The capital of Poland until the end of the 16th century, Krakow is a city to the south of Poland, close to the border of the Czech Republic. Split in half by the Vistula River, this is one of the oldest cities in the country, with many historical and cultural landmarks, including the largest medieval town square and one of the scariest reminders of the holocaust on the city outskirts. There are also several festivals hosted throughout the year, like the Krakow Film Festival or the Jewish Culture Festival.
One of the cool things about Krakow is that there is something here for everyone. There are memorials that illustrate the Polish experience, but you can also go on quad-bike adventures and try out nearby shooting ranges. Whether you’re a history buff or an adrenaline junkie, Krakow has everything. It’s also great value for money. While other tourist destinations may be worth saving up for or spending on your credit card, Krakow is a fantastic travel destination to visit on a free weekend and with a limited budget.
Know Before You Go
The nearest airport to Krakow is Krakow-Balice Airport in the town of Balice. It’s a few miles from Krakow city centre and is served by budget airlines like Ryanair, Buzz and Wizz Air. While you can book a taxi or get a bus when you get there, you can also book yourself a private transfer in advance and save yourself the trouble.
If you’re visiting Krakow, a lot of the attractions are within walking distance of each other, so you don’t necessarily need to worry about using it. Even then, Krakow has a bus system and tram network that operates between 5 am and 11 pm with less frequent night transport in between. Transport tickets can be purchased at most major stops and on most transportation, though some only accept change and not bills or cards. You can check timetables here, and you can work out a route map here.
It is probably better that you leave the car - Krakow is a walkable city, there are areas in the city which aren’t allowed by car and traffic can get busy. It’s only really advisable if you’re planning to go outside of the city. Should you decide to rent a car in Poland, you must be 21 or over to hire a car, apply for an international driving license, and drive on the right-hand side of the lane.
Krakow is a wonderful destination to visit year-round. The warmest time to visit is between late May and early September, with it being warm with occasional hot days. The coldest stretch is from late November to early March, so wrap up and wear good walking shoes - there are seasonal events worth visiting, like the Krakow Christmas Market.
The Polish currency is Zloty, and the Krakow tourist website has a full explanation of what you can expect to spend on your trip here. Spoiler alert: it is very cheap! An advantage of visiting Krakow is that it is relatively inexpensive, especially when you compare it to other major tourist cities in Europe. While it’s a good idea to carry cash on you just in case, many of the Wawel establishments have card payments available.
Day 1: Krakow Old Town/ Jewish Quarter
As one of the first chosen sites for the original World Heritage List for UNESCO, Krakow Old Town is the historic centre of the city. Here, there are many attractions that are within a short distance of each other, along with many different cafes and restaurants, which makes it the perfect place to start your new adventure in Krakow. There are many attractions within this area, whether it be the hard-to-miss monument of the head of Eros Bendato, an iconic sculpture that makes for a good meeting place, or the St Mary Basilica towering over the district. Following the medieval grid pattern, the layout of the Old Town is squared in by the Planty Gardens and makes it hard to get lost.
Equally worth checking out is the nearby historic Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz. Dating back to the 14th century, this area has a lot of Jewish-related history, both intriguing and horrible. It served as a location for Steven Speilberg’s Schindler’s List. Nowadays, the quarter is much like the rest of the city, with the historical synagogues and museums sharing the area with trendy cocktail bars and hipster shops/restaurants. If you want a tour of all the highlights that both these districts offer, you can book yourself a four-hour bicycle tour.
Where to Eat
One of the most notable aspects of Polish culture worth sampling is its cuisine. If you want to sample traditional Polish food in a comfortable setting, Morskie Oko Restaurant might be a bit more expensive compared to other eateries in Krakow, but it’s a worthwhile expenditure, and its location in Old Town makes it a nice pit stop for lunch or dinner.
Main Market Square
At the centre of Krakow Old Town is the Main Market Square. Known as Rynek Glówny in Polish, this is considered to be Krakow’s city centre and makes for a good meeting spot. Designed in 1257, it is the biggest medieval plaza in Europe. Surrounding the square are many of the other attractions in Old Town, with Cloth Hall sitting in the middle, an old trading hub.
Though the Cloth Hall still has tradesmen who operate under this roof, during the winter, it returns to a trading hub with Christmas markets setting up shop and selling their wares. In the summer, you can sit outside many of the bars and restaurants, people-watching the locals and other travellers going by as you sip a drink.
The Barbican is a fortress that sits at the top of the Planty Gardens. It’s a rather simply named building, as a barbican is simply a fortified outpost. Built in 1498, the Barbican was once a small castle that was built in the Gothic architectural style, functioning as a defensive structure with walls that were three metres thick with openings to fire arrows out of.
When once it was one of the strongest elements of Krakow’s defensive network, it is now an exhibition space for the Historical Museum of Krakow. The Barbican is closed between November and March but is otherwise open from 10:30 am and 6 pm, closing an hour earlier in the last two weeks of October. If you wish to have unlimited access to the Barbican as well as 36 other museums in Krakow, along with optional paid-for public transportation, click here.
St. Florian’s Gate
Another piece of Gothic architecture fortification near Krakow Old Town is St. Florian's Gate. Built around the 14th century to protect the city, the gate was part of eight towers. However, the other seven were demolished during the 19th century as part of Krakow’s modernisation. The gate tower used to be the starting point of the Royal Road in Krakow and is named after the nearby church of St Florian.
It isn’t just a visual marvel from the outside, though. Inside is the City Defensive Walls museum, which offers a great view of the street down below. This 33-metre tall structure can be visited along with the Barbican and is a 5-minute walk away from the Main Market Structure.
One of the most important cultural sites in Krakow is Wawel Castle. What once used to be a home for generations of Polish royalty is now a huge cultural centre, holding one of the most significant art museums in Poland. This is not all that you can visit here, though: the nearby John Paul II Cathedral Museum also houses all manner of religious artefacts, while the Royal Palace itself is split into separate historical snapshots of what life was like in the castle’s past.
You can also explore the tunnels under Wawel Castle, which used to be the den of an infamous dragon, according to legend. Living under Wawel Hill, this dragon terrorised the local populace and was an unstoppable threat until a young man outsmarted him. By stuffing an animal hide with sulfur, the dragon took the bait and felt an intense burning in him, so he tried to drink water to extinguish the burning. However, water and burning sulfur don’t mix, and the dragon explodes. There is a sculpture of the dragon’s likeness at the foot of the hill.
Need to take a minute from exploring Old Town, and just want to lie down in the grass and relax? Planty Park is one of the largest parks in Krakow, with eight separate gardens that make the full park. Once the site of the city’s fortifications from the 13th century, these defences were knocked down, the moats filled in and replaced with the gardens you see now in the first half of the 19th century.
Covered in greenery, it takes about an hour to walk around the full circuit of Panty Park, and it makes for a picturesque route to travel through Old Town. In the summer, it can make for a nice spot to take a 5-minute break during the day, and maybe even enjoy a picnic.
Princes Czartoryski Museum
If you are a fan of classical artists or artwork, then check out the Princes Czatoryski Museum. With the original collection coming from Princess Izabela Czartoryska in 1796, the museum - sometimes known as the Czartoryski Museum - opened in 1878, and is one of the oldest museums in Poland.
Among the artworks inside is one of the few portraits Leonardo Da Vinci did in his lifetime - The Lady With An Ermine. In addition to this, it hosts various other artworks from around the world. You can get a ticket along with a guided tour here. Entry is free on Tuesdays. To keep updated on the museum, check out their official website.
Rynek Underground Museum
Before finishing your tour of Old Town and moving on to Kazimierz, we have one last choice of place to visit - not in the town itself, but under it. Located beneath the main square is an attraction that commemorates Krakow’s medieval past and beyond.
Throughout the Rynek Underground Museum, visitors will find different exhibits that show off what life was like in Krakow’s past, going by old market stalls and other rooms under the Krakow Old Town. If you wish to visit the Rynek Underground, you can book this tour, which includes the admission ticket in the price. The museum has free entrance on Tuesdays.
Galicia Jewish Museum
Though there are enough attractions to visit in Krakow Old Town, there is also plenty to enjoy about the nearby Kamiriez district. One of which is the Galicia Jewish Museum. Acting as both a celebration of Jewish culture and a memorial of the holocaust, this museum is fairly new, established by photojournalist Chris Schwarz and Professor Jonathan Webber in 2004. The main exhibition is a collection of photos that commemorates the Jewish experience in the region.
In addition to this and the other permanent fixtures at the Galicia Jewish Museum, there are also temporary exhibitions, which you can see here. To get a ticket for this museum, click here. The Galicia Jewish Museum is one of the museums included in the City Pass Krakow ticket.
There are seven synagogues in the Kazimierz district in Krakow. Each is worth a visit in their own right, but one of the more unassuming ones is also one of the more interesting ones. Remuh Synagogue is the smallest of the historic synagogues in Kazimierz, but it’s also the only one still in use.
