Krakow, Poland Report of what it's like to live there - 06/09/24

Personal Experiences from Krakow, Poland

Krakow, Poland 06/09/24

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Fourth tour overseas with State, first in Europe. Previously in Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Pakistan.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Easy to travel back to Texas or DC. All flights back to the U.S. (except Chicago) require a layover in Germany or Amsterdam, and from there it's direct flights to Houston, Dallas, and Austin. We've also flown back direct to Portland, Oregon too.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Two years.

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4. What years did you live here?

Summer 2022-2025

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5. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Diplomat with US Consulate General.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

My housing is fine. It's one of the oldest houses in the consulate's housing pool and is closer to the airport than the consulate. It's big, with a big yard, but the basement is all storage and spiders.

Housing is typically either 4-5 bedroom houses out in Wola Justowska near Park Decjusza, or 3 bedroom apartments near the Consulate, with the furthest ones in Podgorze and the closest ones right next to Wawel Castle. Houses have a 15-30 minute drive or 30-40 minute bus/walk commute, or 30 minutes by bike if the weather is nice. Apartments are a 15-20 minute walk, except from Podgorze, where it's faster to catch the tram in, and some folks bike in 5-10 minutes. There is almost no car parking at the consulate, but plenty of space for bikes. All local staff commute in by walking, tram, or bike.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Much cheaper, and great access to all EU imports, but some things like maple syrup, black beans, or corn masa are expensive or hard/impossible to get and, if you find it, may not be the best quality. Fruit and vegetables are a huge plus here: when it's in season, a pound of strawberries is cheaper than my daily coffee, and I have strawberries and raspberries and blackberries growing in my yard.

My other nit-pick is that beef quality in the grocery stores is pretty poor, so we eat a lot more chicken and pork because it's cheaper and better quality than beef. If we really want a steak, we splurge on good imported beef from Pimento's shop by the train station.

Note that everything is closed on Sundays, and it felt like our first three months here we went shopping every Saturday at the big Auchan or Carrefour, but finally we found Frisco grocery delivery, and the fruit/veggie stand and a bakery near our house, and now we rotate between all of these to get our groceries. If you like Costco, then Makro is your best grocery store.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

I used DPO pretty often to get non-scented household cleaners and laundry soap, along with soaps and shampoos, cereal, peanut butter, speciality salsa/hot sauce, and non-sugary ketchup. I've found local replacements for the household cleaners and soaps (Yope) and found local-made Cheerios. By mail, I've switched to laundry detergent sheets and solid shampoo/conditioner. The condiments are still better bought from the states, but you can't ship ahead for a two to three year tour because it'll go bad.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

There is almost anything here you want to eat (except Mexican) and most of it is really good. We have favorite Thai, Vietnamese, breakfast, kid-friendly, and pizza places. Almost anything is available on Wolt, Bolt Food, Uber Eats, etc. but no one delivers out to our house, so when we want delivery, I have it delivered to the consulate and then drive it home for dinner. There's great coffee shops and roasters, all kinds of bars and restaurants, and going in to town for a meal and walking around can feel like a mini-vacation.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

We have lots of spiders in our basement, occasional ant intrusions, and slugs that like to eat our strawberries. Everything is relatively benign and I've never been too bothered by it or worried that my toddler would be bit by anything.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

DPO for the consulate is received by the Embassy in Warsaw and sent down twice a week for pickup locally. Only employees with diplomatic accreditation through the Embassy are eligible for DPO privileges. I've been told by other military families that they were able to set up APO boxes through military installations here.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

I lucked out that my predecessor had a great part-time helper who was willing to extend her hours to six a day and is now our fabulous nanny/housekeeper and my toddler's best playmate. We pay her a premium because she can speak English and Polish, and she works non-stop for six hours a day taking care of our toddler and then cleaning the house while he naps. I've heard that it can be difficult to find help unless you know of someone looking for work, but there are agencies that help with connecting housekeepers or nannies with those interested. There's also services for dog walking and dog sitting that seem reasonably priced.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

My colleagues have found a variety of standard gyms, plus some CrossFit and yoga facilities, and say that they are reasonably priced and convenient.

