My guide to making the most out of a short city break in Krakow.
After a hectic few months back at university starting my fourth year of medical school I was desperate for some much needed rest and relaxation. For those who know me, my holidays are anything but relaxing, however a week off from university was the perfect excuse to book a short city break to take my mind away from work. Me and Dan (my boyfriend and adventure partner) spent 5 days getting lost in Krakow and soaking up everything the city has to offer.
Krakow has been on my bucket list for a while, it is the second largest city in Poland and was recently voted the best city in Europe to visit. Situated on the Vistual River, Krakow has the feel of a major European hot-spot whilst still maintaining its charm. It is the ideal destination for a short getaway, with a rich history and an abundance of good cheap food, what more could you want from a holiday?
There are so many cute little apartments that are perfect for short trips to Krakow. We stayed in Cracow Premium Apartments, a gorgeous one bedroom apartment with a kitchenette and lounging area. It was perfectly located just outside the centre of the Old Town, meaning it was only a short walk to all the major tourist attractions but was far enough away to avoid the hustle and bustle of the city crowds. With an airy, modern interior and a cosy loft bedroom, it was just our style and we couldn't have asked for a more perfect place to stay.
Despite dining out the majority of our holiday I still love having the option to be able to cook if I get a bit hungry. We found some Polish vegan sausages in our local supermarket and did a late night fry-up, a perfect excuse to test out the kitchen facilities. Side note - I definitely need those cute kitchen tiles in my house!
After arriving in Krakow, the first thing I would recommend doing is dropping your bags and heading straight for the Old Town. The historic Old Town, once ringed by Medieval walls and a moat, is now encircled by Planty Park. It is a peaceful buffer which provides a welcome touch of nature between the old and new parts of the city. The autumn season made strolling through the park an experience in itself. We had so much fun riding around the park on the electric scooters which you can find around the city centre, we also used these to travel from site to site (or in our case from food, to more food).
Walking through the park you will reach St. Florian's Gate which marks the start of the Royal Route. Here the historical coronation procession for Medieval Polish monarchs would begin, before passing through the Old Town and ending at Wawel castle, where the ceremony would take place at the cathedral.
Rynek Glowny, the Old Town market square, is the part of the town you will naturally gravitate towards. It is one of the largest medieval market squares in Europe dating back to the 13th century and, in addition to a large variety of stalls, shops and restaurants, it is also home to many of the major landmarks which dominate the skyline, including St. Mary's Basilica, the Church of St. Wojciech and the Cloth Hall.
You can still hear the Hejnal Mariacki, the St. Mary's trumpet call, on the hour every hour from the tallest tower of the St. Mary's Basilica. This is in memory of the trumpeter who sounded the alarm during the 13th century Mongol attack. He was tragically shot in the throat, whilst which is why the tune ends abruptly even to this day.
In the city centre, you can find 'Eros Bendato' a hollow bronze head, sculpted by Igor Mitoraj. It was originally designed to be placed in front of a shopping mall however the artist was unhappy about this and it was eventually located behind the Town Hall Tower, despite the protest of locals and historians. Surprising to many, the sculpture because a tourist attraction, adding a modern touch to the historic market square and it is now difficult to view it without a child crawling around inside the empty head.
Situated right in the centre is Sukiennice, the Krakow Cloth Hall. Once a traditional market hall, trading goods from spices to jewellery for 800 years, it now is largely filled with tourist souvenirs. Nevertheless, it is definitely worth a stroll through to experience a piece of Krakow's history. Directly underneath the old town square is the Rynek Underground Museum. It is a large archaeological site which explores the medieval history of the Old Town, combining ancient artefacts with modern interactive displays.
Like many other European cities, Krakow really comes to life after dark. The city is illuminated with lights which highlight its stunning architecture and there is an abundance of bars, restaurants and clubs which are open until the early hours of the morning, making it a hot-spot for a great night out.
When in Krakow I definitely recommend heading to one of the many shot bars located around the city. I'm not a massive drinker but it was an experience that should be ticked off everyone's list, providing unique flavoured shots for minimal cost, in addition to some virgin drinks for all my non-drinking friends.
Around the city
In my (and Dan's) opinion, one of the best ways to explore a new city is to take a free walking tour. You'll have probably noticed them if you've walked around any major European city - they're the people walking around the main attractions with large colourful umbrellas. We have done these tours in the majority of the cities we have visited and have yet to be disappointed. They are also completely free so you can't go wrong (although you should definitely tip the guide depending on what you thought of the tour).
