Krakow was another of my 2016 adventures, and it was an unexpected gem of a destination and definitely high up of my list of places to travel to again. I was recommended by a friend to visit, and it was so budget friendly that I combined it with my trip to Prague, via a bumpy sleeper train.
If you are looking for an extremely friendly city to visit, that has both good food and vodka, and so much interesting culture and history to explore, Krakow is your destination. As with many Eastern European cities, there is a lot of WWII historical places to see, a thriving Jewish community and the most beautiful architecture and buildings you’ll ever experience.
What are we waiting for?! Let’s jump straight in.
As per usual, we flew with Ryanair (commission now please Mr O’Leary?) from Stansted into Krakow for mega cheap. The flight is pretty quick, and because of that we pre-booked a taxi transfer via Krakow Shuttle for 18 euros. Our driver was super chirpy, and talked to us about his recommendations for the area and best places to try some vodka!
As an aside, every single person we came across in Krakow was outrageous friendly and helpful. We had a completely different experience in Prague (we travelled between these two countries in the same trip), and honestly I don’t think I’ve met a more friendly bunch of people than I did in Poland. It’s why I’m desperate to go back!
Flights and transfers aside, we did the entire trip on foot. Genuinely, Krakow is so small that you really will not require public transport or taxis so save your pennies for pierogi or schnitzel. Taxis are cheap, so if you are going further afield to say Auschwitz or the Salt Mines, get your hotel to book in advance for you. You can go to these places via bus, but in height of season these can be packed.
Where To Stay
After our Airbnb fell through last minute (grrr), I headed quickly across the Booking.com to try and find a place to lay our heads for a couple of nights. The week before we were due to fly I found the Art + Garden Residence, located just 10 minutes from the centre of the Old Town and only £97 for a two night stay with breakfast. Bargain.
Stylishly finished (and relatively new when we stayed last year), they have a restaurant on site with a pretty garden, free WiFi and an extremely helpful front desk who happily arranged our taxis to Auschwitz for us last minute. Whilst you can get rooms right in the heart of the Old Town, they are more expensive so I’d totally recommend staying just 10 minutes out for the best value deals.
For a small city, there really is a fair amount to do, both in Krakow itself and a short journey away. By taking a day outside of main Krakow there were things we missed off our list (like the Salt Mines, exploring inside Wawel Castle and Schindler’s Factory) but if you plan your time carefully you can see much of what Krakow has to offer in 3 short days.
One for the history buffs – Krakow is definitely a city where WWII historical chat is in abundance. Depending on your viewpoint this can be a good or a bad thing – personally, I loved finding out more about Krakow’s role in the war and Polish modern history more generally.
We started off with a Old Town free walking tour via Cracow Free Tours. It was absolutely brilliant and our guide, Ela took us from St Mary’s Basilica all the way to Wawel Castle. I’d highly recommend that, and the free tour of Kazimierz that they also offer (more details below).
There’s no getting away from it. If you are visiting Krakow, in my opinion there is no excuse not to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the most important locations in modern European history. I won’t lie, it was a sobering, heart-wrenching experience that I cannot truly put into words, and I didn’t take any photos for obvious reasons. But it had a profound impact on me, and I’d recommend visiting these two concentration camps, located very close together (you get to go to both on a guided tour ticket, which again I’d suggest is the best way of doing it).
We pre-booked a timed entrance, guided tour which I believe is the best way of truly understanding these locations. General entrance is free, but you should “book” your entry time.
Cost: Free (but recommended to book), or 45 PLN per person for a 3.5 hour tour with a guide. Tours available in various laguages.
St Mary’s Basilica
Honestly one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen, and that’s from someone who has seen gothic cathedrals in Prague, Brussels, Lisbon and Paris. A firm fixture on the market square, this is the beacon of Krakow’s Old Town, and is absolutely worth the small cost to see inside.
As well as being a beautiful building, its history is fascinating too. From the slightly taller of the two towers, the hejnał mariacki (the city’s famous bugle call), is played every hour and you can watch it happen. The tune at one point breaks off mid-song to honour the trumpeter who was shot in the neck while belatedly warning the city of invaders. It’s a wonderful tradition, and one not to miss.
Cost: 10 PLN per adult to visit inside, and if you visit from April – October you can climb the tower for an additional 15 PLN per adult.
