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Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrKrakow, Poland’s second largest city, is a historical gem. This remarkable city, located in the south of Poland and picturesquely set overlooking the Vistula River, was the seat of the Polish kings and the country’s capital until 1596. Unlike in Warsaw, which was largely destroyed during World War II, Krakow’s churches and castles remain mostly intact and since 1978 Krakow’s Old Town and Kazimierz districts has been on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Krakow has so much to offer - wander the streets of its charming Old Town, marvel at the majestic Wawel Castle, learn about the local Jewish history in Kazimierz, uncover Krakow’s communist past in Nowa Huta and tour Schindler’s Factory Museum. Other notable sights include the St. Mary’s Basilica, the Florian Gate and the Barbican. The city also boasts a good selection of restaurants, beer gardens, bars and clubs. If time allows be sure to walk through leafy Planty, a park that circles the city alongside the old walls. It's a pleasant walk all year round.
The city offers a lot to see and do but it’s also a great base for some fantastic day trips. The most popular excursion out of the city include the Wieliczka Salt Mine, one of the very first Unesco World Heritage sites and the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp from World War II, which is about an hour bus ride outside Krakow.
The best times to visit the city are late spring and early summer and late summer and early autumn, when it is still warm and the crowds have either not arrived yet or already gone home. For sheer snowy romance December and the Christmas markets are also plenty of fun. A trip of 3-4 days should be long enough to discover the beauties in and around the city.
Main Market SquareThe bustling Rynek Glowny, originally built in the 13th century, it is one of the largest medieval squares in Europe. It has been the center of the city’s social, religious and political life since the Middle Ages. Today it still serves as the hub of the city life. Beautiful buildings, horse drawn carriages, outdoor cafés and delightful restaurants which line the square make it a pleasant place to sip a cup of coffee and watch the world go by. The most impressive building on the square is the beautiful twin-spire Gothic cathedral of St. Mary's.
A must visit at the market square is also the legendary Cloth Hall. The art gallery on the upper floor plays home to 19th century Polish art, while its lovely cafés and small arcades with stands selling traditional crafts, amber jewelry, textiles, ceramic as well as other Polish souvenirs, are well worth exploring. Southwest of the Cloth Hall you'll find the imposing Gothic-style 70m-high Town Hall Tower. The lonely structure that stands today was initially built to accompany a Town Hall that was brought down for the purposes of opening up the Main Square in 1820. For a very small fee you can scale the narrow, steep 100-step staircase for a nice bird's-eye view of the Main Market Square below. There are three floors where you can take a break and view some of the artifacts related to the Tower and the city. Note that the access is closed in winter season.
Rynek Underground MuseumThe interactive Rynek Underground museum, located beneath the Main Market Square, was built on the original dig site. The museum boast an amazing array of artifacts and showcases the history of Krakow back as far as the 12th and 13th centuries, giving a very good idea about how the city developed, its role in trade routes of the time, and even offers an insight into the life of people through the ages. The entrance is at the north end of the Cloth Hall, not far from the fountain. The museum is closed on every first Tuesday of the month.
St. Mary’s BasilicaThe eye-catching St. Mary’s Basilica, located in the centre of Old Town and overlooking Rynek Głowny, is a brick Gothic church that was originally built in the 13th century. It features two towers that have different heights and, every full hour, a trumpeter plays the traditional St. Mary's Trumpet Call from the top of the structure’s taller, northern tower. Inside, the exquisite interior with a gold star-spangled blue ceiling, Gothic ornamentation and colorful stained-glass windows will take your breath away. The highlights include the magnificent carved altar, constructed with wood by the German craftsman Veit Stoss in 1489 and Jan Matejko’s wall paintings. There is a small entrance fee, but well worth it.
BarbicanThe Barbican, a circular brick bastion built in the late 15th century, was an important part of Krakow's fortifications. After being invaded by the Tatars in the 13th century city leaders built a wall encircling the city. The Barbican stood outside the main city wall guarding a gate to the city. In the main courtyard there are numerous large poster boards explaining the importance of the structure to medieval Krakow's defenses. The site doesn't take long to visit, but is still worth a stop. Note that it is possible to enter the Barbican only from May until October.
