Kraków: If time is short, see these highlights
Beguiling, vivacious, cultured and stuffed to its ramparts with history.
Capital and royal residence for 500 years, home to Pope John Paul II, Joseph Conrad, Frédéric Chopin and Nicolaus Copernicus, Kraków, Poland, has been craved by the Mongols, Austrians, Prussians and even the Swedes. More recently both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin brought their own well-documented brand of tyranny and horror to bear on the populace.
Now Poland’s top tourist destination, this small city of medieval cobblestone streets and squares is best absorbed and navigated on foot to experience the big-hitting sights shared between the Old Town, Wawel, Podgórze and Kazimierz (old Jewish Quarter) districts.
Here’s a suggested itinerary for those who want to see Kraków but have only a short time to spend in the city:
At its heart is the Old Town and its epicenter, the Rynek Glówny, or Main Square, one of the largest medieval plazas in Europe. Any visit to Kraków usually starts and radiates from this vibrant space heavily populated by pigeons. Around its edges, handsome buildings host restaurants, bars and cafes, while in the center, the 14th century Cloth Hall sits over the Rynek Underground Museum, a recent addition to the city. Allow an hour to wander the medieval archaeology and heritage on show in the museum. Tickets cost 7 Polish zlotys (about $2.15).
Back outside on ground level and directly in front is the imposing St. Mary’s Basilica. There are two ways to see the breathtaking interiors: For the full-on, kaleidoscopic color and ostentatious pomp experience, enter the main entrance around the corner on Plac Mariacki and pay 10 zlotys. For a free, albeit briefer, more restricted glimpse, join the locals attending confession or Mass and enter directly beneath the tower on the Main Square.
Be sure to be back outside the same tower on the hour to experience one of the country’s most iconic sounds: the four-times-repeated bugle call known as the Hejnal (pronounced “hey now”). Performed by the fire service since the 13th century, the call ends mid-bar and is said to commemorate the melodic trumpeted warning of an impending Tartar attack cut short by an arrow to the player’s neck. For a coffee break or lunch, try Cafe Camelot just three minutes’ walk away on ul. Sw Tomasza 17.
Romantics might want to hop aboard one of the white horse-drawn carriages lining the Main Square nearby. There’s no commentary provided, but you do get vintage clip-clop travel through Old World streets and squares. If you want to keep the mood “real,” avoid the carriages with the “pimped” interiors. Whatever the internal decor, expect to pay about 175 zlotys for a 30-minute round-trip ride.
About a 20-minute stroll from the Old Town is the squat summit of Wawel Hill mounted by the city’s castle and cathedral. There’s plenty to explore with the crown treasury and armory, royal state rooms, apartments and crypt and small museums all vying for attention. Prices vary for each, and, in truth, you need a full day to take everything in, so best make the gentle ascent, enjoy the rooftop views and prudently choose just a couple of heritage attractions to visit.
South of the River Wisla in an unremarkable part of Podgórze is the very remarkable Schindler Factory Museum. It’s been 20 years since the release of Steve Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” and this museum presents an evocative, sometimes harrowing and ultimately thought-provoking journey through the lives of the people of Kraków, Nazi occupiers and the benevolent Oskar Schindler.
Entry is through his former factory office, and at the very least you should set aside two hours to do this outstanding museum justice. The cafe is also a good place to grab a bite to eat.
Tucked around the corner and somewhat controversially built over some of Schindler’s former factory floor is the Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s free to enter on Tuesday; the rest of the week it costs 10 zlotys to ponder the Polish and international works.
If time allows, make the six-mile trip to Wieliczka Salt Mine, the home of stunning subterranean chambers and chapels. Everything here (even the chandeliers) has been exquisitely carved from the salt rock. The highlight of the three-hour tour is the enormous St. Kinga’s Chapel, the 67-year endeavor of three miners working in their spare time. Tickets start at 73 zlotys; anticipate walking about two miles.
Shoppers in the market for art, antiques and amber jewelry will find much to coo over.
The market on Plac Targowy in Kazimierz is worth a look, especially during Sunday morning’s flea market. For souvenirs, the Cloth Hall in the Main Square is the place to head.
For that Polish specialty vodka, there’s no shortage of “alkohol” stores selling the 600-year-old spirit. With 1,300 brands currently registered in Poland alone, finding the right one can be a fun but potentially hazardous pastime: Belvedere, Chopin, Zubrówka and Krupnik are all well-regarded and a good start.
For expert advice, a few samples and a huge selection, visit the Szambelan store (address: ul. Golebia 2). Some shops close early on Saturday, and many don’t re-open until Monday morning.
Said to have one of the highest densities of bars in the world, Kraków should have a place to suit all tastes and occasions.
In the Old Town, Baroque Bar (address: ul. Sw Jana 16) has been a plush party stalwart for years, while in the increasingly fashionable Kazimierz, the plethora of choices found around the Plac Nowy include the candlelit and laid-back bohemian vibes of Alchemia (address: ul. Estery) and Singer Bar (address: ul. Kupa).
For a kosher dinner or just drinks accompanied by some Klezmer music (cover charge), head to the nearby pre-war interiors of Klezmer-Hois (address: ul. Szeroka) at 8 p.m. Back in the Main Square, for classical music among baroque surroundings, spend 65 zlotys to kick back and enjoy the nightly recitals at St. Adalbert’s, Kraków’s oldest church.
To sample some Polish fare, try the hearty old-school specialties in the light-hearted atmosphere of Kogel Mogel (address: ul. Sienna 12).
If dinner in a restaurant is not a priority, snack on the local street food zapiekanka, a cheesy calorie-filled handful sold out of holes in the wall. The best examples of this can be found around Plac Nowy.
David Cawley is a U.K. freelance journalist who specializes in travel and history.