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)
Dating from 1257, the Central Market Square was one of the
largest squares in Medieval Europe, and remains the social heart of
Krakow today. Surrounded by historic buildings, museums and
magnificent churches, the impressive expanse of flagstones is a hub
of commercial and social activity. Flower sellers, ice-cream
vendors, musicians, pigeons, students and groups of tourists fill
Occupying the centre of the square is the splendid medieval Cloth Hall, a covered arcade with a soaring vaulted interior where merchants once sold their wares; today, it is filled with lively market stalls. The upstairs art gallery houses a collection of 19th-century Polish paintings and sculptures. Along the outside walls of the building there are elegant terrace cafes. Most famous of these is Noworolski, which was the centre of Krakow social life before the war, with Lenin a notorious regular. The cafe has now regained its reputation as the prime cake and coffee venue in the city.
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.
Overlooking the city of Krakow is Wawel, a hill topped with the
fascinating architectural complex that includes Wawel Castle and
beside it, the gothic Wawel Cathedral. It was here that all the
Polish kings ruling between the 14th and the 17th centuries were
crowned and buried, and it lies at the heart of Poland's royal
The Renaissance-style Royal Castle is now a museum, and the historic interior houses an astonishing collection of treasures from the Polish monarchy, including tapestries, period furniture and paintings. Visitors can see the Royal Private Apartments, Crown Treasury, Armoury, and the State Rooms. The Royal Cathedral was the coronation and burial site of all of Poland's monarchs, many of whom are interred in the Royal Tombs. Of the many royal chapels, the golden-domed Renaissance Chapel of King Sigismund is the finest. The bell tower can be climbed for views over the city and to see the enormous 11-tonne bell housed within.
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
Once a separate town and now an inner suburb of Krakow, the
Kazimierz quarter was the centre of Jewish religion, culture and
learning, and the home of the city's large Jewish population before
the war. Badly damaged during the Nazi occupation, with most of the
residents either killed or deported to the nearby Holocaust death
camps, today it has been rebuilt so visitors can admire the
historical architecture and get an experience of what daily Jewish
life was once like.
Renewed interest in the district was sparked by Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List which was set in Kazimierz, and the Jewish culture of the area is being enlivened by art galleries, kosher restaurants and numerous cultural events. The Oskar Schindler Factory Museum is itself a popular tourist attraction in Krakow, dedicated to the memory of Schindler and the Jewish workers he managed to save from the death camps; the museum is housed in the actual enamelware factory once owned by Schindler.
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
Situated in the heart of Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter of
Krakow, the Galicia Jewish Museum houses a permanent photographic
exhibition called "Traces of Memory" which is extremely powerful
and interesting. The exhibition documents the history of the Jewish
people in the villages and towns of Poland, particularly
documenting the Holocaust; Poland lost almost a quarter of its
population in World War II, and the Jewish community was
This poignant museum also hosts plenty of temporary exhibitions, a range of special events, lectures and Jewish music concerts and has a well-stocked bookshop. The museum is a registered charity in Poland and the UK and aims to discourage negative stereotypes and misconceptions about the Jews in Poland and educate the public about Jewish history and heritage. The museum is housed in a wonderful building that is an attraction in itself and the exhibitions are very well organised and presented.
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
A visit to the Piwnica pod Baranami ('Cellar Under the Rams') -
a Parisian-style cabaret house located in Krakow's Old Town
district - is probably the shortest route tourists can take to
experiencing the culture of the city, and to gaining an
appreciation for its most strongly-held values and ideals.
The Piwnica pod Baranami was created by Piotr Skrzynecki in 1956, in a suitably bohemian underground cellar, and soon became a haven for local artists and intellectuals; a place for them to meet, exchange ideas, and indulge in one of Poland's favourite cultural pastimes, the political cabaret. The cabaret's reputation grew throughout the latter half of the 20th Century, and soon became a symbol for the eccentricity (and indeed, the stifled talent) of the local artists of the area. The Piwnica pod Baranami still functions as a cabaret house to this day: performances are on Saturdays at 9pm and remain extremely popular, so book your ticket early.
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 Salt Mine at Wieliczka is a unique underground complex that
has been in continuous use since its construction in the Middle
Ages, and is now a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Monument. The
series of labyrinthine tunnels, chambers, galleries and underground
lakes are spread over nine levels and reach a depth of more than
1,000ft (304m), but visitors are restricted to a tour of three
Following winding passageways, hand-hewn between the 17th and 19th centuries, visitors are guided to magnificently carved chapels, past salt sculptures created by previous mine workers and through huge crystalline caverns. Among the chambers is the oldest creation in the mine, the 17th-century solid salt Chapel of St Anthony. The highlight of the tour is the Blessed Kinga Chapel, dedicated to the patron saint of Polish mine workers. Everything in this huge, ornate chapel is carved from salt, including the altar and chandeliers, and the walls are covered in beautiful sculptured pictures. A dark, clanking lift whisks visitors back to the surface at the end of the guided tour.
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
The Auschwitz concentration camp is actually made up of three
camps - Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau and Auschwitz III.
Together the complex forms the largest cemetery in the world,
preserved as a sombre memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, and
commemorating the hundreds of thousands of people exterminated
there by the Nazis during the Second World War. The
Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum was established in 1947 and visitors have
access to both camps and can wander freely around the structures,
ruins and gas chambers, and visit the exhibits displayed in the
surviving prison blocks at Auschwitz I.
The hushed atmosphere is one of shock and revulsion from the moment visitors enter the barbed-wire compound through the iron gate, ironically inscribed with the words 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (Work Makes Free). The buildings contain displays of photographs and horrific piles of personal articles of the victims, including battered suitcases, and thousands of spectacles, hair and shoes collected from the bodies. The experience is vivid and disturbing, though also deeply humanising. There are general exhibitions dedicated to the Jews and their history, as well as an interesting documentary film screened in the museum's cinema.
Birkenau sees far fewer tourists as it has less visitor facilities and much of the camp was destroyed by the retreating Nazis, but it is here that the sheer scale of the tragedy can be experienced, with a viewing platform to give some perspective over the vast fenced-in area stretching as far as the eye can see. Birkenau was the principal camp where the extermination of millions took place, a chillingly efficient set-up with rows of barracks and four colossal gas chambers and ovens. Purpose-built railway tracks lead through the huge gateway, terminating in the camp, with which victims were transported from the ghettos to the camp in crowded box-like carts, often being led straight into the gas chambers upon arrival. A trip to the Auschwitz Memorial Museum is a must for any visitor to Poland who wishes to experience some kind of sobering communion with one of the greatest atrocities in the history of the world.
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.
While most tourists to Poland stick to the cities and content
themselves with the wonderful cultural sights that can be
experienced in the Old Town areas of Warsaw and Krakow, a trip into
the Polish countryside - and particularly, the southern Bieszczady
Mountains - is a very rewarding enterprise. Bieszczady is a
mountain range that runs through the extreme southeast of Poland,
near the borders with Ukraine and Slovakia.
A land of snow-capped peaks, tall pine trees, vast green meadows and a rich array of native flora and fauna, the Bieszczady area is not only gorgeous, but offers plenty of well-maintained hiking and mountain biking trails, many of them wending their way through the UNESCO East Carpathian Biosphere Reserve. Animal lovers should look out for the lynxes, bears and wolves that can be found in the mountains.
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: City bus services 208 and 192 leave from the roundabout in front of the passenger terminal and leave regularly to the city centre. Taxis are also available outside the arrivals hall and take 20 minutes to get to the city centre.
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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