Pharmacy MuseumThe quirky, surprising Pharmacy Museum, located in the Old Town, was founded in 1946. Housed in a splendid 15th century building, it is beautifully displayed and laid out over five floors. The rooms are filled with wonderful antique pharmacy furniture and amazing equipment. Exhibits are well labelled and include an underground laboratory, herb-drying room, ancient apothecary shops, library and collection of apothecary vessels from various periods. Also of note is an exhibit dedicated to the Tadeusz Pankiewicz, who operated a pharmacy in the Krakow Ghetto during World War II. This museum is a hidden gem and does not seem well known.
Wawel Royal CastleThe splendid Wawel Castle, perched on top of the hill of the same name, was the seat of Poland's kings from the early 11th to the late 16th centuries. The mostly Renaissance-style Castle is now a museum, and the historic interior houses State Rooms, Private Royal Apartments, Crown Treasury, Armoury and Poland’s most treasured work of art, Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine. You can walk the grounds for free or choose to tour a specific section of the castle. Each set of rooms is a separate exhibit with a separate entrance fee. Before you leave Wawel Hill, be sure to visit the Dragon’s Den, home of the legendary Krakow dragon. The entrance to the cave is next to the Thieves’ Tower. The cave is 270 meters long but only 81 meters is open to the public. At the exit you'll find a sculpture of the Wawel Dragon that breathes fire every few minutes. Note that, there is a limited daily quota of tickets for some parts, so arrive early during peak seasons.
Wawel CathedralAnother highlight of Wawel Hill is the 14th century Wawel Cathedral. There are churches literally everywhere you turn in the city, but the Wawel Cathedral is incredibly ornate and beautiful. Beside being the traditional Polish coronation site, it also features beautiful interior décor and holds within its naves, chapels and crypts the remains of Polish kings, queens, poets and other important people. In its more recent history, Pope John Paul II was ordained here, The Sigismund bell-tower is quite a climb up steep narrow wooden stairs, but it is well-worth the trip up as the views are superb. Touring the Cathedral is free, however you do have to pay a small fee to climb up the bell tower and visit the basement museum.
National MuseumThe National Museum, located west of the Old Town, is laid out over three floors. The Main Building houses three permanent exhibitions – the interesting Gallery of 20th Century Polish Art, the Gallery of Polish Arms and National Colours boasting a vast array of weapons, uniforms, medals, and the Gallery of Decorative Art which covers everything from furniture, to clothing and jewellery spanning many centuries. The highlight is the painting gallery, which houses an extensive collection of Polish painting and some sculpture covering the period from 1890 until the present day. Entrance fee is very affordable and there are good facilities available; including a really nice coffee shop in the main lobby.
Kazimierz DistrictKazimierz, the historic Jewish quarter of Krakow, is a thriving district with charming narrow streets, historic synagogues, Jewish themed museums, little quirky shops, atmospheric cafés, lively bars and fabulous restaurants. During the World War II, a part of Kazimierz was turned into a ghetto, where jews were deported to before being sent to concentration camps. The most touching memorials are the photographs which can be found at the Galicia Jewish Museum. But there’s more to Kazimierz than its Jewish past. Following the fall of communism in 1989 and, especially with the release of Steven Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List in 1993, Kazimierz has become the hip part of Krakow and a major district of youth-oriented nightlife.
Not to be missed is Plac Nowy, the main square of Kazimierz, where vibrant market, food stands and cafés keep the place alive during the day. If you are interested in Jewish history the Old Synagogue should not to be missed. Built in the 15th century is the oldest medieval synagogue preserved in Poland. Today, it's home to the Museum of History and Culture of the Jews.
