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Compared to the energetic Warsaw, Krakow, located in the south-west of Poland, stands out with its calm energy and romanticism. Like Budapest or Prague, the city is a step back in history, from the noblest to the darkest. Be that as it may, it never leaves its visitors unaffected. The old, thousand-year-old capital has something to seduce everyone: colorful architecture preserved from wars, a bubbling cultural life including one of the oldest universities in Central Europe, and many establishments such as bars, restaurants, and nightclubs that attract tens of thousands of young people every year. But Krakow is not all light: its region was home to the deadliest extermination camp of the Nazi era, Auschwitz. A visit is almost obligatory and will leave you with an unforgettable memory. So, you can see that it is not a city quite like the others. Without further ado, here are the 10 must-dos in Krakow (in our opinion).
☕ But first, a coffee? There is no shortage of places to drink a good coffee in Krakow. Here are three you should keep in mind for your stay.
🗒️ What you need to know before visiting Krakow
Before we start our list of must-do things in Krakow, here are some tips for your next trip.
When should you go to Krakow?
In our opinion, two of the seasons are best for traveling to Krakow. First the summer period, from May to September, for the climate. Aim for the end of this period to avoid the influx of tourists that the city can experience in July and August. Otherwise, we advise you go there for the end of the year celebrations. Snow is almost guaranteed and the Christmas lights are simply sublime.
How do you get to Auschwitz from Krakow?
It’s impossible to see Krakow without going to the Auschwitz memorial (read below). To get to Auschwitz from Krakow, you have several options. Buses, caught at Krakow train station, will take you there. Departures are fairly regular in the morning (every 30 minutes), though returns in the afternoon are fewer. Take a look at the E-Podroznik website to search and book your ride.
You can also get there by rental car or taxi. If you are going with several people, or other people from your hotel are interested, we advise you pool the costs and get there by taxi-van.
Note that the memorial is open every day of the year, even Sundays, with the exception of certain public holidays (January 1st, December 25th, etc.). It’s worth remembering that in the middle of the day, roughly from 10 a.m. to mid-afternoon, visits are guided. You will be paired with a guide of your language, if there is one.
Which hotel should you choose in Krakow?
Krakow is an international city which attracts many tourists every year. The accommodation offer is up to par, and there is no shortage of hotels or housing provided by individuals.
If you are looking for a central hotel, with all the necessary comfort, take a look at the big hotel chains. The Hotel Mercure Krakow Stare Miasto and the Hotel Novotel Krakow Centrum are two very good options.
Do you want to stay in a more subdued setting with neat decoration, for a romantic getaway, for example? The Balthazar Design Hotel is not bad choice for that. The establishment is very central, the welcome is cordial, and from the restaurant to the rooms, everything is designer. Another establishment that is worth a look is the PURO Krakow Kazimierz, decorated in a much more contemporary style.
🔝 Top 10 things to do in Krakow
Without further ado, let’s move onto our selection of the essential things to do in Krakow for a successful Polish getaway.
Wander the Market Square
The Main Market Square is visited by every tourist in Krakow at one time or another. So, let’s start there. Admire St. Mary’s Basilica, home to one of the most famous medieval masterpieces: the wooden altar by Veit Stoss. It is located next to the Cloth Hall of Krakow, which cuts the Market Square in two and teaches the history of the city. On the other side, you will find the unmissable Town Hall Tower.
Visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum
Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death camp symbol of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis during the Second World War, is a must for all visitors to the region. We recommend going there at least once in your life to take the measure of what man can inflict on his fellow men, and to pay homage to the millions of victims of the Holocaust. A visit to Birkenau, the extermination camp, follows Auschwitz, where the buildings are much better preserved. In total, the places have more than 150 structures and more than 300 ruins.
Stroll through the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz
A walk through the city’s most romantic district, the Jewish district of Kazimierz, is another unmissable experience in Krakow. The charismatic nature of the place, mixed with the Yiddish culture, offers memories of unusual sweetness. But don’t think the neighbourhood is asleep; it’s quite the opposite. It lives off its fashionable restaurants, graffiti artists, and cosy cafés. You’ll love it and it will show you how far Kazimierz and its people have come.
See the Aviation Museum
Are you visiting with children? This museum, inaugurated in 1964, is one of the largest in the world in its field, and is certain to be of great interest to them – and many adults too! The exposition of the Polish Aviation Museum is very extensive, spanning not only in the main building and former aircraft hangars, but also some open air exhibits. A good time with the family guaranteed!
Explore Krakow Zoological Garden
Here is a zoo that presents myriad large and small animals, but also has a playground and a zoo specifically for children under three. The Krakow Zoological Garden is located in the Wolski Forest on the outskirts of the city, which allows you to combine a visit to the place with a day of walking or cycling on the paths of the region, which are not lacking in interest either.
Assault Wawel Castle
Going on the attack is the formula because the Wawel castle literally overlooks the old town of Krakow. Like other places in the city, the building is a sumptuous mix of styles (Gothic, Renaissance, etc.), built on the hill of the same name in honour of the kings of Poland. Although its origins date back to the 10th century, the current building owes its external appearance mainly to the Renaissance period. It is no surprise therefore that Wawel Castle is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Visit the Manggha Museum, the Museum of Japanese Art and Technology
Yeah, you probably weren’t expecting that. The Manggha Museum (official site) is a must-see attraction in Krakow for all those interested in Eastern cultures, and particularly in Japan. You will find it in front of the Wawel Castle, in the Debniki district. In addition to the temporary exhibitions that take place there, you will be introduced to Japanese artistic practices. It is engagingly interactive and many unusual objects can be found in the museum’s permanent collections, including contemporary Japanese and Polish posters, fans, and kimonos.
Admire the Kosciuszko mound
Here is a local curiosity that you would be wrong not to visit. It is a must-see in Krakow. The mound, surrounded by fortifications, was erected in 1823 by the inhabitants of the city in honour of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a military leader who participated in the movement for Polish independence. From the top of its 35 meters, it is also the perfect place for a view of all the surroundings. Moreover, this mound is not the only one: others accompany it, including the mound of Krakus, the oldest, about fifteen meters high, or Pilsudki, dating from the 20th century and at a height similar to the first mentioned.
Explore Oskar Schindler’s Factory
Few people have yet to see Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece, Schindler’s List. This 1993 film tells the true story of a German industrialist who, after doing business with the Nazi authorities, decided to save more than a thousand Jews from the death camps by employing them in his factory, where you can visit today. You will also discover a permanent exhibition presenting the history of the city under the German occupation.
Enter the Wieliczka Salt Mines
Our Last must-see place in Krakow, or rather the region, are the Wieliczka salt mines. These have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978 and are located to the south-east of the city. Exploited since the 13th century, they include nine levels and 300 km of galleries. Obviously, a large part of the complex, in use until 1996, is closed to the public: a visit to the mine lasts about two hours and the circuit covers only 1% of the total surface of the galleries. But you will still be amazed.
Well, we hope that this selection of unmissable things to do in Krakow has helped you plan your trip. Do not hesitate to leave a comment if you have other ideas for experiences in the region.