During the early summer of 2019, we had recently quit our jobs and were in the early stages of travelling the world full-time. We had a lot of ground to make up, so there were plenty of exciting new destinations in the pipeline. One of those was Krakow, the second-largest city in Poland.
Originally from the little Scandinavian country of Denmark, we had already lived abroad for a number of years before we started our new lifestyle. During that time, we had realised how much of Europe we hadn’t seen, and we had become aware of just how crazy-cheap European airfare actually is. So for the first summer of our full-time travels, we wanted to see more – much more – of the continent in which we were born. It also worked well because we had many friends and relatives that had been neglected during our years abroad. Two birds, one stone.
There is one big problem with travelling full-time, at least from our perspective, and that is you have no income. That’s why you see most digital nomads going to Southeast Asia or South America. It’s (relatively) cheap there. That’s also partly why, when it came to our exact itinerary, we wound up focusing on Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Sure, we also chose to visit Iceland, hike the Tour du Mont Blanc and fly a hot air balloon in Tuscany but those things had been on our bucket list for a looong time, and we weren’t going to wait forever. Besides, we were living dirt cheap in our tent along the way which helped justify the more costly choices.
Despite the fresh and amazing memories from our Western Europe splurgfest, we were looking forward to Eastern Europe. We were intrigued about what we would find and honestly didn’t really know what to expect. However, we knew from previous experience, that we would probably be positively surprised. We almost always love the new destinations we visit. Our modest expectations did include lower prices and fewer crowds, and we even went as far as daring to hope for friendly locals and tasty regional food.
We weren’t entirely wrong.
The first stop on our Eastern European itinerary was the Republic of Poland. We had found an extremely cheap flight to the second-largest city of the country, Krakow, with Hungarian low-cost carrier Wizz Air. We had expected an even more watered down, Ryanair or Easyjet on steroids, sort-of experience, but in fact, the flight was quite pleasant. Eastern Europe 1 – Western Europe 0.
Then we arrived. We spent a week in the city, living in the supposedly charming Jewish quarter of Kazimierz. There are plenty of bars and restaurants in this lively area, and it was within walking distance to all the sights of the Old Town, including the famous Wawel Royal Castle and St. Mary’s Basilica. We basked in the sunshine in the beautiful public parks. We went jogging on the riverbank. We enjoyed cheap, but delicious, beers on sidewalk cafés. We ate pierogis till we burst and sipped on artisan coffee.
Still… WE HATED KRAKOW.
Immediately when we arrived, everything started going wrong. The airport was infested with the vile Euronet cash machines that pay for monopoly and proceed to scam unsuspecting travellers. If you haven’t already, then right after this one, we really think you should read our full post about those bastards. Then we had been advised to take an Uber (rather than a taxi), but the driver couldn’t find us, didn’t speak English and drove like a maniac. We did survive though and eventually got to the Airbnb flat which, it turns out, was located right next to major construction works. And we are talking Olympic scale construction here. The entire road was gone as far as the eye could see in either direction. They were busy building, demolishing, hammering and pounding on that road from 6 am to 10 pm each day.
Good thing we didn’t come to Krakow to sit in our apartment all day. Except, the nights weren’t much better. The next-door neighbours (another Airbnb we presume) were noisy in all the wrong ways, and the bed was a foldable sofa which was of particularly poor quality. To make matters worse, the weather was extremely hot, and there was no fan or air condition in the apartment. In short, we weren’t off to a good start.
However, those things are not the reasons we felt compelled to write this post.
During our stay, we had decided to work on the blog for 3 days, and save the remaining 3 days for sightseeing. That would leave us half days in either end to get settled and pack up. The workdays went alright. The WiFi in the Airbnb was sketchy, so we found a nice little coworking space with fast internet. In the evening, we could visit the local vodka bar and have a delicious sushi dinner.
Nah, it was the sightseeing days that proved to be the problem.
We had received recommendations from friends and relatives, found the top 10 sights on TripAdvisor and read posts from other travel bloggers. Krakow isn’t a particularly large city, so we quickly had an overview of everything there was to see and do. And there was one place that everyone mentioned.
It was Wawel Royal Castle.
“You have to see the castle.”
“For sure you need to visit Wawel Royal Castle.”
“You can’t miss the old castle.”
Everyone recommended it, and it was on all the “Top Things to See & Do in Krakow” lists.
For some reason, we had managed to postpone our sightseeing days to the end of the week. As we were walking up towards the castle, we talked about why we had been procrastinating on our sightseeing. Maybe we just felt we had too much work to do?
We reached the castle grounds very early in the morning, as we had noticed there were a lot of other tourists out and about later in the day. Nevertheless, crowds were already forming. People were queuing up all over the place, some to visit the “Dragon’s Den”, others to enter the museum, or the exhibition, or the cathedral, or the medieval tower. It would seem you needed a separate ticket for each place
It was a chaos of selfie sticks, running kids, and tour groups following umbrella carrying guides around. And we were caught right in the middle. We walked around, snapping the occasional photo of the beautiful garden or of the church. We even managed to enter the medieval tower without much waiting time.
