This pair of second-most-famous cities is first-rate.

Krakow, Poland
Warsaw may be Poland’s capital, but for many Poles medieval Krakow is the proud nation’s heart. Traditionally the country’s creative and artistic center, the city, which was for centuries the ancient royal seat of the Polish kings, also played a key role through the Eighties in overthrowing Soviet Communist rule. Today, as a result of the recent boom in tourism, the city’s creative bohemianism has been pushed away from the main central square, the Rynek. Instead, cool Krakowians hang out in the crumbling buildings of the former Jewish district of Kazimierz. Although many hip Poles, having wholeheartedly embraced capitalism, are probably more likely to be heard discussing mortgages than how to transform society, the candlelit cafes and bohemian bars of the area still conjure up the old spirit of intellectual Krakow.

Considering that for most young Poles high rents and low wages don’t leave a lot left over for fashion, it’s impressive how stylish Krakow’s women somehow still manage to look. At Punkt (12 Slawkowska Street) designers Monika Drozynska and Maja Kuczminska sell their own quirky but pretty creations, and Plich (3 Dominikanska Street) sells elegant and slinky grown-up gear. Restricted incomes explain the ubiquity of the cheaper brands, such as H&M, Zara or the Polish homegrown vertical retailer Reserved, all of which can be found in a new shopping mall, Galeria Kazimierz (34 Podgorska Street). The streets running off the main central square house more expensive labels, such as Escada Sport or Max Mara on Grodzka Street. The cool set meanwhile pep things up with vintage stock by scouring the countless buy-by-the-weight thrift stores scattered around the edge of the old town: On Wielopole Street alone, about 30 percent of the stores seem to be secondhand outlets.

The golden rule to finding the cool hangouts in Krakow is: the shabbier, the better. Hip Krakowians view glitzy venues, most of which cater to tourists and are therefore more expensive, with suspicion. Which explains why the best nightlife clusters round Plac Nowy in Kazimierz. When the weather is good, the whole Market Square is packed with young locals wandering from bar to bar, eating the Polish pizza-like specialty Zapiekanki. Alchemia (5 Estery Street), with its dark Gothic interior, is one of the liveliest bars, while the slightly more laid-back Kolory (Plac Nowy) has a 19th-century Parisian feel. More centrally located, the Piekny Pies (18 Jana Street) is run down enough to remain a local favorite. Pauza (18 Florianska Street), on the other hand, has kept its insider feel, thanks to the hideaway location upstairs. For food, head to Chlopskie Jadlo (3 Jana Street) to try Polish cuisine, or Dezerter (6 Bracka Street) for traditional regional cooking. But the truly adventurous, looking for a taste of Poland’s Communist past, should try Termida (43 Grodzka Street), one of the few “bar mleczny” or cheap canteen-style “milk bars,” left in the city center.

Copernicus (16 Kanonicza Street), fitted out with wooden balustrades over an interior courtyard mirroring the Wawel castle up the hill, is the most stylish hotel in town. But the 130-year-old fin-de-siècle Grand Hotel (5/7 Slawkowska Street), which serves dinner in a 19th-century, stained glass-roofed ballroom, is undoubtedly the most charming. —Damien McGuinness

Vancouver, Canada

Vancouver is film crazy, but don’t expect to see any red carpets on opening nights in this port city of 583,000 on Canada’s southwestern edge. It’s often called North Hollywood, but Vancouver refreshingly lacks the froth associated with its glamorous Los Angeles cousin. Part of the Vancouver vibe is being socially tolerant and aware, so it’s not surprising that novelist Douglas Coupland, who defined the self-involved Generation X in his 1991 novel of the same title, hails from Van. Local actor Norman Armour characterizes arts in Vancouver as emerging and creatively fearless, in a young city built in the early 20th century. “I’m part of the first generation of artists that stuck it out in Vancouver and this next generation of artists is now claiming the city,” says Armour.

On and around Robson Street you will find familiar international and Canadian brands, including the Van-based lululemon, at 1148 Robson, which is a global yoga and sportswear retailer with a loyal local following. Another fashion statement is wearing Van-based shoe designer John Fleuvog’s thick-soled boots and sculpted mary janes (837 Granville Street). Vintage and indie boutiques are in older residential neighborhoods. Try Jean Queen, at 2277 Commercial Drive, for old and new denim. Up the block at 1505 Commercial Drive, there’s Asian importer Paranada, with an impressive knit cap and brimmed hat selection—a year-round fashion statement in damp Van. At 1035 Commercial there’s vintage and local designer boutique Virgin Marys with a colorful corner of petticoats and Fifties housewares.

Vancouver is extremely rainy except in the summer, so there are plenty of cafes and coffee bars where the creative class goes to ferment. A key cafe neighborhood for film crews and moviegoers is around the Vancouver Art Gallery, 750 Hornby, also a popular movie location. Across the street at 763 Hornby is Caffé Artigiano, with artful lattes and fresh lamb panini. It’s a popular post-screening spot for the Vancouver International Film Centre, 1181 Seymour Street, and Pacific Cinematheque arts house, 1131 Howe, where indy film society Cineworks has a monthly pay-what-you-can screening of local flicks. The after-theater and movie production crowd also spills into the Wedgewood Hotel bar, Bacchus (845 Hornby), for tea or drinks. A similar haunt nearby is the bar at the Sutton Place Hotel, 845 Burrard Street, which has a chocolate dessert buffet Thursday through Saturday evenings. For a quieter time, there’s Prado, at 1938 Commercial Drive, where there’s a gleaming white espresso machine and patrons busy with journals and sketch pads. Down the street at Havana, 1212 Commercial Drive, neighborhood artists crowd into the tea-stained and graffiti-covered dining room for tapas, burgers and breakfast until 2 a.m., and peruse the restaurant’s small art gallery or catch a show in its 60-seat theater. For a similar artistic vibe: Behind the Scenes Coffee and Book Emporium, 243 West Broadway, for film student script readings; the Back Stage Lounge, Granville Island, a good hangout for island venues at the upcoming PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, Jan. 10 to Feb. 4; the Alibi Room, 157 Alexander Street in Gastown, and Blue Water Café, 1095 Hamilton Street, in Yaletown for oysters and sushi.

Opus Hotel, at 322 Davie Street, is a hub for hip young moderns and out-of-town film types. Its bar bathroom has video screens to keep track of lobby comings and goings. The Fairmont’s Vancouver Hotel, at 900 West Georgia Street, is popular for pampering, and as a backdrop for movies. Then there’s the Listel Hotel, at 1300 Robson Street, which gets high marks for its museum-themed rooms. —Joanna Ramey

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