Krakow travel guide
The only major city to escape the destruction of World War II, Krakow has one of the best-preserved medieval city centres in all of Europe. The Old Town is a significant UNESCO World Heritage Site and retains a wealth of architectural gems from different periods, with magnificent churches and aristocratic palaces lining the old streets, reminding travellers that in its glory days this city was the abode of kings and royalty.
At the heart of Krakow lies one of the grandest squares in Europe, the Old Market Square. The charming Old Town is a compact area encircled by leafy parkland that forms a green belt around the historic centre. The main entrance to the old city was through the Florian Gate, set within the original city walls, now the haunt of artists and full of galleries containing their work. With a thriving cultural life, Krakow has been home to many of the nation's greatest writers, artists and intellectuals, and is one of the main cultural centres in the country, a spirited city with personality and charisma.
Overlooking the city is Wawel Hill, topped by the striking Royal Castle and Cathedral, the seat of Polish kings for seven centuries and the symbols of Polish national history. Also important is the city's Jewish roots, and the history of one of the great Jewish centres in Europe can clearly be seen in the old ghetto area of Kazimierz, and starkly remembered in the memorial death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, west of Krakow.
Situated on the banks of the Vistula River, Krakow is also a modern city, the third largest in Poland, and an important university centre boasting the oldest university in Europe. The large student population creates a lively atmosphere and a vibrant nightlife. Countless cafes and outdoor restaurants surround the cobbled main square. The unique atmosphere of this medieval city has made it one of Poland's most popular tourist destinations.
Main Market Square (Rynek Glówny)
The most striking church on the square is St Mary's, an impressive twin-spire Gothic structure. Every hour a mournful bugle sounds from the tallest church spire in memory of the lone watchman whose trumpeted warning of an invasion was cut off mid-note by a Turkish arrow in the throat. Within is the famous carved wooden altar, a majestic piece of Gothic art.
There is no joint ticket allowing access to the whole complex on Wawel Hill and tickets must be bought for individual exhibitions and attractions. A number of different guided tours are available - check the official website listed below for details. Exploring Wawel Hill is a must for tourists visiting Krakow.
Transport: Tram 10 or a short walk from the Main Square, Rynek Glówny
Kazimierz District and the Old Synagogue
The Old Synagogue is part of the Historical Museum of Krakow, and houses a permanent exhibition titled 'Tradition and Culture of Polish Jews', where the collection of physical memories from the Kazimierz Jewish community is kept.
Address: Old Synagogue: Ulica Szeroka 24
Transport: Tram 3, 9, 11 or 13
Galicia Jewish Museum
The Galicia Jewish Museum is often overlooked as a tourist attraction in Krakow, but is a worthwhile experience for people from all walks of life. Budget at least three hours to fully absorb the experience. Guided tours are available and there is a charming little cafe for refreshments.
Address: Ul. Dajwor 18
Piwnica pod Baranami
This is a highly recommended tourist activity in Poland, and a great place to begin an unforgettable Saturday night out on the town in Krakow. The cellar sometimes closes for a summer break in July - check the official website listed below for more details.
Address: Main Market Square, Krakow
As the delights of Eastern Europe are discovered by travellers, a holiday in Krakow, Poland's beautifully preserved medieval city, is topping the list of desirable destinations. The charming, atmospheric Old Town is reason enough to travel to Krakow, particularly the main Market Square (Rynek Glowny), cocooned by churches, restaurants and bars, where the soul of the city is laid bare. Krakow can feel like a 'living museum' and will delight history buffs, but it is also a vibrant cultural hub which attracts lovers of art, music and theatre. Wawel Hill, overlooking the city, was the royal enclave between the 14th and 17th centuries and tourists can visit the Royal Castle and gothic Wawel Cathedral.
Krakow's notorious Holocaust history and historic Jewish quarter, the Kazimierz district, make it a place of pilgrimage for Jews. The tragic sites of Auschwitz and Birkenau, nearby the city, are Krakow's most sombre and thought-provoking tourist attractions. Within the city the Galicia Jewish Museum and Oskar Schindler's Factory are worthwhile attractions documenting the Jewish history of Krakow and the Holocaust.
