Cracow vs. Warsaw

Hang around in the two top-tier cities in Poland long enough, and at some point you’re bound to hear of the perennial debate that goes on between residents of the current capital versus residents of the former capital.  Warsaw has been the seat of government since  1596, a fact that stings some from Krakow, long the home of Polish kings and location of the famed national monument, Wawel Castle.  Numerous Varsovians, on the other hand, no doubt long for the slower and simpler life typified in the Royal City to the south.

Warsaw and Krakow are two distinct cities, with some significant differences between them.  And the “conflict” between Cracovians and Varsovians over city superiority is one driven by a few factors.  I’d like to take a look at both issues in this post, with a particular focus on how the aesthetics of each city compare.  Warsaw is the ugly one, right..?

Big City Life versus Village Charm?

But let’s start with some basic differences between the two.  Krakow is “older”, in the sense that historically, it became a significant place hundreds of years before Warsaw did.  Its architecture also was not destroyed in the war, while Warsaw was systematically annihilated following the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, with estimates that up to 90% of the city was destroyed.  So nearly all of what you see in Warsaw today is post-war construction, while in Krakow much of it predates the war, sometimes by many years.

Flat Warsaw is the home of wide boulevards, skyscrapers, embassy row and many modern boutiques and trendy restaurants.  Krakow enjoys a medieval center, a lot of green space, the historic Jewish district of Kazimierz, and a thriving university culture, with students numbering 150-200,000, perhaps one-fifth of the city population.

A lot of joking goes on that Krakow is a village.  This can be taken in a derogatory way, but I see it as a plus.  The town has a cozy feel—all roads lead to the center (or at least most trams) and with most social life happening in the historic center, you frequently bump into people you know—not bad for an urban area registering around a million people.

In Warsaw, you really feel you are in the city;  having been to all major urban centers in Poland, I’d say this is in fact the only real “city” in the country.  Everything from the skyline and the amount of ethnic diversity (low by most other Western countries’ standards, but high for Poland) contribute to this feel.  So if you are an urbanite, this is where you’ll feel most at home in Poland.

Of course, Warsaw is more expensive.  Krakow is not too far behind, when looking at the price of housing and other measurements of living costs.  Attention from foreign investors, as well as the sheer attractiveness of the city form a cultural and employment perspective, has led to a high cost of real estate in Krakow, though on average not as high as in Warsaw.  Warsaw wages tend to be a good bit higher than in Krakow, and with most international firms setting up headquarters in the capital, the better jobs situation is not surprising.  But unemployment is fairly low in Krakow as well, as it tends to be in the cities, and there are a number of international firms, such as Cap Gemini, Shell, and State Street with a significant presence in Krakow.

One note:  I find the air fresher in Warsaw.  It may have something to do with the geography, with the fact that Krakow lies in a “bowl”, surrounded by hills, while in flat Warsaw, the breeze seems to have a place to go.  The factories of industrial Nowa Huta, a prototypical Stalinist-era settlement appended to Krakow in the 1950s, may have something to do with that as well.

The myth of “Ugly” Warsaw

What about aesthetics?  At lot of the debate has to do with the attractiveness of the cities themselves.  Conventional wisdom has it that Warsaw is the “ugly” sister, that the Stalinist architecture that replaced much of the bombed-out city contributes to a grey and depressing environment.  There may be some truth to this—and especially compared to what Warsaw once was, when it was known as the Paris of the East.

You also feel the presence of World War Two more in Warsaw, perhaps more than in any other city and certainly more than any other city in Poland.  Monuments and memorial signs seemingly attached to every other building constantly remind one of the conflict.  In some ways Warsaw is a living museum of the war.  I find this very interesting historically, and more importantly, a proper reminder of the sacrifice and suffering the WW2 generation endured.  Though I can understand the sentiment that it contributes to a depressive atmosphere.

However, despite the common call that Warsaw is an ugly place, I would have to wholeheartedly disagree.  Warsaw in fact is a quite beautiful place, with some very interesting areas and much of historical value.

Why Warsaw’s Old Town is more pleasant than Krakow’s

After the war, the residents of Warsaw, Latin motto Semper Invicta (“Always Invincible”) painstakingly rebuilt the old town.  Using old photos and documents, they coaxed the old city to rise again like a phoenix from the ashes, or better, like a triumphant mermaid (the “syrena”, the symbol of Warsaw).  What exists today is a very charming and compact old city center, partially surrounded by a city wall.  The streets here are quieter, cozier, and more “atmospheric”, if that is a word, than most of the Old Town in Krakow.  This is likely due to the fact that the Warsaw Old Town is generally less heavily frequented (at least on weekdays) whereas the Krakow old center lies in the center of the city and bustles with tourists, students, and businesspeople the whole week through.

I think it is arguable that Krakow’s Old Town is more beautiful as well.  Just have a look at the square in Warsaw—smaller, but undeniably charming with its colorful, skinny tenement homes.  The tenement homes of Krakow’s Old Town, by contrast, are frequently covered with unsightly enormous advertisements, hiding renovation work that seems, for some reason, to never end.  Additionally, for the near-decade I’ve lived in Krakow, there has always been some sort of disruptive city construction project happening on the Main Square—first it was the renovation of the surface from asphalt to stone, then there was something to do with the cellars discovered under the square, now it’s the renovation of the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice).  I find it hard to remember a time when the Rynek was clear of construction.  These are probably all good and necessary things, but one wonders at the speed at which they are completed.

