Krakow is a curious and bubbling potion of intellectualism, history, culture and art.
An understated elegance permeates the charming cobblestoned streets of the medieval old town, intermingling with the vibrancy and youthfulness of the Jewish Quarter; a near-perfect combination of old meets new. Even as the former royal capital of Poland, Krakow is not flashy by any means. However, it is one of those cities that somehow manages to surreptitiously steal your heart, even before you’ve finished yelling wódka!
Enjoy this Krakow travel guide.
Krakow for history lovers
According to legend, Krakow’s origins involved the slaying of a dragon by local hero Krakus who fed the dragon a dead sheep full of sulphur.
In 1939, at the beginning of World War II, Poland was invaded by the Nazis. The Jewish population in Krakow (approximately 65,000) were persecuted and moved into a walled ghetto in the Podgórze district, where they were subsequently sent to work in the Płaszów labour camp or deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp to their deaths.
Schindler’s Factory, immortalised in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, is now a museum focusing on this harrowing period. Visitors are guided through daily life under Nazi occupation.
After the Soviets liberated Poland in 1945, Poland spent over 40 years under Communist rule before the fall of Communism in 1989.
Top cultural experiences in Krakow
Rynek Glowny is one of Europe’s largest medieval squares.
It acts as Krakow’s nucleus and is a logical starting point for exploring the city and its main cultural sights. The Gothic St Mary’s Basilica, the Cloth Hall (a predecessor to the modern shopping mall) and St Florian’s Gate all within walking distance. Remember to look up to catch a glimpse of the trumpeter playing the Krakow anthem from the window of the highest tower of St Mary’s Basilica. It happens every hour, on the hour.
Visiting a 700-year-old underground salt mine might not sound like a cultural experience, but Krakow’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed Wieliczka Salt Mine harbours many treasures. Follow an expert guide through the mine’s tunnels and chambers and see glittering saline lakes, a variety of chapels (including that of St Kinga), sculptures carved from salt, and much more. It’s quite the eye opener.
Krakow’s most famous export is perhaps the late Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope in over 400 years, and there is still plenty of lingering papal pride and reverence. Walk past the house where Pope John Paul II lived when he was the Archbishop of Krakow at ul Kanonicza 19, which is now the Archdiocesan Museum.
Dedicate time to exploring Kazimierz, once the centre of Jewish life in Krakow and today a lively bohemian neighbourhood crammed with unique bars, contemporary boutiques and galleries, striking street art and a pulsating nightlife. The district is also home to a number of synagogues, where you can learn more about Jewish history, culture and traditions. Visit the Old Synagogue — the oldest in Poland (which also serves as the Jewish Museum), the Remuh Synagogue — the only fully active synagogue in Krakow, and the Tempel Synagogue — famous for its ornate Moorish-style interior.
Great places to eat in Krakow
As the case often tends to be with Eastern European food, Polish cuisine leans towards the ‘heavier’ side but you won’t be able to resist either way.
Indulge in plates of peirogi — Polish dumplings stuffed with various fillings. Order the ruski options, which have a filling of potato, onion and cheese.
Every local will tell you to head to Plac Nowy in Kazimierz to try the ultimate snack food — zapiekanka — a long baguette covered with cheese, mushrooms and other toppings of your choice. It’s available from many of the stalls. You won’t believe the size of them for the price — bargain!
If you’re still hungry, grab a bagel-style obwarzanek from one of the old-school carts that sit on just about every street corner.
One good thing that can be said to have come out of Soviet Communist rule are the Milk Bars (Bar Mleczny), which are still in operation today. Essentially a no-frills cafeteria selling hearty Polish food at super competitive prices, this is where you’ll find the ‘real’ Krakow. Don’t expect a fine dining experience here, but rather an insight into how local people live. Try Mleczny Bar Górnik at ul Czysta 1 and order a żurek (sour rye soup). There is no guarantee that English will be spoken. It may be a little intimidating at first, but you won’t regret it!
Of course, you’ll need to wash all that food down with some vodka — so head to the pint-sized Wódka Cafe Bar. This is quality vodka, and at only a couple of zlotys for a shot from a range of different varieties and flavours, you’ll be a vodka connoisseur in no time.
Where to shop in Krakow
Krakow isn’t known for its shopping scene, but you will find a bounty of dragon-motifed souvenirs at the architecturally stunning Cloth Hall in the main square.
To find something a bit more unique, take a stroll along Ulica Józefa in Kazimierz. It’s home to an array of antique stores and quirky independent boutiques.
Krakow was named a UNESCO City of Literature in 2013 and there are countless bookstores to browse in. For publications in English, visit Massolit Books and Café.
The best outdoor market is Plac Targowy Unitarg, which is open every day. Sunday is the best day to go when there are more stalls open and consequently more treasure (and trash) to dig through.
How to relax in Krakow
Let your holiday cares drift away with a soak in the thermal waters at the Chocholow Thermal Baths.
The complex is located about 1.5 hours’ drive south of Krakow. Surrounded by the peaks of the Tatra Mountains, it’s a really stunning location. Take your pick from more than thirty pools that draw nutrient rich, thermally heated water from deep underground. The complex also houses a spa, gym, restaurant and even accommodation for those that just can’t tear themselves away. If you intend to use the sauna, note that it’s regulation to enter completely naked (you can use a towel).
Many travellers come to Krakow to learn more about the atrocities committed during World War II, dedicating a day to go out to the Auschwitz concentration camp — over an hour’s drive away.
The camp is actually separated into two sites — Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau — and the guided tour takes you through the permanent exhibitions, prisoner buildings, and the ruins of the gas chambers and crematorium.
Be prepared for a solemn day and to come to terms with the depths to which humanity can sink. It’s a harrowing experience, but an important and necessary one.
Do you have any tips to add to our Krakow travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Camha Pham is a freelance writer and editor who has recently swapped the cosmopolitan laneways of Melbourne for the sunny beaches of Perth. Struck with the wanderlust bug from an early age, she has travelled extensively through Asia, Europe and parts of North America. When she isn’t travelling, Camha is planning her next adventure and loves nothing more than the thrill of exploring new destinations and learning about other cultures. Travel highlights to date include chasing waterfalls in enchanting Iceland, hot-air ballooning over the lunar-like landscape of Cappadocia and accepting a surprise marriage proposal from her now fiancé at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto.