A coffee break in Poland's culture capital

Café society set against a backdrop of Renaissance splendour - that's the essence of Krakow, writes Adam Newey

Krakow has a mixed history. It is the city of Auschwitz and Oskar Schindler (much of the Spielberg movie was filmed here), and it is also a city of extraordinary artistic grace and wealth. Unlike Warsaw, which replaced it as Poland's capital in 1596, Krakow survived the Nazis with its fabric mostly unscathed. Even 45 years of Communist rule have left no trace - beyond the brutalist Bunker of Art - on the Old Town's architecture. The absence of cars and the presence, on every corner, it seems, of busking string quartets make walking around an unmitigated pleasure.

Krakow has a mixed history. It is the city of Auschwitz and Oskar Schindler (much of the Spielberg movie was filmed here), and it is also a city of extraordinary artistic grace and wealth. Unlike Warsaw, which replaced it as Poland's capital in 1596, Krakow survived the Nazis with its fabric mostly unscathed. Even 45 years of Communist rule have left no trace - beyond the brutalist Bunker of Art - on the Old Town's architecture. The absence of cars and the presence, on every corner, it seems, of busking string quartets make walking around an unmitigated pleasure.

Why go? In a word: culture. Perhaps the one advantage to a nation constantly under the heel of foreigners is the extraordinary intellectual cross-fertilisation it allows. I hadn't known that the Italian Renaissance had shed its light this far north; it can be seen on Wawel Hill, where the royal palace overlooks the Vistula. This is the very symbol of the Polish national spirit, but it was built by Italians. The buildings date back to the 11th century, but the palace itself, a three-storey building around a glorious arcaded courtyard, wouldn't look out of place in quattrocento Florence.

Why now? Krakow is enjoying its status as a European City of Culture for 2000, which is being marked with lots of special events: concerts, exhibitions and the like. And since the summer rush is now over, you won't have to fight your way through tourists.

The mission To pack in as many sights as possible into three days. The place to start is the centrepiece of the Old Town, the Rynek Glowny, or main square. This vast medieval piazza, Europe's largest after St Mark's in Venice, is almost bisected by the arcaded Renaissance hulk of the Sukiennice, Krakow's former cloth market, which now sells upmarket arts and crafts to tourists. From the square, narrow cobbled streets fan in all directions to the aptly named Planty Park, a river of greenery that girdles the whole area.

The other main point of reference is Wawel Hill. Aside from the palace, with its magnificent collection of 16th-century Flemish tapestries, this is also home to Krakow's exquisite Gothic cathedral. Two of the side-chapels deserve special note: the Holy Cross Chapel, roofed with stunning Byzantine frescos, and the Sigismund Chapel, a perfectly proportioned Renaissance masterpiece.

Of the city's abundant galleries and museums, two are especially worth a visit. The Czartoryski Museum on ul Sw Jana (open Tuesdays to Sundays, 10am-3.30pm) is housed in a gorgeous bright yellow baroque house just round the corner from the Florian Gate. A varied collection includes Greek, Egyptian and Etruscan treasures as well as a smattering of Dutch, Flemish and Italian old masters, most notably Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine. At the other end of town, the Wyspianski Museum on ul Kanonicza (open Tuesdays to Sundays, 10am-3pm) is devoted to the works of Stanislaw Wyspianski, the playwright, poet and artist who was the foremost exponent of the Young Poland aesthetic movement which flourished in Krakow between 1890 and 1918.

Wyspianski's stained glass can also be seen in the mighty Franciscan church a block away on ul Franciszkanska. In fact, you could spend your time just visiting Krakow's extraordinary churches, from the elegant simplicity of the Church of St Peter and St Paul on ul Grodzka, Krakow's earliest Baroque building, to St Mary's on Rynek Glowny, with its massive 15th-century carved altarpiece.