We went with Walkative! which had extensive options for both the free tours which run daily and some paid excursions. With there being so much to see and do in Krakow (and me being indecisive) we decided to take two free tours - The Old Town tour and the World War II tour. There are also tours of the Jewish Quarter, holocaust traces and the macabre night tour.
Our guide provided his own unique perspective of what he believes to be the most interesting features of the city, whether these were major well-known sites or hidden gems that few tourists get to see. We gradually made our way through Krakow's key historical landmarks whilst learning about the cities fascinating Medieval history on the Old Town tour and the Nazi occupation of Krakow on the War tour.
At each stop we were immersed in old Polish stories and folk law, helping us take in and fully appreciate the cities sites. I would definitely recommend doing at least one walking tour in Krakow (or any European city) to be able to fully appreciate the cities culture.
Wawel castle was home to the king of Poland from the 13th to the 17th century before the capital was moved to Warsaw. It provides perhaps one of the most architecturally beautiful landscape in Krakow, featuring a medley of Gothic, Renaissance, Rococo and Romanesque styles of architecture as it gradually expanded over the years. The castle is now home to a national art museum which encompasses some of the countries premiere artwork collections, including paintings, sculptures and ceramics.
At the base of Wawel Hill, you can enter the deep cave of Smok Wawelski, the legendary formidable dragon which was slain by King Krakus before he founded the city of Krakow. The cave burrows through the hill and just outside the cave's exit stands a sculpture of Smok Wawelski himself breathing fire (yes it actually breathes fire).
Perhaps a less well known thing to do in Krakow is visiting the Jagiellonian University's Botanical Gardens, Poland's oldest botanical gardens. Originally built to teach botany to the universities medical students in the 16th century, the gardens are now a centre for plant conservation and research, and of course for the general public to explore. They offer a welcome and romantic escape after a few days wandering through the busy city.
This was definitely my idea of an afternoon in heaven. Even for those not really into plants, you could easily spend hours here marvelling at the beauty of the gardens. The grounds were much larger than I had first anticipated, covering almost 10 hectares, and showcasing around five thousand varieties of flora, plants and trees from around the world. I adore nature and loved exploring the tropical greenery inside the glasshouses and the contrasting golden autumn foliage outdoors.
The gardens are sadly a seasonal attraction, closing from mid-October to mid-April - luckily we made it the week before closing to witness the gardens in their fall beauty. I would highly recommend visiting this secluded paradise to anyone staying in Krakow during the summer months.
South of the Old Town is Kazimierz, the Jewish district of Krakow. This was once a separate city entirely and was home to one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe. To reach Kazimierz we strolled along the man-made banks of the Vistula river. This is a great thing to do on a sunny day, as you can walk right from the dragon sculpture to the south of Kazimierz. Along the route look out for the Father Bernatek Footbridge. Tangled amongst the bridges wire support are sculptures of acrobats which bounce with the bridges foot-fall, I had to double take because I thought people were actually climbing the bridge!
Wandering the enchanting streets of Kazimierz provides a contrasting experience to Krakow's Old Town. It is much more of a quiet and intimate setting with a range of unique stores, art galleries, colourful street art and cosy restaurants. Plac Nowy is the lively central square of Kazimierz with small craft market stalls surrounding the rotunda, which is well-known for selling the infamous Zapiekanka (open pizza bread).
Krakow is undoubtedly filled with culture and the charming character of the Jewish quarter adds that extra something special. There is a large street art scene with some of the best being found in the Kazimierz neighbourhood. When exploring make sure to lookout for 'Ding Dong Dumb', the Plac Bawol 3 mural, and Banksy's 'I'm Happy Again'.
If you love vintage clothes and independent shops then the Jewish Quarter is the best place to go roaming for some unique finds. Some of my favourite stores include Flyin' vintage for some amazing vintage items, Fairma ethical store for vegan fashion, shoes and accessories, and Marka Concept Store which promotes the work of independent Polish designers.
Just over the Vistual River in the Podgorze district is the Plac Bohaterow Getta, also known as Ghetto Heroes Square. This marks the location of the Krakow ghetto between 1941 and 1943. Here stands a memorial for the victims of the ghetto who were forced to live here during the German occupation. 70 large empty chairs fill the square to represent emptiness and the possessions left behind. At the far end of the square, there are photographs and descriptions of just a small number of the horrifying tragedies which occurred, as a sobering reminder to all those who visit.
Krakow was a major film site for the 1993 movie Schindler's List which tells the story of Oscar Schindler, a Nazi who recruited Jewish workers to save them from being sent to the concentration camps during the Second World War. When visiting the Jewish quarter a place on many peoples lists to see is Schindler's Factory. However, we decided to give this one a miss as the museum focuses more on Krakow's war history rather than on Schindler himself. If you aren't planning on doing any of the historical walking tours then this may be worthwhile to learn more about the impact the war had on both the city of Krakow and Poland as a whole.
