Krakow / Cracow (or Kraków which is pronounced as “Kra-kuff” in Polish) is Poland’s 2nd largest city, and before its court was relocated to Warsaw in 1596, this was actually the country’s official royal capital.
With that in mind, this region naturally has a rich culture and a well-preserved medieval core. Apart from those, it also holds a high relevance to historical events such as those that are related to World War II (think Auschwitz among many others) — therefore, when I got the chance to travel to this wondrous destination in Central Europe at the start of this year, I immediately jumped on the opportunity to do so!
And in the end, it was an experience that I will forever cherish…
So if you’re ever planning on including this in your upcoming Eurotrip (which you should!) please look no further because it is in this post that I will divulge with you an ultimate travel guide to Krakow, as well as a list of the top 10 FREE things that you can do in this wondrous city!
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#1 – Do the Royal Road or Royal Route to visit Krakow’s historic center (Old Town)
The medieval ‘Old Town‘ (Stare Miasto) is where you will see most of the popular tourist attractions in Krakow. In fact, you would find here Europe’s largest market square, and as a whole, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site! Because of that and more, it was an absolute joy to walk through this area.
In order to explore this historic center better, I advise going through the Royal Road or Royal Route which starts at the northend of Old Town, through the center, and then down to the south on Wawel Hill. To give you an overview of how this route goes like, you can see this map. Now as the name goes, it is called as such because it was once the route of royal processions, parades, receptions and funerals.
For this, there are tons of landmarks to see but the most notable of them would be:
- St. Florian’s Gate or Florian Gate (Polish: Brama Floriańska)
Located north of the Royal Route, this is one of the best-known Polish Gothic towers that used to be the main entryway to the Old Town. Towering at 33.5 meters tall, this is the only remaining city gate out of the original 8 that were built in the Middle Ages (the rest were taken down during the modernization of Krakow). You will also see near this landmark the Kraków Barbican which is a fortified outpost that used to be connected to the city walls, and which is also one of the few remaining relics of fortifications that used to exist in the city.
- Floriańska Street or St. Florian’s Street (Polish: Ulica Floriańska w Krakowie)
This is a 335 meter stretch that leads to the Main Square and it is one of the most famous streets in the city. Nowadays, it has become a major tourist attraction since apart from the shops and restaurants that adorn this street, there are also a number of notable kamienica-style buildings (historic town houses) located here with their gorgeous colors of pastel yellow and peach.
- Main Square (Polish: Rynek Główny)
This is the market square that is deemed as the largest in Europe at roughly 40,000 m2! The landmark highlights of this place would be:
- Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) – This was once a major center of international trade with a variety of exotic imports. Today, it is still used as a center of commerce but mainly for small stalls that sell trinkets and souvenirs. If you want to see an exhibit of Polish paintings and sculptures, head on to the upper floor of this cloth hall to see the Sukiennice Museum division of the National Museum in Krakow (admission is FREE on Sundays; otherwise, you’ll have to pay about 14 PLN or $4~ / Php 170~).
- Town Hall Tower (Wieża ratuszowa) – Built by the end of the 13th century, this is the only remaining part of the old Town Hall because it was demolished in 1820 when the city wanted to open up the Main Square.
- Adam Mickiewicz Monument – This is a statue of Adam Mickiewicz who is the greatest Polish Romantic poet in the 19th centuty and one of the best known bronze monuments in Poland.
- St. Mary’s Basilica (Kościół Mariacki) – An iconic Gothic structure in the Main Square which is famous for its wooden altarpiece carved by Veit Stoss (Wit Stwosz) and for its trumpet signal called as Hegnal mariacki. This is a traditional five-note Polish anthem that is played every hour by a trumpeter (previously by the town guard; but, ever since the 19th century it is done by active members of the fire brigade). TRIVIA: The noon performance is broadcasted to all of Poland and abroad via radio. Entrance here is free so if you’re a Roman Catholic, feel free to participate in a mass too.
