The Polish Athens, The Polish Mecca
Almost 8 years have passed since my first and only time in this beautiful city, yet my opinion and judgement has not changed but turned to even better. Now after this trip I can finally update one of my older travel guides here in my blog to a much more complete and descriptive one together with a refreshed photo album. To me this felt as visiting a new city from scratch not only for the long time not been, bur for the huge difference in the weather too!. If back in December 2009 it was super cold, grey and dark, rain and the first snow of that winter; this time in March 2017 it was a different story. A proper spring day, sunny and warm to the point of needing to remove our jackets. We could not have asked for more nor been any luckier.
Krakow is the most visited city in Poland, and the facts talk for itself: it’s been the Royal Capital city of Poland for many centuries until 1596 when it was moved to Warsaw. It has always been one of the wealthiest cities in the country, with some of the finest churches, palaces and mansions built. A very large castle growing with every king. An important merchant and trade city since the middle ages, and all this architecture and historic legacy thankfully spared from the destruction during WWII mainly because of Hitler having a special love for this city. You can expect a very large collection of historical buildings everywhere, retaining much of the Medieval urban core almost intact. No wonder why it was one of the first 12 privileged candidates to be inscribed as a World Heritage Site on the very first UNESCO list when this organisation was created in 1978.
In any case, even having so much to see, the city centre is not too big and can easily be visited in full in a day or over a weekend. Also with such a compact historical centre with most of the streets pedestrianised, following a perfect orthogonal urban grid, there is absolute no need for taking any public transportation when visiting the sights.
The hordes of tourists was quite unexpected; it was only the beginning of March and the city was packed everywhere. Forget about having any picture with the sights on their own and expect queues to visit the Cathedral and castle. Yet for a more traditional Krakow and slower rhythm of live, any other street parallel to the central Floriańska Street is your bet. After all, every tour group is taken along the main street because it’s the most touristy, but it’s also nice to walk against the crowds and enjoy a quieter cafe and bar.
When talking about food, I cannot avoid in pretty much copy and paste the same as I use to do with what relates to this subject for any city I visit in Poland. It’s definitely one of my all time favourite, that’s for sure. Dumplings (pierogi), borsch soup, bigos, the many sausages and lots of cheeses to name a few. Yet although there are plenty of restaurants, watch out for their prices; anywhere around the old town can easily be as much as double if not more than nearby streets for absolutely the same, and it does not even have to mean better quality either. Not because a place looks fancy is always a good choice, majority of times this will end up in being the most expensive choice, and probably the worst value for money and smaller portions. Something unbeatable is to search for a good pierogarnia, you will never regret!. But bear in mind something, these places could be as tiny as a small corner with barely place to sit, however the quality of their hand-made pierogi is amazing. I strongly recommend you what is probably the smallest (and the best) in town, Przystanek Pierogarnia, located in the corner of Morsztynowska with Bonerowska, less than 5 min east of the Westerplatte and the old town core.
You must take in consideration that minutes away from the city centre you have one of the greatest man made places on earth, the incredible Wieliczka salt mine. This is without any doubt one of the must do’s while in the region, being the other the most visited place in the country, the infamous Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. With so much to see and do in this area of Poland, a weekend will definitely be too short, but planning a longer break will be ideal; or of course, returning visitors like us in order to enjoy with every trip something new.
For more information about Krakow check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Poland’s currency is the Złoty (PLN). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Krakow
- Kraków Główny Railway Station By the northeast of the city, was built in 1847 and enlarged over the years, one of the largest and most beautiful in Poland.
- Matejko Square At the north of the city, west from the train station and across from the former city walls and Barbakan, is one of the largest in what is the extension of the city, with very elegant buildings on all sides and Saint Florian’s Church marking the north.
- Barbakan Built in the 15th century it became the biggest European defense building of its kind. It was meant to defend the Florian Gate from the attacks of the Osman.
- Former city walls Once fully encircling the medieval town inside, nowadays only the part at the north remain. The rest were demolished to make way for the city’s expansion, and gardens and the ring avenue constructed in place. Along this ring avenue you can find impressive classical buildings all along.
- Juliusz Słowacki Theatre Few meters from the city walls right at the northeast corner of the old town. Was built in 1893 modelled after some of the best European Baroque theatres of the era.
