I’ve been intending to visit Krakow for a few years now. Not because I desperately wanted to see the city but, like many others, I have always wished to visit Aushwitz, and Krakow is the closest city from which to base yourself to visit the site. What I didn’t expect when I visited last week was just how much I would love Krakow in it’s own right.
The architecture is beautiful – the Old Town with pastel buildings, the stunning Juliesz Slowacki Theatre, and imposing Wawel Castle. Quaint cobblestone streets echo with the sounds of horse and carriages, and the main market square is buzzing with tourists, artisans crafting their wares at market stalls, live bands playing in the outdoor bars, and the sound of the trumpet that heralds the hour from the top of St Mary’s Basilica.
I had just 48 hours to soak up Krakow, and it wasn’t enough time to truly delve beneath the touristy surface of this historical, culture-rich city. I did get a taste for it though, and all it has done is left me wanting more. Below are my highlights of what you simply can’t miss when you visit Krakow.
Drink in the view from Cloth Hall Terrace
The main market square is filled with cafés, restaurants and bars. They primarily cater to tourists so will be more expensive (though still a steal compared to London) and not as authentic. However, they all provide a fantastic place to sit back with a drink and people watch. My favourite was a cafe tucked away on the terrace of the Cloth Hall, the enclosed shopping strip in the centre of the square. We nabbed a table and drank champagne as the sun went down, the sky behind St Mary’s Basilica turning from blue, to golden, to inky purple. The cafe serves snack food to nibble on, but it’s not amazing. The view and drinks are where it excels.
Carriage Ride Around the Old Town
Everywhere you go in the old town, you will hear the sound of horses’ hooves on the cobblestone. Carriages line up in the market square to take tourists on a 30 minute joyride through the picturesque streets. At 100PLN per ride, it’s definitely a tourist trap, but it’s also very relaxing, and a great excuse to practise your royal wave.
Four kilometres of park encircles the old town, in place of the medieval city walls. The green gardens, filled with trees and monuments, are a shady respite from the heat in summer, and a beautiful place to stroll at leisure.
You will see dozens of small electric cars that look like golf carts driving around the Old Town. Guides tout for business (though not in an annoying, aggressive way), and you can get quotes from a few different companies and negotiate them down. We jumped in one on our first morning to see the three main areas of interest to visitors – the Old Town, the Jewish Quarter Kazimierz, and the Jewish Ghetto with Schindler’s Factory – in a short space of time. We had a friendly young Polish guide, who stopped whenever we wanted to take photographs and walk around a little. He did his best to answer our questions, but most of the information comes from the recorded audio. These tours are not in-depth guides, but on a sunny day, it’s a very pleasant way to see the city, and gives you an idea of the areas you want to return to, to explore further – which is just what we did.Eco-vehicle selfie! (The only snap I have from that tour)
Kazimierz – the Jewish Quarter
I raced back to Kazimierz (a short walk from the main market square) after our tour. This historical neighbourhood is full of character and used to be an independent city up to the early 19th century. In 1941 the Jewish inhabitants were forcibly removed to the Ghetto across the river. The area is undergoing a revival, and there are lots of restaurants, cafés, and shops, as well as significant landmarks such as the Old Synagogue and the Gothic Catholic Corpus Christi Basilica, and charming Szeroka street.
Town Hall Tower
I wanted to get a view of Krakow from above, and one way to do that is by climbing up the Town Hall Tower. You can’t miss it – what remains of the old town hall that was demolished in 1820 sits smack bang in the middle of the main market square. There is a small admission fee of 6PLN. The climb up is hairy to say the least – you need sturdy shoes and a brave heart. Once at the top, you can peer out the windows to observe the city from above. They unfortunately keep the glass windows closed, giving the top floor a stuffy feel, and it restricts the photos you can take. Still, it’s cool to get a different perspective of the city.
Eat – a lot
In Kazimierz, we stopped for a mid-afternoon snack at Mleczarnia on Meiselsa. The interior is cozy with portraits on the walls and candles on the tables, but it was a gorgeous day, so we headed across the street, where the restaurant has an outdoor pebbled garden strewn with tables beneath a large tree. It is a lovely setting for an afternoon drink while exploring the Jewish Quarter.
On a recommendation, we visited Pod Baranem for dinner. It was so good it needed it’s very own post. Definitely pay a visit if you’re in Krakow.
Lody Tradycyjne serves the best ice cream in the city. Locals (and now tourists, as the word spreads) line up outside the tiny shop on Starowislna in Kazimierz – 50 hungry people deep when we visited. There are only a handful of basic flavours to choose from though, so the lines moves quickly.
St Mary’s Basilica
The imposing gothic church in the main market square is lovely from the outside – and breathtaking inside. It has distinctive mismatched towers, the taller of which is host to a trumpeter who plays on the hour. If you enjoy the architecture of St Mary’s, Corpus Christi Basilica, the only Catholic church in Kazimierz is also beautiful, and worth a visit.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
1.5 hours outside of Krakow, the UNESCO World Heritage site hosts a fascinating tour of the preserved salt mine, one of the oldest in the world. The popular tourist attraction descends to 327m below the surface in a labyrinth of lakes, chambers and galleries. Apparently, visiting the salt mines has health benefits for asthma sufferers, too!
There are mixed views on visiting Auschwitz, but nevertheless it accounts for much of Krakow’s tourism. You can read about my visit here. The WWII concentration camp of Auschwitz remains a memorial to the more than 1.1million who were killed by the SS. The sites are located 1 hour and 20 mins from Krakow, about 5 minutes drive apart, and at least 1.5 hours each for visiting Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau should be allowed.