Note: The photos in this blog (all taken in wet, grey and windy weather) do not do the city justice.
I recently read another bloggers post that argued that Kraków was overrated. I disagree. Firstly, if I asked a group of my friends for a list of the top 10 cities in Europe, I don’t think many of them would include Kraków on that list. Secondly, it’s a cheap, fascinating, beautiful city, that’s easily accessible and has less of the drawbacks that befall other cheap destinations (well… I saw a lot less stag do’s than usual…). It’s not rated as highly as it deserves to be.
In this post, I’m going to outline what I believe would be an ideal itinerary for a 48 hour stay in Kraków, before suggesting what to do if you had a day or two extra. I don’t believe you should let anyone else plan your trip for you, so rather than breaking it down into hours or days, telling you exactly where to eat and when to blow your nose, I’m just going to offer recommendations for the things you shouldn’t miss if you’re stuck for time.
Pretty much every city has FREE walking tours on offer now, and Kraków is no exception. Personally, I’m a big fan of the concept in general, so I’ve been on quite a few across Europe. While it is undeniably true that some of them are a lot better than others, I’ve never been on one which is awful. The one in Kraków definitely didn’t disappoint and our guide was enthusiastic about her city and extremely knowledgeable. The tour lasted about 2.5 hours and took us through a lot of the old town, including a walk up to Wawel castle.
You’re given loads of information about the city, from the Middle Ages through to the Second World War, Nazi and Communist occupations and up until the 21st Century. The company also offers free tours of the Jewish Quarter, Kraków’s street art and a macabre Kraków tour filled with stories of Kraków’s gruesome past. I only did the Kraków Old Town tour, so that’s as far as my recommendation goes, but if the others suit your schedule better, at least one of the tour guides is top notch.
Should you take the free walking tour, you’ll cover a lot of Kraków’s old town. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t strongly recommend spending further quality time wandering through the streets – it’s very beautiful and a photographers dream location. The city couldn’t be easier to get around. Start as everyone else does in Rynek Glowny, or the main town square. Not only is it one of the biggest Medieval squares in the world, it’s also one of the most beautiful old town squares I’ve been to. It’s surrounded by towering pastel coloured buildings buildings, and features a number of fascinating pieces of architecture too.
Firstly, there’s the Gothic Town Hall Tower, which is affectionately known as Kraków’s own ‘leaning tower’. Incredibly, a storm in 1703 has caused the tower to lean by 55 centimeters. You can climb the tower to the observation deck for practically nothing too. Of course, it’s no longer attached to a Town Hall – as that was torn down.
In the town square you’ve also got the Cloth Hall. Our walking guide argued that this could be considered the world’s oldest shopping mall, since it’s been in business for over 700 years. There are still shops on the ground floor now, but as far as I could tell, these mostly sell the same old souvenirs you get pretty much anywhere else.
Finally, there’s St. Mary’s Basilica: A beautiful church, with an incredibly impressive Gothic altarpiece. I’ve seen my fair share of churches across Europe, but this is truly impressive. This absolutely massive sculpture of Gothic art took it’s sculptor over a decade to complete. That’s not my favourite thing about the church though…
On the hour, every hour, for the last few hundred years, a golden trumpet appears out of the windows at the top of the highest tower of the church. The anthem they play is called the Hejnał Mariacki and it’s origins are unclear. My favourite theory is that, in 1241, during the Mongol invasion of Poland, a sentry in the tower sounded the alarm by playing the tune. The gates to the city were closed before the army arrived. Unfortunately, the soldier was shot in the throat with an arrow – abruptly ending the tune. To this very day, the trumpeter finishes the tune prematurely. How fucking cool is that.
The free walking tour will also take you up Wawel hill to Wawel Royal Castle and Wawel Cathedral. Both of these are worth a visit. A ticket to the cathedral is under £2. While it’s not one of the most incredible cathedrals I’ve ever been too, it does have a very big bell. Bigger, heavier and older than Big Ben. I didn’t go into the castle itself, so I can’t comment on that. I did however pay the 80 pence to climb the 130-odd steps in Sandomierska Tower. It’s got some pretty nice views, but nothing to shout home about – but for less than a quid, you can’t really say no. I found out after visiting that for 50 pence you can visit the Dragon’s Den, a cave located in the hill home to the mythical dragon. Being a bit of a kid, that sounds right up my street and I’m gutted I missed it – while I can’t really recommend it, I can advise you not to make the same mistake I did.
You can round off your 48 hours by spending some time in Kazimierz, or the Jewish District. The area’s full of Synagogues (as you might expect, being the Jewish district and all). This includes the Old Synagogue, which now houses an interesting museum. However, Kazimierz has also become one of the best districts to eat, drink and spend an evening/night. While we went into a couple of great little bars, I seem to have forgotten their names – funny that.
One thing I can remember is the food. I would strongly recommend you pick up a Zapienkake or two for a quick-eat, very cheap food option. It’s basically an open baguette, topped with melted cheese, mushrooms, meat and sauce. There are loads of stalls in this area where you can grab one or two. While in Kraków, I would also insist you grab a dish involving Kielbasa Sausages for breakfast and an Obwarzanki for a snack (it looks like a bagel, it tastes similar to a bagel, but for the love of God, it’s not a bagel). The latter is sold from street carts throughout the city and even has protected status now. For dinner you can’t go wrong with some Pierogi (Polish dumplings), Gulasz (Goulash – it may be Hungarian, but the Poles know what they’re doing), or a variety of stews, pancakes or soups (preferably served in a bread bowl). You can accompany any meal with various local beers or Polish vodkas. What a time to be alive!
More than 48 Hours?
If you’ve got more than 48 hours to spend in the wonderful city of Kraków, either spend more time eating and drinking (you can not go wrong here), or take a day trip or two.
A day trip to Auschwitz & Birkenau Concentration Camps is truly one of the most moving, disturbing and thought-provoking trips I have ever taken. I almost don’t want to recommend it, because I know what I’m suggesting you go and see. At the same time, this tragic period of history and the monstrous acts which define it are something which people should be educated on and something which cannot be forgotten. If you want to read more of my reflections on this, please check out my other post here. To get to Auschwitz you could get a guided tour from Kraków, but this will be more expensive than organizing it yourself. Plus, I prefer to run things by my own schedule wherever possible. Pay £5.20 for a return bus to Oświęcim then pay about £7 for a tour when you’re there.
While I didn’t have time to visit Wieliczka Salt Mine myself, I have read pretty cool things about it and the pictures online look pretty sick. That’s where I’d head if I had an additional day. Disclaimer: If it’s shit, I take no responsibility.
That’s pretty much it for this post. I hope you’ve found it useful, interesting or perhaps it might have even inspired you to go visit.
Stay tuned for my upcoming post on how you can easily visit Kraków (including everything described here) AND Warsaw, for under £200 (including flights/accommodation)!