Things to do in Krakow

Krakow is the most popular city to travel to in Poland. An historic destination dating back to the 7th century with beautiful buildings and a vibrant cultural scene, it makes for a lovely weekend break. During the day you can wander around the iconic Wawel Castle and try the Polish specialities in the vintage milk bars, then at night the bars come to life with music, smoke and cocktails as the hip residents enjoy their time off. Those interested in experiencing the grittier side to Poland’s history can venture out of town to Auschwitz, a chilling but significant day trip. For a family excursion visit the remarkable and magical Salt Mines deep underground. I only spent a day and a night in Krakow but it was enough to see a glimmer of this characterful city. Just two and half hours by train from Warsaw, it is easy to do both destinations in one trip.

To Sleep

Wentzl Hotel – one of the few hotels with a location on the old town market square, Wentzl has magnificent views overlooking Krakow. An historic hotel with modern amenities, the generous rooms have a grand feel decorated in deep reds and dark wood, with gold framed paintings hanging majestically on the walls. It is the perfect home for a weekend away.

To Eat

Ancora – this restaurant was recommended to me and it didn’t disappoint. A quiet stylish eatery down a side street in central Krakow, the kitchen specialises in creative local and international dishes. We tried some of the Polish tapas and delicious meat dishes for main course.

Charlotte – Perhaps the best breakfast in Krakow… this chic café has a lovely communal dining table and serves top pastries and hot dishes, fresh juice and great coffee.

Pod Temida – you must go to a retro milk bar while in Poland and Pod Temida is one of the best still in existence. These cheap and basic canteen-like eateries are making a comeback, and are a great place to try traditional Polish food. I recommend trying the meat or cheese pierogi (dumplings) here.

To Drink

Coffee Cargo – you can almost smell the roasting beans from the street. The coffee cargo crew expertly roast and brew the best coffee in Krakow all served from a warehouse on the outskirts of town. We sampled a smooth and sweet drip coffee from Ethopia.

Wesola – the coffee scene in Poland is really thriving and this little cafe has a great vibe and make a mean flat white. Located behind the main train station I got a cup to go before jumping on the train back to Warsaw.

Nowa Prowincja – allegedly the best hot chocolate in Krakow and certainly the finest we tried, this cosy little venue serves up a sweet thick drink that will warm you on even the coldest winter days.

Alchemia – this popular local hang-out has it all, great food, cheap drinks, live music and a buzzy atmosphere. Weave your way through the crowds to the downstairs gig room where we heard a great 14-piece brass band from France whilst sipping Polish beer. Apparently they do a great brunch menu too.

Le Scandale – it may look a little uninteresting inside but take a seat at the back bar and the friendly bartenders will whip up a delicious cocktail.

To See

Wawel Castle and Cathedral – this gothic castle was originally built in the 14th century and was mostly rebuilt in the 16th century after a devastating fire. Found at the top of a hill along with the impressive cathedral, it is the main tourist attraction in the city centre today.

Rynek Underground – opened in 2010 after an excavation under the main market square, this high-tech underground museum of tunnels walks you through Krakow’s history from 2000 BC to present day.

Out of Town

Auschwitz – a still and silent place filled with the sorrow of its horrific past. Auschwitz and nearby Birkenau were the main Nazi concentration camps and are now a museum and memorial. Here you will learn the details of the barbaric mass killing and walk around the camp buildings. An informative film shows footage of the rescued prisoners and the awful conditions they were made to live in.

Wieliczka Salt Mine – just outside Krakow this UNesco World Heritage site receives thousands of visitors every day. It was mined for 900 years and was once one of the world’s most profitable establishments, when salt was very valuable. The 2km tourist route takes a trail through the passages, caverns, lakes and chapels to 135 metres below the earths surface. In summer months the salt mine lakes are used as a healing spa.

Hollywood Costume, V&A

The Hollywood Costume signs have adorned the streets of South Kensington for a few months now. Every time I walked past I felt pangs of pain that I was not one of the many Londoners who had seen John Travolta’s white Saturday Night Fever suit in the flesh, stared adoringly at Dorothy’s ruby red slippers and witnessed the outfits of our best loved superheroes: Spiderman, Batman and Catwoman.

