10 Laws and Customs You Should Know
Krakow is a safe city. Crime rates are lower than in many Western European urban centres and the locals welcome foreigners. Having said that, visitors can be caught out by local laws and customs. Bear the following in mind to enjoy a hassle-free stay:
1. Validate public transport tickets
You must validate your ticket before making a journey on a bus or tram. All buses and trams have three or four ticket validating machines, typically yellow boxes attached to walls or handrails. Put your ticket in the slot to have it stamped with the date, time and route you are travelling on.
If you do not validate your ticket, even if you've just bought it from a machine in the vehicle you are travelling on, you could be fined. Plainclothes ticket inspectors can appear at any time. Some tickets allowing for longer periods of travel (24 hrs, 1 week) only need to be validated once – see Public Transport in Krakow for details.
2. Road safety for pedestrians
It is illegal to cross roads anywhere other than at designated pedestrian crossings (identifiable by zebra-stripes on the road and/or green-man/red-man pedestrian crossing lights). Technically, you can only be fined for crossing less than 100 m from the nearest pedestrian crossing, but it is not worth taking the risk.
At pedestrian crossings without traffic lights, drivers are supposed to stop if they see somebody preparing to cross the road. In practice, this rarely happens. It's far safer to wait for a big gap in the traffic, or to find a crossing with lights.
Beware of vehicles coming from the left even at pedestrian crossings with lights. At most junctions drivers are permitted to turn right on a red light, as long as their route is clear. In the city centre, this often means turning onto pedestrian crossings that are in use. Most drivers are well aware of this danger, but don't be surprised to find vehicles edging towards you from the left as you are crossing legally.
Beware of traffic when stepping off trams. Some tram tracks run down the centre of busy streets. This means you can be stepping into oncoming traffic as you alight. Again, most drivers are used to this hazard and leave plenty of room, but it's always worth a glance to your right as you climb off a tram.
Poland introduced a ban on smoking in enclosed public places in 2010. After a period of adjustment, this is now widely obeyed. Some bars and restaurants have designated smoking areas, which should, by law, be separated from other public areas by closed doors.
More recently, the smoking ban has been extended to bus and tram stops – even those without enclosed or semi-enclosed shelters.
4. Public drinking
It is illegal to drink alcohol in a public place. This includes parks, streets, benches and anywhere else you might be tempted to crack open a can on a hot day. Obviously, the law doesn't apply to outdoor seating areas provided by licensed premises, but it does apply to the street outside a pub or bar that does not have this provision. In other words, if you take your beer with you when you step outside for a cigarette, you could be breaking the law.
5. Public drunkenness
Drinking alcohol in a public place can earn you a hefty fine, but being drunk in a public place can land you in a drying out cell for the night. The Polish police have a low tolerance for public drunkenness and will lock you up if they decide you are a threat to yourself or others.
6. Alcohol and bicycles
The legal blood-alcohol limit for driving is just 0.02 percent. This is effectively zero, and the law is enforced with substantial fines (up to 300 EUR) and prison sentences (see Driving in Krakow for more). Few visitors are aware that this limit also applies to bicycles. Do not ride a bicycle if you have been drinking.
Note that you can also be fined for riding a bicycle without illuminated lights after dark, even of you are not on the road.
7. Bar and strip club scams
Krakow is a popular destination for stag parties. As such, local criminals have developed scams for extracting cash from over-excited young men. A favourite technique is to employ attractive young women to approach foreigners and invite them for a drink at a 'favourite' bar. Once inside, the girls order drinks, and leave you with a huge bill. As long as there is a menu somewhere that specifies cocktails cost 100 EUR, there is nothing the police can do. The best policy – always ask to see the menu and beware of invitations that are too good to be true.
Strip clubs are legal, but that doesn't mean everything that happens inside them is above board. Reports of credit- or debit-card skimming are common, amounting to tens of thousands of Euros in some cases. Keep your eye on your card.
Selling sex is legal in Poland. 'Pimping' and operating a brothel, however, are not. If you are tempted to enter an establishment suggesting that it offers sexual services, be aware that you are stepping into a criminal world.
9. Public disorder
Poland has an occasional but persistent problem with football hooligan violence. Battling fans are more interested in each other than bystanders but, when the riot police inevitably intervene, the scene of a street fight is the last place you want to be. Polish riot police are equipped with and routinely use: water cannon, shotguns loaded with baton rounds, wide-area pepper spray dispensers and sonic devices.
Cracovians are happy to welcome visitors to their city. Poles are generally keen to show their country off to foreigners, but you should be aware that Poland remains a more conservative and religiously observant culture than you are probably used to. Drunken, obnoxious behaviour is strongly frowned upon in Polish culture and is seen as particularly offensive coming from visitors.
Enjoy yourself, but remain civil and respectful unless you want to attract the attention of the police and the enmity of the locals. Activities that might be regarded as harmless hijinks at home, such as streaking, can quickly land you in jail.