Take a pinch of Communist sobriety, add a generous dollop of Austro-Hungarian opulence, shake it all up with some Jewish chutzpah and you’ve got one of the most interesting foodie destinations in Europe - Krakow. Read on to find out more about the best places to eat and drink in this beautiful Polish city…
Even if you drop in simply for the novelty factor, there’s no escaping the fact that Krakow’s milk bars offer unbelievable value for money. These former state-run diners were originally set up to offer a fast, filling meal for workers who weren’t entitled to a subsidised lunch at their workplace. During Communist times, food rationing and shortages meant menus were mostly dairy-based, hence the ‘milk’ part of the name. Omelettes, milk-based soups, mushroom and cottage cheese pierogi (boiled or fried dumplings) as well as potato pancakes were all hearty staples.
When Communism collapsed, milk bars began to disappear from Polish cities but are now enjoying a revival. These days, milk bars are thriving again in Krakow, with many like Restauracja Pod Temida replicating the sparse, drab interiors and basic menus of the past. Meanwhile, Milk Bar Tomasza with its kitsch American diner style decor, is about as far away from traditional surroundings as you can imagine. Order a selection of Communist era eats from the blackboard at the counter and they’ll serve you at your table quick as a flash. Arrive hungry – most dishes cost the equivalent of just €2 to €3 and portions are huge.
In the home of vodka, it would be rude not to sample some of the local spirits. There’s no better place to do so than in the tiny, blink-and-you’d-miss-it Wódka Café Bar in the Old Town. What this bar lacks in size, it certainly makes up for in variety. Over 100 different types of vodka await. The best way to get to know these better is to order one of their trademark flights of six shots. For around €6, the experts behind the bar will pull together a sweet selection for you to try – from passion fruit and hazelnut to chocolate and toffee. Prefer a long drink? Pull up a seat in the cosy attic space and try the locals’ favourite tipple – Żubrówka bison vodka with apple juice and crushed ice. Na zdrowie!
Like milk bars, Zapiekanki are a tasty throwback to Communist times, specifically the 1970s, when the government opened up the market to small, family-run catering businesses in towns across Poland. Food shortages meant that these businesses had to get creative with their ingredients and so began the story of the Zapiekanka. Literally translated as “roast”, Poland’s answer to the pizza evolved from a lightly toasted baguette, covered in a mound of fried mushrooms, cheese and tomato sauce. As well as the traditional mushroom version, other popular options include Zapiekanka Diablo (bacon, gherkins and spicy sauce), Greek (feta cheese and olives) and Hawaiian, all for around €2. For the ultimate slice of this on-the-go comfort food, head to Kazimierz, Krakow’s Jewish Quarter, where you’ll find a whole square of vendors offering late night snacks and early morning cures. Look out for the Elebele kiosk where they proudly embellish every Zapiekanka with a saucy signature.
Krakow’s street vendors have been peddling their circular-shaped obawaranek, or “Krakówian bagels” in the main square for over 600 years. The bagel is to Krakow as paella is to Valencia. In fact, these sweet and chewy, poppy-seed speckled bagels are deemed so important to local culture that the EU has officially recognised them as a product unique to the city. The equivalent of 50 cents will buy you a bagel the size of your head.
For a modern twist on Krakow’s most famous foodstuff, head to Bagel Mama in Kazimierz, a New-York style deli located opposite Poland’s oldest synagogue. Their breakfast bagels stuffed with eggs and cheese are legendary.
Not only is Krakow known as a “ciasto-miasto” or cake city, it’s also got a café culture to rival Vienna. From the elegant coffee houses within the Austro-Hungarian buildings of Rynek Glowny to the hipster hangouts of Kazimierz, the city is home to a wealth of cafés where you can score a caffeine hit in cosy surroundings.
For old-school charm, head to Café Restaurant Europejska on Rynek Glowny and indulge in a massive wedge of the local’s favourite cheesecake, sernik domowy. The sugar-coated wonderland that is Slodki Wierzynek is another Rynek Glowny gem, while Tektura café in the Old Town flies the flag for the third wave movement with its vast selection of roasts.
Finally, don’t miss the hot chocolate at Singer Café in Kazimierz. This is no grey, milky affair, more like a cup of thick, molten chocolate heaven.
- Fiona Hilliard