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4. Do you feel that it is safe to walk, run or hike outside? Are there areas where bike riding is possible? What is the availability and safety of outdoor space for exercising? Are these easily accessible?

This is probably the best part about Krakow - it's green, lovely, and between the large meadow (Blonia), dozens of small, medium, and large parks, the riverside, and the Planty around the old town, you can walk or ride your bike all around town. I totally feel safe here, and have only had one duty call from someone who was pickpocketed while on a tour in a very crowded market. It's a tourist-heavy city, so use good common sense and avoid crowds.

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5. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

I pay for almost everything using my credit card on my iPhone, and I have a local bank account that I can BLIK to someone else's account when a vendor doesn't accept cards at a market. I use cash very infrequently, but if I need it, I only pull cash from the consulate cashier or an ATM attached to a bank. There are a lot of high-fee ATMs hanging around to take advantage of tourists. I also always get asked if I want to pay with my credit card in Zloty or in Dollars, and I always choose Zloty because the Dollars option usually includes a 10% convenience fee.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Almost all restaurants and cafes have English menus and it seems like everyone under the age of 30 speaks at least some English. I got Polish language training but still default to trying to do everything in English anyway. Google Translate is helpful for signs, groceries, etc. While my doctors and dentists speak English, their receptionists don't so I end up texting or emailing in English, they respond in Polish, and we both use online translators to set up appointments, followup care, etc. It works.

Local language classes are available and affordable, also offered through the consulate for employees and family members. I would say Polish people appreciate the effort, but also question why you would put yourself through learning a genuinely difficult language.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Specific to the US diplomatic mission: our consulate does not have an elevator and is three stories of twisty stairs. We do not have any accessible residences. Curb cuts are not common, cobblestones are everywhere, and while the buses and trams say they accommodate wheelchairs, I have yet to see anyone using a wheelchair on public transit. A lot of restaurants will have seating in basements, or bathrooms in basements, and wheelchair-accessible toilets are only out at the big modern malls. I see a lot of handicap spots, and a lot of them are either empty or used by someone without a placard.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Yes yes and yes. I buy tickets through my local bank app, but you can use Jakdojade to buy tickets and plan trips. Bolt, Uber, and FreeNow are the most common taxi apps. I highly recommend using the apps over just grabbing any random taxi because a random taxi is usually more expensive, may not have a credit card terminal, or won't know where you're going. I've never felt unsafe or uncomfortable here.

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2. What kind of vehicle(s) including electric ones do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, infrastructure, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car or vehicles do you advise not to bring?

It feels like Toyota hybrids are the most common car here, though typically smaller corollas or C-HR SUVs. My Rav-4 feels like the maximum car you would want to have here, and anything longer/wider/taller wouldn't fit in my tiny garage. Almost anything available on the EU market works and can be serviced locally.

A lot of roads that feel like a one-way are, uh, not... so know your car dimensions and be willing to scoot to the side to let larger SUVs and trucks pass. Parking can be tight, so we typically circle the block a few times until we find something we can squeeze into.

There is a growing number of electric cars, but note that the EU electric plug is not the same as the US Tesla or J1772 plugs, so you'll need an adapter.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes, usually within a week or two. Post tries hard to coordinate installation before arrival when it can, though sometimes only one provider is available. We have fiber internet that had to be run to our house off a local pole, and costs about $30/month.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

We kept Google Fi as an e-sim, use it for wifi calling back to the US and 2FA codes, and got a local sim with TMobile for a local number and cheaper data. I think we pay about $25/month for two 20GB data and phone lines. A colleague picked up pay-as-you-go SIM cards from Orange that he says are a better deal for low data-usage. As an EU country, we get free roaming up to 8GB/month, and if we go outside the EU we just flip back to Google Fi for data.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

EU pet scheme for import. Most folks fly in on Lufthansa through Frankfurt (Munich does NOT allow pets as accompanied baggage, only Frankfurt!) or Amsterdam on KLM, though sometimes their small plane to Krakow can't accommodate pets.

