Not many would pick Poland as their top destination for study abroad, but I wanted to spend a summer semester in Krakow and I could not have asked for a better experience.
Although many Polish cities were flattened during the Second World War, Krakow was largely spared from destruction, and its beautiful medieval buildings remained intact. Don’t let the quaint old architecture fool you however, as Krakow is the definition of a young, vibrant city. Being Poland’s “college town,” students and young adults make up a large portion of Krakow’s population, giving off an exciting, energetic vibe.
Despite being relatively small—about the size of Boston—there was always something to do. After classes, I would often go into Old Town, which was filled with dozens of shops, restaurants, and cafes, and I could safely assume that there would be some sort of outdoor market, concert, festival, or play taking place in the Main Square. I got to indulge my artsy side in the National Gallery, which boasted a Da Vinci painting as part of their collection. When I felt adventurous, a flooded quarry was a popular cliff jumping spot. Additionally, as a historian, I had plenty of stuff to geek out about including Schindler’s factory, Nova Huta, and Wawel Hill. Poland is also extremely affordable, even for a broke college undergrad, and so I could try all these new places, see all the sites, and go on various adventures without breaking the bank.
When the sun goes down, the nightlife scene was incredible, with some bars and clubs keeping the party going until way past dawn. It didn’t take much effort to find a cool hangout, whether that was an underground lounge with live bands, a raging dance floor, or a fairy-lit garden. One place that stuck out to me was a secret speakeasy that a Polish friend had told me about. There was no address, only clues on how to find them via their Facebook page. I don’t want to ruin the secret for any of those sleuths out there reading this, but finding the speakeasy involved going into an out-of-order bathroom, flushing a special toilet and waiting for someone behind a mirror to let you in (and yes this is a legitimate business).
Another cool aspect of the nightlife is how people from all over Europe come to Krakow to have a good time. I’ve met people from the UK, Ireland, Norway, Ukraine, you name it. If you don’t want to sleep, Krakow will stay up all night with you.
Besides having a blast exploring what Krakow had to offer, I was also able to go on a number of awesome excursions throughout the semester. I visited Warsaw, a more modern Polish city as it was completely flattened after the Warsaw Uprising and rebuilt from practically nothing. Despite the Soviet-style of plain concrete buildings, the Old Town was painstakingly rebuilt to its former picturesque glory. Wroclaw, a big Polish town near Germany, had an amazing market square dominated by an elaborate Rathaus and I saw a fraction of the 540 tiny gnomes hidden throughout the city. For a bit of Poland’s natural beauty, I went hiking in the small ski town of Zakopane, and river rafting through the Pieniny mountains near the Slovakian border. My favorite excursion, however, was travelling to Lviv, Ukraine. Although only 3 hours away from Krakow, it felt worlds apart. There was a significant language barrier and an exhaustively long border crossing, but it was still such a thrilling experience with ridiculously friendly people.
For anyone thinking about studying in Poland, or going abroad in general, I cannot recommend Krakow enough. There are several ways interested students can go, either through API, the Kosciuszko Foundation, or through Jagiellonian University directly. Many of the Polish programs are rather affordable, with books, housing, food and trips included in their tuition. My study abroad experience was such a life changing experience that I might have to go back next semester and relive it all over again.