Kraków for First-Timers
Kraków is Poland’s second largest city, and it’s a scenic and historic jewel in the crown of this captivating country. There are many things to do in Krakow. The city is set on the banks of the Wisla river and at the foot of the Carpathian mountains. While natural beauty is never far away, the true charm of Krakow lies in its vibrant and youthful population, mythical atmosphere, fascinating architecture, and somber yet important role in history.
Things to do in Krakow
1. Explore the historic center on foot
There’s no better way to explore this 13th century merchant’s town than on foot. Several companies offer walking tours to the city’s main attractions, which are worthwhile if you want some historical context to the beautiful buildings and other sights. But really, the best way to acquaint yourself with Kraków is to simply make your way to the Main Market Square and then get lost in the beautiful alleyways that surround it.
Insider tip: The most popular walking tour is the Krakow Free Walking Tour.
2. Take a day trip to Auschwitz
The World War II complex of Auschwitz-Birkenau is a short drive away from the city of Kraków. While a visit here is sobering and often overwhelming, it forms an important part of understanding the tragedies of the time. A day trip from Kraków will allow you to walk these two concentration camps with an experienced and knowledgeable guide. You’ll tour the barracks, gas chambers, guard towers and railway tracks. More than 1.5 million people were killed at Auschwitz, and the in-depth tour of the two compounds allows for ample time to reflect on the tragic history.
Insider tip: Several companies offer day trips at varying prices from Kraków, with convenient hotel pickups. Once at Auschwitz, an official guide will take you through the compounds. Make sure your tour is competitively priced.
3. Explore the royal castle
Wawel Castle was a powerful symbol of Polish identity during the 16th century. While it’s no longer at the political heart of the country, it’s still a regal and fascinating place to visit. Five separate museums are in the castle, and each of them requires a separate ticket. But a walk around the castle grounds, and the views over the river below, are enticing enough even without entering the museums.
Insider tip: The State Rooms and Royal Private Apartments are the most popular and impressive of the attractions at the castle. If you’re eager to enter the building, consider them as your first options.
4. Learn about Krakow’s history at Schindler’s Factory
Kraków has a fascinating and somber history, and a visit to Schindler’s Factory will put much of this into context. The ceramic factory of Oskar Schindler, who famously saved Jewish workers during the holocaust, is now an interactive museum that walks you through the city’s Nazi occupation during World War II. The museum is large, thorough, and well laid out. A visit here may just be one of the most poignant moments during your visit to Kraków.
Insider tip: Dedicate at least 2 hours to the museum. There’s a lot to read and see, and anything shorter would be to do some of the displays a disservice.
5. Find peace in St Mary’s Basilica
Pay a visit to St Mary’s Basilica in the center of the old town. It is a beautiful brick church with two distinct towers of different height. Each hour there is a hejnał, or bugle call, from the taller tower. There are several myths and legends about the reason for the discrepancy of the heights of the towers that you may learn about on a walking tour, but don’t forget to take a look inside – the interior is striking and beautiful.
Insider tip: Look out for the famous crucifix by German sculptor Veit Stoss on the beautiful baroque altar.
6. Go underground at Wieliczka Salt Mine
Wieliczka Salt Mine is another popular day trip from the city, and allows you to dip into the deep and somewhat eerie mining pits and chambers. There is a comprehensive labyrinth of tunnels across multiple levels, some of which dip to 300 meters below the ground. There are several salt formations throughout the complex, as well as underground lakes and a comprehensive saltworks museum.
Insider tip: You’ll walk over a mile during the tour in relatively cool conditions, so wear suitable shoes and pack an extra layer.
7. Have a night on the town
Kraków’s nightlife is famous. Whether you’re looking for a quiet drink in a dingy bar, or a trendy cocktail in a late-night underground club, you’ll find what you’re looking for in and around the Old Town. You’ll find the most popular clubs in Floriańska and Szewska streets, many of which are in captivating underground cellars. If you’re looking for cheaper drinks and no cover charge then check out Tomasza street and surrounds, where beers are often as low as 1 euro each.
Insider tip: If you’re traveling alone, or you’re not sure how to find the best bars in town, consider going on a Kraków pub crawl. Kraków Through Kraków is one of the most popular companies that offer pub crawls in the city.
Kraków is a fascinating and engaging city brimming with historical significance and infectious energy. And when you consider that it’s just a short train ride away from much of Poland’s natural beauty, including ski resorts and several dramatic hikes, a few nights in town are an absolute must on any Polish rail journey.
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