Summery days in Krakow can be spent strolling along the banks of the beautiful Vistula River. They can be about hitting the gorgeous Planty greenbelt that rings the Old Town area with pine trees and sycamores, people watching and dog spotting and sipping strong coffees as you go. Or, they can be about flitting between the cobbled streets of Kazimierz and historic Podgorze districts, where the ghosts of WWII ghettos and fascinating tales of Schindler coalesce in the museums. The nights though; well, the nights are about one thing and one thing only for the youthful lady in her prime: Krakow's pub crawls!
Now I'm not one to go in search of parties for the sake of partying. I mainly like to share my travels between UNESCO World Heritage Sites and cat-themed cafes. But when the opportunity to head out in a city whose nightlife I'd heard so many awesome things about presented itself, I really couldn't resist. After all, it was July, and the beer gardens that fringe the enchanting Main Square in the middle of the city were in full flow – I guess I was just a perfect target for those uber-friendly promoters on Krawl Through Krakow!
When it comes to Krakow's Bar crawls, there really is only one option!
In the height of the summer in Krakow you can expect to be approached by oodles of promoters touting the 'best night out you'll ever get', especially if you wander as far and wide across the Old Town and Kazimierz areas as I did (which is worth it, I promise!). Unfortunately, most of the approaches I had were lackluster at best, and some were downright weird - one guy even asked me if my feet were tired…I wonder where that was going (do you think I’d been running through his head all day without noticing it, perhaps?).
That said, as I sipped my frothy beer in the bars of the Main Square in the dying light of the evening, I did meet one group of guys and girls that made the prospect of an evening on the pub crawl seem, simply, the right thing to do. They were smiling and jolly, dressed in psychedelic bouts of pink text proclaiming 'Krawl Through Krakow', and really easy to talk to besides.
First, they passed me and asked if I wanted to join them for a party in the evening. Before I knew it, we'd been chatting about train travels and Interrail tickets, Polish cuisine and skiing for more than half an hour. My new friends had to dash at around seven, but they left me with a pub crawl leaflet, surreptitiously placed on the edge of my table next to my empty beer. It promised free booze for an hour, drinking games and the chance to meet some more fun folk like the ones I'd just been nattering with.
I thought: Why the devil not?
Meeting the pub crawl and meeting new friends
Contrary to what you might think, hitting the best pub crawl in Krakow isn't just about guzzling vodka shots and getting so inebriated you can't stand. Yes, some people opted for that course through the night, and the awesome – not to mention uber-patient – guides were tactful enough to support (and I mean literally support – like, by the shoulders) them back to their hostel dorms. Others, like me, were simply in it for the odd entry shot (which wasn't hardcore, but rather tasty instead), the boogie, and – mainly – the company.
As a solo traveler, it was a pleasure to finally join a crawl which wasn't just about making dosh and leaving the revelers to their own devices. (I remember being left to sip Bohemian lagers all on my own in Prague, like some depressed Tom Waits gawping at everyone else having fun from the shadowy corners of the bar.)
In Krakow, there was no such thing. The guides were so attentive, and made talking to them and the other guests super easy. They got drinking games going in the first bar, which eventually led to long chats with a few fellow backpackers about our most disgusting hostel experiences (think rats, misplaced bubblegum et al!). Then, we hit a karaoke joint, and the guides themselves were first on the list to make a fool of themselves, which broke the ice for me to do my thing with Shirley Bassey (yea, I really apologize if you were present!). After that, it was onto a local beer hall, where there were also some regional Polish dishes to sample on the menu – and, they cost just 8 PLN (that's less than $2!).
Add to that a nice mix of genders in the group - we were virtually split 50/50 between guys and gals (perhaps because Krawl Through Krakow offers reduced rates for ladies, ahem). What’s more, there was no rowdy clutch of stag do members aboard either. It all added up to make the perfect cocktail for a lone traveler looking to party.
