15 May 2018—If you’re staying near Krakow’s main market square – and you should if you can – the first thing you’ll hear is the clip-clop of hooves on the smoothly worn cobblestones. The square is lined with elegant carriages, their costumed lady touts in full color coordination with the horses’ coats, harnesses and bridles, a festival of reds and blacks and whites.
You may hear a neigh or two but these horses are awfully well behaved.
Of the many places to visit in Krakow, the market square is the city’s heartbeat - and your starting point.
But wait - there's another sound: every hour on the hour, a trumpet player leans out of a window from the spire of St Mary’s Basilica. His short plaintive call once heralded the beginning and end of the day and informed Cracovians that the enemy had been kept at bay, that there were no fires burning anywhere and that they could sleep safely.
A Krakow visit is not at all quiet. With its huge cohort of young people – about a quarter of the 760,000 population – it’s no surprise the streets are filled with laughter and song.
And it’s all friendly.
You cannot walk more than a minute in the old town without being accosted by a tout.
"Would you like to take a tour? No? No problem. Have a nice day!"
It's hard not to fall in love with a city this polite.
Yet nothing in Krakow’s history really prepared it for tourist fame. If anything, the city should be grim, or at least recovering from one of its many tragedies.
Krakow's history is as noisy as its streets, yet the city should have been well protected from harm. After all, didn't Krakus, the city's founding father, slay the Wawel Dragon who threatened its inhabitants? You’d think that event would have cemented Krakow’s good fortunes.
But no. Instead of a dragon-free destiny, the city was bounced violently from tribe to tribe, until finally, in the 990s, the Kingdom of Poland came into being, with Krakow its capital. Successive invasions prompted the building of ramparts and gates, of which the Florianska Gate is a proud reminder.
At last, the promised Golden Age materialized during the 14th century under Kazimierz the Great, who enlarged Wawel Castle (considered Poland's spiritual heart), founded the city of Kazimierz (and encouraged Jews to settle there) and built what would become the Jagiellonian University, one of Europe's oldest. He commissioned Renaissance buildings and his rule attracted luminaries from the arts and sciences, turning Krakow into an intellectual hub.
Sadly all good things end and Krakow was thrown a curve ball when the Polish capital was moved to Warsaw, igniting a semi-friendly rivalry that continues to this day between the two cities.
Krakow's fortunes went downhill. More invasions, a Black Death epidemic that killed 20,000, and a series of partitions that stripped Poland of its sovereignty and placed it under the domination, at various times, of Russia, Prussia and Austria.
Only at the end of World War I would Poland regain
its independence – but that victory would be short-lived and tragedy would soon reappear, this time in the form of World War II.
To avoid destruction by the Nazis, Krakow's mayor
controversially proclaimed it an 'open city', undoubtedly saving it from destruction. When the Nazis marched in in
1939, rather than razing the city they set up their headquarters in Wawel Castle, the most revered of buildings. It was a slap in the face Poles
still speak of with anger today.
While parts of Poland were absorbed by Germany, Krakow became the capital of what would be known throughout the war as the General Government or Governorate. Even the country's name was erased from history.
The Nazi rule of Krakow was harsh. The university's professors were sent to concentration camps, and in the ghetto, Krakow Jews were marched to Auschwitz, history's most horrific death camp, or shot on the streets. Only 10% of Krakow’s Jews would survive the war.
At armistice, just when Krakow thought it had tipped the odds, it was 'liberated' by the Red Army – and subjected to another four decades of tyranny, this time at the hands of the Soviet Union.
It would take the rise of Solidarity, the
independent trade union, before Poland reclaimed its heritage and its name. Solidarity forced fair and free elections. Poland
rejoined the world community, gave the Catholics a Pope and became part of the
European Union. Krakow has since attracted an ever-growing number of visitors and its entire old town declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Krakow is many cities within a city. You can spend your time in the Old Town, or in the Jewish quarters, or in the suburbs, or do as I did and meander or take the tram. It’s small enough to do that.