Originally built as a small wooden temple, it was burned down in the 16th century but was rebuilt in the same design. It even survived the nazi occupation of Poland, where though it was robbed of the items inside, the synagogue itself survived, though sadly, the adjacent cemetery fell into disrepair. If you want to visit other locations like Remuh Synagogue in Kamiriez, you can book this tour for less than £1.
Oskar Schindler’s Factory
One of the most notable names to come from WW2 is Oskar Schindler. Possibly the most well-known of the Righteous Among the Nations - an honorific title to describe non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust - Oskar Schindler was a member of the Nazi Party who employed Jews in his enamelware and ammunition factories. He is credited for saving the lives of 1,200 Jews, and his story is immortalised in the Speilberg film Schindler’s List.
You can visit Oskar Schindler’s Factory. Its permanent exhibition documents what life was like in Krakow under the Nazis. You can book yourself a guided tour here - entrance fees are covered in the pricing. In the same building, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow is also hosted here, so you can pop in if you need to refresh yourself after learning about Nazi atrocities.
Historical Museum of Krakow, Pomorska Street
Though not within the districts of Old Town or Kazimierz, this branch of the Historical Museum of Krakow is in walking distance and is too interesting not to pass up, albeit haunting. Located on Pomorska Street, this branch of the Historical Museum used to serve as the headquarters of the local Gestapo Secret Police during their occupation of Krakow during the Second World War.
It now serves as a memorial to the Poles who suffered and died here, not just during the time of Nazi rule, but also under Stalin’s rule as well. Part of the building has the preserved cells the Gestapo used, and is along the Remembrance Route of the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow, sometimes shortened down to memory trail. If you wish to see more memorials along this route, click here. Admittance is ticketed, but there is free entrance into this establishment on Tuesdays.
Where to stay
Budget - Benefits Boutique Hotel - You don’t need to spend a lot to have an amazing stay at Krakow. For a budget price, you can enjoy the standard comforts of a well-equipped hotel.
Mid-Range - Hotel Kossack - A double room at this hotel in the middle of Krakow provides a comfortable stay for a decent price, just a stone's throw away from the old town, just within eyes view of Wavel Castle.
Luxury - Jacuzzi Apartment Main Square - This apartment in Krakow city centre is the height of luxury, with a spa, hot tub and optional sauna, as well as convenient with a paid airport shuttle service.
Day 2: Nowa Huta
While the medieval history and Jewish cultural influence are a big part of Krakow’s development, so too was its part as a Soviet state. Shortly after the conclusion of the Second World War, Poland became a part of the USSR, and they built what is now the Nowa Huta district. In the centre was a steelworks with the surrounding homes meant for these steelworkers with functionality and urbanisation in mind - Nowa Huta literally translates to New Steelworks.
What once was supposed to be this ideal socialist city in Poland is now another chapter in the history of Krakow’s development. As the newest of the city’s districts, Nowa Huta stands out from the rest of Krakow but is still rich in history. A district that fell after the fall of communism, Nowa Huta has found new life as a tourist destination. Many of the buildings were built in the socialist realist architectural style, and even if you aren’t particularly interested in post sovietism, there are still attractions that make Nowa Huta worth exploring. In fact, you can visit many of them in style - one tour option is to be driven around in a communist-era car, while being told about what life for the average Pole was like in that time.
Where to Eat
If you’re in the post soviet part of town, might as well check out a Soviet-themed restaurant. The Stylowa Restaurant was the place to be back in the day, and you can get that Cold War era vibe while still getting a decent meal. Alternatively, if that doesn’t sound appealing to you or you want to go somewhere else for dinner, you can check out the Zosieńka Restaurant.
Polish Aviation Museum
On your way to Nowa Huta, swing by the Polish Aviation Museum as it’s on the way and in between the two districts. Located on the site of what used to be the Kraków-Rakowice-Czyżyny Airport, the airport was opened in 1912. After the airfield closed in 1963, it reopened a year later as a museum. There are all manner of planes and engines here, including extremely rare models, some of which date back to the First World War.
Considered to be one of the best aviation museums in the world by several publications, it is a must-see if you’re an aviation nut, but even if you aren’t, it’s still a fascinating museum. You can buy a ticket here. The Museum is closed on Mondays.
The first step of your journey, when you’re actually in Nowa Huta, should be the Plac Centralny, or the central square. As the centre of Nowa Huta, you can admire much of the socialist architecture in the buildings surrounding the square. Originally, Nowa Huta was supposed to be a Socialist Utopia, with the square being the crowning jewel piece. However, much of this area never got finished off - there was supposed to be a town hall on the north end of the square, and a theatre on the south.
If you’re booking an Uber or taking a taxi, put this in as your destination. Due to the way the district was designed, many of the roads spread out symmetrically from here. Have a look around, and check out some of the local milk bars before venturing onward.