- Wawel Hill
This is a complex full of buildings and fortifications atop a limestone outcrop by the left bank of Wisla or Vistula river. Back when Krakow was still the royal capital of Poland, Wawel was the official seat of the Polish monarchy; hence a political power center. In here, there are 3 things that you must see:
- Wawel Cathedral (katedra wawelska) – This cathedral is a famous site for coronations of Polish kings and its underground crypts hold the remains of a number of Polish royals and famous Polish religious artists. One curious feature that you will see next to the cathedral’s entrance is the “real” bones of Smok Waweleski — a mythical dragon of Wawel. (Of course, as much as I’d like to believe that they were bones of a dragon; in truth however, they are fossilized bones of a whale or mammoth. Irregardless of this fact, it is believed to hold magical powers so it’s quite an ‘attraction’.)
- Wawel Castle – Since this was where the kings of Poland used to reside, the Castle has become one of the most important historical sites of the country. These days though, it is transformed into an art museum of sorts where you can witness its stately halls and exquisite chambers.
- Wawel Dragon’s den (Smocza Jama) & Wawel Dragon Statue – You will find several caves under Wawel Hill and as legend goes, this is where the cruel dragon, Smok Wawelski, once lived. This is obviously a tourist trap… but it sells to the kids (and the young-at-heart) with an entrance fee of 3 PLN (or less than a dollar / Php 35~). If you do decide to venture into this space, you will find at its opening a bronze sculpture of Smok that often breathes fire which is an amusing thing in its own way.
#2 – Explore the other churches
The truth of the matter is, there is a great number of Catholics who visit Krakow because of its good density on places of worship that are absolutely awe-inspiring. Apart from the more well-known Wawel Cathedral and St. Mary’s Basilica in the Old Town, there are also several other churches that you should see.
My top 3 picks would be:
- St. Peter and Paul Church
Dubbed as oldest baroque building in Poland, you can take the free audio guides that they provide so that you can learn more about the history of this place. Otherwise, you should come visit here during Thursdays because they typically demonstrate the longest ‘Foucault pendulum’ in Poland that shows the Earth’s rotation. If you don’t mind shelling out some money (60 PLN / $15 / Php 700+), come here during Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday during 8PM (from May to October) in order to enjoy classical music concerts. This is located at Grodzka Street in the Old Town.
- St. Andrew’s Church
This is an interesting church because it’s a rare surviving example of a European fortress church. I say this because it used to be a place where Krakowians would flee into when Tatars were trying to conquer the city. Additionally, it has a well-preserved Romanesque architecture! (This is also located at Grodzka Street).
- Corpus Christi Basilica
This is located in the Jewish quarter and though the exterior might not grab your fancy, I kid you not: the interior of this church is very impressive with a mixture of Polish Gothic and Polish Baroque — in fact, it is often referred to as having the most beautiful Baroque stalls in Central Europe.
#3 – Lounge around Krakow’s parks and squares
There is ample nature surrounding Krakow. Apart from the gardens that you will find in Wawel, you could also explore Planty. This is a large park that surrounds the entire Old Town (it’s the green space that you will see in the map that I mentioned in #1).
TRIVIA: Planty was built after they tore down the medieval walls and fortifications (except for the Florian Gate and Barbican). Today, it has an area of over 5.2 acres and it contains 30 smaller gardens that each have their own styles, monuments, and fountains.
Another option would be visiting the Botanic Garden of the Jagiellonian University that is located east of the Old Town. It has over 5,000 species and varieties of plants along with 3 greenhouses in which various plants from different climates are kept and housed.
#4 – Take a walk around the river
The banks of the Wisla river passes through Krakow so the boulevards beside it are perfect for lounging and strolling. Feel free to do a jog around the vicinity, or even hold a mini picnic as you escape the crowd in the city. Often times, there are even events that are being held here.
While you’re at it, set foot on the Kladka Bernatka footbridge that lies between Kazimierz and Podgórz.
If you don’t mind spending, there are several barges and boat stops that would enable you to take boat rides or take a meal as you cruise through.
#5 – Lose yourself in the streets of Kazimierz
As mentioned previously, this is the Old Jewish quarter of Krakow and its heritage is tremendously interesting along with its rustic features. You see, as per history, the king during 1495 expelled the Jews of Krakow to the nearby royal city of Kazimierz — this rather ushered a bustling era of prosperity in this district. However, there have surely been bumps on the road, and then there was the Nazi invasion in 1939 too. Certainly, this place holds a lot of history and it’s a must to see especially if you want to feel like you’ve been transported back in time!
