Kraków is a vibrant, culturally rich city in Poland that makes for a great European city break, so read on to read the top things to do in Kraków.
The second city of Poland does have a dark modern history. Like many other places in eastern Europe, it was the site of terrible atrocities during WWII, including the violent ghettoisation of the city’s Jews and mass deportations to Auschwitz Concentration camp. This dark period is memorialised tastefully via public art and museums – and yet the sad memory doesn’t overwhelm or cast a shadow over the city. In fact, I found Kraków to be one of the most vibrant and energetic cities in Europe.
Kraków is small enough that you can explore both the city and Auschwitz during a weekend city break.
1. Explore Kraków’s Old Town
No European city break is complete without visiting the old town – and Kraków has a pretty cool one. In fact, Kraków’s old town was made a UNESCO world heritage site in 1978. It is a sizeable, almost oval-shaped old town, demarcated by a partially-remaining city wall and a circular walkway lined with trees and grass, called Planty Park.
At the centre of the old town is a big, smart square, surrounded by proud, renaissance and gothic-style buildings in a variety of colours. The square is called Rynek Glowny, and it is the largest medieval town centre in Europe, though the architecture around it is more recent. It is ringed by lots of restaurants with outdoor terraces, offering some shade from the hot sun in summer.
At the east corner is St Mary’s Basilica, easily recognisable due to its two uneven towers. The church dates from the 13th and 14th centuries and is considered one of the best examples of Polish Gothic architecture. Tours are available for PLN10.
In the centre of the square is a covered market called The Cloth Hall, built in the 14th Century and rebuilt in the 16th, in renaissance style. It was a major centre of international trade. Nowadays its arched hallways host stalls at ground level and the Sukiennice Museum on the upper floors.
There are also plenty of restaurants and bars to choose from in the old town, including Harris Piano Jazz bar and Miod Malina restaurant.
2. Take a horse & carriage ride
From just outside St Mary’s Basilica in Rynek Glowny, you will notice rows of horses & carriages, with drivers dressed in old fashioned costumes. As cheesy as this might seem, it’s a pretty fun way to see the city centre. Rides typically last between 30 or 60 minutes and take you around the square, south through Grodzka street, west towards the castle and back to the square. It is best to agree on the charge in advance, and you should go to the carriage at the front of the queue like you would with taxis.
I took one of these rides on my own (I was travelling in Poland solo), and did feel rather silly at first, but then I decided just to go with it, and I rather enjoyed it!
Top tip: if you’re in Kraków in summer, find one with a covered seat to provide some respite from the sun.
3. Walk around Planty Park
I mentioned Planty, which surrounds the old town. Established in the 19th Century, it serves as a boundary but walking the park itself is also a lovely thing to do in Kraków.
Planty is a lush green belt of trees and grass that, although being narrow and bounded on the outer edge by busy roads, does effectively feel secluded and quiet. The trees are mature here, providing welcome shade in the summer months, and gorgeous autumn colours in September and October. There are plenty of benches to sit on to eat an ice cream or have a drink. Dotted around are playparks, ponds, landscaped gardens and monuments.
Planty Park’s 40 hectares really add a sense of lightness and freshness to the centre of Kraków.
4. Eat some Polish specialities
There is lots of delicious Polish food and Kraków is a great place to try some local specialities.
One of my favourite polish dishes is Zurek, a hearty meat soup served with boiled egg inside a hollowed-out loaf of bread. I think I like the ingenuity and uniqueness of this dish! It sounds like the soups would soak through the bread – and it will in time – but the bread used has a thick crust that can withstand the heat and fluid of the soup long enough for you to eat it. Top tip: don’t order this as a starter because it is filling even if you don’t at the bread itself!
Another classic Polish dish I recommend you try is Pierogi: stuffed dumplings that are served boiled. They can be stuffed with all sorts of things including meats and cheeses – my particular favourite was mushroom. A good place to try Pierogi is Jama Michalika restaurant in the old town, which also had a very old-school art nouveau interior.
Also, ice cream seemed to be a big thing in Kraków: I went in summer and I kept passing huge queues for ice cream stalls and eventually looked it up and found out it was Good Lood.
Finally, if you don’t eat animal products, there are also plenty of vegan food options in Kraków.
5. Wander the streets
I love to wander the streets of new cities on foot – and Kraków is a particularly great city in which to do that. That’s because it is relatively safe, fairly compact and its city centre is blessed with handsome streets, personality and interesting architecture.
In Kraków, I particularly liked exploring the district of Kazimierz, including the Jewish quarter. To me, it felt lively, with a good choice of places to eat and drink, without having been overly gentrified or tidied up for tourists. There was still the odd spot of decay, which made it feel authentic and interesting to me.
