Although communism is in the past and Poland is part of the EU, some elements of the old times haven’t changed.
One of them is the tradition of the Polish milkbars (called ‘bary mleczne’ in Polish).
Polish cuisine has been deeply influenced by history and culture, and milkbars reflect Polish culture, politics, and history. In short, a milkbar is kind of a cafeteria serving traditional Polish cuisine, mainly to students, pensioners, and tourists.
Milkbars are famous for their unique atmosphere and, what is really surprising, very low prices. If you travel on a budget or you want to discover the treasure of Polish culinary culture, this cheap and delicious food in Krakow is perfect for you. You won’t be disappointed.
The History of Milkbars
Krakow is full of milkbars. Better or worse, you come across at least a few of them in every part of the city. However, where do they come from? The first Polish milkbar was opened in 1896 in Warsaw, and the first one in Krakow was on May 30th, 1948.
First, they only served milk, and this is where the name comes from. The primary purpose of opening the milkbar was to promote milk drinking because Poland had a large surplus of dairy products back then.
The real boost happened after the communist regime rolled into Poland. Most of the restaurants were shut down by the government. As workers, who didn’t have the subsidized canteen at their own place of work, needed food, more and more milkbars were opened.
Milkbars served traditional Polish food like pierogi (dumplings), cauldrons, and various root vegetables, all boiled, mashed, and pan-fried so workers could get a good, affordable, and nutritious meal. The meals we often vegetarian as the meat was rationed. It all cost a fraction of the price of the higher-end eateries, so milkbars were an amazing alternative.
The end of milkbars’ popularity started with the end of communism. Then, Poland’s economy skyrocketed, and the standard of life was brought to a new level. However, since around 2010, milkbars have started to experience some revival. Low prices have stayed the same, same as simple menus and old-style dour interiors. Let’s take a look at the best milkbars in Krakow.
Green and blue walls, black and white checkered floors – Milkbar Tomasza is a nostalgic place to enjoy a lovely dinner. The bar is situated close to the Old Town Square. The interior is cozy, and the décor makes you feel at home. There are exposed brick walls with a touch of color and wood tabletops. Milkbar Tomasza is not just a place to find cheap food in Krakow. It’s an updated version of a traditional Polish milkbar.
Locals say that Milkbar Tomasza serves the biggest platters of the best boiled or fried pierogi in the whole city. Make sure you also try a mouth-watering goulash with Polish-style schnitzel. Traditionally, you order at the main counter, and then a waiter brings your meal to your table. Sometimes, like at the weekend, the bar is too busy to get a table. However, keep trying, especially in the morning. The breakfasts they serve are heaven. The menu is traditional but with a modern twist, making Milkbar Tomasza a bit different from other milkbars in Krakow. It’s a mix of traditional Polish dishes and western cuisine. Try the European-style pancakes with original fillings and toppings. You’ll love them.
Address: 24 St. Tomasz St.
Image source: Milkbar Tomsza
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Górnik is one of Krakow’s best milkbars, mostly because it serves traditional Polish classics at very reasonable prices. The bar is reminiscent of communist times in Poland, and somehow it has been continuing old Polish traditions. The menu is simple, yet it’s still one of the best places to try Polish cuisine in Krakow. Maybe this is why the bar is always full (by the way, seating is minimal, so there is a chance you will share a table with some strangers). If you want to experience a unique atmosphere of past times and don’t want to spend much money, stop by at Górnik and have a quick meal.
There is also a takeaway option for those who are on the go. Or just those who didn’t get a seat. A must-try is bigos (one of the most popular Polish dishes), as well as pierogi (they cost around €3!). Bigos is a stew made from cabbage, mushrooms, tomatoes, and meats. While at Górnik (like in most milkbars), you have to try ‘kompot.’ It’s a sweet beverage made of fermented fruit.
If you’re looking for some more up-market restaurants, check our full guide here.
Address: 1 Czysta St.
Looking for some cheap food in Krakow and at the same time want to visit a genuinely legendary milkbar? Then choose Bar Targowy, it’s located around the corner from Hala Targowa, on a quiet residential street, not too far from the center of the Old Town. ( it’s a bit off the beaten tourist track). The bar is like a journey back in time to the Soviet era. For locals, it hasn’t changed since the times of communism. But Bar Targowy being old-fashioned with its checkered tablecloths and the white panelled walls with vertical stripes, is just unique. The place is trendy among locals – the long line at the entrance says it all.
Their most famous Polish dish here is, of course, pierogi, but on the menu, you’ll also find cabbage stuffed with ground pork, naleśniki, and borscht (both red and white). Prices are insanely low – a table full of food to feed a couple will cost you around €9. There is also one dish you have to try – black pudding served with toast and scrambled eggs with local cheese. Yummy! Oh, and don’t be surprised when you see people leaving with 5-kilo bags of pierogi… They are this good…
Address: 19 Daszynskiego St.
Image source: Bar Targowy
The city center is packed with cheap milkbars pretending to be old-fashioned, traditional, and unique. However, if you want to visit one of the best milkbars in Krakow, you need to choose carefully, and go to one where the locals go.
One of them is definitely Krakus – one of the most authentic places in the city. The interior is basic, and the place is always full of people. I mean various people, as every social class eats there (older people, students, middle-class workers). Their most famous dish is pierogi ruskie, which is stuffed with cheese, onions, and potatoes. They are nothing but delicious, and they cost around €2, which is crazy cheap for a tourist travelling on a budget. Can you imagine a lunch for as little as €2 in your country of origin?
For the same price, you will get another perfect dish from the menu – naleśniki zielone (spinach crepes). You should also try Polish beetroot soup called barszcz (both red and white) and some meaty mains. Oh, and don’t forget about traditional kompot. To sum up, when hanging around in Krakow, Bar Krakus is a must-go, both in food and the Krakow society. It’s an authentic Polish experience.
Address: 16 Limanowskiego St.
Image Source: Bar Krakus
Polskie Smaki bar is located in the city’s heart, just footsteps from the Old Town Square. It’s one of the most popular milkbars in the city, and you can even call it one of the most historic. It has an old-fashioned design, with its bottles of pickles and veggies fermenting around the dining room, as well as Polish-style checkered tablecloths and the wood panelling. This place is like a hidden gem, mostly because of the atmosphere – it creates a feeling of warmth and comfort. You order food at the counter, wait a few minutes, and then bring the food to your table.
And once you finish, you should take your dishes to the hole in the wall in the back. The service is super-friendly, fast and the food is delicious. As in most places serving cheap food in Krakow, you will find famous pierogi, amazing chicken meatballs in a tomato-basil sauce, blintzes, and mouth-watering potatoes on the menu. Have them with the sprinkling of dill, and you will never want to eat anything else in your life!
Address: 5 St Stomasz St
Image source: Polski Smaki
If you would like to try some traditional Polish cuisine and Vodkas, why not check out The Full Polish Dining & Vodka Experience? It’s a great way to try many of the best polish dishes and vodka and learn about these dishes’ rich history.