Krakow can be visited on a budget (Dreamstime)
Article 24 April

Under £250: Reliving history, Poland

A boutique apartment, a private tour, fine dining and cocktails – this budget thing is a cinch in Kraków, reckons Lucy Palmer

Who? Lucy Palmer, 40, communications manager
Why? To prove I can have a child and still travel
How long? 3 days
Total spend: £208.70

I’d always wanted to go to Kraków. It was on my constantly evolving ‘next five places to visit’ bucket list. Then along came a positive pregnancy test and the list went in the bin. Now I have a toddler, not enough free time and more important things to spend my money on. Going on holiday seems a luxury too far. So when Wanderlust challenged me to go away for just £250, it was a turning point. If I could do this, perhaps my bucket list could survive after all?

I started with Ryanair. I hate them, but they are ridiculously cheap and the flight times were perfect – arriving early morning and leaving late at night – which gave me and my husband three full days in the city, but only two nights accommodation to account for.

For that reason I decided to splurge on something mid-range, insisting on being in the Old Town for atmosphere and convenience. I soon found out that apartments bridge the price gap between hostels and hotels in Kraków, and there are literally hundreds to choose from. I settled on the Orient Ekspres: excellently located off a street lined with cool restaurants and bars, and only a short walk to the main square. The apartment was situated in a beautiful garden courtyard with stylish décor, a huge comfortable bed and an ample cooked breakfast, which negated the need for lunch.

I’m quite an energetic traveller – the type that likes to fit in as much as possible before I head home. Luckily the key sights in the city are either free (such as Rynek Glówny, the largest medieval square in Europe) or just a few zloty to visit; most are within walking distance from the centre.

Thus we crammed in the imposing state rooms in Wawel Castle, climbed the bell tower and explored the crypt at Wawel Cathedral (which Pope John Paul often visited, Kraków being his home town). I also descended into the caves beneath the castle – into the ‘dragon’s den’ – to say hello to the city’s impressive fire-breathing mascot. Walking around the old Jewish quarter Kazimierz, I paid my respects at the Old Synagogue, built in the 15th century and used as a Nazi munitions dump during the war.

Chamber of horrors

Kraków’s history is dominated by the horrors of the Second World War, something Steven Spielberg reminded cinema audiences of when he filmed Schindler’s List here in the 1990s. Oskar Schindler’s factory is now a well-crafted interactive museum on the outskirts of the city centre. It recounts the history of the creation of a Jewish ghetto when the Nazis arrived in town, and the eventual deportation of its inhabitants to Auschwitz, 65km away. Real life testimonies (some via children’s letters, which describe the atrocities they were seeing) make this a sad and unforgettable experience.

There is no avoiding the war in Kraków; indeed, Auschwitz is firmly cemented on the tourist circuit as the most ‘popular’ day trip from the city. That made me slightly uncomfortable: would I be somehow insulting the memory of the dead at a Disney-esque tourist attraction? I decided to go to judge for myself.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget Auschwitz: the piles of belongings, the claustrophobia of the torture chambers, the chilling vastness of Birkenau camp, next door. What happened there is visually and emotionally etched on my memory forever. On reflection I felt it was important to see, if only as a reminder of the necessity to stand up to prejudice on any scale.

To lighten the mood we then visited the Salt Mine at Wieliczka. This is a triumph of man’s belief in the church – and in salt: here, an underground temple, various sculptures and even a boating lake have been carved from salt, some 135m underground. The church contains gigantic chandeliers and an exact replica of ‘The Last Supper’ – it’s beautiful. The journey back up to the surface in a tiny metal miners’ lift was a thrill in itself.

Kraków Tours arranged for us to do both trips in a day, which wouldn’t have been possible on public transport. Being on a private tour, we also experienced the benefit of arriving before the big groups and were shown the moving Liberation of Auschwitz film, made by the Russians in 1945, on the journey there as a primer. Maurice, our driver, was great company and gave a real insight into living in Poland today. He also owns the excellent Irish MBassy bar, so we even got a much-needed beer thrown in on our return to Kraków – all in all, well worth the money.

From rags to riches

Finally, the only thing left to budget for was food. Polish cuisine can be described in two words: deliciously hearty! The portions are enormous, so don’t make the mistake of ordering a starter. The national dish is pierogi – dumplings stuffed with a variety of fillings. These make a tasty meal for a bargain price – even in top restaurants a whole a plate of them will cost little more than £3.

As with the accommodation I was determined not to scrimp on dining out.

It is such a treat for my husband and I to go on romantic dinner dates these days, now that we have a child, so I chose some wonderful restaurants with beautiful settings and amazing food (Nostalgia, Pod Sloncem, Grill Café). Even so, the prices were laughable: mains from £4; huge steak platters for no more than £7; in one restaurant we ordered a bottle of French vintage wine – it cost just £6.

At the end of our three days in Kraków I was satisfied we’d ‘done’ everything. We hadn’t scrimped and saved; in fact, we’d done the opposite. We stayed in a lovely apartment, ate amazing food in beautiful restaurants, arranged a private tour, stopped for many coffees during the day and cocktails in cool underground bars during the evenings. And we still had money left over.

If you’re after some serious credit-crunch chic, look no further than Poland. Oh, and I also came back with a little souvenir of my own – baby number two!

Take a trip for under £250

General information:

Access city: Kraków
Currency: Zloty (PLN)
Language: Polish
When to go: Spring (late-Apr-Jun) or early autumn (Sept-Oct) are best for mild temperatures. July and August are the busiest months. Snow can fall Dec-Mar.

Getting there & around:

Ryanair flies from various UK airports to Kraków (from £54 rtn; 2hrs 20mins). Krakow Tours organises trips to the Wieliczka Salt Mine and Auschwitz (£49).

Accommodation:

The Orient Ekspres apartment, Kraków, costs from €48 per night.

Food & drink:

Eating out is extremely cheap, with large, carb-loaded portions. The national dish is pierogi, dumplings stuffed with a variety of fillings – look to pay no more than a budget-cheering £3. Vodka is spirit of choice, usually drunk neat.

Health & safety:

Kraków is a very safe city, though do be alert to pickpockets.

I wish I’d known...

To go in late summer – it was sub-zero in October