Unlike any castle I’d ever seen before, Wawel is in fact a series of buildings and structures arranged around a central courtyard up on Wawel Hill. It’s an extremely important building in Krakow, and as well as giving you great views over the Vistula River it’s been the location of royalty and is now a premier art museum.
We didn’t have time to visit inside on this short trip, but if you are into art I’ve heard it’s an amazing location to explore.
An interesting folklore tale is the dragon of Wawel Hill, who had its cave at the foot of the hill. The legend goes that a Polish prince defeated this dragon, founded the city of Krakow and built his palace over the slain dragon’s lair. There is now a monument there if a dragon that you can visit.
Cost: Range of prices depending what parts you visit, starting from 10 PLN per adult.
Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz)
As mentioned above, we did another walking tour of this area with the fabulous Filip from Cracow Free Tours, and it was an afternoon well spent. Wandering through this area gives you a totally different feel to the old town, especially seeing the contrast of synagogues versus St Mary’s Basilica. The real highlight of this area however is the Holocaust Memorial, which is an incredibly interesting installation of lots of empty chairs in the square.
The square, known as Ghetto Heroes Square, is of historical importance. Located in the heart of the Jewish Ghetto where Jews were forced, in poor conditions, to live during WWII. In March 1943 this Ghetto was effectively cleared, with inhabitants sent to concentration camps or murdered, and the Empty Chairs Memorial commemorates this important part of Polish and European history.
We finished our walk here, just across the road from Schindler’s Factory so you can absolute combine the two if you have time.
Other highlights were seeing where Helena Rubenstein originally lived (one for the beauty junkies out there!) and finding out more about Jewish life during WW2. You can explore yourself of course, but the information and history we got from the tour was worth it.
Running in a ring around the old town, this unusual park is an awesome place to stroll when you’ve had your fill of buildings and WWII history. I don’t think I’d come across a city that was surrounded by a park like this before, and as we had to cross it from our hotel each day, we always had the opportunity to have a bit of a wander!
Where To Eat + Drink
I feel like many people don’t talk much about Polish cuisine or the food vibe in Krakow, but honestly we have never ate so well and so cheaply in any other place in the world. If you want warming food and epic flavour, all washed down with a vodka chaser, you’ll be totally fine in Krakow.
Pretty much does what it says on the tin. Just off the beaten track of the main market square, we popped in here before heading to catch our sleeper train to Prague in the hopes that some curated Polish vodka would send us off soundly to sleep.
Every flavour of vodka exists here, and if you don’t know what you want, ask for the trademark tasting menu and you’ll be served up 6 large shots of vodka on a paddle to try. The interior is tiny and cosy and you’ll definitely end up talking to everyone in the bar.
Dawno Temu na Kazimierz
Based in the heart of the Jewish Quarter, Dawno Temu Na Kazimierz is an example of amazing Jewish-Polish cuisine and a cosy atmosphere. Hearty lamb and duck dishes feature on the menu, and klezmer music plays in the background. Perfection.
We stumbled upon this place by accident, but it was probably our greatest find. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner it’s also a cocktail bar and that’s exactly where we found ourselves, mid afternoon. Inside the opulent restaurant, supping on some of the most inventive cocktails we’d tasted.
Many people say that restaurants close to the tourist spots are tourists traps and no good. In many places that may be true, but Sukiennice was the perfect place to try out some Polish and Eastern European classics.
I opted to start with pierogi, meat filled dumplings that are a staple in Poland (Krakow was full of pierogi restaurants), and then on to their giant pork schnitzel. Giant was the word, it was almost as big as the table! They have us an aperitif and only slightly raised their eyebrows when we ordered and giant schnitzel in one meal.
I freaking adored Krakow! It was quaint, it was beautiful and it was small enough not to be overwhelming for a quick visiting. The food was brilliant, everyone was friendly and best of all it was absolutely dirt cheap. Because of my penchant for WWII history, it was the perfect place to visit and because of it’s unspoilt nature, with some of the oldest architecture in Eastern Europe, it was unusual too.
I’d love to go back and finish off some of the stuff I missed, and to see some of my old favourites like the Cloth Hall and Market Square again – but actually this has made me want to visit more of Poland as a whole. Gdansk and Warsaw are now firmly on my European hit list, so if you have recommendations for these places, comment below!