Over the last few years Krakow has gained increasing popularity as a travel destination and I have to admit the reality exceeded by far our expectations ! With its cobbled streets and beautiful squares surrounded by colorful buildings and impressive churches, a splendid castle, great museums and landmarks of historical value, delicious food, vibrant lifestyle and all of these offered at very low prices, Krakow will just amaze you and should definitely be included in your list of must-see cities !
A glance at its history
Krakow dates back to the 7th century. According to a legend, it was founded on the Wawel hill by a mythical ruler Krakus, who built it above a cave occupied by a dragon, Smok Wawelski. In 1018, it became the capital of Poland and remained until 1596. Buildings of great architecture were constructed, such as the Wawel Castle, Romanesque churches such as St. Adalbert’s, a cathedral, and a basilica.
The 15th and 16th centuries were known as Poland’s Złoty Wiek or Golden Age. Many works of Polish Renaissance art and architecture were created, including ancient synagogues in Kraków’s Jewish quarter located in the north-eastern part of Kazimierz, such as the Old Synagogue.
At the start of World War II, after the invasion of Poland by Nazi, Krakow became the capital of Germany’s General Government, a separate administrative region of the Third Reich. As a German city, its Jewish population was confined into a walled zone known as the Krakow Ghetto and was later deported to the extermination camps such as Auschwitz and many others.
In 1945, Soviet forces “liberated” Poland from Nazi rule. Krakow was one of the few eastern European cities to escape bombing in World War II, so many of the city streets and buildings remain like they were before the war. Krakow, and Poland, remained under Soviet rule until the fall of communism in 1989.
In 1978, the entire old town of Krakow was entitled as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Also that year, Karol Wojtyła, archbishop of Kraków, was elevated to the papacy as Pope John Paul II—the first Slavic pope ever, and the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.
Krakow is the second largest city in Poland and remains one of the leading centers of Polish cultural, economic, academic and artistic life.
Top things to see and do
Krakow is considered Poland’s most popular city to visit. Its extensive cultural heritage across the epochs of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture includes the Wawel Cathedral and the Royal Castle on the banks of the Vistula, the St. Mary’s Basilica, Saints Peter and Paul Church and the largest medieval market square in Europe, the Rynek Główny.
Apart from its architectural marvels, there are many sites and museums of historical value. You can also visit the concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau in a day trip from Krakow.
Regions to explore
Most of the attractions and points of interest are concentrated in four main regions. So you can plan your itineraries based on their proximity. Most of them are very close to each other, so the best way to explore them is on foot. In this way, you will have the chance to discover hidden treasures and fully experience the beauty of the city.
The main regions are:
- Historic Old Town (Stare Miasto): the heart of the city where most of the landmarks are located.
- Wawel Castle: located on a hill at the northern side of the Old Town, it is the most beautiful site in Krakow.
- Kazimierz: used to be the Jewish quarter and now it is one of the most vibrant places in Krakow. Here you will enjoy great food, nightlife and street art.
- Podgórze: used to be the Jewish ghetto, where the Jewish population of Krakow were move to during the German occupation. Here you will have the chance to have a more authentic experience of Krakow’s tragic history.
1 Historic Old Town (Stare Miasto)
Krakow’s historic Old Town is the heart of the city, the pride of Poland, one of the most fascinating medieval cities and architectural showpieces in Europe and one of the few cities that escaped from destruction during World War II. It goes without saying that it has been acclaimed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Center, and in fact one of the first to be added.
It is known in Polish as Stare Miasto and officially it is part of the wider old town district of Krakow that includes also the Jewish quarter (Kazimierz). However, by tradition, as Old Town is entitled the region of 88,67 hectares of cobbled land characterised by its unique upside-down teardrop shape that stretches between the St. Florian’s Gate and the Wawel Castle. The nucleus of Kraków’s Old Town is Rynek Główny – the largest medieval market square in Central Europe. The whole district is bisected by the Royal Road, the coronation route traversed by the KIngs of Poland and surrounded by a charming belt of public green space known as the Planty Park that has replaced the city’s former city walls in the 1820s.