Nowa Huta Steelworks
If you’re going to visit Nowa Huta, you might as well visit the industry that kick-started the district. The Nowa Huta Steamworks was originally called the Vladimir Lenin Steelworks. It was eventually renamed to commemorate the Polish scientist Tadeusz Sendzimir after the fall of the USSR. Many people were brought in to work at this steelworking plant, but what originally was supposed to be a symbol of communist idealogy became one of anti-communist rebellion, as the workers striked and demonstrated against the government. One of their demands was to build a church, which we will talk about later.
As for the steelworks themselves, they provide a snapshot of what life must’ve been like during the cold war. As well as the administrative buildings and work plant, you can visit the nuclear shelters attached to the business, a grim reminder of when the fate of the world was teetering on the edge of a knife. You can book yourself in for a tour of the steelworks and even see the rest of the district in a vintage car!
The Lord’s Ark Church
While any monument to religion is bound to have an interesting story behind it, the Lord Ark’s Church has a particularly intriguing tale. Also known as Kościół Arka Pana in Polish, this church was built by the steelworkers at Nowa Huta. When the district was first built, it was originally supposed to be an atheist space, and thus there were no plots for any temple of any kind. However, much of the Polish population was and still is Catholic, and in a series of events known as the Cross and Riots, these people fought for their right to build this church.
Eventually, these workers were successful. Over the course of ten years, volunteers built the Lord’s Ark Church until it was finally opened to the public in 1977. When you think of a church, you probably think of steeples, and statues of angels, but this church stands out because of its abstract shape. The exterior is covered by over 2 million stones, and the interior’s made of wood. Definitely a must-see if you’re in Nowa Huta.
Nowa Huta Museum
Sitting inside what used to be a state-owned cinema, the Nowa Huta Museum is a branch of the Historical Museum of Krakow and documents the time that Poland was a member of the USSR. Among the permanent exhibitions is the one set in the air raid shelter of the building, documenting the bomb shelters of the district.
Though it is focused on the time back when Poland was called the Polish People’s Republic, there are some exhibitions which illustrate what life is like today as well. If you want to see what temporary exhibitions are on, click here. The museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, with free entrance available on Wednesdays.
Historical Museum of Sanok
There are many artists who have come from Poland, and a place where you can admire them is the Historical Museum of Sanok. Though you can admire many different pieces of work and historical movements here, the one exhibit I would recommend is the gallery dedicated to Zdzisław Beksiński. During his lifetime, Beksiński experimented with different forms of media, but his paintings are what make him so well-known, depicting nightmarish dystopias and haunting images.
Though it is one of the main focuses of the museum, it isn’t just artwork that is on display here. There is also an armoury exhibit on display, as well as historic ceramics on display. To see a full list of what is being shown at the Historical Museum of Sanok, click here.
Where to stay
Budget - Pokoje Gościnne - Though it is a decent walk away from your starting point at Plac Centralny, the price of this accommodation is too good to ignore. This apartment is perfect for staying in this district on a budget.
Mid Range - Nowa Huta - Though it may be situated in one of the original buildings of Nowa Huta, this one-bedroom apartment has been outfitted with modern comforts and makes for a cosy stay if you’re travelling solo or as a couple.
Luxury - Hotel Centrum Business - While there aren’t many luxury accommodations around Nowa Huta, this modern hotel is just a short walk away from Plac Centralny and stands out from the rest of the antiquated designs of the district. Free parking, breakfast and a shuttle service to the airport are available here as well.
Day 3: Outside of Krakow
While there is plenty of historical sites and recreational attractions worth visiting within the city of Krakow itself, the most famous and notable ones are on the outskirts. Don’t let the distance throw you off though, as these are memorable and worthwhile destinations in and of themselves. Though we couldn’t possibly name them all, there are small rural villages that are worth checking out.
A visit to Krakow isn’t complete without visiting one of the death camps. Though they are a reminder of a terrifying chapter of human history, they are also an important tool for education. Granted, I understand that these can be a heavy experience for some, and you may want to avoid this. In that case, there are still things for you to do, whether that be taking a dip in a thermal spring or exploring one of Poland’s national parks. The countryside surrounding Krakow provides many opportunities to finish your adventure in this wonderful city.
Where to Eat
Though we recommend you take a packed lunch if you’re going to be venturing outside of Krakow, if you find yourself in Zakopane, try out one of their local dishes, whether it be lamb or the local cheese made from sheep’s milk.