I also found this area to be a great place for food, including Hamsa, which did a very colourful plate of mezze.
6. Watch sunset over the river
The river Vistula flows around Kraków, and there’s a riverside path which is great for taking a break from the city centre.
I enjoyed wandering across the river via the whimsical Kładka Ojca Bernatka footbridge, which features statues suspended on the cable of the suspension budge, and walking the banks of the river. There’s a complex of bars in Forum Przestrzenie, where I sat in a deckchair with an Aperol spritz, watching the sunset over the river and the castle.
7. Enjoy the nightlife
Kraków really feels like a young vibrant city, and its bar scene is buzzing. I didn’t sample every neighbourhood but I did really like the choice in Kazimierz: the cocktail bars and outside terraces around Szeroka and the choice of bars and the buzzy vibe in Miodowa Street.
8. Wawel Castle and Cathedral
If you like historic monuments and old European history, a great thing to do in Kraków is to explore Wawel Hill.
On top of the hill sits Wawel Royal Castle, an important monument in Poland, previously home to Kings of Poland now housing the Crown Treasury and Armoury, plus other museums. There was a royal residence here in the 11th century, but the renaissance-style castle you see today was built in the 16th century.
You can tour the five different permanent exhibitions within the castle (State Rooms, Crown Treasury and Armoury, Art of the Orient. Ottoman Turkish Tents, The Lost Wawel and Wawel Recovered), which each require a ticket, and there are often also temporary exhibitions.
On the same site (Wawel Hill), is Wawel Cathedral, the site of many coronations and funerals of polish monarchs over the centuries. It is free to enter the cathedral, though there are charges to visit the crypt and bell tower.
9. Take a tram ride
Trams are just the best kind of public transport, aren’t they? I think that’s because they are so much more attractive than buses and more exciting than trains.
Now, I’m not going to pretend the modern blue trams in Kraków are as iconic as the yellow ones in Lisbon, but they are still very cool. They’re also pretty easy to use. The tram stops all have line information and timetables, and you can buy tickets either in advance from a kiosk or on board. But don’t forget to validate your ticket when you’re onboard.
Top tip: download the Citymapper app, which works in Kraków and which can be helpful for planning your route around the city, whether using trams, buses or even walking.
10. Visit the Holocaust Memorial & other landmarks
Kraków, like many other cities in Poland and eastern Europe, witnessed atrocities during World War II, including the expulsion and horrific treatment of Jewish people. There are a number of memorials and monuments to honour the victims and those who helped them, including
- Jewish Ghetto Memorial in Plac Bohaterów Getta, which was the main square in the Jewish ghetto and a place for resistors to meet and plan. There’s an art installation of bronze chairs, which speak to me of the emptiness when the ghetto was liquidated.
- Remnants of the ghetto wall at Lwowska street
- Eagle Pharmacy museum, which served was owned by Pole Tadeusz Pankiewicz, who has been honoured by Isxrael as one of the Righteous Amongst the Nations because of the help he provided to the imprisoned Jews in the ghetto
- Schindler’s Enamel factory, where Oscar Schindler, made famous by the movie Schindler’s List, employed Jews as a way to save them from the holocaust.
There’s been a lot of talk in travel journalism of dark tourism, which is where people travel to places associated with death or torture or other macabre things – sometimes for dubious reasons, for example, to sadistically revel in the horror of it.
However, for the record, I don’t consider these holocaust memorials to be inherently part of dark tourism. I imagine some people might visit them for dubious reasons, but I think it is possible to do so for good reasons, for example, to honour the dead and to remember the atrocities in the hope they won’t be repeated.
Most of these holocaust sites are in and around the Podgorze district, which is south of the river and reachable from the city centre by tram.
11. Visit Auschwitz
If you are interested in paying respects to those affected by WWII violence and/or the holocaust, you may want to visit Auschwitz, one of the Nazi extermination camps, and the origin of the final solution to exterminate the Jews using gas chambers.
The Auschwitz Memorial & Museum is in the town of Oświęcim, which lies 70km from Kraków. It is easy to visit from Kraków by car, bus or train, and you don’t need more than a day to do it.
I wrote a whole article this, so click here to read all about what to expect when visiting Auschwitz, including how to get there.
Where to stay in Kraków
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I enjoyed my stay in the Aparthotel Oberza in Kraków. It is located in the middle of Kazimierz, so it was walkable to get anywhere central. In addition, it has some charming Art Nouveau design and was quiet and felt safe (which was important to me, as I visited Krakow as a solo traveller).