Krakow is straight out of a fairytale. The medieval architecture adds to the sense of history here. When you look beneath the surface there is much to be explored in Krakow. Krakow was originally the Polish capital back in 1038 and since then has traded hands numerous times. Having survived world wars, kingdoms, and partitions, it is no wonder that Krakow is steeped in history.
A fact that I rather enjoy is that Krakow is the largest student town in Europe (200,000 students out of the 800,000 population) which gives it a youthful and vibrant atmosphere. It is also perfect for student and budget travelers because prices are affordable.
A trip Central/Eastern Europe is simply incomplete without a visit to Krakow. If you have to visit one Polish city, this is the pick. Krakow is well-connected to other destinations and is a great place to base yourself in Eastern Europe.
A trip to Eastern Europe is simply incomplete without a visit to Krakow
Although it would take years to fully explore the cultural capital of Poland there are a few things which should definitely be seen in your trip. I have tried to pick the most relevant and pertinent experiences from my time in Krakow (as well as some recommendations on eating, drinking and sleeping, of course).
Best Things to Do (and See)
The mismatched architecture of Wawel Castle is a testament to how much has happened here. This iconic building is representative of how much historical change Krakow has seen in its lifetime. If you are visiting Krakow you have to pay a visit to Wawel. There have been royal residences here since the 11th century but most of the Castle you see today is from the 16th century. Highlights here include Wawel Cathedral, a Leonardo de Vinci masterpiece, and the State Rooms themselves.
Krakow’s Main Square (otherwise known as the Market Square) is pretty hard to miss. As the largest medieval square in Europe there is plenty to explore here. Surrounded by beautiful pastel coloured buildings and churches it is a picturesque place to soak up the atmosphere. The square is as lively as it is beautiful with frequent markets, carriages, and crowds of people.
Auschwitz Concentration Camp
Auschwitz concentration camp lies not far from Krakow and is a place I would recommend visiting. The site comprises of both Auschwitz I and II which was the largest concentration camp complex during the Holocaust. Now a memorial, this site spreads an important message about our past and how to not repeat mistakes. It is a powerful and eerie place to experience, and one that should not be missed. Visiting Auschwitz provides a deeper and graver understanding of the immense damage that occurred in the 20th century.
READ MORE: Visiting Auschwitz Concentration Camp
St. Mary’s Basilica
This Gothic church dominates Krakow’s Main Market Square at 80m tall. With a wonderfully carved altarpiece a trumpet played every hour, there are plenty of quirks that make St Mary’s an iconic piece of Polish history. According to the records, the basilica was first founded in 1221 but was destroyed during the Mongol invasion (the hourly trumpet is in honour of the trumpeter who was shot during the invasion), but was rebuilt in 1290. As with most things in Krakow, since conception there have been many alterations, rebuilds, vaults and altars… you know the drill.
If you are visiting St Mary’s make sure you see the pulpit, the epic gothic altarpiece, the pipe organ, and try and stick around to hear the trumpet.
Krakow Cloth Hall
The Cloth Hall is the most recognisable part of Krakow’s Main Market Square and used to be the site of trade, merchants, and business. There is an interesting museum in the upper floor which holds permanent Polish art exhibitions.
Planty Park is one of the largest parks in Krakow and is my personal favourite. It encircles the Old Town. The lush trees make it a special place in the city and there are plenty of benches to people watch.
Take A Trip To The High Tatras
Although it is not in Krakow, the High Tatras Mountains are not too far away. If you have a bit of time in Krakow I would recommend a side trip to the High Tatras Moutnains (either the Polish or Slovakian side). The fresh air and beautiful scenery is well worth it.
READ MORE: Hiking The High Tatras Mountains
Wieliczka Salt Mine
The Wieliczka Salt Mine is located in the town of Wieliczka which is not far from Krakow, but it played a large role in Krakow’s history. Since opening in the 13th century the mine produced table salt right up until 2007. There are plenty of things to see here including salt chapels, statues and sculptures. The mine is 287 kilometres long and reaches 327 meters deep — so it’s pretty impressive.
[space size=”20px”]You may have heard of Oskar Schindler from Schindler’s List. Here in Krakow you can see the famed factory which played a huge role in WWII. Now a museum, there is a lot to learn about the Jewish experience in Krakow during the War. To help bolster your understanding about the history of Krakow and WWII itself, I would highly recommend this museum. It is well laid out and incredible informative.
Polish food is comfort food. Potatoes, cream, and meat mmmmm. There are plenty of great places to eat cheaply in Krakow (even the expensive places aren’t really that costly). If you want a cool experience then you can always try food from the stalls in the Main Market Square; it’ll cost more than at a restaurant but nothing can beat the atmosphere!
If you want to try the Polish dumplings ‘Pierogi’ then check out Przystanek Pierogarnia for affordable, authentic and mouth-watering pierogi.
When you need a fab breakfast then Milkbar Tomasza is a cheap and well-rated option.
Good and cheap feeds for lunch and dinner include Polakowski Self Service Restaurant, Chata, and Glonojad restaurants. Generally, if you wander away from the main square you will find plenty of local restaurants ready to serve you with authentic and hearty meals.