For the places that you shouldn’t miss out on:
- Corpus Christi Church
(Already discussed above in #2)
- Synagogues of Kraków
Right in the heart of Kazimierz, you will see a complex of 7 main synagogues — monuments of Jewish sacred architecture. Today, only two of them are active (the Old Synagogue and the Tempel Synagogue) whereas only one serves as a house of prayer (Remuh Synagogue).
- Szeroka Street and Nowy Square
Szeroka is the heart of the old Jewish District in Kazimierz and you will see it clearly given how its medieval atmosphere still lingers. (It’s actually more of an elongated market square though, rather than a street.) Meanwhile, Nowy Square (Plac Nowy) is where you can locate Kazimierz’s pubs and restaurants. It may look unkempt but it has its charm especially since this is where the hip and bohemian crowd of the district would often hang out. (It’s possible that you’ve heard of Krakow as a party destination, and it is here where you can find some great nightlife).
- Schindler’s List filming sites
Oskar Schindler was a German industrialist and spy who saved 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories — this story was perfectly portrayed in the movie Schindler’s List. If you’re into this kind of history, there are various spots around Kazimierz where the movie was filmed! It could be quite tough to spot these places so I will discuss a way for you to see these spots with a tour guide (for FREE) in point #8 of this list.
#6 – Venture out to Nowa Huta
Photo by Piotr Tomaszewski, fly4pix.pl / CC
Nowa Huta (which means “New Steelworks”) is a fascinating district. This was established by Stalin after WWII for the people working in the huge steelworks, and it is one of the only 2 planned socialist cities that have ever been built (the other one is in Magnitogorsk in Russia).
Why was this built? Well, they had an aim of creating a perfect communist type of society — but such was never fully realised since the plans overall were inefficient and even ironic.
Henceforth, this area is currently somewhat poor; but with its unique past, it remains to be a tourist destination in Krakow. Besides, its architecture which is typically ‘socialist realism’ (humongous buildings around green parks) can easily give you a different feeling from what you would have seen in the Old Town. So — it can be quite a sight for you.
TIP: It’s best to visit here during the day and not at night.
#7 – Climb Kopiec Krakusa
Photo by WiWok / CC
If you want a beautiful view of the main city, take the time to go up to Krakus Mound (Kopiec Krakusa) that is situated in Podgórze district (3km south). I advise that you only go here if the skies are clear, or else you won’t really have a good panoramic view of Krakow.
TRIVIA: This is one of the two ancient man-made mounds (together with the nearby Wanda Mound), and its purpose remains to be a mystery much like the Stonehenge; however, memorial purposes have been ascribed on the mounds so it is assumed to be a resting place of their mythical founder: King Krak or Krakus (the dude who killed the equally mythical of a being: Smok — the dragon).
#8 – Better yet… join Krakow’s FREE city tours!
There’s a certain joy in exploring a city on your own; but often times, we would need a guide especially if we desire for more detailed information. Locals are, after all, the best people to learn new stuff from.
Thankfully, much like any other European city, there are FREE city tours that you can take! The most popular one that I know of is CracowFreeTours.com and they offer:
- Old Town Tours
- Kazimierz Jewish Quarter Tour (included are stops to Schindler’s filming sites among many others)
- Communist Era Tour
- Communist Architecture Nowa Huta Tour
- Secrets of Krakow by Night
- Polish Food Tour
#9 – Enjoy the FREE museums!
Take advantage of the free days in Krakow’s museums. Always check their website before you visit; otherwise, let me save you the trouble by listing out the museums that I know of which offers free entrance on certain days:
- Schindler Factory Museum: to see not only Oskar Schindler, his workforce, and his factory but to also see a great exhibition of Krakow during the Nazi occupation
FREE every Monday except the first Monday of every month (but entry is limited to for safety reasons)
- Rynek Underground Museum: to see a multimedia recreation of Krakow 700 hundred years ago below the market square of the city
FREE on Tuesdays except first Tuesday of every month
- Wawel Hill
FREE entry everyday to Wawel Hill, and for Wawel Castle & Cathedral it is free on Mondays & Sundays on select exhibits in certain times/months
- Old Synagogue (History Museum): (the one in Kazimierz)
FREE on Mondays
- The National Museum in Krakow – Main Building: the main branch of Poland’s National Museum
FREE every Sundays
- Archaeological Museum of Krakow
FREE every Sundays
#10 – Visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp
Much like what you might already know about World War II history, the Auschwitz concentration camp is the principal and most notorious network of German Nazi extermination camps. It consisted of Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II (Birkenau), and Auschwitz III (Monowitz) — in 1947, Poland put up a musuem on Auschwitz I and II (the largest of the concentration camp complexes) and these have now become a UNESCO World Heritage site.