For some fresh air and people watching in Krakow visitors should take a stroll around the Planty, a scenic walkway and park which becomes a hub of activity in the warmer months.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
The world's first subterranean therapeutic sanatorium is situated 656ft (200m) below the surface, and makes use of the saline air for the treatment of asthma. There is also a Salt-Works Museum that documents the history of the mine and the local geological formation, with primitive mining tools and machines on display.
Address: Ul. Danilowicza 10, Wieliczka
Transport: Buses and minibuses leave from outside the train station; or else there is the local Krakow-Wieliczka train
Auschwitz Memorial Museum
Taking a guided tour of the camps is the best way to fully comprehend what you are seeing and a tour takes at least three and a half hours. Visitors should try and book a place on one of the various guided tours at least two weeks before visiting - see the official website below for details.
Address: Ul. Wiezniow Oswiecimia 20
Transport: There are regular coach and rail services from Krakow (a one hour journey), and a shuttle bus runs between Auschwitz I and Birkenau from mid-April to October.
Apart from all this natural bounty, the Polish countryside is known for its human inhabitants: the internet is awash with tourist tales of being invited to share trout barbecues with friendly local families, of stumbling across eccentric villages and towns, and of snapping photograph after photograph of rural houses that look like they have been lifted straight out of Grimm's Fairy Tales.
John Paul II International Airport
Location: The airport is situated 7 miles (11km) west of Krakow.
Time: Local time is GMT +1 (GMT + 2 from last Sunday in March to last Sunday in October).
Contacts: Tel: +48 (0) 12 639 33 01; or +48 (0) 12 639 33 22.
Getting to the city: A shuttle train operates between the airport and the city centre. The Kraków-Balice train station is located 200m from the passenger terminal and operated a daytime service every 30 minutes.
Car rental: Car rental companies include Avis, Budget, Europcar and Hertz.
Facilities: There are banks, bureaux de change and ATMs at the airport. Other facilities include restaurants, bars, and shops, duty-free, child facilities, tourist information and hotel reservations desk, WiFi and a post office. A business lounge and VIP lounge is also available. Disabled facilities are good; those with special needs should contact their airline in advance.
Parking: Parking at John Paul II International Airport starts at PLN 5 every 15 minutes for short-term parking, and PLN 7 per hour for long-term parking. Economy parking is also available at PLN 10 per day.
Departure tax: None.
Buses and trams are the easiest and cheapest way to get around in Krakow, though they can be crowded during rush hour. Tickets can be purchased at various kiosks, ticket machines and on the bus or tram itself. Taxis are readily available, though prices increase between 10pm and 8am. Radio taxis (identified by a taxi sign and the phone number of the company) usually offer the best rates and it is often cheaper to phone and order a taxi than to simply hail one down. As tourists are sometimes overcharged it is best to agree on a fare before getting into the taxi.
The Old Town is relatively compact and easy to negotiate, containing many of Krakow's tourist attractions; it is best explored on foot as most of it is designated a pedestrian-only area. Many of Krakow's attractions are within easy walking distance, and the public transport network is extensive so car hire is only really necessary if venturing outside the city into the outer regions. Car hire is easy in Krakow but Poland is not generally a country that provides a peaceful driving experience for foreigners as many of its highways are poorly maintained and the local drivers are somewhat unpredictable.
Krakow has a temperate climate, influenced by the weather systems that build over the Atlantic. The weather in Krakow in summer, between June and August, is comfortably warm with occasional heat waves when dry continental air comes in from the east. The average temperatures in summer range from 64°F to 67°F (18°C to 20°C), although temperatures can reach 86°F (30°C) during heat waves.
An old Polish poem says that in Krakow 'days are longest in June, hottest in July and most beautiful in August'. Autumn in Krakow, between September and November, brings dry, warm days starting with morning mist, and rich golden colouration of the foliage. Winter is fairly severe and the city is often blanketed in snow, with temperatures dipping below freezing. The average temperatures in winter range from 28°F to 32°F (-2°C to 0°C) but can drop as low as 5°F (-15°C) on cold nights. Spring, between March and May, is arguably the best season in Krakow, when bright, mild days are accompanied by the fragrance of flower blossoms. Rain is most common in summer but can fall at any time of year.
Summer is the peak tourist season in Krakow, but to avoid the crowds it is best to visit the city in spring or early autumn, when the weather is mild and pleasant and there is less chance of rain.
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