Put your wallet away, you're in Krakow
The first welcome surprise on arriving in Krakow was that our Uber from the airport into the city centre (about a half hour drive) was £5. Only £5!! I knew straight away I was going to love this city and I was so, so right.
Krakow in a nutshell
I noticed something interesting when I told people I was visiting Krakow; it's clear few consider it to be a glamorous destination. Compared to the likes of Paris or Rome I guess that's understandable, but it's also completely wrong. Having come out of WWII remarkably (physically) unscathed Krakow has to be one of the most magnificent cities in central Europe. Its giant medieval town square, elegant cobbled lanes, stunning castle and cosmopolitan culture make it an absolute delight to visit.
Plus Krakow's affordability means you can indulge far more than in many other European cities... so get ready to live it up my friends!
The old town
In 1978, Krakow’s entire old town was one of the very first sites chosen for the newly created UNESCO World Heritage List. With beautiful pastel coloured buildings (a mixture of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque), grand churches, markets, museums, fountains, one of the oldest universities in the world and plenty of outdoor cafés, it’s easy to see why.
But one of the best things about the old town is the way it'll make you feel. As you explore the cobbled streets you'll walk side by side with nuns in traditional habits and come across remnants of the city's once grand fortifications. You'll see a constant stream of horse drawn carriages trotting down its royal road. All this gives the city an old world feeling that quickly gets under your skin.
Krakow in a Day
Krakow is a really walkable city - you can easily see a great deal of the old town and Jewish Quarter in one day. So here are my 13 top tips for a perfect day in Krakow laid out as a walking tour with stops for lunch and dinner.
1. Breakfast at Mo-ja Café
Holidays are for sleep ins so start your day with an all day breakfast at this cute little hipster café sitting just between Kazimierz and the old town. With a full Polish breakfast, a breakfast burger, eggs any way you want (all at around £3-4 each) and freshly squeezed juices you can’t really go wrong. After brekky you can make the short walk up to Planty Park.
2. Planty Park
For me one of the most unique and loveliest parts of Krakow’s old city is that it’s encircled by gardens where its medieval walls once were. It seems like such a romantic way to honour the city’s past and makes it easy to get your bearings. You can wander around the park with an ice cream or use it as a guide to get from one destination to the next quite easily. At the north part of the gardens is one of the original entrances to the old town, St. Florian’s Gate.
3. St Florian’s Gate
St. Florian’s Gate is the city’s last remaining tower of eight originals built along the medieval walls in the 14th century to protect against Turkish attack. You can admire the beautiful architecture, take a snap (it’s the most photographed monument in Krakow) and check out the open-air gallery set up along the gate’s inner wall.
4. The Barbican
The Barbican sits across from the Gate outside the walls and is one of the best-preserved examples of defensive architecture in Europe. It was originally connected to St Florian’s Gate and acted as a checkpoint for anybody entering the city walls. After checking out the Barbican wander down Floriańska Street, part of Krakow’s ‘royal road’, which leads into its beautiful medieval main square.
5. Rynek Główny
Krakow’s main square, Rynek Główny, dates back to the 13th century and is one of, if not the, largest medieval squares in Europe. It has 40 townhouses and palaces that are exceptionally well preserved despite mostly dating back to the Middle Ages. It’s quite touristy, but that adds to its liveliness with lots of market stalls, music and people selling balloons and other trinkets.
One of the best ways to enjoy Rynek Główny is to sit outside one of its 30 (yes 30!) cafes and restaurants, with a piece of traditional Polish cheesecake (Sernik Babci) and a coffee.
Once you’ve soaked up the beautiful surrounding architecture it’s worth having a quick peak in St Mary’s Basilica (that huge church you've been staring at while drinking your coffee).
6. St Mary’s Basilica
I’ve been to so many churches in European cities that I rarely bother to venture inside anymore, but this one is worth the look. It has a beautiful baroque interior, intricate stain glass windows and the most stunning roof I’ve seen in a long time: sky blue covered in gold stars.
There’s also a tower you can venture up to get a better view of the square from above. Sadly, we didn’t get a chance as it’s closed on Mondays (which of course was both the first day we attempted to go up and our last day in Krakow, meaning we missed out).
7. The Cloth Hall
Even if you’ve never heard of the Cloth Hall, you won’t miss it. Smack bang in the centre of the main square it’s an undercover market that dates back to the 13th century. Wander through taking in the history (note the Polish cities’ coats of arms painted on the walls along the way) and buy a little souvenir if you’re so inclined. If you’re interested in Krakow’s history you can also check out the Rynek Undergroundmuseum below.
After the Cloth Hall you can begin to wander down to Grodzka Street, which continues on the royal road down to the castle.
8. Royal Wawel Castle
Pronounced ‘Vavel’, this gorgeous castle, built in the 11th century, sits on a limestone hill 25 metres above the Vistula River, which sweeps down its western side. Entry to the grounds is free so you can wander around and take pictures.
My top tips for Wawel castle are:
- To get there early if you want to go into the rooms or cathedral, as tickets sell out quickly
- To bring lots of change – as many of the attractions are inexpensive but require you to pay using automatic ticket machines that only accept coins
Get a 360 degree view of the river and castle by climbing one of the towers and don’t forget to check out the dragon’s den which is said to be the former home of a real Wawel dragon!
9. Lunch at Restauracja Morela
No trip to Poland would be complete without some potato pancakes with sour cream (or goulash). Get your hit of this traditional dish by sitting in the back garden at Restauracja Morela, which is a short stroll from the castle.