Veterinarians are fine, you may have to visit a few to find one you feel comfortable with that speaks English. We went to one recommended by a colleague but it took upwards of 30 minutes to drive to their office, so we switched to an in-home vet who did house calls and paid a lot more for the convenience (still felt cheaper than DC however). Unfortunately our dog was elderly and not doing well, but the vet was very kind when she had to be put to sleep and was able to let her pass in our lap on our couch which avoided a stressful car trip to a vet.

We found a pet sitter through Golden Pets that loved our dog like she was her own, and if she had been younger and in better health, there are great kennel options and doggy daycares that offer pick-up/drop-off services and will wear your pets out while you are at work. Some folks also hire dog walkers for a reasonable cost.

Polish dogs are usually well-trained and well-behaved, and the doggy daycares and kennels will offer obedience training to help your dogs get up to snuff. Most folks walk dogs on leash, though at the meadow (Blonia) and riverside parks they may let them off leash. It feels about 50/50 as to whether or not folks pick up after their pets - I know I see folks doing it and carrying bags, but I also dodge a lot of poop, especially in the winter time.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Seems like most folks come with a telework job or DETO agreement. There are a few jobs for family members at the consulate; reach out to the management officer if you want to work because they may wait to advertise until there are interested candidates. The local market almost always requires Polish, and local salaries are not that great by US standards.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Business casual to suit-and-tie is the standard workwear, public places are casual and full of tourists. Local attire tends to follow the seasons.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Available medical care is good-to-great. Modern, clean, affordable. Most doctors will speak English. I have found a pediatrician, dentist, pediatric dentist, chiropractor, and massage therapist that are all fantastic and speak English. For both the chiropractor and the 75 minute massages, they charge less than the $75/max reimbursement limit from FSBP. I had to encourage the massage therapist to raise her rates because she's worth it.

Some families have chosen to give birth here at Ujastek hospital and reported very positive experiences. I had an elective surgery at a small hospital, and my doctor and anesthesiologist spoke fluent English, but all intake paperwork was in Polish and all the assistants and nurses only spoke Polish, so I was glad I had a bit of Polish to understand the basics of what they were saying. I think you could find most any care you need here or in Warsaw, but if you need intensive care or long-term treatment you're better off medevacing to London or back to the US to eliminate the language barrier.

Note that abortions are complete illegal here. If you are here and in need of family planning services, plan to fly to somewhere else. I chose a long-term birth control implant before I arrived so I didn't have to worry about getting a prescription filled for anything while here.

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2. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

There use to be really, really bad seasonal air issues in winter when homes only burned coal to stay warm. Krakow has outlawed all coal and wood burning, including fireplaces and grills, so our home and our barbecue grill run off of natural gas. Surrounding areas may still use wood or coal, but it's nowhere as bad as it used to be. There's a bigger push to move everyone to natural gas, heat pumps, or solar power that has improved this dramatically.

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3. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

Most menus are well marked for vegan/vegetarian, and wheat/lactose sensitivities. Alternative milks (soy, almond, oat) are widely available, there are some gluten-free options but no dedicated bakeries, and the number of vegan-only restaurants continues to surprise me. Pollen can be really bad here when everything blooms in March-May, and if I forget to take my daily allergy meds for more than two days, it can hit me really hard.

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4. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

There's a bit of SAD concern, though nothing as bad as the Nordics, because winter kicks off in November and hangs on through March with a lot of rain, a fair bit of snow, and sunsets as early as 4:30pm. If you don't get out and walk around at lunchtime, you'll miss what little sun may appear. It doesn't hit as bad in December because you have the lovely Christmas lights that make everything appear cosy and like a hallmark movie, but January and February are a slog.