We decided to book a full day trip outside of the city to experience as much of the surrounding area as possible. Our trip combined the Wieliczka Salt Mine and the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. It was a very long day, starting at 7am and not returning until 8pm, but it was more than worth it.
I wasn't really sure what to expect from the mines. I thought they may be similar to the narrow caverns I have previously visited where you stumble around in the dark with a head torch. I'm pleased to say my expectations were far exceeded, the Wieliczka Salt Mine was spectacular and there is no surprise that it was one of the first signs to join the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1978. We were lead through numerous labyrinthine passageways and down deep shafts to reach chambers hundreds of metres below the ground.
There are many sites to see including the large underground salt lake which is denser than the Dead Sea, the 36 meters high Stanislaw Staszic Chamber, and St Kinga's Chapel, which in my opinion is most breathtaking feature. St Kinga's Chapel is a luxurious hall which is still in regular use for church services and other ceremonies. Unbelievably everything in this Chapel is made out of the mine's salt, right down to the paved floors and the crystal chandeliers.
Lead by a local guide, we learnt in detail about the history of the mine, how it was built, and about the life of its workers over the centuries the mine was active. Throughout the route there are also many impressive statues to look out for, carved by the miners and contemporary sculptures out of rock salt found in the mine.
A large part about why I was keen to visit Poland, and Krakow in particular, was to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum. Throughout our entire trip to Krakow we had perfect weather, however on this particular day the fog rolled in and the skies were grey, mirroring the harrowing location we were visiting.
Located about 90 minutes outside of the city, Auschwitz is well known for being the largest concentration and extermination camp run by the Nazis during the Second World War. Over 1.1 million men, women and children lost their lives here and Auschwitz has become an international symbol of terror and a memorial of the Holocaust.
The camp is divided into two parts: Auschwitz I and Birkenau (Auschwitz II). There is a lot of information to comprehend from the memorial so I would definitely recommend a guided tour to get the most out of the experience. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and described in great detail important information about individual sections of the camp which may be overlooked if you were visiting solo. As a side note, please be respectful when visiting the ground, do not take photographs in areas where it is prohibited and please do not take selfies.
Auschwitz I was the first and oldest part of the camp and fluctuated between fifteen and twenty thousand prisoners at any one time. As we walked around the camp's grounds we were reminded of the atrocities which occurred within its barbed wire perimeter. The extensive grounds are very well preserved and include original camp blocks, prisoner barracks, guard towers and a memorial stands in front of the wall where the Nazis carried out their executions by shooting. The museum houses what remains of the concentration camp and displays many of the prisoners personal possessions including suitcases, glasses and, perhaps the most upsetting, a large pile of children's shoes.
Despite the terrors of Auschwitz I, nothing could have prepared me for the devastating scale of Birkenau. This part of the camp once held over ninety thousand prisoners and was built for the sheer purpose of mass extermination. The camp spans nearly 200 hectares but, unlike Auschwitz I, there are few remains yet you can still see the ruins of the barracks, gas chambers and crematoria which were destroyed in an attempt to cover up the crimes committed.
It was a long and emotionally draining day however visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau was truly an unforgettable experience. It was a deeply moving reminder of the violent atrocities faced by its prisoners during the Second World War, something which no history lessons or films can ever allow you to fully comprehend. I would say if you could only do one thing to do on your visit to Krakow, a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau should be at top of your list.
Thank you so much for reading about our short city break to Krakow, I hope you enjoyed hearing about our trip away. It is definitely one of my favourite cities we have visited and I would 100% recommend Krakow for anyone looking for a quick and inexpensive getaway in a city with a rich history and beautiful sites.
My top tips for travelling to Krakow
You don't need to spend a lot of money to have a good time, a lot of the main sites and attractions are free and both the food and alcohol are unbelievably cheap so it's a great place to visit on a limited budget.
I'd 100% recommend downloading the Bird app and riding around the city on their electric scooters. They were so much fun and we used them every day!
Sadly we only had a few days in Krakow and there were some things we didn't have time to do including a visit to the beautiful Zajrziwek reservoir - definitely something I will be returning for.
I would advise not to book accommodation in the main square, mainly due to the hourly trumpet player which I mentioned earlier (yes that does includes all through the night...)
Krakow is definitely one to visit for all you vegan foodies, it has an incredible selection of cafes, restaurants and coffee shops - It really was vegan heaven. For my recommendations, check out My Guide to Vegan Eats in Krakow.
Until the next adventure!