When thinking about your next European adventure, this country (or city) is probably not on your list. Poland is an underrated country that has so much to offer, in terms of culture and history. Although we wanted to discover more of it, our time only allowed us to do a quick stop in Krakow. Needless to say, we will be back to explore more of this gorgeous country.
If you only have time for a quick stop in Poland, we would recommend you do the same. The people of Krakow will agree that their city is much cuter, funner and better to visit than the cold Warsaw. So here are the best things to see and do in and around Krakow.
When to go
In case you didn’t know, Krakow gets cold. We’re Canadian and we froze our tails off while we were there in mid-November! That’s why most tourists choose to go during the summer, when the weather is nice and warm. July and August are said to be the warmest times (so expect tons of crowds).
Locals will say that the best time to visit is May and June. The flowers are in full bloom, with days getting longer and sunnier. September and October are also good times because the weather is cooling, the crowds are gone, and the leaves will start to show their beautiful colours.
That doesn’t mean that the winter is off-limits. In fact, the locals we spoke to told us how magical Krakow gets during the Christmas holidays. And because we were there during the set-up of lights and Christmas markets, we can totally testify to that! Although it was cold, the magic of the lights and fluffy snow all around are sure to make Krakow a beautiful and romantic place to visit during that time of year.
What to do
Krakow is quite small and it is easy to get from one site to the next. Since most of the fun things are all situated in the Old Town, we recommend walking around.
Start at the Market square
This is a good place to start discovering Krakow: the Old Market Square. It’s a cute place to walk around. Lined with restaurants and shops, it’s the perfect place to sit around and people watch. There are also tons of things to see in and around the Square.
Climb the Town hall tower
The Town hall tower can’t be missed in the main square, and it’s quite cool to check out. You can climb the steps up to the top of it for a little fee of 9 PLN (slightly more than $2 USD). Just note that the balcony is closed once you make it to the top. You can still get some pretty awesome views of the city and its square.
On your way up, you can stop off the many levels to read about the history of the tower, the city and the notable military. There, you’ll learn how the Tower is the only remaining part of the old Kraków Town Hall, which was demolished in 1820. This was part of the city’s plan to open up the Main Square.
You’ll also notice “The Head” that is sitting at the foot of the tower. This bronze sculpture is officially called ‘Eros Bendato’ (or Eros Bound). It’s the creative work of Polish artist Igor Mitoraj. You can get quite creative with your shots here.
Shop at the Cloth hall
Also situated in the Market Square, the Cloth hall is a where you can do some shopping. This hall, one of the city’s most recognizable icons, dates back to the Renaissance. If you’re trying to visit as many UNESCO Wold Heritage sites, add this one to your list!
Back in the day, the Sukiennice was a major centre of international trade where merchants met to get down to business and to barter. Today, the stalls that are set up there sell everything from souvenirs to fresh produce, local goods and clothes. If you’re going to buy any souvenirs, do it here and support the local artisans.
Visit St Mary’s Basilica
Once you get to the other side of Market Square, you can’t miss the Church of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven (aka Saint Mary’s Church). This church was built in the 14th century, but its foundations go way back to the early 13th century.
Standing tall at 80 m, the Basilica is the crown jewel of the Market Square, especially famous for the wooden altarpiece carved by Veit Stoss. If you want to see it up close and personal, you will have to pay an entrance fee of 10 PLN ($2.50 USD). You can still enter the church without a ticket, but only to go pray (and maybe sneak a quick picture).
You’ll also notice that on every hour, a trumpet signal is played from the top of the tallest tower of the Church. Called the Hejnał mariacki, it commemorates the 13th century trumpeter who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before the Mongol attack on the city.
Check out the Barbican
The Krakow Barbican is a fortified outpost that looks like a little castle. It was once connected to the city walls, and was a gateway leading into the Old Town of Krakow. The barbican is one of the few remaining pieces of the many fortifications and defensive barriers that used to encircle the royal city.