Full of cobbled thoroughfares, architectural monuments, medieval churches, imposing statues, atmospheric courtyards, legendary cellar bars, artisan shops, you will definitely want to spend hours strolling around and enjoying its beauty.
1.1 Main Market Square (Rynek Glówny)
The nucleus of Kraków’s Old Town and the most recognizable site of Krakow is the Main Market Square, known as Rynek Główny. It is enormous, the largest medieval market square in Europe with the most prominent landmarks of the city, filled with outdoor cafes, tourists, vendors, art performers, horse and carriages, and a a lot of pigeons!
1.2 St. Mary’s Basilica (Kosciol Mariacki)
Undoubtedly, St. Mary’s Basilica is the most prominent and outstanding landmark of the Main Market Square. It was founded in the fourteenth century in a Gothic style. It is composed of two sky-high twin towers of unequal height. You will want to take photos of it from several viewpoints to capture its beauty. Its interior is also very impressive, famous for a wooden altarpiece carved by Veit Stoß. It has over 15 carved figures and is the largest in Europe.
Every hour, a bugler plays the hejnal (a bugle call) from windows of St. Mary’s tallest Tower. There is a legend that hundreds of years ago, as Mongol troops approached Krakow, a bugler sounded the alarm by playing the hejnal. Midway through the song, the bugler was hit by an arrow, which killed him and abruptly ended the tune. However, the city gates were closed and the city was saved. Now, when the hejnal is played, it stops unexpectedly at this same point in the tune to commemorate this event.
In summer, you can climb to the observation deck of the Hejnalica Tower, enjoy stunning views of the city and also visit the room in which the trumpet player was killed.
1.3 The Cloth Hall (Sukiennice)
The Cloth Hall, called Sukiennice, is an excellent example of Renaissance architecture and stands at the centerpiece of the Main Market Square, dividing it in two parts. During medieval times, it was a bustling cloth market in the center of Krakow. Today, tt still is bustling and busy, but now it’s filled with tourists searching for the perfect souvenir.
1.4 Town Hall Tower
The Town Hall Tower is another prominent building standing on the western side of the Main Market Square. It is a Gothic tower, build in red brick and stone, 70-meter-tall and just 55 centimeters, due to a storm in 1703. It is the only remaining element of the old town hall.
Weather permitting, you can climb to its top for a panoramic view oleaning f the Main Market Square. However, the windows are very narrow so the view might be disappointing.
1.4 Rynek Underground Museum
While the Main Market is impressive, underneath there is a hidden treasure. The Rynek Undeground Museum exhibits the medieval streets of ancient Krakow with the aid of state-of-the-art technology, demonstrating the medieval history of Krakow and how the city had accumulated its wealth.
It is one of the most-visited museums in Poland, so you should book your tickets in advance.
1.5 Royal Road
While the entire Old Town is full of picturesque cobbled paths surrounded by beautiful buildings, the Royal Road or Royal Route is the most popular and impressive street. It used to be the ceremonial route that kings and other celebrities proceeded through Krakow when the city was Poland’s capital. Apart from the historical landmarks, buildings and churches of great architecture, it is filled with souvenir shops, boutique shops, cafes and restaurants.
It begins at the northern end of the medieval Old Town and continues south through the centre of town towards Wawel Hill, where the old royal residence, Wawel Castle, is located. Inside the Old Town, the Road runs along the Floriańska street, enters the Main Market Square and leads down Grodzka street along a number of historic landmarks and two famous churches, the Church of Saints Peter and Paul and the St. Andrew’s Church.
Whatever is your starting point, you should traverse all of it !
1.6 Kanonicza Street
A street you should not miss passing by is the Kanonicza street, the oldest street in Krakow and a very picturesque one, lined with superb examples of Renaissance and Baroque architecture, and many of the facades feature colourful murals and passageways leading to quiet courtyards.
