Plac Okraglak (or Plac Nowy)
- taste zapiekanka
- visit St. Catherine’s,
- visit Corpus Christi,
- visit St. Stanislaus
What to do and see in Podgorze
On the other side of the Father Bernatek Footbridge, which I’ll tell you about in a few lines, you’ll find Podgorze.
We could say that, somehow, Podgorze is the new Kazimierz because that sense of peripheral exclusivity, the desire not to be a tourist center but to remain connected to a much more local identity, which was once characteristic of Kazimierz, and is now very appealing to tourists, has shifted to the spirit of Podgorze in the last 15 years.
During the years of Nazi occupation, Podgorze was a dramatic hotspot for diseases, but before the two wars, this neighborhood had been a hub for centuries of cultural and commercial exchanges and meetings, a focal point of interracial and interreligious tolerance and communication. Here, you can find one of Krakow’s many market squares, Rynek Podgórski. Walking through the city, you’ll realize that here, the squares are never just squares but “market squares” because they all fulfill or used to fulfill this precious function. At Rynek Podgórski, you’ll find the Church of St. Joseph, a neo-Gothic building with surreal charm. A few times a year, you can climb its tower and admire the panorama of Krakow, both on this side and the other side of the bridge, including the most square-like square of all, Rynek Główny.
With its undeniable emotional impact, I recommend visiting the Memorial of the Heroes of the Ghetto, featuring seventy enormous empty chairs. They are located right in the square where Apteka pod Orlem (the Eagle Pharmacy) stands, the only pharmacy that remained open in the ghetto during the occupation and served as a refuge for many Jews. Today, it’s a fascinating museum that has preserved the design of the vintage pharmacy. Not far from there is the famous Oskar Schindler’s Factory, one of the many factories taken from Jews and given to the Germans, using low-cost labor. The German in question, however, was Oskar Schindler, one of the many people caught in the machinery of their time, as we all are, but who found a way to oppose it (as few can), saving hundreds of lives. In fact, it’s not the visit to the factory itself that I recommend, as there’s little left of it, but the visit to the museum inside it, that can be considered an art installation rather than a museum tour court. I tell you more about it here. But Podgorze is not just about commemorating dark times. As I mentioned earlier, this is the neighborhood with the highest density of indie and authentic venues, where students and artists spend free time and leisure.
From the bridge, you can spot an unusual structure with a post-modern-style canopy. This is the Cricoteka, a multidisciplinary arts center, a space for experimental theater and exhibitions. Another little gem to enjoy while walking through the shops and venues in Podgorze is the Church of Saint Benedict (Kościół Świętego Benedykta). It’s a tiny church, one of the oldest in Krakow (10th or 11th century), located on Lasota Hill. Mass is held here only once a year, during the celebration of the Rękawka festival on the first Tuesday after Easter.
What to do and see in Podgorze in bullet points
- Stroll around streets and indie pubs
- visit the Rynek Podgórski market
- visit the Church of St. Joseph
- visit the Memorial of the Heroes of the Ghetto
- visit the Apteka pod Orlem (the Eagle Pharmacy)
- visit Oskar Schindler’s Factory Museum
- Church of Saint Benedict (Kościół Świętego Benedykta).
Kładka Ojca Bernatka bridge
This bridge holds special significance for the city, especially for these two neighborhoods.
With its leaf-shaped design and rounded rows, its nighttime lights make it a healthy and highly picturesque walk. Above all, it’s a fundamental piece in the recent process of revitalizing the areas between Plac Wolnica and Rynek Podgórski, helping to transform Podgorze into a more sought-after destination for residents and young people to spend their evenings. This transformation was much needed after the deep scars left by Nazism and the subsequent years of neglect and decay.
This bridge, built in 2010, has been home to the bronze acrobats created by sculptor Jerzy Kędziora since 2016. These sculptures dance in response to the wind’s sway. Originally intended to be a temporary installation, due to the beauty and unique character of the artwork, the residents demanded to keep them there permanently. The final decision from the administration doesn’t seem to be conclusive yet, but there they are, the acrobats are still there on the bridge, suspended over the river, swaying with the ever-changing wind of history.