My first trip to Krakow was planned mainly because it is the largest Polish city allowing a trip to Auschwitz without a considerable time commitment. After spending a few days here, I fell in love with the unique history and vibrancy. You’ve seen the canals of Amsterdam and eaten gelato in Italy, hiked the five cities in Cinque Terre and drank oversized beers wearing lederhosen in Germany, but there is something about Krakow that makes it an experience unlike any other. A city with such a rich history that can still be felt to this day. English is widely spoken and the locals are exceptionally friendly for the Eastern European stigma of rigidness. Also good to know before you go – Poland is in the European Union, but they still maintain their own currency, Zloty. So make sure to pick some up before trying to pay for your pierogis in Euros.
Views not to miss:
Top of the Town Hall Tower
The town hall tower is located on the other side of the Cloth Hall from the St. Mary’s Church. If you plan to make it to the top, also plan for some tight passageways and a steep climb. Although, you are rewarded with one of the most spectacular view of Krakow. Panoramic views of the city square, including St. Mary’s Church and the cloth hall. Don’t be too mesmerized by this view to look to your right and see Wawel Castle poking through the pastel Polish rooftops. All in all, every step of this climb is worth it.
Things to do:
Auschwitz / Birkneau Museum
A visit to Auschwitz / Birkenau is a full day event as the guided tours alone is 2.5 hours covering both the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps. In addition, it can take you about an hour and a half to get to the museum from Krakow. See the guide for Oświęcim for more details.
St Mary’s Basilica
This is my favorite church in Europe. It is located in the center of the historic square so you won’t be able to miss it. The time commitment is low, you really only need about 15 minutes to explore the interior of the church. Unlike most churches in Europe, you do need a buy ticket to enter. General entrance costs about 10 Zloty (roughly 3 dollars) and cannot be purchased in advance. To find the ticket office, first find the entrance on the right side of the church and it will be directly across the street. There is also a tower that you can climb within the church, but I have more enjoyed the tower at the Town Hall Building to get an aerial view of the town square including the church.
The large building in the middle of the center square has been a place where people have gathered to trade textiles since 1300. Obviously reconstructed since then – this is still an open air building where you can go and walk through different vendors.
The museum sits on the original site of Schindler’s Enamel Factory in Krakow, as depicted in the Stephen Spielberg movie Schindler’s List. Without going into plot details, Oskar Schindler owns an Enamel factory in Krakow and employs Polish Jews during Nazi occupation of Poland. The first time I visited the museum I couldn’t wait to see the original factory – however the only remaining piece of the original factory is an iron gate next to the entrance of the museum. Nevertheless, I keep coming back to this museum because you feel like you have stepped right into the daily life in Krakow during the Nazi occupation during the years 1939 through 1945. The museum is free on Mondays, but ticket reservations are still required. If you aren’t in Krakow on a Monday, a regular ticket is only 24 Zloty (7 USD) so this is still worth a trip.
The Wawel Castle sits atop Wawel Hill, a very prominent part of the city as you have an elevated view of the city and the Vistula River. Here you can visit the state rooms, armory collection, dragon’s den and underground tunnels. Free admission day is on Monday, but you cannot buy tickets a head of time. If you show up in the morning at the time the ticket office opens, there should not be a large crowd.
Piano Rouge is a fun place near the center square where you can enjoy dinner or drinks with live piano and singing each night. All of the music was in English and most of the songs we recognized. It was something we would do again when in Krakow.
Places to Eat:
Pod Wawelem, ul. Sw. Gertrudy 26, Krakow – Polish Restaurant
This is a restaurant at the base of the Pod Wawelem hotel, right across from the Wawel Castle. I have been here more times than I care to share and have never had a bad experience. The food comes in huge portions, is cheap and the staff are always very friendly. The restaurant is big, resembling a German Beer hall, so there is always plenty of seating. No reservation is required.
Bull Pub, ul. Mikołajska 2, Krakow – English Pub
This is a quaint English pub around the backside of St. Mary’s Church in the main square. I would suggest grabbing a beer and a burger here for lunch. The burgers are amazing and you will probably catch an English futbol game playing on the TV. No reservation is required.
Pryzpiecek Krakowski, ul. Sławkowska 32, Krakow – Pierogi Restaurant
When we asked a local from Krakow where the best pierogis in the city were, he first said his wife’s kitchen and then pointed out this as the next best alternative. This restaurant is open 24 hours and the plate of pierogis will run you about 13 to 20 PLN, only 4 to 6 dollars. For the traditional piergoi, order the Pierogi Ruskie. We also tried the venison piergois and highly suggest those as well. Needless to say we went here a few times and ordered a few different types. This restaurant is in walking distance from the historic center and definitely needs to be worked into your schedule. No reservation is required.
The Kazimierz Area (Jewish Quarter)
The Kazimierz region of Krakow was founded by King Kazimierz the Great during the 1300’s. When Polish Jews were being expelled from the city they moved across the Vistula River to this southern region of Krakow. Struggling to find it’s identity after the wide-spread destruction that occurred during WWII, the former Jewish District of Krakow has re-emerged as an exciting, cultural area of Krakow housing some of the city’s trendiest cafes, art galleries and edgiest restaurants. Take your pick of one of these restaurants and you won’t be disappointed: Ariel (Jewish), Starka (Polish), Restauracja Sąsiedzi (Polish), Hana Sushi (Japanese), TREZO (Polish). Make reservations in advance for most restaurants in this area. There are plenty of pubs and cocktail bars in the area to grab a drink after dinner.
Where to stay:
The streets branching off from the center square to the north are great places to stay: Florianska, Szpitalna, Swietego Tomasza, and Swietego Marka. These streets are close enough to all the main sights and restaurants.
Tango House B&B, Szpitalna 4
Barbican House Apartments, Florianska 21