10. Kanonicza Street
Worth wandering along, this little street is one of the oldest in Krakow and was once home to Poland’s most famous person. And who might that be you ask? Pope John Paul II of course. He is everywhere in Krakow. You’ll find statues, images and references to Pope JP on every corner. Of course, when he lived on Kanonicza Street he wasn’t yet pope but you won’t miss his former residence, which is covered with a giant poster adorned with his smiling face. Then either jump on a tram or walk down to the Kazimierz.
They say no trip to Krakow is complete without a trip to its Jewish Quarter and trendiest suburb Kazimierz: I’d have to agree. Kazimierz was once it’s own independent city before later merging with Krakow. Thanks to WWII this area has seen its fair share of misery but in the last decade its emerged full of hipsters, cool bars, cafes and restaurants.
There are plenty of tourist attractions in this area (Schindler's Factory for example) but for us this was a place to have a beer or vodka at one of the many trendy bars (try Alchemia or Mleczarnia) after a lot of walking around the old town. Make sure you also check out Plac Nowy (the New Square) to grab a traditional polish Zapiekanki, which is basically a polish pizza (more about this below). After kicking back in Kazimierz, you can stay here to have dinner at one of the many great restaurants (I recommend Starka Restaurant) or you can head back to the old town like we did.
12. Dinner ‘under the angels’ at Pod Aniołami
This was definitely one of my favourite experiences in Krakow. This atmospheric restaurant dates back to the 13th century (I know, I know everything in Krakow does!) and it’s stunning. We sat in the gothic cellar, surrounded by exposed stonewalls and candles. The set menu was delicious – the pierogi, fermented soup and wild boar were standouts. At around £35 per person, this was definitely our priciest meal in Krakow but it was absolutely worth it.
13. Nightcap at Wodka Cafe Bar
Finish your night by walking back towards the main square to enjoy Krakow’s most popular vodka bar. This little gem sits just behind St Mary’s church and has more vodkas than you’ll be able to try (in one night at least!), but the tasting tray of six is a good place to start.
While you’re in the area swing back by the Cloth Hall, which looks beautiful lit up with flood nights at night.
Anybody who goes to Krakow should try to make a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The concentration camps are just over an hour outside Krakow by car (you can get a private or shared driver, bus or train).
It’s horrific, shocking and no matter how much you think it through you’ll never understand. But it’s a chance to honour the millions of victims and an important reminder of what must never happen again. Even though I’ve studied the holocaust at uni I learnt a lot on the guided tour, which I’d recommend.
Tip: Get a driver. I ummed and ahhed about how to get to Auschwitz (a bus, a train? etc.) but in the end we hired a private driver for the day (we were a group of three). And I'm so glad we did; all up including entry to the camps and a visit to the salt mines afterwards it was only £50 ($65 USD) per person. They organise everything, including tickets and tours and even drive you between Auschwitz and Birkenau half way through the tour. It means you’ll spend the day taking everything in rather than stressing about logistics.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
The salt mines were a bit of an afterthought for us, but now I’ve been I would say – don’t go to Krakow without going. Referring to it as a salt mine doesn’t really do it justice; it’s more like an amazing underground museum where all the art is made of salt. We had an hour-long tour with a (hilarious) tour guide. It started with us walking down 350 stairs to get down to the mine that opened in the 13th century. We were then guided through a maze of underground chambers, with plenty of sculptures along the way.
The grand chapel, complete with alter, sculptures, paintings and even chandeliers carved from salt is so stunning it has to be seen to be believed. Don’t forget to lick a wall to check it’s salt (I did) and don’t worry – you don’t have to take the 350 stairs back up – they’re kind enough to provide a lift nowadays!
Eat and drink like a local
This is a traditional polish open face sandwich topped with melted cheese, sautéed button mushrooms and often ketchup. Sounds okay right? But what if I told you, you can then bastardise it by adding an array of other toppings such as meats, mayo, onions, chives and garlic. Starting to sound pretty delicious huh? The best place to grab one of these is in Plac Nowy in Kazimierz. There are plenty of stalls selling them but the local favourite is Endzior – Zapiekanki (but be prepared to line up).
I would say these are basically the Polish version of a bagel, but since it turns out bagels are Polish I’m at a loss for how to describe these little fellas, which look and taste just like a bagel to me. Although don’t express this opinion to the Poles because Obwarzanek ‘are not bagels!’ I’d suggest trying one for the sake of it as they’re sold on every corner and are a traditional snack…but if you’re like me you’ll be saddened by the lack of cream cheese.
You can’t go to Poland without eating pierogi (multiple times). These little dumplings filled with cheeses, potatoes, meats and sometimes even fruit and generally served with a dollop of sour cream are delish. The best we had were at Pod Aniołami and Starka but there are multiple places get your fix anytime of day or night including Zapiecek - Polskie Pierogarnie.
Vodka has to be Poland’s national drink and you’ll find an array of flavours at every bar and restaurant in the city. Worth special mention is the Wodka Cafe Bar in Rynek Główny and the homemade ginger vodka at Starka Restaurant in Kazimierz.
Krakow has everything you need for a brilliant weekend away - great food, people, vodka, culture and a fascinating (and torrid) history. I've never been to a city with such a beautiful mix of architecture: while other European cities were bombed or tore down their older buildings to build newer, trendier ones, Krakow kept its in remarkable condition. And that's what makes Krakow special - it isn't a cookie cutter European city, instead it's a perfect blend of the past and the present that will get under your skin and stay there.