One of the oldest cities in Poland, Kraków comes alive when the days get shorter and the temperature drops. Its town square Christmas market is one of Europe’s finest, while the idiosyncratic traditions of the season prioritise quaintness and charm over mere hardcore consumption. Plus, if the festive spirit has truly overwhelmed you, then you can head just out of town to the Tatra Mountains for a magical sleigh ride. Giddy up!
Are there any Christmas markets?: Located on Kraków's main Rynek Glowny square, this annual Christmas market runs 'til 2 January and is worth a trip alone. Full of timber huts selling gingerbread men, hot winter warmers and handcrafted gifts, it’s a proper slice of traditional, old fashioned Christmas magic – a world away from the fairground rides and noise of some cities’ more hedonistic affairs.
What to drink: Not so much of an oenophile? Rejoice, because Poland’s grzane piwo takes all the merriment of mulling, but applies it to beer. “We add spices like cloves, much like you’d do with mulled wine, but we also add a little bit of sweetness as most people like sweet things; in Poland, the culture is more sweet than dry,” explains Piotr Sajdak, manager at Kraków’s noted speakeasy bar Mercy Brown. “Warm beer is an acquired taste, but it’s a very Polish thing."
What to eat: “Oscypek comes from the Tatra Mountains, so for a long time the people from the south of Poland were fighting for ownership of it,” Sajdak explains. However, though true iterations of the smoked cheese must come from the specific region (think Champagne, but for dairy), you can indulge in the delicious festive snack all over the country. “On the side, you’ll get cranberry jam, and if you go to a Christmas market, the cheese will be grilled from the barbecue.”
Are there any winter festivals? Perhaps the most charming – and the most uniquely Kraków – part of Christmas is the city’s tradition of crafting szopki: brightly-coloured ‘Christmas cribs’ that look more like ornate palaces than dusty wooden mangers. Children go door-to-door, showing off their homemade efforts; while in the main city square, an exhibition of more professional, elaborate structures – some reaching human height – can usually be seen.
What to hear: “In the 13th century, Krakow was attacked by the Tatars and, in order to give a signal [to alert the Polish people], a man stationed in the church played the trumpet,” explains Sajdak of the origins of the city’s famous musical call. “The melody is very important because it doesn’t get to the end – it stops midway because he was killed by an arrow.” Ringing out every hour from the highest tower of St Mary’s Basilica, it’ll add a splash of historical drama to your Christmas market wanderings.
What to wear: The average December temperature in Kraków is a nippy -1°C with a 50 percent chance of snowfall during the month. It's ideal for maximising the chance of a white Christmas photo opp, but you’ll need to layer up. KOKOworld is a Krakow-based ethical clothing company that only uses responsibly-sourced fabrics for its collections. Pick up one of their ‘chimney’ snoods to keep toasty, and help the world while you’re at it.
Insider info: “At Christmas dinner you have to have 12 dishes – it’s a symbolic number that’s also connected with 12 apostles,” says Sajdak. “It’s a lot of dishes, so some houses don’t bother anymore, but that’s the tradition! Then, on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, there are Christmas concerts in the churches, which are always performed by very professional people on proper soundsystems. The best ones are at St Mary’s Basilica or the Church of the Transfiguration.”