Quick Travel Guide: Krakow, Poland

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KRAKOW

Country: Poland

Population: 762,448

Time zone: UTC +1

Closest airport(s): John Paul II International Airport Kraków-Balice


A little bit about Krakow

  Wawel Castle upon Wawel Hill.

Wawel Castle upon Wawel Hill.

Krakow is Poland’s second-biggest city, one of its oldest and was formerly capital of Poland until the 16th century, when power shifted to Warsaw.  Located in the south of the country near the borders with the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Krakow has traditionally been one of the leading centres of Polish academical, cultural and artistic life. It is home to Jagiellonian University, which is one of the oldest in the world and Poland’s most reputable institution of higher learning.

Today it is a world-renowned city with a big tourist crowd, and no shortage of attractions and experiences for visitors to enjoy.

Why should I go?

Krakow is one of Europe’s finest destinations and deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of London, Paris and Rome.

Although physically not on the same scale as any of those three cities, Krakow still has a heck of a lot going for it, and there’s little surprise that it’s Poland’s tourism hotspot, welcoming millions of visitors each year.

Simply put, Krakow hits all the right notes. There are nice places to stay, its airport it well served by major airlines, it has a great food scene and nightlife, there’s so much to do which are of real historical and cultural significance and, perhaps best of all, it’s really cheap!

If you have a European adventure in the pipeline, then you’d be doing yourself a real disservice by leaving Krakow off your list.

The main attractions

Auschwitz

  The famous "Ahbeit Macht Frei" sign at the entrance to Auschwitz. This is a replica as the original was stolen, then eventually recovered and is now on display at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

The famous "Ahbeit Macht Frei" sign at the entrance to Auschwitz. This is a replica as the original was stolen, then eventually recovered and is now on display at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

I can say with an air of confidence that Auschwitz is the most fascinating place I’ve ever been to. It’s hard to talk up a concentration camp where over a million people perished in awful conditions over seven decades ago, but I highly recommend booking a tour and paying a visit.

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Auschwitz is one of those places that no matter how many times you see it on television or hear stories about it, you can’t experience it properly until you’ve been there. It’s eerie at times, and saddening at others, but it is well worth visiting.

Wieliczka Salt Mine

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Wieliczka Salt Mine is about half an hour outside of Krakow, but it is one of Lesser Poland’s most visited attractions, welcoming over one million people every year.

The mine opened in the 13th century and produced table salt continuously up until 2007. Today it is open to tourists who can take tours of its grand chambers which are chiselled out in rock salt. On the tourist route you’ll see the stunning Chapel of St Kinga, an underground place of worship illuminated by beautiful glass chandeliers and an ornate carved floor. Here ceremonies still take place, including weddings and Holy Mass.

Schindler’s Factory

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One thing I would recommend doing in preparation for a trip to Krakow is watching Schindler’s List – a Spielberg classic about German businessman Oskar Schindler and his efforts to save over a thousand Jewish refugees during World War II. He did so by employing them in his factory where they would help to manufacture cookware and various metal vessels, preventing them from going to Auschwitz concentration camp where they, almost certainly, would have been exterminated.

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Today, Schindler’s Factory still stands and has been converted into a museum which gives great insight into the history of Krakow and extensive exhibitions on the city during wartime and its occupation. This fantastic museum, housed inside a place of such significance, is not to be missed.

Main Square

Main Square is Krakow’s centrepiece. Located in the middle of the city, it has various attractions, as well as seasonal events, which take place throughout the year. It was originally designed in 1257 and has changed little in the years that have followed.

Measuring 200 square metres the Main Square, or Rynek Główny in Polish, is surrounded by elegant townhouses which all face Krakow Cloth Hall, placed in the square’s centre. The Cloth Hall was once a major centre of international trade, where merchants would meet to discuss business and barter. It hasn’t strayed too far from its roots as inside the hall is a galleria with stalls selling various handcrafts and souvenirs.

On the hall’s upper floor is the Sukiennice Museum division of the National Museum, Krakow, which displays a variety of artwork, while below the square is Rynek Underground, a museum which predates the Cloth Hall and explores the recently excavated medieval merchant stalls that once stood there.

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Main Square is also home to the iconic St Mary’s Basilica, a brick Gothic church that was built in the 14th century. Every hour a trumpet signal is played from the top of the taller of St Mary’s two towers, but pauses mid-sound to commemorate the famous 13th century trumpeter who was shot in the throat with an arrow while sounding the alarm before a Mongol attack on the city. It also houses the coveted Veit Stoss altarpiece – a Polish national treasure.

Krakow’s annual Christmas markets take place in the square, where a selection of restaurants, cafés and bars can be found. It’s a nice place for a drink or meal, but be warned, prices are generally higher around that area of the city due to the number of visitors that frequent it.

Wawel Castle

Perched on Wawel Hill, Wawel Castle is one of the most important structures in Poland. It was the residence of Polish kings for centuries before being converted into a museum and extensive art gallery in 1930. The castle represents nearly every European architectural style, including medieval, renaissance and baroque and consists of a number of structures situated around the Italian-styled main courtyard.

Underneath the hill is a limestone cave where the legendary Wawel Dragon is said to live. Although the entrance to the cave is gated, a fire-breathing statue of the dragon stands outside.

Getting there

Major budget airlines easyJet and Ryanair fly to Krakow Airport from various locations around the United Kingdom and Europe.

Krakow is also served well by trains and buses which arrive from all over Poland and Europe throughout the week, with most terminating at Krakow Główny, the city’s central interchange.