One of the best things to do in Krakow is
to walk around and listen. You’ll hear things. The horses and bugle but also the clink of beer mugs, the ringing of the tram bells as you nearly step into
their oncoming path, or music. In Krakow, you cannot escape the music.
Churches here seem made for evening concerts and
your blood will chill when you hear a chamber orchestra perform Vivaldi and
Mozart and Haydn against an ecclesiastical backdrop with perfect acoustics.
You don’t even have to go to church. Walk along any crowded street and the ethereal notes of a harp will float your way, or a violin, or a voice. With this many students, it isn’t hard to find one practising her craft in the shadow of a nearby tree.
For a more formal setting, settle in for an evening of Chopin at the Krakow Concert Hall (you can get advance tickets here).
Of course Krakow has many exquisite sights (or planes landing here wouldn’t be that crowded) so I’ll share a few with you but I won’t try to compete with any of the excellent guidebooks I’ve listed at the end of this page. No need for me to reinvent the wheel.
Life seems to begin and end around Krakow’s Old
Town. You could spend days here and not wander beyond its confines. You’d see the Collegius
Maius of Jagiellonian University, Krakow's most famous and
the alma mater of Nicolaus Copernicus, the mathematician and astronomer who
placed the Sun rather than the Earth at the center of the universe.
The pleasure of visiting this area is enhanced by the absence of cars (but beware cyclists and electric tourist carts – you won't hear them coming). As you walk, you’ll inevitably reach Wawel Castle and be drawn uphill through its gates. The castle, in addition to its historical importance, is reputed to be built on a strong earth energy center...
Krakow's main market square Rynek Główny is the place to see and be seen. Sit on the steps, in any of the cafés, or have a drink above it all on the first floor of the Cloth Hall, at the Café Szal. Beware though – you'll be tempted to take pictures but you’ll have to do it without a tripod, as they are not allowed. There's a wide balustrade and you can always rest your camera on that. The blue hour is best if you want to capture Europe's largest medieval square.
From your elevated vantage point you'll see three of my other Old Town choices. First, the "Little Louvre" pyramid of the riveting Rynek Underground Museum, built on and into the city's foundations (it gets crowded so I'd buy a ticket to skip the line).
Second, you'll be facing Mariacki, St Mary's Basilica, a bit ungainly on the outside but inside, dazzling and exquisite.
And finally, the building you're on – the Cloth Hall – during the day houses a variety of souvenir stalls and shops. Shop #16 has tons of cookie-cutter items and the sales staff hover over you like hawks - not a pleasant shopping experience. Shop #18, on the other hand, is run by a friendly lady who stocks original items from a variety of artisans and artists.
What I didn't do (but should have) was take a horse carriage ride. I was intrigued by the sales dance: the brightly costumed women hail you as you go by, asking if you’d like a ride. If you say yes, once you negotiate the price a man hops on and takes the reins, with the woman sitting decoratively next to him. Hmmmm. That said, it’s a lot less expensive than, say, a gondola ride in Venice and looks at least as fun.
However fascinating and intriguing, at some point
you’ll have to tear yourself away from the Old Town and your stop of choice
must be Kazimierz, where Jews and Christians lived side by side for
centuries. It has plenty of historical sights, along with the Jewish Galicia
Museum and a collection of intriguing street art. Pop in and out of delightful
art galleries and the city’s trendiest (and tastiest) restaurants, cafés and
Those of you who have seen Schindler's List, the Steven Spielberg film (or read Schindler's Ark, the book on which the movie was based), know the story of Oskar Schindler, a controversial character whose unusual career took him from German spy to Nazi party member to industrialist in Krakow, where he helped save more than 1000 of his Jewish workers from certain death at Auschwitz. His enamel and munitions factory is now a fascinating museum that traces not only his own accomplishments but provides powerful glimpses of Poland under the Nazis. (Spielberg’s film was shot in Kazimierz, by the way.)