A significant aspect of recent Polish history is the suffering that they experienced at the hands of Hitler’s regime. Auschwitz is the most notorious of the Nazi death camps during the Second World War, while Birkenau is a nearby camp. It’s a 3km walk away, but there is a free shuttle service between April and October. Auschwitz was the largest of the Concentration and Extermination camps in operation, where over 1.1 million men, women and children were murdered. It wasn’t just the Polish who died here. Jews, Romani, prisoners of war, homosexuals, and anyone else who was considered an enemy of the state or went against Nazi idealogy were imprisoned and killed there.
The concentration camp itself is split into two sections: the workers' camp and the death camp. It also can be a heavy experience for people, so approach it with the right mindset and treat yourself to something nice afterwards. You may tour the facility by yourself, though this can now only be done at certain times due to the number of visitors coming here. Alternatively, you can book a tour with a hotel pickup at a very reasonable price. Though it may be a valuable educative experience for children, this memorial is not recommended for those under 14. There are rules for visiting this memorial, but essentially, keep your hands to yourself unless otherwise prompted, and be respectful. Opening times vary depending on the month, so keep an eye on that.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
This destination isn’t too far away from Krakow. As a matter of fact, it’s only about an hour away from Old Town by public transport. In the town of Wieliczka is the Wieliczka Salt Mine. This mine operated until 2007, and is one of the oldest salt mines in the world, being first excavated in the 13th century. Interestingly though, it’s not just a mining network that makes this attraction so fascinating. There are quite a few religious statues here and a fully constructed chapel here, all of which have been carved out of salt.
You can buy your own ticket through the Wielickza website, but if you want, you can also book yourself a guided tour here. At its peak, the mines can see up to 10,000 visitors a day, so if you want to avoid the tourist rush, the early bird gets the worm and all that. It takes a couple of hours at least to see what this mine has to offer, but depending on how you organise your time, you can see this mine before moving on towards other locations outside of Krakow.
At the base of the Tatras mountains is the town of Zakopane. Sometimes referred to as the winter capital of Poland, this town attracts millions of tourists and is a popular resort year-round, providing a base for hiking and mountain climbing in the summer and skiing in the winter. They also have their own museums for you to visit and cultures to sample. Even if you don’t have the time for a hike or a skiing session, you can still come up here and try out one of their local dishes.
If you want to take a load off and relax before you leave Krakow, visit Zakopane and check out the thermal springs to freshen up. One option to visit this town is with this tour. Alternatively, you can take the train from Krakow. There is a cable car network here which is also worth riding on, but it can get busy during the height of tourist season, so remember to buy a ticket in advance to avoid disappointment.
Ojcow National Park
Established as a national park in 1956, Ojcow National Park is a park and nature reserve that is to the northwest of Kakrow. The name comes from the nearby hamlet of the same name, Though it is the smallest national park in Poland, this doesn’t make it any less of a worthwhile destination, providing opportunities for hiking, mountain biking and wildlife watching.
If nature isn’t your thing, nearby there are also the castles of Pieskowa Skała and Kazimierz (both this castle and the Jewish quarter are named after King Kazimierz the Great). These and other castles can be found along the trail known as The Trail of the Eagle’s Nests, which is considered to be one of the most popular trails in the whole of Poland. It’s over 100 miles long, but wild camping is illegal, so do part of the route by foot or bike, or the full thing by car.
One of the most worthwhile villages to visit in Krakow’s countryside is Zalipie. Known as the painted village, everywhere there are paintings of flowers, creating a colourful atmosphere that shines through even on the gloomiest of days. This started as a tradition in the 19th century, when the women of the village would paint surfaces that were dirty from soot with colourful patterns.
There are a few attractions within the town itself. One of them is The House of the Women Painters. Here, you can even make your own little souvenir to take home while learning more about how the flowers are painted here. It is a fair distance from Krakow though - if you’re taking a car, the ride takes about an hour and a half to reach there. Using public transport is slightly trickier. Take a bus/train to Tarnow, then take another bus directly to Zalipie.
Where to stay
Budget - Grand Sal, Wielickza - Located in the same town as the salt mines, the double room at this hotel in Wielickza offers a cheap but comfy stay to spend the last night of your trip.
Mid Range - Willa Leluja, Zakopane - Located less than half a kilometre from a couple of Zakopane’s ski lifts, the double rooms at this hotel offer a view of the nearby Tatra mountains, as well as free parking available in the price tag.
Luxury - Kogutowo Agroturystyka MPR, Wietrzychowice - Located a short distance from Zalipie, this recently renovated farm is an area ideal for cycling and exploring. Bike hire is available, and there is a paid shuttle service to the airport. Perfect for romantic partners to conclude their holiday in Krakow.