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 second 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.
Dating from 1257, the Central Market Square was one of the largest squares in medieval Europe and remains the social heart of Krakow. 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 the square. The striking church of St Mary's is an impressive twin-spire Gothic structure while at the centre of the square is the splendid medieval Cloth Hall, its upstairs art gallery housing a collection of 19th-century Polish paintings and sculptures.
Wawel is a hill overlooking Krakow, upon which stands an architectural complex that includes Wawel Castle and 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 history. The Renaissance-style castle is now a museum, with visitors able to see the Royal Private Apartments, Crown Treasury, Armoury, and the State Rooms. Of the many chapels in the cathedral, the golden-domed 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. A number of different guided tours are available so check the official website listed below for details.
The Kazimierz quarter was the centre of Jewish religion, culture, and learning before the Second World War. Badly damaged during the Nazi occupation, it has been rebuilt so visitors can admire the historical architecture and get an experience of what daily Jewish life was once like. The area is 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 Old Synagogue is part of the Historical Museum of Krakow, where the collection of physical memories from the Kazimierz Jewish community is kept.
Situated in the heart of the Jewish Quarter of Krakow, the Galicia Jewish Museum houses a permanent photographic exhibition which is extremely powerful. It documents the history and heritage of the Jews in the villages and towns of Poland, focusing particularly on the Holocaust. Poland lost almost a quarter of its population in World War II, and the Jewish community was decimated. The museum has a bookshop, while also hosting plenty of temporary exhibitions, special events, lectures, and Jewish music concerts. 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.
The Piwnica pod Baranami is a Parisian-style cabaret house located in Krakow's old town, allowing tourists to experience and appreciate the culture, values, and ideals of the city. Created by Piotr Skryznecki in 1956, this bohemian underground cellar soon became a haven for local artists and intellectuals where they would indulge in one of Poland's favourite cultural pastimes: political cabaret. The Piwnica pod Baranami still functions as a cabaret house to this day with performances on Saturdays at 9pm remaining extremely popular, so book your ticket early. A highly recommended tourist activity in Poland, it's a great spot to begin an unforgettable Saturday night.
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.
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. 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.
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.
A UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Monument, the Salt Mine at Wieliczka is a unique underground complex built in the Middle Ages. 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 levels. Centuries-old passageways contain huge crystalline caverns and carved chapels. The highlight is the Blessed Kinga Chapel where everything is carved from salt, dedicated to the patron saint of Polish mine workers. 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.
The Auschwitz concentration camp forms the largest cemetery in the world, preserved as a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust during the Second World War. Visitors can obvserve the structures, ruins, and gas chambers, while visiting exhibits at the museum. The buildings contain displays of photographs and piles of personal articles of the victims, including battered suitcases, and thousands of spectacles, hair, and shoes collected from the bodies. The sheer scale of the tragedy can be experienced at the Birkenau Camp, with a viewing platform to give some perspective over the vast fenced-in area. It 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 along which victims were transported from the ghettos to the camp in crowded box-like carts. 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.
While most tourists to Poland usually content themselves with the wonderful cultural experiences in the old towns of Warsaw and Krakow, a trip into the Polish countryside can be an equally rewarding enterprise. The Bieszczady Mountains run through the extreme southeast of Poland, near the Ukraine and Slovakia borders. A land of snow-capped peaks, tall pine trees, and vast green meadows, the Bieszczady region boasts hiking and mountain bike trails which wind through a rich array of native flora. Found in the UNESCO East Carpathian Biosphere Reserve, animal lovers should look out for lynxes, bears, and wolves.