- Saint Florian’s Gate Located at the northern end of Floriańska Street is the only surviving door of the medieval walls.
- Arsenal By the city walls next to the Florain Gate and in between some of the remaining bastions.
- Floriańska Street The most important thoroughfare cutting through the entire medieval old town core from north to south, with some of the most beautiful buildings all along.
- Market Square The Rynek is the centrepoint of the city, one of the most picturesque sights anyone can have of the city. It is also the largest Medieval square anywhere in the world. Plenty of old buildings and churches align at all sides.
-Cloth Hall One of the main attractions in the city is this enormous and beautiful Renaissance building right in the middle of the square. Built in the 14th century in in Gothic style got its Renaissance look in 1555. Nowadays is a museum and shop arcades on the lower level.
-Saint Mary’s Basilica The first basilica was built in 1220 although rebuilt in the 14th century it retains its Gothic style and features the famous wooden altar, the largest Gothic altarpiece in the World. From the church’s main tower there is the clock and a the famous trumpet call (hejnał mariacki) is sounded every hour.
-Statue of Adam Mickiewicz and Sukiennice By the eastern side at the centre.
-City Hall Tower Built in the 13th century in Gothic-Renaissance style it once formed part of the City Hall as overall, but was destroyed by the Austrians in the 19th century. The tower is the solely survivor and where to get the best views of the city from the top.
-Saint Wojciech Church At the southeastern corner of the square is one of the oldest stone churches in Poland at almost 1000 years old in the beginning of the Polish Romanesque architecture.
- Grodzka Street Continuing from the southeastern corner of the Market Square to the south, this pedestrian street leads to the Wawel (castle). It hosts many 16th and 17th centuries buildings and townhouses.
-Dominican Square Along Grodzka at the main intersection before reaching the castle, it is in fact 2 separate squares, one on each side, with churches under the same name at each of them.
-All Saints Square The one opposite Dominican, much larger.
-Saint Francis of Assisi’s Church Built in the 13th century was one of the first constructions in the city in brick. It had to be rebuilt after the great fire of 1850.
-Franciscan Monastery Attached to the church, built from 1260 few years after the Franciscan Order arrived in Krakow.
-City Hall (Wielopolski Palace) It was originally built in 1560 for Hetman Jan Tarnowski, then used for balls, music events. readings and cafe among the bourgeoisie until the great fire of 1850, becoming the city hall from 1864.
-Geological and Archaeological Museums Not right on this square but south behind the City Hall.
-Saint Mary Magdalene Square Farther south along Grodzka, and the next in importance after Market Square.
-Saint Peter and Saint Paul Church Easily recognisable for the statues of the 12 apostles lining the entrance fence at the top. The first Baroque church in the city.
-Saint Andrew’s Church at the corner, from the 11th century in white stone, the finest example of Romanesque architecture in Krakow..
-Column of Piotr Skarga In the middle of this beautiful square, in honour to this militant Jesuit preacher and writer, the first Polish representative of the Counter-Reformation.
-Kanonicza Street Parallel to Grodzka, it runs behind Saint Mary Magdalene Square. Plenty of townhouses along it.
-Church of Saint Giles Marking the very end of Grodzka Streetm just below the Wawel Hill, is home of the Armenian Catholic branch.
- Wawel Hill The former seat of the Polish Royalty for centuries, overlooking the Vistula river and city due to its higher elevation.
-Wawel Castle The landmark of the city is this imposing Gothic castle palace originally built for the reign King Casimir III the Great. Later additions were added over the centuries to the wish of the King to that time. It’s the most historical place in Poland, where you can visit the crown jewels and many of the rooms, while a large portion is also a premier art museum. Among the notable constructions within are:
-Sigismund III Vasa Tower and walls A defensive tower from 1595.
-Chambers Including the Senate and Deputies ones.
-St. Leonard’s Crypt Right under the castle, predating the castle itself. A Romanesque crypt from the 11th century founded by King Casimir I the Restorer, who made Krakow his city and capital of Poland.
-Inner Courtyard From the 16th century in Renaissance style. This area is free of charge to anyone.
-Wawel Cathedral Known by the full name of Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus, is the Polish national sanctuary and coronation site of the Polish monarchs. The current structure is the third reincarnation dating from the 14th century. It is an incredible beautiful building, specially the mix of colours, forms and the game of proportions from the outside. Many Polish Kings and Saints are buried here.