However, having been on the grounds for just 30 minutes, we were already looking for the exit. It was so stressful to walk around the castle, and it was boooring. We even got in some stupid fight because we were so much on edge there, amongst the hordes of tourists all racing around to look at the old stones. We’ve no recollection of what exactly our fight was about because it wasn’t real. It was just the frustrations showing from being in that horrible environment.
Luckily, when it was all said and done, we had realised something. Something that we should have realised a long time ago. Thinking back, we are not quite sure how we managed to miss this point for so long.
We are just not that into museums, art galleries, cathedrals or anything like that.
It doesn’t surprise us really. Looking back over our Instagram feed you’ll mostly see pictures of snow-capped mountains, sweeping vistas, wildlife, sunsets and other parts of the natural world. There’s not much in the way of museums really. The travels we remember most vividly are those where we were out in the elements, for example when hiking in Iceland or on safari in Africa. Our trek to Everest Base Camp will stay with us forever, but the memory of our visit to Brussels is quickly fading.
So what are we doing wandering around the old castle in Krakow? Absolutely nothing to be honest. We shouldn’t even be there. It dawned on us that this is exactly why we had been procrastinating on our sightseeing. Deep inside, we knew. We knew that we didn’t like being herded around like cattle on the generic tourist sites. That, quite frankly, they bore us.
Thank you, Krakow!
That’s how the city changed our travel style. It made us realise that life is too short to do what you don’t like. Just because Wawel Royal Castle is a must-see in Krakow, it doesn’t mean we should go see it. Just like if someone tells you that you need to cut your hair and get an education, you don’t have to listen to them.
We pride ourselves from taking the life-changing decision to quit our jobs, sell all our things and travel the world, yet there are still lessons to be learned, and this is one of them. We all travel differently, and you can’t just look at what everybody else does. Sure you can check out the typical “Top 10 things to do in city XYZ” list, but that doesn’t mean those are the top 10 things for you. You need to know yourself and what kind of traveller you are. There is no such thing as a “must-see” for all.
You could argue we didn’t hate Krakow, per se, but rather our personal travel experience in the city. We learned an important lesson there; which is to take command of our own travels and do what we like to do.
In the hiking community, there’s an expression you may have heard of, called HYOH. It means “Hike Your Own Hike”. We would like to coin a new catchphrase here. How about: “Travel For You” or better yet, TRAVEL4U
That’s exactly what we will strive to do from now on. We will travel for ourselves, not follow in the footsteps of all tourists before us. Personal recommendations from friends, relatives, or even travel bloggers, can be great, but they’re worthless if you don’t know what YOU want to see and do. Your personal travel experience will NOT be the same as the one we had. We should have known this previously because so many times have we been disappointed by actual travel experiences that we expected more from.
Before we started travelling full-time, we liked to buy a Lonely Planet travel book before going on holiday. We thought it would help guide us during our trip. Truth be told? We almost always found them to be completely useless. The information is just too generic. For example, there is a list of eateries, with a brief description and an address. What the hell do we need that for?
Then there is TripAdvisor. TripAdvisor will supply you with reviews of things to do, hotels, restaurants and experiences that ON AVERAGE most other people like. Do you think of yourself as an average person? We are all different. We all like different things. Just because most people like a certain restaurant, it surely doesn’t mean you will. We have used TripAdvisor A LOT in the past, but we won’t pay much attention to it going forward. It can be great in filtering out the worst tourist traps and avoiding the biggest pitfalls, but in terms of what to see and do in a place, we wouldn’t count on it.
We now realise that this is exactly why our experiences with TripAdvisor has been so hit and miss. Sometimes we have gone to a recommended restaurant on TripAdvisor, and it turned out to be EPIC. Then for some reason, the next place would be a huge disappointment. We often wondered why that is.
It’s because we’re not all looking for the same thing. You can definitely still use the suggestions from friends, relatives, travel blogs, guidebooks and TripAdvisor, but you ALWAYS need to keep in mind your personal preferences and interests. Your hard-earned travel money should go towards experiences that YOU will cherish, not those that others have cherished before you.
We really think this is important. All of us only live once. Most people have a maximum of 5 weeks of annual leave. Most earn a modest salary. You shouldn’t be wasting your holiday, or your money for that matter, on subpar travel experiences. It’s just not worth it.
We sincerely hope you will follow our advice. But if you don’t, we are sure you will come to the same realisation sooner or later.
A final note:
Sorry Krakow, for this unfair title and for using you as our horror-example. Please know that we didn’t hate your guts, that we (mostly) had a good time during our visit and that you were very hospitable. We thoroughly enjoyed your cosy streets, parks, bars and restaurants, and we particularly liked our visit to Auschwitz. Despite the dark, dark history there, it was an important visit for us, and it taught us much about the hardships of jews and other minorities during WW2. We are sure that we’ll be back in Poland one day, especially to enjoy the beautiful outdoors that you have, and then we’ll aim to write a favourable blog post about it. Until then, take care and keep up the good work!