No visit to Poland would be complete without visiting Krakow. This once capital city now cultural hub is bursting with a diverse range of history, art and food. Largely untouched during WWII you will find yourself surrounded by beautiful Gothic and Renaissance architecture everywhere you look.
It’s historic centre was the first of its kind to be named a UNESCO World Heritage listed site in 1978 and you can see why as you walk from the Main Market Square through the cobblestoned streets of the Stare Miasto (Old Town) and onto the districts of Kazimierz and Wawel. Walking it’s largely pedestrian only streets is the best way to see and take in this city.
You won’t run out of things to see and do with Krakow being home to about six thousand historical sites and over two million works of art. There really is something to suit everyone’s interest with an abundance of museums and galleries featuring world class exhibits and works of art.
Krakow is also an ideal place to base yourself for many interesting day trips. Nothing can prepare you for the atrocity of the unfathomable Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. And then there is the interesting underground system of salt tunnels that make up Wieliczka Salt Mine. Both of these sites are a short drive or train ride from the centre of Krakow.
My four day visit to Krakow was unfortunately very wet (hence my not so fab photos). Despite this I really enjoyed my time there because of the friendly people, scenic cobblestoned streets and delicious Jewish food. My advise for anyone visiting is to walk as much as you can, exploring as much of this picturesque old town as you can fit in. It is a delight and I can’t wait to one day return (hopefully in better weather).
My Top 5 Sights
Main Market Square
What better place to start your visit to Krakow than right in the centre of this historic city. The Main Market Square or Rynek Glowny in Polish, is Europe’s largest medieval square and is surrounded by mostly neoclassical buildings containing restaurants, bars and shops. Throughout the year the square is used for a number of public events and festivals and you will find it full of people all year round. Within the Square you will find a number of notable buildings.
The Cloth Hall dominates the centre of the Square with its Town Hall Tower. Originally it was used as the centre of Krakow’s medieval clothing trade but these days you will find an arcade with stalls selling locally made souvenirs and crafts on the ground floor and the National Museum of Krakow on the first floor.
The brick St Mary’s Basilica towers over the square with its two towers of different heights. It was originally built in 1220 but later destroyed and re-built over time into its current form. Its interior is quite spectacular with lots of intricate detailing and well worth a look. During summer you can climb one of the towers for spectacular views across Krakow.
The former Jewish district of Kazimierz is a great place to take in its picturesque streets and renaissance buildings. During a walk around this area you will come across many churches, synagogues and museums. The deportation of Jewish people from this area by the Nazis during WWII saw the loss of its life and atmosphere. Luckily today seven of the original synagogues remain.
While your in the area be sure to have a meal at one of the Jewish themed restaurants. My favourite was Polakowski. This tiny family run self service style restaurant, open since 1899, serves cheap and delicious meals typical of Poland. The locals love it which means it must be great!
A short walk south from the Main Market Square is the area of Wawel and the Wawel Castle. The palace that you see today was re-built in the 16th century in the renaissance style and is surrounded by a beautiful arcaded courtyard.
There are a number of attractions within the grounds of the Castle for you to explore. The main attraction is the State Rooms which served as the residence of the governor. Similar is the Royal Private Apartments which were used by guests of the King. Both of these are decorated as they would have in their time. You can also visit a few exhibitions such as the Crown Treasury and Armoury, Oriental Art and The Lost Wawel, an archaeological site. Finally the best way to end your tour of Wawel Castle is to exit through the Dragon’s Den. This cave was once believed to be home to the legend of the dragon of Wawel.
Entry for each attraction requires a separate ticket which will be valid for a certain time and there is a limit to the number of tickets they sell per day due to conservation reasons. I highly recommend you get there early to avoid disappointment. (Click here for more details on Wawel Castle)
Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
Auschwitz and Birkenau (known as Auschwitz II – Birkenau) are two separate sites located roughly across the road from one another. I found it difficult to write about this place so I have taken a paragraph from Auschwitz Memorial and Museum website that sums up its history;
“At first, the German’s held Polish political prisoners in the camp. From the spring of 1942 Auschwitz became the largest site for the murder of Jews brought here under the Nazi plan for their extermination. More than 1,100,000 men, women and children lost their lives here.”
I know a lot of people don’t want to visit a place like this and it can be very hard to handle and understand while your there. But I believe that visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau (or similar former concentration camps in Europe) is extremely important so we can remember the mistakes made in history and ensure that similar mistakes and atrocities are not repeated. If you do decide to visit, prepare yourself for what you will see and learn.