Remember this To the south of the Old Town is the former Jewish shtetl of Kazimierz. Apart from the still thriving main street, ul Szeroka, it has a depleted air about it now, but is nonetheless a compelling place to wander around. In 1938 this was home to 68,000 Jews, most of whom were forcibly removed to the Podgorze ghetto just across the Vistula. The small Museum of National Remembrance at Plac Bohaterow Getta 18 features a display of photographs and other memorabilia from the ghetto and the nearby concentration camp at Plaszow.

Half a mile down the road, on ul Lipowa, is Oskar Schindler's factory (now owned by the state electronic company), which featured in the Spielberg movie. Parts of it are open to visitors (weekdays, 10am-6pm). To appreciate the full horror of what happened here, Auschwitz-Birkenau is about an hour's drive away. Point Travel (tel: 0048 12 411 3609) organises day trips for £19, including an English-speaking guide.

Eating out Krakow is caffeine heaven. Not only are tea and coffee brewed with extreme seriousness, but there is also an endless choice of effortlessly stylish cafés in which to enjoy them. Starbucks doesn't get a look in. For sheer range of coffees, you can't beat Sklep z Kawa Pozegnanie z Afryka (ul Sw Tomasza 21), which boasts 70 varieties. Along the same street are Café Larousse (the walls are papered in pages from Larousse dictionaries) and Café Camelot. Tea lovers should head for Demmers Teehaus (ul Kanonicza 21) to select from the 32 varieties on offer in a vaulted tasting room beneath the shop.

Krakow offers a seemingly endless array of restaurants housed in medieval vaults below street level. For modern Polish fare, the best place is undoubtedly Restauracja Pod Aniolami (ul Grodzka 35; tel: 0048 12 421 3999), where dinner for two with wine will set you back about £35. It's set in a small maze of candlelit cellars and is popular with locals and tourists, so booking is advisable.

For more traditional Polish grub, such as barszcz (borsch), pierogi (stuffed dumplings) and all possible varieties of pig-meat, Restauracja Chlopskie Jadlo (ul Sw Agnieszki 1) provides an extraordinary dining experience. It's done out like a rustic medieval coaching inn, with sheepskin rugs on rough wooden benches, and sawdust on the floor. Bread is served with a dagger and an enamel mug full of dripping. Not a place for the squeamish.

Sitting in Café Alef (ul Szeroka 17) is rather like being in a 19th-century living room, with its brass electroliers, old photos on the wall and a piano in the corner. The beer is kosher, the cakes comforting and there's live klezmer music every night at 8pm.

Night life On a fine evening, locals and tourists alike promenade around Rynek Glowny, while fire-jugglers and buskers do their thing. If you prefer to be indoors, Krakow has a fairly diverse selection of jazz clubs, of which Propaganda, on ul Miedowa at the north end of Kazimierz, is probably the darkest, smokiest and most atmospheric for trad jazz. Otherwise, many of the cafes on ul Sw Tomasza stay open late, serving coffee, vodka and loud music into the early hours.

Where to stay Location, as they say, is everything, and since most of the sights are packed into the Old Town, it makes sense to stay as close to the centre as your budget allows.

The Wentzl Hotel (tel: 0048 12 430 2664; net: www.wentzl.pl), occupying a modernised 17th-century tenement on the Rynek Glowny, has double rooms for around £90, including breakfast.

At the foot of Wawel Hill, the fin-de-siÿcle Hotel Royal (tel/fax: 0048 12 421 5857) has doubles from £50 to £80, depending on which section of the hotel you stay in.

Getting there The only direct flight from the UK is from Gatwick with British Airways, which operates a code-share with the Polish airline LOT. Booking through LOT (tel: 020 7580 5037) seems to be slightly cheaper, with returns from £187 including taxes.

Further information Polish National Tourist Office, 1st Floor, Remo House, 310-312 Regent St, London W1R 5AJ (tel: 020-7580 8811).

Adam Newey travelled to Krakow courtesy of Thomson Breakaway (tel: 0870 606 1476), which offers three-night breaks from £328 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, taxes, b&b accommodation, transfer from the airport and a free guide book.

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