A traveler’s guide to Krakow, Poland
Krakow was the ancient capital of Poland and it’s been around since the seventh century. Historically speaking, it remains mostly intact despite having lived through two world wars. During World War II, Hitler used Krakow as an administrative city for the Third Reich, transforming it to a completely German city, confining Jews into ghettos before marching them to nearby Auschwitz concentration camp. Near the end of the war in 1945, the Soviets freed Poland from the Nazis. Fortunately for Krakow, it was one of the few eastern European cities that did not get bombed during the war. Today, much of the city remains intact, retaining its vintage charm and historical monuments.
Krakow’s Old Town in its entirety has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Krakow as a whole is the most popular tourist destination in Poland. Some might say it is similar to Prague but less crowded with tourists with more budget-friendly prices. If you’re planning to visit, here are some musts for things to see and do in and around Krakow.
Main Market Square (Rynek Glówny) is an absolute necessity
In the center of Old Town Krakow is the Main Market Square, the largest medieval market square in all of Europe. It has been around since the 13th century. Here you will find some old world, cobblestone charm with no shortage of sidewalk cafes, horses and buggies, and a whole lot of pigeons.
The Cloth Hall sits front and center in Main Market Square. From medieval times up to today, it has been a busy market, though today it is less of a traditional Polish market and more of a place for tourists to shop for souvenirs.
While in the square, you won’t miss St. Mary’s Basilica (Kosciol Mariacki). This church is gorgeous inside and out, adorned with Gothic altarpieces and a bright blue ceiling. You can also climb to the top of the church’s tower (all 239 steps) for an incredible view of the Krakow. Plus, every hour on the hour, a bugler plays what is called the “hejnal,” a bugle call, from the windows of St. Mary’s Tower. Only ten people can climb the tower every 30 minutes, so make sure to make a reservation in advance at the ticket office.
Don’t miss these three picturesque streets in Old Town
Florianska Street (Ulica Florianska) begins at Florian’s Gate. Florian’s Gate used to be the entrance to the old city, which was protected by ancient walls during medieval times. For a small fee, you can walk on top of the walls for an interesting view of Florianska Street. The street itself runs until the Main Market Square. It’s only three blocks, but it is famous for its charming vibe. Lined with boutique shops, tourist shops, some little stores, and a couple of restaurants, taking a stroll here will bring you back to the old world.
Next is Kanonicza Street, said to be Krakow’s oldest street, another gorgeous photo-op.
Finally, make sure you visit Grodzka Street. It’s a wide and lovely street running out south from the Main Market Square in the direction of Wawel Castle. Aside from the many tourist shops and cafes that line the street, there are also two famous churches, Church of Saints Peter and Paul and St. Andrew’s Church, right next door to one another.
While you’re wandering the streets, it is an absolute must to stop at a cafe (or two, or three) try some of Poland’s famous vodka and perogies, as well as other staples in Polish cuisine.
Stroll around Wawel Castle and Wawel Cathedral
Just south of Old Town Krakow, you’ll find Wawel Castle and Wawel Cathedral. Within this complex, there is much to see and do, enough to last you at least half a day. It’s free to simply take a walk around the Wawel Castle grounds, where you’ll find plenty of historic buildings, an interesting cathedral, and gardens. It’s most peaceful here in the morning before the crowd of tourists shows up. The grounds open at 6am. The castle also has a number of museums on site, including the Crown Treasury and Armory, the Royal Apartments, the State Rooms, and Sandomierska Tower.
The Westminster Abbey of Poland is Wawel Cathedral. In its tombs lie many of the most important figures in Polish history. To enter the cathedral itself is free, but for a small fee, you can also visit the Pope John Paul II Museum, the crypt, Sigismund Bell Tower, and some small chapels.
The old Jewish neighborhood Kazimierz
Before World War II, Kazimierz was home to a bustling Jewish community in Krakow. However, Jews were forced out during the war and moved to the ghetto. Post-war, the neighborhood was neglected and nearly empty, until in 1993, when Schindler’s List was filmed here. Jozefa Street is where you’ll be able to check out a very recognizable part of the film. If you’re interested in finding it, Google Maps labels it as Schindler’s Stairs.
Now, Kazimierz is a trendy area full of quality bars, restaurants, and shops, not to mention many synagogues and boutiques. The vibe is much different than Old Town Krakow.
Not far from Kazimierz you’ll find Oskar Schindler’s Factory. He was the German who saved 1,200 Polish Jews during World War II. The factory has been turned into a museum in his name where his old enamel factory stood. The unique museum has 45 rooms which are all uniquely designed to resemble specific places: a labor camp, a railway station, a hair salon, and more.
Ghetto Heroes’ Square is also not far Kazimierz. It is the site of the open space of the ghetto where Jews were forced to live in stiflingly crowded tenements during Nazi occupation. The square was able to provide a bit of air and relief from the crowded living spaces for awhile until it turned into a place of horror as families were ripped apart during deportation to concentration camps. It was renovated in 2005, and atop the square are big, metal chairs to represent the almost 70,000 Jews who were deported from this very site.
Pay your respects at Auschwitz-Birkenau
One of the biggest tragedies in modern history was the extermination of around six million Jews at the hand of Nazi Germany during World War II. Therefore, a visit to the most renowned Nazi concentration camp, just 75 kilometers outside of Krakow, is an important, albeit melancholy, thing to do in Krakow. Auschwitz is now an elaborate memorial to everyone who died during the Holocaust.