Schindler’s Factory MuseumVisiting the factory that saved the lives of thousands of people is a valuable history lesson. The factory of Oskar Schindler, formally a branch of Krakow's Historical Museum, is located on the southeastern edge of the city in the district of Podgorze and houses an impressive, interactive museum. The museum showcases the history of the occupation of the city from September 1939 to 1945, detailing daily life under the Nazis. The Schindler Factory also does a good job at telling the story of the wealthy German factory owner Oskar Schindler and the Jewish prisoners of Plaszow, who inspired the Steven Spielberg’s film. Very well presented exhibits tell the moving story through striking images, film recordings archival documents and dynamic multimedia installations.
Nowa HutaThe Nowa Huta, an industrial district just outside of Krakow, is an important legacy of Communism. Founded by the Soviet Union, Nowa Huta was constructed in the monumental socialist realist architectural style, typical of the Communist era. The authorities created a model communist town with wide streets, spacious boulevards, green parks, flower beds and trees, built around the massive steelworks from which the town took its name. The vast working-class district of Nowa Huta later became one of the centers of the revolution and resistance within Poland, leading to the eventual overthrow of the Communist government. Stroll trough the town and spoil yourself by having lunch at iconic Stylowa Restaurant, which was once the most exclusive restaurant and a meeting place for the elite of Nowa Huta. It is the only restaurant in the area that roots from 1956 and has not changed much since. And be sure to visit a small museum dedicated to the history of Nowa Huta, located close to Ronald Reagan Square, formerly Plac Centralny.
Food & DrinkThere is a wide choice of restaurants surrounding the main square of Rynek Glowny, where international and traditional Polish food is served. Riverside restaurants along the Vistula River around Wawel Castle provide a serene setting for dinner. Krakow’s coolest bars and restaurants can be found in the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz. If you want to try local cuisine for outstanding prices, then find a ‘Bar Mleczny’ or Milk Bar where traditional Polish food, with lots of meat, creamy sauces and delicious pierogi dumplings, is served.
For an authentic Polish breakfast, order a plate of kielbasa sausages, sliced ham and creamy soft cheese. Obwarzanek is the city’s traditional delicacy, a bagel-type dough ring sprinkled with poppy seeds and a little salt. The Zapienkaka; an open-faced baguette topped with melted cheese, mushrooms, meat and a variety of toppings is Krakow's most pervasive quick-eat option. It can be found throughout the city, but the most popular place to get one is the food stall in the centre of the Jewish Quarter. Wash down your meal with Polish vodka, which comes in a variety of flavors, or local beer.
ShoppingThe main shopping areas are around the main square in the Old Town, the Royal Route leading to Wawel Castle, and the Kazimierz district. Ulica Józefa in Kazimierz district boast antique shops and offbeat boutiques. Also in Kazimierz, you can search for bargains in the morning flea market on Plac Nowy Square. Inside the Cloth Hall, located in the heart of the Old Town, you are welcomed by stalls selling all the souvenirs and hand-crafted Polish gifts. In terms of major shopping centres, Pasaż 13, Galeria Krakowska, Galeria Kazimierz and Bonarka City Center offer the perfect mix of shops, restaurants and entertainment. Krakow’s famous jewellers can be found along the famed 'Royal Way', which runs from Rynek Glówny down Florianska Street and Grodzka Street to the Wawel Castle. Just do not forget to exchange your money for zlotys.
AccommodationsOld Town with a variety of accommodation close to the most important attractions, it can not be beaten for convenience and you can easily find mid-range options, with some great luxury accommodation too. Another popular area to stay is the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, about a 15-20 minute walk from the Old Town. You won't find the five star luxury here, but there are a number of atmospheric three- and four-star hotels, just a few steps away from the restaurants and cafés. Room rates are generally highest between April 1 and October 31, as well as over the Christmas and New Year's holidays.
Getting AroundThe best way to get around Krakow is on foot. Much of the Old Town is pedestrianised. If walking is not you thing or the weather is not co-operating, the city has an excellent tram system. Alternatively you could always just get a horse-drawn carriage around town. Taxis are also plentiful and relatively cheap.
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Author: Ayda. Last updated: Nov 29, 2015