When I think of Krakow, I now think of dragons, castles, hipsters and a sad history. It was once the capital of Poland until a king decided Warsaw would be better. It was basically put in an economic freezer for 200 years when it got stuck between two angry empires. The city escaped virtually unscathed from WWII, but its people didn’t. Today, students and hipsters have brought new energy and life. All of these moments in time mean there’re more things to do in Krakow than most major cities could dream of.
Related post: Backpackers guide to 48 hours in Warsaw
1. Walk the Royal Route
Strap yourself in and get ready for Krakow’s most touristy area. This stretch of road is where all the royals would make their way through the old town to the former royal residence at Wawel castle. It now weaves its way past a large chunk of the best things to do in Krakow including;
The Kraków Barbacan and St. Florian’s Gate
These are two of the last remaining sections of Krakow’s defensive setup. They have been around since the 13th century and it was the main entrance to the city for many, many years. When the city was expanding and they were getting rid of the old walls they kept this section to stop the wind blowing up the skirts of young ladies going to church. Nowadays there aren’t so many knights or Mongolians attacking the walls; instead, it’s home to buskers and droves of tourists.
Saint Mary’s Basilica
Saint Mary’s church seems the same as most other churches except there’s the world’s biggest Gothic carved altarpiece inside. It was carved in the 14th century from wood and stands 13 m high and 11 m wide. If you want to check it out, enter from the side to “pray” and it’s free – otherwise it’s 10 ZL.
The part we liked the most, though, was the guy who plays the trumpet every hour from the top of the spire. If you listen carefully you’ll notice he stops mid note quite abruptly. This is a tribute to a trumpeter who was shot in the throat as he warned of a Mongol attack on the city.
Europe’s biggest square: Rynek Glowny!
At 200 m by 200 m, this square is huge and the beating heart of Krakow’s tourism industry. Lined with overpriced restaurants it’s a great place to people watch. At night it felt like we were back in Morocco at Jama el Fna with all the lights and sounds. This UNESCO World Heritage site is a must when you’re in Krakow.
Cloth Hall; this huge building in the centre of Rynek Glowny is the former hub of international trade between the East and the West. Housing silk, spices, wax, salt and other odd trinkets it was the place to buy your goods.
Nowadays, it’s more of a cheap souvenir hub. Upstairs is one of Krakow’s best galleries housing tons of Polish artwork and historical artefacts. It’s free on Sundays.
Rynek underground; a new and cool museum that showcases “the footsteps of Krakow’s European identity”. Sounds a bit lame, but there are holograms! As you wind your way through a labyrinth of tunnels and halls these holograms tell you about a time that was.
2. See The Royal Power of Wavel Hill
Wavel Hill is the end of the Royal Route and the previous home to the Polish royal family before Warsaw stole them away. The hill itself is just a hill, but two of the main things to do in Krakow you should check out are on top of the hill;
The home and heart of Poland’s royalty until the 16th century. Nowadays there’s no royal family living there, although there is a museum to their stately past. Lots of old school glitz and glamour in big halls and fancy hallways. You can walk around the grounds for free, but entry into any of the 5 museums will cost you.
This is one of Poland’s most important historical sites. Back in the day this is where all the crownings of kings would happen. If you want to see dead famous Polish people, this is the place to go. The crypts below have got kings, princesses, heroes, generals, revolutionaries and even a dragon. The best part is you’ll get to see them for free!
3. Check Out The Vistula River Side Oasis
There’s a dragon in Krakow!
After you’ve made your way down to Wavel Hill you’ll notice one of the coolest things in Krakow, a dragon perched next to the river THAT SHOOTS FLAMES! Yes, that’s right, Krakow has a flame-shooting dragon as a main attraction. I loved it, Mariana not so much. In any case it’s worth a visit, if not just for a laugh.
You can even check out his cave underneath Wavel Hill for 3 ZL.
Walk along the Vistula
The Vistula river runs straight through the middle of Krakow and makes a great spot to relax. Go for a run, walk, romantic stroll or have a picnic while admiring the beautiful city centre. Or, if you like a drink, ignore the boats and head to Forum Przestrzenie. A relaxed local bar with a beachy vibe and a great place to watch the sunset over Krakow.
Why is there a dragon shooting flames in Krakow?
Back in the 13th century this dragon was living under the castle in a cave and terrorising Krakow. The only way the villagers had to keep it at bay was to sacrifice one of their best-looking women each week. This just wasn’t on in the eyes of the town prince. Therefore, he devised a plan to fill a sheep with sulfur and feed it to the dragon. Next thing you know the dragon went BANG and the town and its beautiful women were saved.
4. Become a Hipster In Kazimierz
This part of town was where Jewish people lived in Krakow from the 13th century on. It was a completely separate town until it eventually became part of the city whole. When the Nazi’s came into town during WWII, things changed.
Check out the Jewish history of Krakow
There aren’t many Jewish people left in Krakow, but the history of their faith runs deep in these streets. There are still 6 synagogues remaining in Kazimierz that are worth checking out. Sadly only 1 is active at the moment and another houses a museum about the history of Jews in Krakow. It’s free on Mondays and definitely worth a look.