1.7 St. Florian’s Gate and the Defence Trail
During the thirteenth century, the Old Town was surrounded by defensive walls which measured two-miles-long and had eight gates and thirty-nine towers. Today, only a fragment of 200 meters of the defensive walls has remained at the norther end of the Floriańska Street. The St. Florian’s Gate is a Gothic style tower, the only one of the eight gates that has remained.
Along the walls, there are artists with very nice paintings of Krakow.
Another famous landmark along the Floriańska Street (just before the St. Florian’s Gate as you go north) is the Barbican, a round defensive fort with 25 meters diameter designed in gothic style. It was founded in 1499, in response to the Ottoman occupation of Kraków.
1.9 Planty Park
The Planty Park, known as the “lungs of the city” or “green belt”, is one of the largest parks of Krakow. It encircles the Old Town, replacing the old Medieval city walls as part of the urban development project to preserve the concept of a garden city.
It is 3 klm long divided in smaller parks and gardens that are filled with trees, flowers, benches and monuments. Especially in the summer, it is a paradise !
2 Wawel Castle
The Wawel Castle was admittedly our best attraction in Krakow and it is fairly considered one of the most beautiful constructions around the world and an iconic symbol of Krakow and Poland.
Towering over the Wawel Hill, on the southern edge of the Old Town and along the Vistula River, the Wawel Royal Castle was once the residence of the Polish monarchs. It was initially build in Gothic style, but later transformed into a Renaissance style design. During the World War, it was occupied by the Hans Frank, the German Governor-General of Krakow.
It is massive with many things to see and do that you will want to spend at least half a day to fully explore it and absorb its beauty. Don’t forget to have full battery and card-memory in your camera !
The main points of interest are the Wawel grounds, the Wawel Cathedral, the Royal Palace, the Jean Paul II Cathedral Museum and the Wawel Dragon.
2.1 Wawel Grounds
What you should definitely do not miss is walking around the castle and explore every single part of it. Not only it is for free, but the scenery is stunning. You can sit for a coffee and simply enjoy card-postal like views combining beautiful buildings and colorful gardens.
2.2 Wawel Cathedral
The Wawel Cathedral is not only an architectural masterpiece but also very significant symbol of the history of Poland. Buried within the tombs of the church are some of Poland’s most important people. You can enter the Wawel Cathedral for free, but without a ticket, you will not be able to visit the paid sites, such as the Wawel Museum and the Sigismund Bell Tower, which is the heaviest in Poland.
2.3 Royal Palace
You can also visit the Royal Palace, either all of it or portions of it such as the royal private apartments, the noble state rooms, art galleries, temporary exhibitions.
2.4 Wawel Dragon
Finally, something you should not miss seeing is the Wawel Dragon and its cave located just down the hill from Wawel Castle, on the side closest to the Vistula River. It is not just a statue of a dragon that breathes fire, but the most famous polish legend, the Wawel Dragon according to which in ancient times, the Wawel Dragon was a beast which lived in a den under Wawel Hill and terrorised all the inhabitants of King Krakus’ town. The legend of a dragon is passed on to every Polish generation.
Due to the popularity of the legend and the statue, the Krakow dragon became a symbol of the city. And as you can imagine most of the souvenirs are dragon-inspired !
While the Old Town is concentrating most of the historical landmarks and Krakow’s attractions, Kazimierz is another very interesting and worth visiting region. Actually, it is part of the wider Old Town City of Krakow.
Kazimierz used to be the Jewish Quarter, established during the fourteenth century. During the World War II, its Jewish residents were expelled to to a ghetto in Podgorze or to the camps.
After the war, Kazimierz was completely abandoned but after the film “Schindler’s List” of Steven Spielberg that was filmed in this region in 1993, it started gaining popularity and coming back to life.
Today, it is one of the hottest and most vivid places in Krakow, full of excellent restaurants, bars, clubs and shops.