As it is, the preservation of this site is a haunting reminder of what transpired in the past, and though it is heart-wrenching to visit this place, I feel that a person needs to visit this place even once in order to learn from the past and to never forget how we should NEVER let this happen again.
This has actually been the most emotional tour that I have ever been on… and there are no words that can ever describe the emotions that I felt as I walked through this camp. Still, there are SO many things that I want to tell you: what I felt from this tour, and why you should come — but I’ll save that for a separate post.
For now, what you should know is that it’s FREE to visit these sites. A lot of people would often go on guided tours to this places (which I have personally done and recommend) but if you’re on a budget, dropping by this place is easy. You would only need to pay for the bus tickets to arrive in Auschwitz-Birkenau and the admissions will then be free-of-charge.
- The place is open all year long except January 1, December 25 and Easter Sunday. There is NO admission fee, except during high season of April to October wherein it’s only free before 10 AM and after 3PM.
- You can get to Auschwitz via bus or train:
- If going by train, stop at Oświęcim railway station which is 2km away from Auschwitz I (it typically costs 15 PLN one way from Krakow for 1.5 hours). Afterwards, you can catch a bus from the railway station that goes to Auschwitz I or you can walk which will take 20-25 minutes.
- If going by bus, it will cost around 10 PNL only, taking around 1 to 1.5 hours and it will already drop you near the entrance to Auschwitz I — so in my opinion, this is preferable as it’s not only cheaper but also more direct. (Just look for buses that head to Auschwitz or Oświęcim from the main Krakow bus station.)
- To get to Auschwitz II (Birkenau) from Auschwitz I, there are FREE shuttle buses that leave twice every hour.
- If you ever decide to pay for a guided tour to save yourself the hassle from getting to and fro Auschwitz, you can get one easily by searching the net or by asking your hotel for one. Typically, it would only cost around 130 PLN (or $32~ / Php 1,500~). If you only want to pay for the guided tour and prefer to transit to Auschwitz by yourself, the guided tours cost 40 PLN.
- TIP: It’s best to set one day for a visit to Auschwitz as the total visit (transit and exploring of the camps) can take you 6 to 8 hours — and it will be well worth it.
[box_title class=”” subtitle=”” subtitle_font_size=”15″ font_size=”20″ border_color=”#ed2665″ animation_delay=”0″ font_alignment=”center” border=”middle” animate=”” ]TOP KRAKOW TOURS[/box_title]
Auschwitz Birkenau Museum Tour from Krakow
Wieliczka Salt Mine A famous UNESCO World Heritage Site!
Schindler’s Factory Tour Visit this famous place and its humbling history!
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If in case you’re willing to splurge a bit, here are some top activities that you can do. (By the way, as you can see by the prices I’m posting, though Poland is a Schengen European member state, it still operates with its own currency [PLN] or Polish Zloty).
- Try Lost Souls Alley: for a fun-packed but thrilling experience, this is an attraction that is famed in Krakow for being a great ‘horror house’. Admission cost is 18 to 30 PLN per person depending on how many you are in a group.
- Visit Wieliczka Salt Mine: located south of Krakow, this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the world’s oldest salt mines. Its attractions include impressive statues and chapels carved purely out of rock salt! Cost of admission is around 80 PLN, and if you rather want an all-in-one tour that includes transpo and everything else, it will be around 140 PLN.
» How to get to Krakow?
By plane. Krakow Airport is the main airport, with Katowice Airport as another option which is about 100km from the city. (In case you’re wondering where to look for the best flight deals across all airlines, my go-to platforms are Momondo, Kayak, and Skyscanner.)
From Krakow Airport, you can reach the city center via airport taxi (around 80 PLN), airport bus (10 PLN), train (8 PLN), or bus (4 PLN).
By train. Dworzec Główny PKP is the Central Train Station in Krakow, and is located just outside of the Old Town. It’s not only well-connected to other cities in Poland, but also well-connected to other European cities like Prague, Budapest, and Vienna.