Head to Plac Nowy: hipster central of Krakow
Forget drinking and eating in old town. You’ll pay way too much and not have a real Krakow experience. Get your ass down to Plac Nowy and hang out with the students and hipsters of the city!
First things first, eat a zapiekanki at Okraglak (the round building in the center of Plac Nowy). These amazing-looking open sandwhiches are dirt cheap and godly tasty. I went for the royal and was not disappointed!
Take your pick of any one of the many bars scattered around the area. Our favourites were;
- Alchemy: one of the first bars in the area and still throwing out a great atmosphere and cheap drinks.
- Eszeweria: don’t be put off by its small entrance as you enter one of the best beer gardens in Krakow.
5. Shed Some Tears In The Jewish Ghetto
As I said earlier times got pretty bad for Jewish people in Krakow during WWII. They were moved from their homes in Kazimierz and moved across the Vistula river to a walled ghetto. During this time there was 20,000 people shifted into a place where 3,000 people had previously lived. Eventually, if they weren’t killed in the ghetto, they were killed in a Nazi death camp. If you’ve seen Schindler’s List then you’ll know roughly what happened here in Krakow.
Take your time walking the ghetto
Scattered around the ghetto there are many memorials to the Jewish people;
- There is a section of the wall that was used to surround the ghetto
- Ghetto Heroes Square. These 33 empty chairs are a stark reminder of the Jewish lives lost in the ghetto of Krakow
Visit Schindler’s Factory
The real factory that the Hollywood movie was based on is Krakow and has been turned into a museum. Be prepared – this museum does a great job at telling you about the harrowing plight of Krakow’s jews and how Oscar Schindler saved many of their lives.
PS. There are no Liam Neeson wax statues either. This museum has virtually no references to the Hollywood blockbuster.
Go for some cheap eats!
Again, these milk bars are our favourite places to eat in Poland. The best we found in town were;
- There is a milk bar under Chili Hostel at Kalwaryjska 58
- Another great one was Bar Mleczny Krakus near Schindler’s Factory at Limanowskiego 16
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6. Go On A Free Walking Tour
If finding all of these places on your own sounds like a bit of a hassle or you’re too hungover, Krakow has some great FREE tours! They have 12 different tours to choose from, but we liked the Jewish and old town tours the best.
Something that we noticed a lot around the city were golf cart city tours. Good if you’re not able to walk, but the free walking tours are a much cheaper and much better option.
7. Why not go on a day trip?
If you don’t have much time in Krakow, make time to see Auschwitz. As we’ve spoken about in our Auschwitz guide it is a jaw-dropping insight into the brutality of the Nazi killing machine.
Going here will take you a whole day and entry is free if you go before 10 AM or after 3 PM. Even though it can be free to go on your own, we think Auschwitz is best experienced with the tour. As much as it can some times be a little rushed, the information they give you is astounding.
For all the details about how to get there, cost, what you see and our impressions of Auschwitz, check out our post.
Welcome to the hiking and mountain mecca of Poland! With 275 km of marked trails through the beautiful Tatra National Park, there is something for everyone. We didn’t go as we were going to hike on the Slovakian side, but World Pursuit went and loved every minute!
Wieliczka Salt mines
These mines were started all the way back in the 13th century and continued up until 1996. During this time they managed to mine 327 meters deep and over 287 kilometres of tunnels!
Nowadays the UNESCO World Heritage mine is a hotbed for tourists, with 1.2 million visiting in 2015. You can see 22 huge chambers that contain a church, mountains and even lakes.
There are guided tours from Krakow that take 4-5 hours including 2 hours in the mine for 150 PLN. Best bet, though, is to go there on your own. There is only so much salt you can look at.
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Krakow Travel Guide
Getting to Krakow
By Air: Krakow has a major airport close by with connections to all the normal hubs. You can get to the city via taxi (100 ZL), bus (10 ZL) or train (8 ZL).
By Bus: Polskibus has cheap as chips connections all over Poland and some international connections to Slovakia, Hungary and Germany. LUX Express and Eurolines have fancier coaches if you want some more comfort on your overnight busses.
By Train: Dworzec Główny PKP is Krakow’s main trains station right next door to the central bus station. It has connections to neighboring countries and Poland’s other major cities.
Getting Around Krakow
The city can be a little spread apart if you’re walking from one end of old town across the river and a tram could be worth it. Otherwise, the maximum walking distance between sites is 45 minutes.
Where to stay in Krakow
- Chilli Hostel: As the name suggests its a bit more of a chilled place. Dorms are a bit cramped, but the outside terrace is dope.
- Greg and Toms: The party hostel for Krakow. If you want non-stop drinking, then this is your cup of tea.
- Or if you’re after a private space Air bnb has some great listings.
Where to drink in Krakow
- Kazimierz distric for hipster bars and more student vibe
- Old town if you want stag shows
- Klub Kabaret (60s club, polka nights etc)
- Mleczarnia (beer garden close to Plac Nowy)
- Asinger (tables are sewing machines)
- Havana Club Papitos
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