Cracow

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

Market Square, Krakow

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 busyness at all hours, it is not an unpleasant place to linger. The massive Cloth Hall ♥ (Sukiennice), in the center of the square, built in the mid-16th-century but re-modeled in 1875, houses a long row of souvenir stalls on the ground floor and the gallery of 19th-century Polish paintings on the upper floor.

The church that towers over the square at the northwestern corner, 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 attracting the eye, including St Adalbert’s Church and the Town Hall Tower.

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 ♥♥, which 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 ♥. A walk along at least a portion of the ring must be among unmissable activities in Kraków.

Wawel Hill ♥♥♥, rising up above the city, houses several important points of interest. Top of them is the Cathedral, which may be closed to visitors if you come around the time of a major Catholic holiday (this note of caution applies to all religious sights in Poland: 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). Not being able to see the cathedral’s interior was by far the biggest disappointment of our time in Kraków.

The Royal Castle offers various tours: guided for private apartments ♥♥ and self-guided for the State rooms ♥. Entrance to both is timed, and it is important to note that there is a limited number of tickets sold every day to each. Consider buying online, or at the very least come to the ticket booth as early in the day as possible. The rooms are largely unfurnished, but there are paintings, tapestries, friezes, decorated ceilings, interesting artifacts, and, above all, beautiful tiled heating stoves in many spaces. An English-speaking guide may have a really heavy accent, but the narrative is bound to be quite interesting narrative.

There are several additional tours and exhibitions available on Wawel Hill. 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 the history of the castle district) and the Cathedral Museum (not only sacred art but also insignia and memorabilia of the Polish kings) are situated close by.

There is also Dragon’s Lair ♥ that should go well with children. It consists of a descent into small series of rock caves within the hill. Beware, the exit from the caves is to the embankment of River Wisła, below and outside the castle. If you intend on continuing 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. One is 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. Another museum that may be worth consideration is the Museum of Cracow at Christopher Palace on Market Square.

Collegium Maius, one of the oldest schools of higher learning in Central Europe, is among the top sights to see in Kraków. Quite a number of places in the city close for visitors at 3 pm on most days even during the tourist season. Collegium Maius is one such place, and we did not manage to fit it into our schedule at a good time. But you can still step into the courtyard, which is worth a look even if you know that you are not going to tour the college.

There are over 130 active churches in Kraków, many worth stepping in for a look. In addition to the aforementioned St Mary, the most striking are Franciscan Church ♥♥ (Kościół Franciszkanów), with walls and columns painted in various colors and brilliant Art Nouveau stained-glass windows; Church of St Andrew ♥♥ (Kościół św. Andrzeja), small and old, built in the 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 its resplendent organ; and Church of the Missionaries ♥ (also marked on maps as Church of the Conversion of Saint Paul – 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 by the name of Szeroka ♥ (that would be “broad” in English, as the street is really more like a square). As with all Jewish sights in the world, accessibility of points of interest in the area is limited during the High Holidays and Shabbat. However, even at Passover, the Old Synagogue ♥♥ (Synagoga Stara) was open to visitors; the audio guide is excellent and highly recommended but there is a wealth of information in English on boards throughout the synagogue. The central bimah (pulpit) was unlike anything I’ve seen in synagogues everywhere, and there are many interesting artifacts and accessories related to Judaism.

Other sights worth consideration in the Jewish Quarter are Remu’h Synagogue and its cemetery as well as High Synagogue and Tempel Synagogue.

Of the streets running away from the city core, Karmelicka ♥ is worth walking along. This street has several interesting buildings of its own, headlined by the Carmelite Church (Kościół Karmelitów), dating from the 11th century, and supposedly magnificently decorated.

Once you get a couple of kilometers away from the Planty Ring, the city becomes decisively less picturesque, with the Soviet brutalist architecture the predominating style. There are nice pockets everywhere, of course, but very little to recommend to see.

Back in the town center, a walking tour of the historic core is certainly recommended, and one company that we use was Cool Tour Company ♥. Another popular tourist attraction of taking a ride in a horse-driven carriage from Market Square.

Practicalities

Lodging

Accommodation-wise, Cracow is a compact town and you may want to stay close to the Old Town for the easiest access to the main points of interest, but the excellent tram network makes farther locations workable.

Dining

As far as eating out is concerned, whether you reserve a table in advance based on online ratings or just pick a restaurant at random, it is hard to have a truly disappointing meal in Kraków. I personally prefer local vibes in less touristy areas, but sometimes sitting down in an eatery on a crowded square can have its rewards.

Worthy of specific recommendations are: Farina (on the corner of Św. Marka and Św. Jana in the Old City), one of the best culinary experiences anywhere; sometime Michelin-reviewed Miód Malina (on Grodzka), with a “rural housing” interior replete with a white stone oven in the corner, and cuisine that mixes traditional Polish dishes with Italian staples; and Chimera (on Św. Anny practically on the corner of the Market Square), in a cellar that retains an arched stylishness, with flair and excellent menu.

Beyond Kraków

Located about 15 kilometers away from the city center, Wieliczka Salt Mines ♥♥♥ offers a fantastic half-day excursion option. The vast network of underground galleries and chambers was created over the centuries in the mines where salt has been excavated since probably the 11th century. There are huge banquet halls, stunning chapels, sculptures, and various displays related to salt mining and the lives of miners. A uniquely fascinating tour of another of the oldest inscribed World Heritage sites!

English-speaking tours leave roughly once an hour and last about an hour and a half, following which you will navigate on your own another kilometer or so of chambers in order to get to the elevator going back up. The descent is on foot, several hundred steps.

There are several ways to get to Wieliczka. Organized tours or direct mini-buses are probably the easiest, whereas public transportation would cut the total cost roughly in half. Take bus #304 from Filarmonia in the city center; its stop near Wieliczka is a short distance from the mines complex – you need to ask the driver or a local to alert you to the right stop.

Many visitors to Kraków go to Oświęcim (Auschwitz) as well – it is a non-trivial 50-km trek from the city, but there are many available tours that you can join. I’ll leave you to make your own judgment in regard to whether you consider it a must to visit.