In 12 words: Soviet remnants on the outside, but delightfully old-European in its core.
For your first visit you need about two full days to be able to fully appreciate the city and all of its major sights while keeping pleasantly unhurried pace.
Distances are walkable practically in all cases, but trams may be handy. Transport will be needed for trips further afield.
Love its vast main square.
Don’t miss: Stepping into as many different churches as your time permits.
Worthy attractions: Wawel Hill with the Royal Castle; various churches, among them especially St Mary, St Andrew, St Anne, Franciscan, Bernardine; Jewish Quarter with several synagogues.
Recommended day trip: Wieliczka Salt Mines.
Left for another visit: Cracow Cathedral [did not tour inside]; Museum of Cracow at Christopher Palace; Gallery of Polish painting at the Cloth Hall; Collegium Maius [did not tour inside]; Auschwitz [further afield].
    
Destination appeal
 
Our verdict
Last visit: April 2009.

 

Market Square and St Mary's Church

 

Visitors to Kraków are likely to focus on its historic core, which is unmistakably old European with centuries and centuries of history behind. In that, Kraków is a very easy city to see, because the area is fairly compact and largely pedestrianized. That little core is chock-full of striking buildings and points of interest, enough to satisfy the most demanding of travellers.

Things to See

The heart of the city is the Market Square ♥♥♥ (Rynek Główny) – a vast open space surrounded by beautiful palaces and mansions on all sides. Despite its busy-ness at all hours, it is not an unpleasant place to linger. It is more or less divided into two parts by the massive Cloth Hall ♥ (Sukiennice), built in mid-16th-century but re-modelled in 1875, which houses a long row of souvenir stalls on the ground floor and the gallery of 19th-century Polish painting, which we did not visit, on the upper floor.

The church that towers over the square, Church of St Mary ♥♥♥ (Kościół Mariacki), is not only impressive on the outside, but boasts a fantastically decorated colorful interior, with beautiful stained-glass windows and many interesting works of art, including the High Altar.

There are a few other buildings on the square that attract the eye, including St Adalbert’s Church and Town Hall Tower, but we only looked at them from outside.

From the square, Grodzka ♥♥ street, the main mostly pedestrianized street of the city center, leads to the castle hill. There are many interesting buildings and churches along the street, as well as along other routes, such as Kanonicza ♥♥, that runs almost parallel to Grodzka, or Florianska ♥, on the other side of the Market Square that leads to one of the old city gates and the only surviving segment of the medieval walls that were otherwise taken down in early 19th century to give way to the parkland ring around the Old Quarter, Planty ♥.

Wawel Hill ♥♥♥, rising up above the city, houses several important points of interest. Top of them is the Cathedral, but we only managed to admire it from the outside, as it was closed for visitors throughout our time in the city (because of the Easter; be aware of whether you travel to Poland during a major Catholic holiday – with 95% of the population of the country identifying themselves as Catholics and 70% being regular church-goers, your sightseeing plans may be disrupted by closures for celebratory services). This was by far the biggest disappointment of our time in Kraków, which we will have to rectify in the future.

Instead, we went on two of the Royal Castle tours, guided private apartments ♥♥ and then self-guided State rooms ♥. Entrance to both is timed, and it is important to note that there a limited number of tickets sold every day to each. We did not look for any facility to book the tickets ahead of time, but on a busy day during the tourist season, it is possible that the number of available tickets will be exhausted before noon.

The rooms are not much furnished, but there are paintings, tapestries, friezes, decorated ceilings, interesting artifacts, and, above all, beautiful tiled heating stoves in many rooms. Our English-speaking guide had a very heavy accent, but still provided quite an interesting narrative.

There are several additional tours and exhibitions available on Wawel Hill, which we decided to skip. Entrance to the Crown Treasury and Armoury and to the Orient in Wawel Collections exhibition is from the same beautiful Renaissance courtyard of the palace as the royal rooms, while the “Lost Wawel” exhibition (depicting history of the castle district) and the Cathedral Museum (not only sacred art, but also insignia and memorabilia of the Polish kings) are situated in other buildings.

