With a long history of more than 1,300 years, Poland’s royal capital is also its cultural kingpin. An old town of tight-knit cobblestone streets and soaring Gothic spires gives way to a Boho-chic old Jewish Quarter here, while the meanders of the Vistula River belie the iconic Wawel Castle and oodles of al fresco drinking joints. Get ready to experience the veritable gem of southern Poland.
What to do:
Start by touring the Old Town district that forms the heart of Krakow. Right at the neighbourhood’s centre, the lively Market Square is an action-packed bout of cafes and bars and street entertainers, not to mention the largest of its kind in the world! In the middle, the Sukiennice cloth hall plays host to loads of regional craft stores, while St Mary’s Basilica on the north-western edge of the square is arguably the most important church in the country – inside is a gorgeous triptych altarpiece by Viet Stoss. Be sure to read about the legends surrounding the construction of the Gothic towers of the church and hang around for the turn of the hour to hear the famous hejnal mariacki played from the top.
From the Market Square move to Florianska Street and wander past the crumbling remnants of the old city walls, the Barbican fortress (a relic of Krakow’s onetime medieval might) and St Florian’s Gate. Kawiarnia Jama Michalika is also worth stopping off in for a coffee, being one of the oldest cafes in the city and a former haunt for famous artists, poets and dissidents.
Next, move to the Planty Park and explore the city’s charming green belt, ringing its way around the entire perimeter of the city. In the winter, this space is a veritable wonderland, with the looming oaks and sycamore trees dressed in a dusting of snow and the antique street lamps casting a dim glow across the icy ground.
Towards the southern end of the Old Town area are the Wawel Hill and the Wawel Cathedral. These two totemic sites stand as testimony to Krakow’s place as the onetime royal capital of Poland (before it was moved to Warsaw in the late 16th century). Venture inside and wonder at the grandeur of the old state rooms and catch the panoramic view of the city from atop the cathedral tower.
Down from the Wawel Hill, walk along the banks of the Vistula River, dropping into the
' data-trigger='focus'>Dragon's Den to learn about the founding myths of the city. Then, get lost between the winding streets of Kazimierz district. The old Jewish Quarter of Krakow, this enchanting neighbourhood is now the veritable bohemian hub of the city, laden with quirky cafes and bars that spill out onto the squares and pavements in the summer and retreat underground to their basements in the winter.
Two other attractions in Krakow are simply not to be missed: The sobering UNESCO site of Auschwitz and the fascinating subterranean maze of the Wieliczka Salt Mines (also listed by UNESCO). Both of these are best done on an organised tour and take around half a day each.
Eat & drink:
Head down to Kazimierz district to sample the Middle Eastern delights of Hamsa Hummus and Happiness bar; a medley of Arabic treats ranging from baba ghanoush to couscous. Alchemia is also worth a try, with its range of stacked haloumi burgers and interesting mezze menu. Wash this down with a home-brew beer or two in underground C.K. Browar, or head to Betel bar to enjoy an ale in the Krakow sun.
Where to sleep:
For a dose of real luxury in a bona fide historical landmark, consider opting to bed down in Hotel Pugetów. The suites here are sprawling and elegantly decorated, while the underground breakfast room is truly unforgettable. Other great options include Krakow Days just outside of the Old Town area and Hotel Stary, with its gorgeous subterranean pool and spa. Plenty of good options on Airbnb as well.
From Krakow head south, into the soaring peaks of the High Tatras where the “Winter Capital” of Zakopane awaits. By car the town is accessible on road 47, while buses depart from the Krakow central station every 15 minutes during the day.