Today, it’s mainly used as a tourist attraction and venue for a variety of exhibitions. You can tour the inside, though we couldn’t because they were setting up an exposition inside.
Explore the Wawel castle
Take your time to check out the beautiful Wawel castle in Krakow. It’s actually one of the largest in Poland, and represents nearly all European architectural styles from the medieval, renaissance and baroque periods. Also good to know is that it’s another one of Krakow’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
For centuries, the castle was home to the many kings of Poland. Today, the Castle is one of the country’s premier art museums. You can visit these many museums and tour the castle grounds for a fee. If not, you can walk around the grounds for free and take in the beauty of this majestic castle.
Check out the Dragon of the castle
Just below the castle, on the banks of the river, you will find the famous dragon statue. We heard many versions of the legend of the Krakow Dragon that used to live under the castle. Our friend’s version of the legend was that this dragon would eat the children in town. In order to save the kids, the people started to offer the dragon sheep instead. One day, a clever young boy filled one of the sheep with explosives and blew the dragon up.
However, the more popular version of the story says that this evil dragon would go on destructive rampages every day, killing civilians, pillaging homes, devouring their livestock. He apparently enjoyed eating young maidens the most. Many great warriors come from near and far fought the dragon, but all failed. Until one faithful day, a cobbler’s apprentice stuffed a lamb with sulphur and set it in the dragon’s cave. The dragon ate it, got so thirsty that he went to drink water at the Vistula River. He drank so much of it that he burst. Not sure which version of the story we like best!
Just by the statue, you can even see the den where the dragon slept. Make sure you stick around there for about 5 minutes to get a fiery surprise from the dragon.
Take in the street art
The street art scene is growing in Krakow. You can freely walk around the city to check out all the cool pieces around town. There aren’t tons but the ones they have are quite beautiful. Most are located in the Jewish quarters.
Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter
There’s a reason most of the street art is located this trendy and creative area. Historically, Kazimierz was Krakow’s Jewish quarter, but today, it’s home to indie galleries, quirky shops, vintage clothing stores, cool barbershops and bars.
Walking around Szeroka Street, you will find many synagogues including the 16th-century Old Synagogue. There is also the nearby Remuh Cemetery, that has a wall built of tombstones broken during WWII. For more on this, you can check out the Galicia Jewish Museum. The Jewish Quarter really comes alive at night, with plenty of delicious restaurants to choose from.
What to do near Krakow
While there is plenty of things to do in Krakow, there are 2 important stops outside the city that are must sees. Even if you don’t have too much time, you should make the time for these sights.
No visit to Krakow would be complete without a stop at Auschwitz. The 2 major sites of Nazi concentrations camps were preserved to serve as a reminder of the horrors that humans are capable of, and to make sure they are never repeated again. You can visit the 2 sites, the Auschwitz site and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and need about 1.5 to 2 hours in each spot. There is a free bus that runs between the two sites, as they are about 3km apart.
There are a few ways to visit the sites of the concentration camps. One is through a guided tour, the other is to go freely. Just know that at Auschwitz, the free tour is outside the hours of the guided tours they offer. Make sure you get there as early as you can or after 1pm. For the Birkenau site, you can enter freely at all times. We didn’t know about these rules, so we just did Birkenau hoping that we could get in at 1, when we returned to the first site. Unfortunately, when we got back, the lineup was an hour long. Our main recommendation would be to get to the site as early as possible, around opening if you can.
To get to Auschwitz, just take a bus from the main bus station (behind the main train station). It will cost you 15 PLN ($4 USD) per person. Get the ticket ahead of time at the station. Arrive at least 10 min before bus leaves on the platform as it fills up quickly. This main bus will take you directly from the city to Auschwitz, it does not run from Birkenau. The ride will take you about 1.5 hours to 2 hours, depending on traffic.
We also saw tons of tour companies in town offering to take you there and back for 100 PLN ($25 USD) per person. Perhaps with these companies, you don’t need a guided tour of the site. Just enquire before hiring them.