Our first bar: Krakow's ubiquitous basement fun
No trip out to experience the Krakow nightlife could possibly be complete without at least an encounter with the legendary basement bars that dot the Old Town area. These lurk down literally every street. They can be a little tricky to find, on account of their unassuming entranceways and the often winding (break-leg sort of winding, mind you) staircases it takes to get to the bar. Still, like I say, they are certainly worth seeking out.
Why? Well, for a start (and this is the part that really interested me), they occupy the old wine cellars of medieval mansions. That means vaulted ceilings packed with cobwebs and chipped bricks, along with oodles of little nooks and crannies to find a seat in. Okay, they aren't the summeriest of places to have a couple of drinks in the warm months of the year, but you can just imagine how cozy they become when the snow falls, hidden below the ice-caked cobbles up above.
I was really glad to see that one of these famed basement bars was the first pit stop on the Krawl Through Krakow. I can't remember exactly where it was, but I do remember waving goodbye to the twin spires of the St Mary Church as I turned to descend the steep stairwell into the venue, and that must mean it's somewhere near the central area known as the Main Square (precisely where I was approached drinking my beer earlier on in the evening).
The basement drinkery didn't disappoint. I ordered my vodka and mixer and was soon wandering between the tunnels and caverns underground. I discovered one room with a foosball table; another plumed in smoke for the smokers (it was cut-off from the main bar with a glass partition). And then came the dance floor, which was located under a huge domed hall, the ceiling rising and falling in vaulted brick. Yep, believe it or not, the subterrane of Krakow is one darn awesome place to party!
Our second bar: Karaoke in Krakow is the place to be
You could be forgiven for thinking that you'd been transported to the inner-city streets of Tokyo when you enter one of Krakow's super-popular karaoke bars. Not so – this is still Slavic southern Poland. What I mean to say is: singing is popular here; really popular.
As the pub crawl crowd packed into the small corners of the bar and began buying up drinks and shots and a kaleidoscope of other liquid compadres for the stint in the second venue, I busied myself with choosing a track (priorities people, priorities!). I settled on my usual: a vocal-chord-thrumming, spine-tingling rendition of Goldfinger by Shirley. I requested it and was instantly put somewhere close to the start of the queue – I think the DJ knows the pub crawl guys are only around for an hour or so before moving on, and he likes to give them some play time.
Needless to say, I was a right hit (you wouldn't have expected anything else, right?). I was pleased to be joined on the podium by other pub crawlers who also, apparently, had a penchant for James Bond theme tunes straight out of the 90s. We sung and sipped beers. Before we knew it, those familiar calls of "pub crawl" were echoing through the pub and we had to gather in the sultry darkening air to go to the next bar.
Our final bar: Partying the night away without the pressure to drink
And at the end of the night, after we'd meandered through the booming crowds of the Old Town (which is really beautiful, even in the dark) with the help of our tour leaders, we ended up in one of the best clubs I think I've ever partied in. Not being totally sloshed, there's a lot to be said about 80s funk and well-curated chart tunes at 4am!
Not only that but the DJ was totally open to song suggestions and requests. I threw a few his way and danced in the underground spaces until my choices came on. Of course, the drinks were cheap and tasty, and I noticed how much I love it when a barman dispenses of the usual need for shot measurements and just does things by hand. There's a certain devil may care, caution to the wind type rebelliousness about it that's lost on us folk from countries where they won't even pour a nanometer of vodka higher than the prescribed amount. Woo.
I really liked that the last bar wasn't just about music either. There were two areas where pub crawl folk gathered to continue conversations started earlier in the evening. One was a hazy smoking area, but the other was fresh and airy. I chose the latter, got involved in some celebrity-naming drinking game, and slowly watched as midnight turned into the early hours.
I wasn't alone in opting to call it a night around 4.30am. A few other people I'd been chatting to decided to hit the bunks then, and said they were heading my way too (but not before the pub crawl staff had checked I knew where I was going, which was a nice touch I thought).
And so it was that I strolled home in the reviving light of the Polish summer, below the Gothic towers and between the swaying sycamores of the Planty Park. There had been many vodkas and many chats, plenty of dancing and a karaoke session that's surely up there with my best. Thanks, Krawl Through Krakow…until next time!