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My trip to Krakow was my first trip to Poland and it was a pleasant surprise. Although the outskirts of the city have an industrial landscape, the Old Town is one of the nicest in Europe.
Why visit Krakow? Because my colleague from Krakow, at the time, rightly extolled the virtues of her native city on a regular basis.
So why should you visit Krakow? Because the city has a number of historical sites, the majority of which are conveniently located within the Old Town. Krakow is great value for money when it comes to accommodation and dining. And the Old Town is very pretty and quaint.
In this post, I will outline the historical sites worth seeing both within the Old Town and outside. I will also offer tips/information on accommodation and transport.
WHY VISIT KRAKOW: SITES TO SEE
The Old Town is at the heart of Krakow. While there are many sites to see in the Old Town, it’s simply a great place for meandering idly. The Old Town also has excellent and well-priced cafes, restaurants and bars. You will not go hungry or thirsty in Krakow Old Town.
MAIN MARKET SQUARE: This large square, the largest medieval square in Europe, is at the heart of the Old Town and is known as Rynek Glowny in Polish. Along with open air markets, it has a number of sites located within its perimeter that are worth visiting. The Christmas Market stalls are located in the main market square.
At the centre of the square is the Cloth Hall which contains an indoor market. Access to the Rynek Underground museum is via the Cloth Hall although tickets should be booked in advance for this.
The Town Hall Tower, dating back to the 15th century, is on the west side of the main market square. It’s possible to climb to the top for a rooftop view of the Old Town. More about rooftop views later.
The other main site in the market square is St. Mary’s Basilica on the east side. It is one of many churches in Krakow but what makes St. Mary’s unusual is the lack of symmetry in its external front towers.
WAWEL HILL: Continuing to the end of Ul. Kanonicza one will find Wawel Hill, one of the main sites to see when visiting Krakow. Wawel Castle and Wawel Cathedral are the main buildings on the hill. The grounds of the castle are free to enter as is the cathedral. The views from the grounds of the castle are worth the trip alone
The castle contains a number of entities that have an admission fee such as the Crown Treasury and Armoury, State Rooms, Cathedral Museum and Royal apartments.
At the southern end of Wawel Hill, by the banks of the Vistula River, lies the fire-breathing statue of a dragon. The sculpture is based on the Wawel Dragon of folklore legend. This is best viewed at dusk/night-time as the dragon spews fire thanks to the gas nozzle located inside the structure.
ARCHDIOCESAN MUSEUM: One of Krakow’s most famous residents was Karol Wojtyla, better known to the world as Pope John Paul II. The Archdiocesan Museum on Ul. Kanonicza, south of the main market square, is where Karol lived as a young priest and as Bishop of Krakow.
OSKAR SCHINDLER’S HOUSE: Krakow’s other well-known resident was Czech entrepreneur Oskar Schindler. His house is now open to the public as a visitor centre. Although located on Straszewskiego which is slightly outside the environs of the Old Town, it’s adjacent to Wawel Hill.
ST. FLORIAN’S GATE & BARBICAN: On the northern edge of the Old Town lies St. Florian’s Gate. It began as a defence feature but became the main entry to the Old Town over time.
Like St. Florian’s Gate, the spherical-shaped Barbican beside the gate dates back hundreds of years. As the name suggests, it was a fortified outpost and was used in the defence of the city. It’s now a museum.
PLANTY PARK: If you search for Krakow Old Town on Google Maps, you’ll see that it’s shaped like an ice-cream cone with a green area surrounding it. This area is Planty Park and it’s a great place for chilling out, watching buskers and eating ice-cream, particularly during the busy summer months.
OUTSIDE OLD TOWN
OSKAR SCHINDLER FACTORY: This factory building houses two museums: Schindler’s Factory Museum and MOCAK (see below). The Schindler Factory Museum hosts a permanent multimedia exhibition on the Nazi occupation of Krakow.
MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART IN KRAKOW (MOCAK): For an insight into post-WWII works and the current vibrant art scene of Poland, this is a good place. It also houses works by international artists.
OUTSIDE OF KRAKOW CITY
The two most popular day trips from Krakow city are to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. While I didn’t visit the salt mine, it came recommended by other travellers.
I’ve written a detailed post about my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, easily the most harrowing and important day trip I’ve ever done on my travels.
HOW MANY DAYS IN KRAKOW
All of the sites within and adjacent to the Old Town can be covered comfortably in two days. Allow half a day for the Schindler Factory complex and a full day for an Auschwitz day trip.
Krakow is located in southern Poland and is a popular short-break destination. It is well connected to the rest of Europe by budget airlines and flag carriers. It is also well connected to neighbouring Slovakia, Czech Republic and Ukraine by bus and train. Poland is part of the Schengen Zone.
The Old Town and the immediate environs are compact and therefore walkable. Krakow has a public bus and tram transport system but I didn’t use either as I stayed in the Old Town. This website is good for navigating the public transport system.
Buses 208, 209, 252 are the public transport options to get from Krakow Airport to the city centre.
I took a guided tour to Auschwitz.
Krakow is a reasonably priced destination so staying in the city centre is a viable option for all types of budgets. Booking.com has an excellent selection of great-value options within and adjacent to the Old Town.