Visiting the Auschwitz sites was quite emotional for us. It’s quite a heavy day to read about the atrocities that people endured in those camps, to walk where they took their last steps, to be in a site full of so much pain. Regardless, it is important to learn about these events, in the hopes that they will not be repeated again.
Wielicska salt mines
The salt mines were one of our favourite things to visit around Krakow. This place is truly amazing. The only way to visit the mines are through one of their guided tours. You will have 2 tour options: One is the miner’s tour, where you will go through the tunnels, ladders and chambers working as a miner. Or, you can opt for the relaxed option of the visitor’s tour. Just beware, you will be walking a lot!
The Salt Mines opened in the 13th century, and were a working mine that produced table salt until 2007. Wielicska is actually one of the world’s oldest salt mines still in operation and another UNESCO World Heritage site. Although commercial mining was discontinued in 1996, they do still produce smaller amounts of salt sold in Poland.
There are 2 ways to get there. Either you can find a tour company in the Old Town who will offer tours starting from 119 to 150 PLN (roughly $25 USD) including tickets and transport. If not, take 304 bus (near the Galeria Krakowska shopping mall) to Wieliczka Kopalnia Soli stop. This option will cost you 4 PLN ($1 USD) per person and you’ll need to get your tickets on the bus (make sure you get them for Zones 1 and 2). The bus passes every 10 min and it takes 45-60 min to get there, depending on traffic. Be sure to get to the salt mines 10 min before your tour time.
There are 3 ways to get your tickets: Either get them beforehand at the promotion office on Wiślna 12a in Krakow. Get them on-site at the Salt Mines, or buy them online.
What to eat
Usually, we do a “where to eat” section, but this time, we’re putting a twist on it. In Krakow, and Poland, everyone will tell you to eat pierogis. So that’s what we set out to do. We found a huge variety – savoury ones and sweet ones too (delicious for dessert). Vegetarian and meat-filled ones. So there really is something for everyone.
You also have to try a local beer. Cheap and delicious, you really can’t go wrong! We also loved the mulled wines to keep us warm in the cold weather. And where is the best place to have these? Try one of the outdoor winter beer gardens. Toasty inside, but still offering a view of the city life outside, these beer gardens are a new favourite of ours.
Where to stay
There is only one place we can recommend you stay during your time in Krakow. Orlowska Townhouse apartments. Situated in the Old Town, these spacious apartments are your home away from home. Right in the heart of the action, yet on a quite street, they are perfectly located.
The hosts at Orlowska have taken every measure possible to make their apartments as unique and cosy as possible. From the soft and luxurious linens to the one-of-a kind furniture. Each room is decorated in its own style, so there is something for everyone. Furnished with kitchenettes, you can even choose to dine in as we did.
If it weren’t for the great advice and hospitality of Klaudia and the hosts, we may have never left the comfort of our apartment. Although you are so close to the action, these rooms are so wonderful that you may just want to make them your permanent home in Krakow… and we can’t blame you!
How to get there
There are tons of ways to get to Krakow. Because we were on our whirlwind European train tour, we opted for a night train from Prague. The main train station, as well as the bus station, are located in the centre of town, near the Galeria Krakowska shopping mall. They are a quick walk from the Old Town, so they are a super convenient gateway to the city.
To get around town, you have a few options. Our favourite, and most eco-friendly one, is simply to walk around. As we mentioned, everything in the Old Town is quite close, so it’s easy to walk from one place to the next. Even more so if you’re staying at Orlowska Townhouses.
If you need to get anywhere a little further, the bus and tram system is quite cheap and efficient to use, so they are great options as well!
We loved our short, but oh-so-sweet time in Krakow. From the history, architecture, kind people and sights to see, there was so much to take in. The costs are quite low for European standards, and the standard of life is quite comfortable for visitors. We loved it here so much that we will be back, not only to rediscover the city (and eat more pierogis) but to explore more of Poland as well!
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