There is also Dragon’s Lair ♥ that could go well with children. It consists of a descent into small series of rock caves within Wawel Hill. Beware, the exit from the caves is to the embankment of River Wisła, below and outside the castle. If you intend on continuing with touring the castle, you may want to leave the Lair until the conclusion of your visit to Wawel Hill.

Kraków does not boast any major museums, but there are a few moderately interesting ones that may merit attention. We only looked at the Czartoryski Museum ♥, an 18th-century collection of paintings and artifacts that can be summarized as “one Leonardo, one Rembrandt, and a bunch of other stuff”. A reasonable collection, with little in the way of exceptional, but still quite interesting.

One other museum that we considered but ultimately bypassed was Museum of Cracow at Christopher Palace on the Market Square.

We also only managed to view the courtyard of Collegium Maius, one of the oldest schools of higher learning in Central Europe. Quite a number of places in Kraków closes for visitors at 3pm on most days even during the tourist season. Collegium Maius is one of such places, and we could not figure out a way to fit it into our schedule. The courtyard is worth a look nonetheless, even if you know that you are not going on a tour.

There are over 130 active churches in Kraków, and we stepped into a number of them for a look. In addition to the Church of St Mary mentioned above, the most striking were Franciscan Church ♥♥♥ (Kościół Franciszkanów), with walls and columns painted in various colors and with its brilliant Art Nouveau stained-glass windows; Church of St Andrew ♥♥♥ (Kościół św. Andrzeja), small and old, built in 11th century, with its main chapel barred by metal gates, but still visually arresting; Bernardine Church ♥♥♥ (Kościół Bernardynów), at the foot of the Wawel, as opulently Baroque as only Baroque can be; Church of St Anne ♥♥♥ (Kościół św. Anny), another Baroque beauty, but infinitely more restrained. We also looked into the grand Church of Sts Peter and Paul ♥ (Kościół św. św. Piotra i Pawła), which looks very imposing on the outside, with its statues of the apostles on the front railing, but is comparatively ascetic in the interior, aside from resplendent organ; and Church of the Missionaries ♥ (Kościół Misjonarzy; also marked on the map that we used as Kościół Nawrócenia św. Pawła), which is not too impressive inside, but is another fine example of Baroque architecture otherwise.

The Jewish Quarter of Kraków, in the area known as Kazimierz, not too far southeast of the historic center, is concentrated around a street-square by the name of Szeroka ♥. As we were touring the city during the week of Passover (in addition to Easter mentioned above), we had limited opportunity to see synagogues in the area. The most important of them, the Old Synagogue ♥♥♥ (Synagoga Stara), we did visit, aided by the excellent audio-guide available at the ticket desk (there is wealth of information in English on boards around the synagogue, but getting at least one audio-guide is nonetheless recommended). The central bimah (pulpit) was unlike anything I’ve seen in synagogues everywhere, and there are many interesting artifacts and accessories related to Judaism.

We only saw the outer gate of Remu’h Synagogue and did not get to see its cemetery, and also walked by High Synagogue and Tempel Synagogue, which are probably mildly interesting to visit.

We stayed within the historic city core otherwise, aside from daily walks along Karmelicka ♥ to and from our lodgings. This street has several interesting buildings of its own, but we neglected to step into the Carmelite Church ♥ (Kościół Karmelitów), dating from 11th century, and supposedly magnificently decorated, which has an interesting outer chapel in its south wall.

We took a walking tour of the city with Cool Tour Company ♥♥. Our guide, Filip, was a native Russian speaker, which we did not ask for specifically, but it was a bonus because surely his English could not have been as good as his Russian. Nonetheless, I’m sure that he would be pretty good in English as well. The tour was quite informative and educational, if probably a bit shorter than we expected.

We skipped a popular tourist attraction of taking a ride in a horse-driven carriage, starting and ending on the Market Square. There was not a specific reason for that – we normally like this type of relaxing entertainment, – we simply decided against it when we had a bit of downtime, electing instead to engage in people-watching on the square itself.