If World War II interests you and you're considering day trips from Krakow, consider visiting Auschwitz,
the horrifying death camp where millions were murdered by the Nazis. It's a
difficult visit but a meaningful one, which I explain at greater length here.
(Public transport is complicated but you can easily, as I did, book one of these day tours.)
Some writers suggest you don't need a guide at Auschwitz and that everything is well signposted. I beg to differ. I had a guide and it made all the difference – a lot of the backstory isn't on the boards, and many of the guides are accompanied by historians who want nothing more than to share their knowledge with you.
Once you’ve explored the city’s World War II history, you might want to probe its post-war heritage. The best place to do that is Nowa Huta, a concrete suburb of planned Soviet architecture, designed to make this eastern suburb the 'ideal socialist' urban space. One highly popular way to visit the district is in an original East German Trabant. Wish I'd done that – those East German cars won’t be around forever. With the "first" Cold War crumbling (I suspect we're headed towards the second), relics of Soviet rule are becoming rarer.
Like music, there’s something else you can’t get away from in Krakow, and that is food. It is exquisite and inexpensive and varied (as I discovered on my Taste of Poland food tour).
With so much choice, you may be tempted to throw your hands up in confusion and run into someplace familiar, like the Hard Rock Cafe. Nothing against these good folk, mind you, but please don't.
Head out to sample some pierogis instead (calling them steamed dumplings doesn't do them justice), eating in a Milk Bar (for stodgy but delicious specialties) and... CHOCOLATE. I have only one word for you: Wedel's, on the main square. You can eat your chocolate or drink it, hot or cold, or get it gift-wrapped to take home. You'll be hooked, and you'll keep coming back. Ask my waistline.
Speaking of which... ice cream. I don't know what it is with this in Krakow but ice cream shops are as ubiquitous as foreign exchanges. Many shops have lines sneaking down the street but my top pick is the Ice Lab, something to do with nitrogen. All I remember is the smoke, and the taste.
I don't drink but... Polish vodka. There are shops that sell every conceivable flavor and strength and where you can sample anything ranging from pepper to chilli to lemon vodka. I was with a group in one shop and asked for a glass of water. The saleslady looked at me in disgust. "This is a SHOP, not a restaurant," she spat, the sole instance of rudeness I witnessed during my entire week there. And then, of course, craft beer...
Here’s one thing I wish I'd known about: the memorial to Elvis Presley.
Yes, by every measure. I would certainly steer clear of loud groups of drunken men late at night, but I'd do that anywhere. They are more of a nuisance than a danger and most times mean no harm.
I did, however, witness several instances of loutish behavior by tourists (mostly from the UK) who come here to celebrate a rite of passage – a graduation, engagement or wedding. I'm all for celebration. but one woman told me she had seen several men expose themselves and ‘measure and compare’ the bit they had exposed – right next to her table! Perhaps they were too drunk to notice they weren’t in someone's bathroom. It's a difficult call for Krakow's authorities (who did not witness this particular incident): keep visitors coming to Krakow without letting a few rotten apples scare everyone else away. But sorry, no.
Finding a place to stay in Krakow won't be complicated and there are hotels in every range, including short-term apartments through such services as Airbnb or Homeaway (find my take on Airbnb here).
Among the best Krakow hotels close to the Old Town are the elegant and stylish Polski Pod Bialym Orlem, near the Florianka Gate, and the boutique Indigo Krakow, part of the Intercontinental chain (without any of that chain hotel feel at all).
In the mid-range, you can try something different and utterly modern and stay in Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter, at the stylish Puro. Or you might prefer an apartment if you like your own facilities, like the Novum Apartamenty near the market square.
Krakow is not an expensive city and budget hotels are plentiful (as for hostels Krakow is full of them - just beware the noise in some if you're not a party animal!) Have a look at the Secret Garden Hostel in Kazimierz and be in the heart of the action.
Or click here to compare hotel prices in Krakow with HotelsCombined.
Krakow is easy to get to and get around in. Here are a few additional facts that might help your trip.