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!’.
Here’s a city guide to the top things to see and do in Krakow.
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. The fable still lives on with the ‘dragon bones’ on display outside the entrance of the Wawel Cathedral. Tourists can also enter the Dragon’s Den at the popular Wawel Royal Castle.
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.
For cultural things to see and do in Krakow, start in Rynek Glowny, one of Europe’s largest medieval squares. It acts as Krakow’s nucleus and a logical starting point for exploring, with 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.
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 seven synagogues where you can learn more about Jewish history, culture and traditions including the Old Synagogue, the oldest in Poland which also serves as the Jewish Museum, the Remuh Synagogue, the only fully active synagogue in Krakow with an adjacent cemetery, and the Tempel Synagogue, famous for its ornate Moorish-style interior.
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. For tasty things to see and do in Krakow, indulge in plates of peirogi, Polish dumplings stuffed with various fillings — order the ‘ruski’ ones which have a filling of potato, onion and cheese.
Every local will tell you to head to Plac Nowy in Kazimierz to devour the ultimate snack food, zapiekanka, a long baguette covered with cheese, mushrooms and other toppings of your choice, available from many of the stalls. You won’t believe the size of them for the price that you pay — bargain!
If you’re still hungry, grab an obwarzanek or bagel to go, from one of the old-school carts that you’ll find sitting on every street corner.
One good thing that can be said to have come out of Poland’s Communist rule is the Milk Bars, or Bar Mleczny, still in operation today. Essentially a Soviet-esque, 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 everyday 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 — or ‘Wódka!’ — so head to the pint-sized Wódka Cafe Bar. This is quality vodka, not the happy hour type that you’re used to, 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.
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.
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. Some choose to book through a tour company, which organises the transport and the guided tour once you arrive at the camp; otherwise there are bus and train connections from Krakow to Auschwitz.
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 for top things to see and do in Krakow? 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!