Turning up for my slot on a Thursday morning, I assumed the exhibition would be quiet, aside from a few tourists yet to return home after the Christmas break. I could not have been more wrong, the place was heaving, crowds of queuing fans, each desperate to get a glimpse of their favourite character’s costume. Overwhelmed by the excitement and stifling lack of space, I decided my visit would have to be brief.

The exhibition explores the central role of costume design – from sensitive and subtle to extravagant and glamorous. In this grand show there are over 130 iconic costumes, each designed for unforgettable cinema characters over a century of film-making. There are three galleries to enjoy:

Deconstruction: The exhibition starts with an introduction to the role of the costume designer in cinema. By illustrating the link between clothing and identity, the viewer can begin to understand how designers create a character though costume.

Dialoque: This room examines the relationship between filmmaker or actor and the costume designer, and how they work closely together to create a character visually. The Dialogue section includes two close case-studies of Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep who discuss the importance of costume and how crucial it is in developing a character.

Finale: The sparkling final room concludes the exhibition with some of Hollywood’s most memorable moments, presenting the best known costumes from cinema history.

For me it was lovely to see the early outfits that hark back to stars of the past: suits from Charlie Chaplin’s silent pictures and Holly Golightly’s little black dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’. As well as exhibiting the clothes beautifully, and often props too, the V&A manages to outline a brief narrative for each costume… explaining the important features and giving some context.

I loved the whole exhibition but it is the final room that really thrills… seeing these magnificent, famous costumes in the flesh, which provide such an important role in preserving the memory of a character, it is easy to dream of your favourite film star standing before you in the flesh.

Continues until 27 January 2013.

More information and booking here.

Things to do in Marrakech

You either love or hate Marrakech. Having just returned from my second trip, there I love it more that ever. It is a very affecting city: loud, colourful and busy. It can be daunting for Londoners being thrown into the swarm of hassling souk sellers but once you feel confident in the city and understand its ways, it has so much culture, food and entertainment to offer.

To stay

Riad Farnatchi – a gorgeous five star Riad in the middle of the Medina. Your wish is their command; anything is possible at this hotel where they believe “there is no no”. The accommodating staff and beautiful design is entrancing, you will never want to leave.

Es Saadi Palace – An epic but characterful, luxurious hotel with every amenity on offer: stunning swimming pool, picturesque gardens, sensational spa and several fine restaurants. The perfect place to relax and indulge.

To eat

Al Fassia – Run by two sisters and now with a second branch, this is a popular Moroccan restaurant serving delicious traditional food for reasonable prices. Try the authentic lamb tagines and chargrilled meats and treat yourself to a fragrant bottle of Medallion Moroccan wine.

Maison MK, English afternoon tea – missing home? Weave your way through the souks to Maison MK where they serve a freshly made afternoon tea up on the sunny roof terrace.

To drink

Comptoir – A stylish cocktail bar and restaurant near the main hotel area. Friday and Saturday nights host an opulent belly dancing show which takes place around 10.30pm amongst the crowds. Great drinks and great fun.

Bo Zin – this elegant bar and restaurant has quite a reputation for its fabulous food and drink. Go for the evening or just pop in for an enticing cocktail or chilled glass of wine, whilst admiring the surroundings.

To see

Jardin Majorelle – the Yves Saint Laurent colourful gardens are the perfect place to find solace and calm away from the crazed city. Filled with vibrant pots and thriving plants, you can also visit the boutique Berbere Museum which is interesting and informative.

Bahia Palace – this 19th Century building offers historical beauty, weather-worn tiles and intricate carvings; walk round and admire the artistry.

Medersa Ben Youssef – an awe-inspiring example of 16th Century Andalusian-Arab architecture. Originally built as a religious college and amazingly stayed in use until the 1960s. Imagine the students lives as you wander round and explore this huge building.

If you are planning a trip to Marrakech, I would advise three or four days there – that should give you enough time to experience what the city has to offer. If you want to explore more of Morocco you could spend three days in Marrakech then travel on to another town or perhaps visit the beach. I have heard a day trip up into the epic mountains it worth the taxi journey.

Even without an itinerary, walking on foot round Marrakech you will discover and stumble across a wealth of activity and excitement. With regular 3 hour flights from London with Ryanair and Easyjet getting cheaper and cheaper, there is no excuse not to jump on a plane and discover the excitement of the Medina in Marrakech.