-Viewpoints All along the south, west and northern perimeter of the hill is a walk by the walls offering great views towards the new parts of the city and the Vistula River.
- Kazimierz District South from Wawel Hill, limited along the southern edge by the Vistula River, is the former prominent Jewish district where many renaissance mansions and elegant streets were built. Founded in the 14th century it quickly became the wealthiest neighbourhood in the city.
-Old Synagogue Built in the 15th century is the oldest still standing synagogue in Poland.
-Remuh Synagogue and Jewish Cemetery Where the grave of Moses Isserles rests. It costs 5 PLN to visit both.
-Tempel Synagogue Built in 1862 it still serves for religious purposes.
-Izaak Synagogue Serves as the Jewish Educational Centre.
-Michala Church and Monastery of the Paulins Is one of the most beautiful in the city and also one of the oldest in Poland with origins back to the 10th century.
-Corpus Cristi Church Bożego Ciała in Polish, is a Gothic church erected by Kazimierz the Great in 1340. Bartholomaeo Berrecci, one of the greatest Italian Renaissance artist is buried inside.
-Saint Cathrine’s Church Katarzyny in Polish is another of the churches erected on orders Kazimierz the Great in 1363, also in the Gothic style.
Places and cities near Krakow:
- Wieliczka Salt Mine At just 16 km east from Krakow, this is one of the greatest man made wonders of the world. This UNESCO World Heritage Site salt mines were in use since the 13th century until very recent, 2007, and left outstanding works of art made entirely of salt, even the light chandeliers. An unique must-do when visiting this region of Poland. For a travel guide of the mines check the post here.
- Oświęcim Located 36 km from Katowice, is the location of the sadly world renown Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most infamous concentration camp during the Nazi occupation. Because of the history behind, and the atrocities that here happened, it is left almost untouched ever since its closure as a museum memory of the world, one of the most visited places in Poland, listed an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Katowice Only 80 km west from Krakow, it is the heart of industrial Poland. A rather new city mostly developed from the 18th century. Nothing to compare with stunning Krakow, but good to visit in combination with Auschwitz-Birkenau as you will have the time for doing them both. For a travel guide of the city check the post here.
John Paul II International Airport or Balice as it is also known is 11 km from the city. You can quickly connect via commuter trains to Kraków Główny central train station in about only 15 minutes. A cheaper option are buses 292 and 208 running from the airport to the city centre hourly taking around 40 minutes. Single tickets to the city centre costs 4 PLN.
Within the city there is an extensive network of buses and trams covering every corner. Single tickets vary in price depending on how long time you will be travelling. The cheapest is 2.8 PLN and valid within 20 minutes. 3.8 PLN for 40 minutes or 5 PLN for 1 hour. You can also purchase tickets valid for 24 hours and so on, depending on how long you plan to be in the city, but most important, bear in mind how many times you plan to use the transport, as within the historical centre you won’t need it. Get your tickets in advance or buy a bunch of them to use during your stay. Buses do accept cash payment but cannot accept any payment higher than 5 PLN so try to have the exact change.
There is a great choice of hotels in general in the city. Being the most visited city in Poland due to its history and strategic location serving as a base for numerous excursions, the amount of properties is countless; but it does not mean a good deal unfortunately. Prices are year-round high, likewise this entire region of Poland. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
On the other hand, if you prefer not to stay in a hotel and save at leash half the overall cost, you can check from hundreds of apartments for rent through the Polish site noce.pl. It’s a service equal to airb&b but with larger choice. We used this service in our stay back in December 2009 and stayed at a huge apartment with three enormous bedrooms for the three of us. Not even 2 minutes away from Florian Gate, therefore super convenient walking distance to everywhere in the city. From the booking confirmation I do still have the name, it was Apartment Agava IV. Try to find it if still available for renting through this service; the owner was also really nice.
In our recent visit, we did not stay overnight in Krakow, but near our Katowice’s base. Our choice was the Boutique Hotels Bytom, in ul. Konstytucji 91, 41905 Bytom. A 3* property (more to the category of a 4*), medium size with fantastic reviews. This is translated in excellent service from everyone we interacted, very kind and friendly, a fantastic quiet and comfortable room, very clean and well cared, and a tasty and consistent breakfast. It comes definitely highly recommended by us.