Apart from those, there are many sights of historical value, such as old synagogues. such as the Tempel Synagogue at Miodowa street and the Jewish Cemetery.
You should definitely visit the place and explore it at your own pace ! Taste delicious cuisine served in cobbled Szeroka or Jozefa streets, drop in for a drink while in Estery street. Have a zapiekanka – a tasty local specialty served at Nowy Sqaure, where a traditional public market operates in the “Okraglak” venue of wood.
Podgórze is another district you should not miss visiting. It was actually the Jewish ghetto, where the Jewish population of Krakow were move to during the German occupation. It is on the southern bank of Vistula river, and the easiest way to reach it is by crossing the Bernatek footbridge which was built in 2010 and it is decorated with athletes.
The main highlights of the region are the Oskar Schindler’s Factory, the Ghetto Heroes Square and the Under the Eagle Pharmacy.
4.1 Oskar Schindler’s Factory
While not really location within the ghetto but very close to it, you will find the factory owned by Oskar Schindler. I am sure you know the famous movie “Schindler’s List” filmed by Steven Spielberg. Oskar Schindler was a German businessman working in Poland and is credited for saving approximately 1200 Jews from deportation and death at the concentration camps during the Nazi occupation by hiring them in his factory.
You should definitely visit the museum and I recommend you book a guided tour in order to make the most of your visit.
4.2 Ghetto Heroes Square (Plac Bohaterów Getta)
Ghetto Heroes Square used to be the main square of the Ghetto and it where the Nazis were making the selection of the Jews sho would be deported to the death camps. Today, you will see the Empty Chairs Memorial that is composed of big empty chairs in memory of the cruelties that had occurred in this place.
Tram line 3 was passing from here (and still does), slowing down so that passengers could throw from the window food or other supplies.
4.3 Under the Eagle Pharmacy
5 Day trips from Krakow
While Krakow is a beautiful city with many interesting attractions and a plethora of things to see and do, what you should not miss is arranging a day trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau and to Wieliczka Salt Mine. There are many guided tours which can combine both of them in a single day.
Without a doubt, one of the best things to do while in Krakow is to take a day trip out to Auschwitz-Birkenau. This was the largest of the Nazi concentration camps and extermination centers and a memorial to over 1.1 million men, women and children lost their lives here during the Holocaust. A visit with a guide will give you a better understanding of this unique place.
You can find more details about it in my post (TBD soon).
5.2 Wieliczka Salt Mine
Wieliczka Salt Mine is one of the largest tourist attractions in Poland, registered on the UNESCO Heritage list and visited by over a million tourists every year.
It is one of the world’s oldest operating salt mines, excavated from the 13th century and produced table salt continuously until 2007. It stopped because of the price fall of table salt.
It’s a subterranean labyrinth of tunnels and chambers – about 300 km distributed over nine levels, the deepest being 327 m underground. Only a small part is open to the public and visited via two-hour guided tours. The main attractions include an underground lake, four chapels and a lot of sculptures carved from salt. It is really impressive !
You can find more information and photos in my post (TBD soon).
When it comes to food, Kraków has many options to offer. Here is the place to enjoy great street food but also experience a dinner at a gourmet restaurant since the prices are very low compared to other countries.
The most famous street food is the zapiekanka, an open-face sandwich made of half of a baguette or other long roll of bread, topped with sautée white mushrooms, cheese and other ingredients of your choice.
Something you will find almost everywhere is the Obwarzanek krakowski, a bread shaped into a ring that is then sprinkled with poppy or sesame seeds.
Very famous and typical dish is also the pierogi, polish dumplings with any kind of filling such as patatoes, cheece, herbs, meat, or even sweet !
If you like soups, you will find many options in Kraków. The most famous one is the Zurek, a white colored soup made of sausage or ham, potatoes and soured rye flour served in a bread bowl.
Another famous dish is kotlet schabowy, variety of pork breaded cutlet coated with breadcrumbs similar to the schnitzel.