Places to Eat

We had several excellent culinary experiences in Kraków. All places visited in April of 2009, as a party of four. At the time, $1 was equal to roughly 3.30 PLZ.

Nostalgia ♥♥, on Karmelicka, was a recommendation from our B&B (including 10% discount, which we successfully forgot to ask for). The entrance is from the main street through a narrow little passage into a pleasant and quiet courtyard. We sat at a table right there, not even bothering to check out the inside dining area. Extensive menu at reasonable prices. Unobtrusive service. We had three different types of pierożki, all excellent, but beet soup (barszczyk) was rather thin and watery – it put us off trying it elsewhere, but it could be just the Polish borscht style, so I’m not giving Nostalgia a demerit for it. Pork loin with wild mushroom sauce (polędwiczka wieprzowa z sosem z kurek) was very good. Our damage: 180 PLZ, including gratuities.

Another similar recommendation was Farina ♥♥♥, on the corner of Św. Marka and Św. Jana. It was a back-up choice after we decided against CK Browar (see below), and, boy, are we glad that it turned out that way! Farina is simply outstanding. There are several dining rooms, each with a few tables. All of the wait staff seemingly consists of lovely young women, who were very attentive and friendly. Excellent food – everything that we selected was fantastic! We had three different soups, Mediterranean fish (Śródziemnomorska zupa rybna), cream of mussels (kremowa zupa z małży) and Thai coconut (Tajska kokosowa zupa). For mains, we chose steak in mushroom sauce (polędwica duszona), ravioli with mushrooms (grzybowe), and selection of grilled seafood (chrupiące owoce). We left nothing on the plates, which were all quite sizable. Even the picky little member of our party devoured her spaghetti completely. The dessert, made of coffee, ice cream and halva (kawowe semifreddo), was, according to the people who tried it, heavenly. We obtained the 10% discount provided by our B&B, bringing the damage to 280 PLZ before gratuities, including a bottle of wine.

Guliwer ♥, on Bracka, appeared on our list of potential choices through a travel forum. The street runs away from the Market Square – it is, nonetheless, pretty quiet; the dining room is not very large and quite pleasantly appointed. The service was adequate, but I could not help but feel that our waitress could have shown us her teeth in a smile at least once. The menu was not very extensive, but with enough of interesting selections. Main courses failed to bowl us over (halibut was altogether too salty), but the soups, garlic (zupa czosnkowa) and fish (zupa rybna nicejska), were outstanding. Our damage: 230 PLZ, including a bottle of wine.

Café Pod Wawelem occupies a prominent corner at the foot of the castle hill. We picked it for convenience and for its extensive menu, but this was one place where our experience was lacking. The service was glacial, especially towards the end of our meal when the place filled up a little, even though there were seemingly a dozen of waiters around. The food was partially great and partially disappointing. On the good side were żurek (a traditional soup with bits of eggs, sausage, bacon, etc.), schnitzel the size of medium pizza, mushroom soup (zupa grzybowa), and a huge potato pancake with mushrooms and meat (placek po zbojni). On the bad side were spaghetti with some cloyingly sweet sauce from children’s menu and too sour pierogi kapusta (dumplings with cabbage). Our damage: 126 PLZ.

Again a recommendation from travel forums, Michelin-reviewed Miod Malina ♥♥♥ is on Grodzka. Stylish interior, evoking rural housing, replete with a white stone oven in the corner. Refined and very cordial service. Cuisine straddles traditional Polish dishes with Italian staples. Quality – beyond reproach. Of the local dishes, we had a very good mushroom soup (krupnik), the traditional żur w chlebie, which was delightfully served in a little pot made out of bread (which you are supposed to eat, with the soup and after finishing the soup), and unbelievably tasty potato and meat balls (pyzy jak u mamy). Our Italian selections: Bruschetta, lasagna, penne with salmon and an excellent salad from fresh vegetables. The dessert – fantastic panna cotta and pancakes with apple sauce (racuchy) – deserve special mention. Our damage: 180 PLZ before gratuities.