Getting to Auschwitz is simple. You can take the train from Krakow to Oswiecim (2km from the site) and then a local bus to the site or book an organised half day tour from Krakow. There are a number of tour companies in the city that all basically offer the same thing. Check with your hotel/hostel on arrival to make a booking with one. (Click here for more details on Auschwitz-Birkenau)
Wieliczka Salt Mine
The Wieliczka Salt Mine has been in existence in some form or another for over 700 years and is one of the oldest in Europe. Inside this UNESCO World Cultural Heritage listed mine you will find carvings of important figures, monuments and altarpieces which have earned it historical importance.
You will start your tour by descending into the mine via 380 odd stairs (make sure you look down the small gap between the staircases at the top) and then your guide will slowly take you further into the mine via passageways, galleries and enormous chambers. Sights include the ornamented Chapel of the Blessed Kinga and a salt mining exhibition. One pretty gross thing a lot of visitor to the mine like to do is lick the walls to taste the salt (I didn’t and I wouldn’t NEVER).
The carvings are cute and the enormous chambers impressive. I was very surprised to enjoy my half day in the mine and would recommend anyone with enough time in Krakow to visit this place even if the history of mining isn’t your cup of tea.
Unless you have your own car, the best way to reach the mine is by organised tour from Krakow. As with Auschwitz, there are a number of tour companies that operate half day trips to the mine so check with you hotel/hostel on arrival to book one. (Click here for more detail on the Wieliczka Salt Mine)
Other Notable Sights
Czartoryski Museum – Impressive collection of world class art and artefacts.
Ethnographical Museum – Fine collection of costumes, pottery, paintings and masks housed in a 14th century renaissance building.
Barbican & City Walls – World’s biggest barbican and the remnants of the old city walls.
As with most other cities across the world you will find a broad range of accommodation options in Krakow including world class hotels, small family run hotels, hostels and apartments. Prices are inflated significantly during the summer months so if your looking for a bargain it would be best to look outside of this period.
My recommendation for a small, friendly and well located hostel is the Mundo Hostel. It is located close to the Kazimierz district and an easy walk to both the Main Market Square and the train station making it ideal for sightseeing and night time entertainment.
The rooms, both private and dorm style, are all individually themed and come with private bathrooms, access to a laundry, internet access, guest kitchen, patio, bar, library, common room for mingling with other travellers and staff and free breakfast including a different polish dish each day.
The staffs recommendations for places to eat were spot on each time and their assistance with booking tours and providing directions was excellent. If you are after a small cosy style hostel, then this one is for you.
Air: John Paul II International Airport, located about 10km outside of Krakow, operates international flights to dozens of cities across Europe and limited direct flights to east coast USA. Domestic flights leave from the same airport for Warsaw and Gdansk but in most cases you would be better off taking a train as it is quicker and easier.
Getting to/from the airport is easy with the airport train station located just 200m form T1 Terminal. Tickets are cheap at around 12PLN per person one-way and there is also return (within 30 days, 20PLN) and group (3 people – 33PLN & 4 people – 44PLN) tickets available. Travel time to the centre of Krakow is around 20 minutes.
Train: You will find the Krakow Central station close to the city centre. Domestic trains to cities like Warsaw, Gdansk and Wroclaw arrive/depart multiple times per day. You will find daily international trains to/from Prague, Vienna, Berlin, Kyiv, Hamburg, Odesa, Budapest, Bucharest and Bratislava. Some of these services are overnight sleeper trains also. All trains are clean, efficient and if your travelling a lot through Europe on the trains you will find them cheap with a Railpass. The Man in Seat 61 is a great resource for anyone wishing to travel by train through Europe.
Bus: A number of different bus companies operate buses domestically and internationally from Krakow Bus Terminal located behind the train station. Popular places like Zakopane, a few hours outside of Krakow, are best reached by bus. Eurolines also operates buses to destinations across Europe.
Krakow is a city best explored on foot with all of the main tourist sights an easy walk from the centre. But if you do need the use of public transport during your visit you will find an efficient network of trams and buses running throughout the city and out into the suburbs. Tickets are cheap with a single journey costing roughly 2.50PLN. One, two and three day passes can be purchased and are a great money saver if you plan to use public transport a lot. Purchase tickets before you board from the kiosks on the street and validate them in the ticket machines on the tram/bus as soon as you board.
I would love to hear about your experiences and sightseeing/accommodation recommendations in Krakow so I can add and improve this page. Please feel free to contact me below or via the Contact page with any information you think will help future travellers to Krakow.
For more pictures of Krakow check out my Pinterest board dedicated to this beautiful city.
All prices and information above are current at the time of publishing this post.