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5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

This is an all-four-seasons place, with glorious summers that only get truly hot (above 90F/32F) for about two weeks a year. The rest of the time, it's fairly temperate and rainy. Even winter, it's rare to have more than a few days below freezing in a row, and if it snows, it tends to melt/freeze/melt/freeze so you just have to be diligent about shoveling snow while it's fresh and wearing grippy shoes so you don't slip on black ice.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

There are two British Schools but no kids at the consulate currently attend either. The International School of Krakow (ISK) has an American curriculum from K-12, and an early years program. Families seem happy with ISK on whole, it's the consulate-associated school and our Consul General sits on the board of trustees, however - and there's no way to sugar coat this - it's far away from the housing. The consulate has arranged a "bus" service that is covered by the educational allowance, but even with the dedicated service, it's still a 45-60 minute drive depending on traffic. When possible, the bus service offers a second afternoon departure for kids participating in afterschool activities.

The ISK campus is lovely, green, and modern while still charming, but the distance is hard on all the kids. Also, the High School years are not considered up-to-par for kids, so some have supplemented with correspondence AP courses or chosen to attend school away from post (there's a higher allowance for this).

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2. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

Yes, but, please note that most nurseries (Zlobek) will not accept kids until at least 2.5 years (30 months) of age. Most nurseries are also attached to pre-schools (Przedschole). There is no traditional daycare that I have found outside of the Zlobek/Przedschole system. Kids who attend them, even the bilingual ones, end up speaking both Polish and English. The cost is reasonable, I've heard.

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3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

I've seen local youth soccer camps, though I don't know if they have English-language options. There's also swim lessons in Wola Justowska with Swim Sylvia Wysocka that a few kids participate in and most of the instructors speak English, though the class is primarily in Polish with a quick aside in English for non-Polish speaking parents. There are after-school sports through ISK too.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

You see all types here, thanks to Krakow's growing tech sector, though it seems we're all outnumbered by the British tourists on a regular basis. Morale seems good, with a little something for everyone.

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2. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Except for finding childcare from 0-2.5 years, and knowing the school is far away from housing (I promise the Consulate has tried to rent stuff closer but the options just aren't there), this is a dream family post.

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3. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Though Poland has a reputation for being anti-LGBTQ, that's more in the smaller towns and villages than Krakow. Krakow is open, tolerant, and has a large "Equality March" every May that is well attended (and attracts a small counter-protest). That said, this is still one of the most Catholic countries in the world, but the church's grip seems to be loosening in the younger generation. The place I had my elective surgery at also offers gender-confirming surgeries.

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4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?

Poles can be friendly, and proud of their heritage and (delicious) food. The language is tough, but if you can find your community, you'll have good friends. Overall, you may get a few strange looks in the smaller towns that aren't as touristed, but usually okay.

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5. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

The food is great, my family is happy here, there's lovely biking and travel opportunities. We've taken the train to Wroclaw, Warsaw, Zakopane, and Prague. Quick flights to Vienna and Stockholm, longer to Barcelona and London.

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6. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Check out the spas on the way to Zakopane! Also, the third wave coffee culture in Poland, along with neighboring Czechia and Slovakia, are incredible. We are so spoiled for delicious and inexpensive coffee here!

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7. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Not in the traditional sense, though you can find cool modern artists and some vintage furniture. Beware of antiques that may have been originally owned by Jewish families - the reality of the Holocaust is still very salient here, and you won't be allowed to export anything that may have tangible national heritage value.

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8. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Everything! The consulate is small, and can get very fishbowl, but when you're not working, you can really live here.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

I wish knew how difficult it would be to find infant/toddler care. We arrived with a three month old, and were super lucky to start with a part-time nanny right away (though we wish she was full time) from a previous family, but others who have arrived since are having a difficult time locating help, and there are not daycares/nurseries for children until they are 30 months old.

I also would not have shipped our US-spec car; I should have sold it in the states and bought something smaller and EU-spec here.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Absolutely - it's been the best tour so far and my family is super happy here.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

ideas about Poland being Eastern Europe/Post-Soviet: this is a modern, Central European country with good railroads and excellent food.

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4. But don't forget your:

rain and snow gear, and if you ski, the slopes are only an hour or so away!

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