Warsaw also seems to be more (wisely) conservative in the manifestations of commerce allowed in the historic center.  Walk down a street in Old Krakow, and on the facades of the historic buildings, you’ll notice any manner of gaudy attention-getting signs and advertisements for businesses.  For a spell, there was (unbelievably) even a flashing BINGO sign over one establishment on Grodzka street, part of the Royal Way leading to Wawel Castle.  “Tacky” is just a starting point when it comes to that example.

Warsaw old city buildings seem to exhibit a much more restrained degree of advertising.  Signs for businesses are more muted and more suited to the surroundings.  It’s less “commercial” but counter-intuitively may pay off in a commercial sense by creating a more pleasant atmosphere, thereby drawing more traffic.

Krakow does have the decided edge on the question of restaurants, cafes, and entertainment in the old center.  There is simply much more going on in this category, and Warsaw’s establishments are more spread about the city, with Krakow’s concentrated basically in one place.

But with the recent renovation of Krakowskie Przemiescie (the “Royal Way” leading up to the Old Town in Warsaw), the capital has enhanced a charming thoroughfare and raised its aesthetic profile.  This boulevard has gotten a major facelift, and you can see that it has attracted more businesses and, coupled with its extension, the street of Nowy Swiat, makes a very enjoyable commercial center adjacent to but separate from the medieval center itself.

There are numerous other attractions throughout the city as well, from the unique Warsaw University Library, which seems to grow out of a hill in a remarkable composition of architecture and the organic, to the incomparable 76-hectare Lazienki Park, where peacocks roam amongst figures drawn from Roman mythology, while red squirrels and birds eat nuts from your hand (true 20 years ago, and true today, as I found on a visit last month).

What conclusions can be drawn?  It pains me a bit to say this, as one whose heart and body reside in Krakow, but after years of study, I can’t deny the fact:  Warsaw is a beautiful place too, and Warsaw’s Old Town is simply more pleasant than Krakow’s.

Krakow’s could be nicer, but will always have a different atmosphere–unless the powers that be in Krakow decide they want to clean up the carnival aesthetic they’ve either promoted or benignly allowed to flourish (ie, by reducing the number of concerts/events on the main square, and not doing things like awarding permits to people playing progressive metal on amped-up electric guitars).

Not that all this is necessarily “bad”—that point is up for debate.  Krakow is simply using its historic center in a more overtly commercial way, and reaping benefits, but while imposing the costs on all residents and visitors of a diminished “old town” atmosphere.  That’s simply a cost-benefit question that one has to weigh.  On another note, you’ll always have more tourists in Krakow’s center, which tends to clog the place up a bit, but contributing the same undeniable economic benefits.

In any case, you can argue over the merits of using the center in a more commercial way, or whether a bustling old center is preferable to a more subdued one.  But when it comes down to it, I prefer a stroll in Warsaw’s Old Town over Krakow’s most any day of the week.  And I find plenty of attractions in other parts of Warsaw to marvel at.  Warsaw’s ugliness is simply a myth, something that the organization UNESCO recognized as well, when it placed the rebuilt historic center on its World Heritage list back in 1980.

Warsaw or Cracow – So anyway, what’s the problem?

Back to the Warsaw-Krakow “feud”.  There are some classic lines of attack that residents of each city rely on.  Cracovians might say that Varsovians have a complex over living in the “ugly, soulless” big city, while Varsovians might respond that Cracovians have inferiority issues over being stripped of capital status and in some ways ending up a historic backwater.

Recently a Warsaw tourism campaign featured posters in Krakow with the phrase “Kto sie czubi, ten sie lubi”, which, translated, basically means that he who picks on another person, actually likes that person—sort of like the little schoolboy that teases the girl he secretly admires.  The posters came complete with a statistic claiming that 72% of the residents of Krakow were “proud of the capital”.

This certainly set off further debate in both camps.  I haven’t seen corresponding statistics on Varsovians’ opinions of Krakow, but assuming the above-cited percentage is true, I think you’d find similar numbers of Warsaw residents expressing positive things about Krakow.  Where the “truth” in all this lies, I do not know, but the debate goes on, good-naturedly.

Warsaw vs. Krakow – One Writer’s Verdict

Frankly, I appreciate both places.  I live in Krakow, yet frequently visit Warsaw.  Warsaw was where I first experienced Poland, as a tot back in the early 80s, so it has a special spot for me.  Yet for a number of reasons, I find life in Krakow a bit more up my alley.  That said, I could easily enjoy living in Warsaw, and even did so for a spell.  Admittedly, I’ve probably been a bit more pro-Warsaw in this piece, but I think “ugly” Warsaw is an idea long past its expiration date, which is the main point I wanted to make here.  In any case, there are major pluses, and some minuses to both places, which may be worth addressing at another time.

As for the conflict, speaking with Polish friends from both places, I get the feeling that Cracovians pay more attention to it than Varsovians do.  Why that is, I’ll leave to you to speculate.

As a note, the writer of this article is the American writer on the Amish – Erik Wesner.  He is a writer and live in Krakow, Poland, however, has family from Warsaw. Please leave a comment and let me know your reaction to  Krakow vs. Warsaw.