Like most other Eastern European countries, it is not that hard to find somewhere to grab a drink. There is no shortage of bars, clubs and beer gardens to quench your thirst. A few bar recommendations from me include: House of Beer, Wodka, Piec Jazz Club, PUB Propaganda, and Pub Enigma.
If you are want to go on a pub crawl then there are quite a few options: Krawl Through Krakow and Krakow Pub Crawl are just two options.
As you may have read in 14 Weirdest Places I Have Ever Stayed, my experience in Krakow started out to be pretty awful (think rehab hostel instead of youth hostel — oops, that was definitely lost in translation).
If you are going to stay somewhere in Krakow then I would highly recommend Greg and Tom Hostels which have a party hostel (if you’re keen), Beer House Hostel and a home hostel. So this series of hostels caters for all ranges of young traveller and provides a great service. With amazing workers, the best atmosphere in town, and plenty of organised activities, staying at Greg and Tom’s will be one of the best choices you make in Krakow.
You can book a room at Greg and Tom Hostels here
Hope you enjoyed this Krakow guide. If you have questions or comments, please leave them below — would love to hear from you!
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26 thoughts on “Krakow Guide: Exploring Poland’s Cultural Capital”
Krakow seems like a place I would really enjoy. Fact that there are so many students here is interesting and good to know. Although I’m no student, I like being around young crowds….not too young though 😉
I hope to visit this place sometime and would use your guide for it.
Thank you ?? As a student myself I love the student vibe and I’m glad you do too! Hope you enjoy Krakow 🙂
Krakow looks amazing! A polish guy I used to work with always told me that if I am to visit Poland, Krakow is the place to go! He recommended it over Warsaw.
I was planning on going for Christmas this year, but now the plans have changed and I’ll be in Budapest instead. I’m still hoping to make it in the near future! When I do, I’ll definitely be using this post as a reference for things to check out!
Yeah I would recommend Krakow over Warsaw too, but both are very interesting to visit for different reasons! Budapest will be wonderful over Christmas 🙂 How long will you be there for?
Hey there! Nice story, not to mention the beautiful pictures! 🙂 saving the destination in mind, for our next trips :)) Cheers!
Thanks Anita! It is definitely worth visiting if you’re over that way 🙂
The castles are so grand and beautiful! Poland was never high on my Europe list but this post has changed my mind.
It is definitely up there in my favourite European countries — one that is always surprisingly full of fantastic things to do! The castles are certainly a bonus 😀
Awesome photos! I am usually not a fan of historic and cultural sites, but I will definitely keep Krakow in mind when I am planning a Euro-trip.
It’s an awesome place for other stuff too — great food, nightlife, and people! Plus very close to the Tatra Mountains for a dose of nature.
Love your blog by the way, can’t wait to visit Indonesia one day!
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Thank you! Glad you enjoyed.
Now this really is a wonderfully thorough account of a visit to Krakow. And while I have been there a number of times and thought I had managed to take it most of the major sites, you certainly do have some great suggestions that I hadn’t even heard of. Drinking in Krakow is so much fun and I’ll be sure to check out some of these bars next time I find myself there
It’s a pretty cool city and I found that there is a lot more to do there than you may first think! Yeah hahah drinking there is fun (and dangerously cheap) 😀
Krakow looks amazing. I’ve always wanted to go, but these tips make me want to hop on a plane tomorrow. The food looks awesome, especially the Przystanek Pierogarnia. Russia has very similar ones called Pelmeni. Interesting how similar the some of the foods are in Eastern Europe.
Yeah there are a lot of similarities! Krakow is absolutely stunning and you should totally check it out 🙂
OMG! I am so much in love with this place! I remember the time I spend there with my family. It was a great fun! Thanks for sharing this post! reminds me of good times! Cheers!
It’s such a beautiful city 🙂 Glad you enjoyed your time there and the post!
Great post, packed with information and I love your photos. I haven’t been to Poland yet, but plan to visit Krakow soon. I have bookmarked this and will be coming back to it before I do. Keep up the great work!
Thanks so much, Matt! Hope you can get to Krakow — it’s well worth it.
You have mentioned the concentration camp and I also first came across the name of Krakow while reading about WWII. So, I always had a gloomy image of the city. But thanks to this post I can see that there is much more to it, so much so that I need to book a ticket right now!
There is definitely a long and complex past here, but it is so important to experience and learn, I believe 🙂 You should definitely visit Krakow (and Poland in general) if you have the chance.
Hahhaong I laught so much when reading about the rehab hostel on the other post!! Thats so crazy!! Bit loove the post, its just as I remember Krakow when I was there 2001. Its one of the most beautiful towns in europe and so much to see and do. I didn’t visit the salt mine though.
Hahhahahah yeah it was not such a great time at that hostel ? ? It is such a beautiful city through it made up for it!
If I would be asked to fly now… I would fly to Poland. The architecture is so magnificent!! I agree with you. I feel like I’m in a movie so beautiful country. I would surely visit your country if I have a chance. I promise to take a photo at the Main square!
Peculiar article, exactly what I needed.