From the airport, there are regular trains and buses opearate from arrivals to Krakow Główny, which cost less than £1 for two people. Taxis are freely available, but usually cost a considerable amount more.

Getting around

Krakow is big enough to have a lot of options, but small enough to not really need to rely on public transport to get around. Walking should suffice in this city, although I will admit that as the evening chill descended on Krakow, we did get the tram back to our hotel after visiting Schindler’s Factory on one occasion.

It is best to organise tours to Auschwitz and the salt mine as it takes the difficulty out of having to do everything yourself and isn’t much more expensive, if at all.

Where to stay

Aparthotel Globus were our hosts in Krakow. This hotel had spacious rooms that cost around £40 per night for two people, with breakfast included. They were also able to organise our trips to Auschwitz and the salt mine with door-to-door service without being any more expensive than dedicated Krakow tour operators.

Krakow is a city where many cheap hotels, hostels and apartments are available, catering for the needs of any traveller. I recommend checking Booking.com for some of the best deals on accommodation, and also because they offer a book now, pay later option on thousands of rooms.

Eat and drink

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This is cutting right to the chase, but the best restaurant I have ever eaten at is in Krakow. Pimiento Argentino Grill is an unassuming establishment just a couple of minutes from Main Square, and it is unbelievable. An upmarket eatery, Pimiento is easy on the eyes, with its cured wood interior and an impressive wine cellar and selection. From the starter right through to the main, the food was out of this world and the steak was to die for. I can’t recommend this place enough!

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One of the best districts in Krakow for hungry stomachs is the Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter, which has many delis and restaurants offering homemade food such as Jewish penicillin, which is amazing chicken soup, and hearty sandwiches with a variety of meats, making it a great place for a lunchtime pitstop.

More centrally, Main Square and the surrounding area have some great places to enjoy a tipple. Wodka Bar is one of the highest rated, serving up a wide range of flavoured sipping vodka. From mellow options like lemon and orange to obscure choices such as cucumber and horseradish, give your tastebuds a test at this dainty watering hole. Harris Piano Jazz Bar is fantastic for live music, while Coyote Bar is enjoyable due to its cheap beer and karaoke-loving students who, amusingly, try their best to sing English language songs.

Five observations

You always remember your first

This guide is written over two-and-a-half years since my visit to Krakow, yet it still remains fresh in the memory. Although I’ve been on city breaks and visits when I was younger, this was my first one, London aside, as an adult. It was also the first time me and my girlfriend went abroad together, and was a birthday present from me.

Initially it was a tough decision between Krakow and Prague, but gut instinct told me that Poland would be the one. In the end it turned out to be a stroke of genius and we had an amazing time.

The four-night stay was jam-packed full of activity, eating, drinking shopping and good times. Maybe because it was my first it made the trip a little bit more special, but Krakow is an amazing place that you should definitely see in your lifetime.

Ching-ching

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Before the trip I had heard that Poland was cheap, but it didn’t really hit home until I sat down at a chocolatier on a side street just off Main Square, with my hot chocolate and chocolate slab. At first, when my girlfriend asked me the price, I thought it was expensive. But I was thinking that Zloty was near to being the equivalent of Pound Sterling, when in fact, I needed to divide the cost in Polish currency by, roughly, five to get what it would be in British. As it turned out it was really cheap, and an eye-opener to how expensive things are at home.

The price of Poland has since inspired me to take trips to Warsaw and Wroclaw, as well as venturing further east to the likes of Vilnius, Budapest and Kiev. Some European nations represent great value, but Krakow stands out above the rest.

Suitable for stag-dos – but be careful

Krakow is a great place for stag and hen parties to celebrate. There are lots of fantastic bars and clubs, great places to eat, lots of stuff to do in the day and the biggest selling point is the cost of living.

It makes sense to celebrate the last few days of bachelorhood in a place like Krakow, but if you are planning on doing so I have some advice – be careful. I’ve heard stories of British groups, mainly male ones, getting into trouble with security or police. Now I don’t know anyone that has personally been affected before, but I’ve heard it from enough sources to make it a legitimate point of concern.

I’m not saying don’t do it, just take extra care and be responsible and respectful.

Football’s coming home

I grew up near Liverpool with my local team, and the team I support, being Everton. One of the city’s main attractions is its two football teams – Everton and Liverpool – who are only separated by Stanley Park, sitting in between Goodison Park and Anfield.

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In a footballing sense, Krakow mirrors Liverpool. They have two main football teams – Wisla Krakow and KS Cracovia. Both are former Polish champions and both have stadia in the city, separated only by Błonia Park. You can visit both within the same hour, and it’s a great feature for sport-loving tourists and, for me, a splash of home in the heart of southern Poland.

First impressions can be deceiving

As we approached the city centre from the airport on a bus, Krakow looked run-down, miserable and vandalised. The graffiti-adorned walls, roadside bins and the occasional abandoned cars created an aura of a troubled and torn city.

The outskirts didn’t paint a good picture but, fortunately, our initial city views weren’t representative of what we eventually experienced. Krakow came through in resounding fashion and ended up being a far cry from what I once thought it was going to be.

Did you know?

The atltarpiece inside St Mary’s Basilica is the largest Gothic altarpiece in the world. Carved between 1477 and 1484 by German sculptor Veit Stoss, it was dismantled in 1941 during occupation by Nazi Germany. It was then shipped to the Third Reich on the order of Hans Frank, the Governer-General of that region of occupied Poland, but was eventually recovered after being found in 1946 in the basement of a heavily-bombed Nuremberg Castle. The piece underwent major restoration work and was put back in its place at the basilica 10 years later, which is celebrated as the ceremonial end of the war in Poland.

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