A city preserved in time, Krakow is in many ways a reminder of the past and an inspiring view of what’s to come . Located in Southern Poland near the Czech Republic border, Krakow was once Poland’s former capital and is now the country’s second largest city. Its well preserved old town is encircled by remnants of the city’s medieval walls and its picturesque main square remains untouched after enduring the harsh realities of the second world war.
Today, Krakow is an underrated gem – with its trendy bars and cafes, a seemingly endless amount of historical sites and tranquil green spaces throughout the city, it’s a creative city on the rise. You could spend weeks trying to uncover all its secrets, but if you only have a short amount of time in the city, there are certain things you shouldn’t miss. Read on for our weekend guide to discovering the best of Krakow.
Exploring Krakow’s medieval Old Town
Arriving at the centre of the city, St. Florian’s Gate, an impressive brick tower dating back to the 14th century, guards the entrance to the Old Town. Pass underneath and stroll along the shops of Floriańska street, which will lead you right to Rynek Główny – one of the largest medieval squares in Europe. A maze of cobblestoned streets and charming alleyways, spend some time taking in the fantastic views of the Main Square and exploring the different architecture in every which direction you look. Here, you’ll find some of the city’s major monuments and historical buildings including St. Mary’s Basilica, a striking Gothic church made of bricks, and the famous Cloth Hall, a covered market with booths dating back to the 1300s, whose shops sell all kinds of local products and handcrafted goods.
Beneath your feet is the Rynek Underground museum. A popular hi-tech museum, it tells the story of Krakow’s market square, as well as trade and transportation in the city, through historical artefacts and interactive multimedia exhibits. Entry is limited to 300 people at a time so be sure to purchase tickets in advance. Continue to St. Francis of Assisi Church, known as Krakow’s most colourful church thanks to its art nouveau interior and shimmering stained glass windows. And if you’re still up for another intriguing church, the Church of St. Peter and Paul is only a short walk away down the beautiful Grodzka street.
After a long day of travel and exploring a new city, grab an early dinner at a local ‘Bar Mleczny’, or milk bar. These traditional eateries serve up tasty and hearty Polish specialties in a cosy setting, all at a very fair price. Try the cabbage salad, tomato soup or any of the several varieties of Polish ‘pierogi,’ a traditional filled dumpling. Wash it all down with a beer at Piwnica Pod Baranami, an eclectic venue with cheap beers and a fun decor. Or if vodka is more your style, Wódka Bar has a vodka tasting menu where you can choose up to six flavours ranging from strawberry and citrus to hazelnut and chocolate.
A historic Jewish quarter reinvented
High up on a hill close to the city centre is Wawel Castle, a Unesco World Heritage Site and one of the largest castles in Poland. Built in the 1300s, the castle is renowned for its many architectural styles including medieval, renaissance and baroque. At the top, you’ll find impressive views over Krakow, but don’t miss the dragon statue at the foot of the castle, which breathes fire every couple of minutes. The castle itself has an expansive courtyard and five different attractions including the Royal Private Apartments and the Armoury. After spending a few hours exploring Wawel Castle, head south to the old Jewish neighbourhood, Kazimierz.
If you’re feeling hungry, make your way to the Plac Nowy, or New Square. Grab a ‘zapiekanka,’ a gut-filling open-face sandwich made of toasted French bread and your choice of toppings, from one of the many open stalls. Continue to Szeroka Street – really more of a square than a street, – a central point for Krakow’s Jewish history and culture. In addition to several restaurants and cafes, Szeroka is home to important monuments such as the Old Synagogue and the Remuh Synagogue.
Cross over the bridge to the Ghetto Heroes Square where you can see the Empty Chairs Memorial. Over 70 illuminated chairs represent not only the furniture that was left behind in the Jewish ghetto during WWII but also the thousands of Jewish lives that were lost during Nazi occupation. A few minutes away is the Schindler’s Factory Museum. A must-see in Krakow, the museum gives an in-depth look at Oscar Schindler’s factory and the lives of those who worked there.
For dinner, try the pierogi at Pierożki u Vincenta, a brightly coloured little restaurant whose decorated walls are inspired by Vincent Van Gogh. In the mood for an expertly crafted cocktail? Stop by Sababa, a transformed vintage townhouse offering original cocktails in a chic and sophisticated setting.
Remembering the past
A short drive away from Krakow is the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, a destination that will never be forgotten. Today, the two connected camps remain one of the most important reminders of a dark and devastating history, and a special place where visitors can pay their respects to its victims.. It is recommended to book tickets in advance in order to guarantee entry, and most pre-arranged tours come with a guide who will go through the camp’s exhibits in greater detail. Alternatively, you can purchase tickets directly at the entrance and walk through the exhibits on your own. The site can be very crowded, so it’s best to arrive either early in the morning or late in the afternoon in order to avoid large crowds.
If you still have time, the Wieliczka Salt Mine is one of the most popular day trips from Krakow and can easily be combined with a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The cavernous labyrinth of channels and chambers lies hundreds of feet below the ground and tells the unique story of the mine, which used to be used for mining table salt up until 2007. You’ll go far below the earth’s surface to see an elegant ballroom made entirely out of salt, statues of historical figures as well as numerous underground chapels. It’s a truly unique experience worth stopping by!