Legend has it, Krakow was founded on the slaying of a dragon. There’s no denying that there’s something quite enchanting about the city, from its cobblestone streets lined with horse-drawn carriages to its medieval town square surrounded by old world architecture.
Rich with history, Krakow is one of the most well preserved European cities. While most of Poland was overrun and destroyed by Nazis during World War II, Krakow was chosen as the capital of the General Government, meaning it never got bombed. Known as the country’s cultural hub, there are plenty of things to see and do in this underrated city. Here’s my unmissable guide to Krakow:
Old Town Free Walking Tour
I’m always a fan of walking tours and the 2.5 hour tour of Krakow’s Old Town was super informative. You’ll see the Main Market Square (Europe’s largest medieval market square) with St. Mary’s Basilica, the gothic townhall tower, remains of the medieval city walls, St. Francis Basilica and the famous Wawel Cathedral, Castle and Dragon (all while learning some interesting history). Don’t miss the hourly trumpet signal played from the taller tower of St Mary’s, and pay the few extra dollars to go inside of St. Francis Basilica to see the stunning interior.
See Schindler’s Factory
If you’ve ever seen the movie Schindler’s List then you’ll recognize Schindler’s factory. It’s now a museum that provides a glimpse of what life was like in Krakow during WWII. A small portion focuses on Oskar Schindler’s story and chronicles the years the factory existed.
Eat at a Traditional Milk Bar/ Bar Mleczny
Milk Bars are a uniquely Polish, cafeteria style dining experience left over from the communist era when the government subsidized workers meals. If you’re looking for traditional home-style cooking, Raspberry Grandma (U Babci Maliny) is the spot. It’s tucked away and a little difficult to find as it’s in the basement floor of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences, but definitely worth the search. The menu is huge and dishes are perfect for sharing.
Live Music in a Cathedral
One of my favorite experiences while in Krakow was hearing a string quartet play in the Saints Peter and Paul Church located in the Old Town District. You can buy tickets at the church itself and there’s usually classical music concerts every week. There was something undeniably magical about listening to A. Piazzolla’s “Oblivion” in a 400-year-old Baroque cathedral.
Explore the Jewish Quarter / Kazimierz
You’ll find the hippest bars, restaurants and shops in the historical Jewish district. Despite its tragic role during the war, the rich Jewish culture is still alive and thriving here. There are numerous synagogues and museums and if you’re into vintage there’s an antique market on Saturdays and an open air flea market on Sundays.
Sample the Vodka
Because how can you go to Poland and not try any vodka? While there aren’t any vodka distilleries in Krakow, there is a cute and tiny vodka bar, literally called Wódka (easy to miss if you’re not looking for it). Once I squeezed myself inside I asked the bartender for a selection of his favorites.
Go to Auschwitz and Birkenau
I spent my last day in Poland doing a guided tour of the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. It’s incredibly sad and hard to wrap your mind around the fact that over a million people died here. Besides shedding light on the Holocaust and WWII as a whole, a visit to the camps is truly a profound and life changing experience.
Other Tips, Information and Advice for Krakow
Have your conversion app ready. 1 Euro is around 4 Zloty (PLN). Not accounting for lodging, you can get by with spending 25 euros a day – but I usually spent more.
Krakow is a super walkable city and easy to navigate. There’s really no need to use transport unless you’re in a hurry. One way tram tickets are available for around 4 PLN.
If I had been in Krakow for another day I would have visited the Underground Museum and the Wieliczka Salt Mines.
Pierogis are the pinnacle of Polish cuisine. Try them at Przystanek Pierogarnia. If you’re out late there’s also Przypiecek open 24 hours. Other must-try foods include: sernik (cheese cake), kotlet schabowy (tenderized pork schnitzel), kielbasa sausage, golabki (cabbage rolls in tomato sauce), oscypek (smoked sheep’s milk cheese, bigos (stew), paczki (doughnuts), barszcz (Polish red borscht), and placki ziemniaczane (potato pancakes).
Polish has a reputation as one of the hardest languages to learn, but it doesn’t hurt to try. Here are some essential phrases:
Cześć (cheshch) Hello
Na Zdrowie (nas-dro-v-yea) Cheers
Dziękuję (jen-koo-yea) Thank you
Nie mówię po polsku (nyeh moo-vyeh poh pohl-skoo) I don’t speak Polish
Jedno Piwo Prosze (yedno peevoh prosheh) One beer please
Until the next city!