Also a travel forum find, Chimera ♥♥♥, on Św. Anny practically on the corner of the Market Square, was excellent as well. The restaurant is on a subterranean level, clearly a former cellar, and retains an arched stylishness. The service is exceedingly friendly, occasionally with a flair. Great food. We took our usual assortment of soups, all of which were very tasty: mushroom (zupa borowikowa), consommé with dumplings (rosol z koldunami), and traditional żurek with bits of eggs, sausage and bacon. For main courses, we had a pork knuckle (golonka z puree grochowym), a goose leg (pieczone udko gesie), and a selection of grilled meats (wybor mies i jarzyn z grilla). All excellent. The dessert was down a notch, especially a cheesecake that was not really a cheesecake (sernik krakowski), although tort a la Chimera (chocolate with walnuts) was pretty good. Our damage: 280 PLZ before gratuities, including a bottle of wine.

We had one more target for dining from the list compiled on travel forums, but CK Browar, on the corner of Karmelicka and Podwale J. Dunaewskiego, turned out to be too full of smoke, while failing to attract us in any way. We took a look and went to Farina instead.

We also had excellent dessert with coffee at Enso ♥, on Karmelicka. It’s a modern-looking lounge; we sat by a small wall fountain. A random nearby selection on a night when we did not feel like going to bed early, it was fairly pleasant.

Lodging

In April of 2009, we stayed at Cracowdays ♥♥ (link), on Grabowskiego, off Karmelicka. The only small negative about this B&B is its not too central location. To be fair, it is a fairly easy 10-minute walk from the place to the outer edge of the city center (or a one-stop tram ride, if you prefer), but in a city whose main points of interest are concentrated in a small area, having to walk to and from that area a couple – or more – times a day may become a chore for some. We are willing walkers, but your mileage may vary…

The rooms are located on the second (directly above ground) floor of a multi-story building. Rooms are of nice size, with modern utilities and old tiled heating stoves (more for decorative purposes than actual use, I suppose). Owners/staff are reasonably friendly and attentive. The dining room is on the next floor above, and when the B&B is full and all of the guests decide to have breakfast at the same time, there may be a problem with seating; we narrowly avoided such situation once. The breakfast, otherwise, is amply adequate, with cheeses, cold cuts, fruits and fresh vegetables, cottage cheese, cereals, juice, tea, coffee.

In the hall, a connected laptop is free for guests to use to check their emails or what-have-you. A very welcome little perk that is not found often.

Wieliczka Salt Mines

Located about 15 kilometers away from Kraków, Wieliczka Salt Mines ♥♥♥ is a fantastic half-day excursion from the city.

The vast network of underground galleries and chambers was created over the centuries in the mines where salt has been excavated since probably 11th century. There are huge banquet halls, stunning chapels, sculptures, and various displays related to salt mining and the lives of miners. A fascinating tour!

English-speaking tours leave roughly once an hour. We were very lucky with our guide, who not only spoke very good English, but also exhibited very dry sense of humor with deadpan delivery, cracking the group up on many occasions and keeping it lively. The tour itself lasted over an hour and a half; afterwards, we were left on our own to go through another kilometer or so of chambers in order to get to the elevator up. The descent is on foot, via something like 60 8-step flights of stairs.

There are several ways to get to Wieliczka. Organized tours or direct mini-buses are probably the easiest. We opted for the cheapest option instead, taking bus #304 from Filarmonia in city center; it does not stop right by the entrance to the mine complex, but rather a good half-kilometer from it – you need to ask your fellow passengers to alert you to the right stop. But it only cost us about 10 PLZ each way; adding 177 PLZ for the family visit ticket, we spent about half what it would cost for the four of us to go on an organized trip (which would be 380 PLZ if we hired the tour suggested to us by the B&B).

Oświęcim (Auschwitz)

Many visitors to Kraków go to Auschwitz as well – it is a good 50-km trek from the city, but there are many available tours that you can join. We judged that we did not have time to fit that in, and we were not particularly sure if it made sense to incorporate it into our itinerary. You’ll make your own judgements in that regard.