One of the best ways to discover a country or culture is to experience its food. During my study abroad in Krakow, Poland, I was able to experiment with a large variety of Polish food and eating customs. I found myself visiting several Polish milk bars, or Bar Mleczny in Polish. Milk bars have a unique presence in Poland, and they provide much insight into Polish culture from over the past 100 years. Visiting milk bars was not only an exciting dining experience but also an immersive way to apply history and culture from the classroom in real life.
Poland has a turbulent history, especially in the 20th century. The past decades of communism left their mark on the country in many ways, including architecture, culture, and food. Milk bars have helped the Poles through some of the toughest times in its history. The presence and popularity of milk bars reached their peak during communism. During the transition to communism, most of the expensive restaurants were labeled capitalist and shut down, leaving only the modest milk bars. Although most milk bars closed after the fall of communism, there are still some that remain. And they are known for their cozy atmosphere, great food, and extremely low prices.
One of the reasons locals and tourists still love milk bars is because the food served is fresh, homemade, and authentic. It is such a unique feeling and experience that it is able to take you into a glimpse of what it was like going to a milk bar during Soviet occupation. In many milk bars, the staff does not always have fluent English, which can make ordering tough, but it provides great cultural immersion. The milk bars are usually very small and almost always crowded, you are lucky to find an open table. I loved the milk bars because they are very cheap. You can get a meal for $3.00, which was very helpful because going out for nearly every meal for a month takes a toll on the wallet. The food and atmosphere of milk bars are so unique and exciting to experience.
I was able to visit multiple milk bars during my study abroad in Poland. The first milk bar I went to was Milk Bar Gornik, which means “Miner” Milk Bar. It was very close to class and the dorms. It was probably the most traditional milk bar I visited. The red sign above the door was faded and the building was unassuming, occupying the corner building. It was easily the smallest milk bar I entered, probably even the smallest restaurant. It was also always packed; we were lucky that a table had just opened up when we arrived. The menu was not in English, so we all ordered the pierogi ruskie because it was the only thing we recognized. Luckily for us, the pierogi ruskie, which is potato and cheese pierogi, was amazing. It was hot, fresh, and topped with onion and crumbled bacon. Although it was crowded and lacked English, I recommend this Milk Bar because it was the most traditional and authentic feeling milk bar I visited.
Another amazing milk bar just off of the main square is Milk Bar Tomasza, named for the street it is on. It had the best food out of the milk bars, and probably some of the best food I had on the trip. One of my favorite aspects of this restaurant was that it served breakfast all day, which included crepes, eggs, and some of the best hot chocolate ever. Their pierogi and sandwiches were actually some of the best in Krakow. This milk bar even had English menus and fluent English staff, which was extremely convenient. But it was also smaller and always crowded, finding a spot to sit during peak hours is not guaranteed. This milk bar was more modern and stylish. It combined aspects of traditional milk bars with hip restaurants, which gave it a more typical restaurant atmosphere. It also meant that prices, although very cheap, were on the high end for milk bars, a full meal might cost around $5.00-$9.00. Despite the crowds and the hipster vibes, you need to stop by Milk Bar Tomasza, probably more than once, for the great food and service.
The last milk bar I tried was Milk Bar Uniwersytecki, which means University Milk Bar. It was the closest to the dorms and close to class, which made it convenient for lunch and breakfast. I think it was the cheapest restaurant I went to in Poland; I got a meal for around $3.00. In addition, it is a much larger building, so you are likely to find a table and still have elbow room. There is a wide variety of food options, although they are simple. The food and atmosphere felt like a traditional milk bar. They had an English menu, but the staff did not speak excellent English, so the interactions relied on poor Polish pronunciation on my part and a lot of pointing. Despite this drawback, this milk bar was great for its size, prices, and atmosphere.
Milk bars are a must-do in Poland. The food and prices are enough to make the visit well worthwhile. But the cultural and historical of milk bars throughout the 20th century makes it essential to experience and appreciate if you hope to learn about Poland and the effects of communism. If you want to learn about Poland, you need to learn about its food. It is a complex history, and milk bars are a window to the past struggles and the perseverance of Poland.