By bus. There are various coach services around Europe that go into Krakow like Eurolines and Ecolines. From Warsaw (the capital of Poland) you can get to Krakow via Polski Bus.
By car. It’s pretty easy to get to Krakow if you’ve got a GPS on, which most likely — you will have. If in case you are in any nearby European countries with no car and with the desire to save on car rental costs (for going from Point A to Point B), consider taking the service of Daytrip. They will help you transit from one city to another with a private car and driver that lets you make sightseeing stops along the way. (Something that you can’t do with a train or bus for example). So in short: you can make your own customized itinerary along with a driver that will be your guide too since they are locals who can tour you around!
» Where to stay in Krakow?
I highly recommend getting an AirBnB flat since most of the listings are in the center of the city and are very cheap (without sacrificing the overall comfortability of the apartment). As an example, I personally got a $40 / Php 2,000~ apartment per night during my stay there along with friends and it was such a sweet deal.
And yes, you raid that right: you can have your own apartment with AirBnB where you can cook your own meals and even live like a local! True enough, this is absolutely one of my favorite ways of getting places to stay.
Otherwise, if you’re more into hotels, here are your best choices:
- Budget: Shishkin Art Hostel
- Mid-Range: Apartamenty TWW Tomasza (or AirBnB)
- Luxury: Metropolitan Boutique Hotel
» How to get around Krakow?
By foot. If you’re exploring the Old Town, going by foot is enough. It’s not so big so you can easily explore it without the need to hop on a tram or bus.
By tram or bus. If in case you need to reach areas outside the city center, tickets (that can be used for both trams and buses) cost: 2.8 PLN for 20min, 3.8 PLN for 40 min [single fare], 5 PLN for 1hr, 6 PLN for 90min, 15 PLN for a day, 24 PLN for 2 days, 36 PLN for 3 days, 48 PLN for 7 days.
» Food & drinks that are not to be missed?
For authentic Polish breakfast. Order a dish with wędliny (cold cuts), kiełbasy wędzone (smoked sausages), sery (cheeses), and w bród ciasta i pieczywa (pastries and bread).
For lunch and dinner. Don’t miss out on trying pierogi (dumplings with meat, cheese, etc.), kotlet schabowy (pork cutlet coated with breadcrumbs), and kielbasa (sausage). For a true-blue Polish dining experience, come dine in a “bar mleczny” or milk bar which is a cheap cafeteria-like dining place.
Recommendation: Milkbar Tomasza for lunch and Wierzynek for dinner.
For snacks and dessert. Make sure to try out sernik (cheesecake), makowiec (poppy-seed swirl cake), szarlotka (apple pie), ciasta drożdżowe (yeast bread) and piernik (Polish gingerbread).
For drinks. Of course you shouldn’t miss out on Polish vodka which is traditionally prepared from grain and potatoes! Come to any of the ‘Wódka’ bars to get a good experience of it.
» Helpful Polish phrases?
- Hello (formal): Dzień dobry (Jeyn Dob-ry)
- Hello (informal): Cześć (Tch-esh-ch)
- Thank you: Dziękuję. (Jenkoo-yeah)
- Yes: Tak (tahk)
- No: Nie (nye)
- Goodbye (formal): Do widzenia (do vee-dze-nya)
- Goodbye (informal): Pa (pah)
- Excuse me / I’m sorry: Przepraszam. (pshe-pra-sham)
- Can you help me?: Czy może mi pan m / pani f pomóc? (Tchih MO-zheh mee pahn / PAH-nee POH-moots?)
- Is there someone here who speaks English?: Czy ktoś tu mówi po angielsku? (tch-y ktosh too moo-vee po ang-yel-skoo)
- Help!: Pomocy! (po-mo-tsy) or Ratunku! (ra-toon-koo)
- Cheers!: Na zdrowie! (Naz-dro-vee-ay)
• • •
I honestly didn’t expect much from the city of Krakow since I was mainly looking forward to my visit to Auschwitz. However, as I set foot in this metropolis, I was pleasantly surprised at how there was such a harmonious mix of old and new in every nook and cranny. Without a doubt: everything was charming and attractive.
Most people would often boast of Krakow as a nightlife destination, and that may be so. I didn’t have the time to explore that though; yet for the history buffs like I me, you will surely be taken in by this city… slowly and surely!