Krakow, while not the official capital of Poland, might as well be the heart of the country. Every year tourists flock to its medieval streets in search of ancient legends and modern temptations: hearty Polish food, neverending parties and cheap pints of beer.
I spent four months living and working in Krakow, exploring the best things to see, do and eat.
Headed to the city soon but still unsure what you should do? Fear not! This SUPER DUPER DOPE city guide will help you plan an awesome itinerary that includes all the must-sees as well as rad secret spots that your average guide book knows nothing about!
Ready to get Polish?
BEFORE WE START:
This is what you’ll need:
– Polish zlotys. Card is widely accepted (even in most trams), but it’s always good to carry some cash. In October 2018, 1 euro is approximately 4 zlotys.
– Jaktojade.pl. This site helps you plan all your public transportation. You can download it as an app or just use the website – and yes, it is available in English.
– Good shoes. Krakow is extremely walkable. Besides, it already has huge air pollution problems from too many cars, so it’s better to avoid taxis and Ubers and either walk or use the excellent public transportation system (refer to previous).
AND REMEMBER: Since Poland is stereotypically known as a country of vodka, it might come as a surprise that drinking in public is illegal. Swigging from a can on the street or riding a bike drunk could get you a 100 euro fine.
Click to hop straight to the part you need!
- Day 1, the Old Town
- Day 2, Kazimierz and Podgorze
- Day 3, museums, activities and other oddities
- Day 4, daytrips
- Best of Krakow
All good? Then let’s go!
DAY 1. Old Town (Stare miasto)
Krakow has been a bustling commercial and economic centre since the Medieval times, and much of its vibrant history still survives to this day. While severely affected by bombings during the Second World War, the cobblestoned centre suffered relatively little damage compared to many other Polish cities that had to be completely rebuilt. In 1978, the historic centre became a UNESCO World Heritage Site – one of the first twelve.
During your first day in Krakow, explore the city’s main attractions within the Old Town. Start by the only surviving part of the old city wall; pass through Florian’s Gate (and give a wave to St. Florian, Krakow’s patron saint and a protector of fire and firefighters) onto Florianska, the high street of the Old Town and a start to the Royal Route that leads you directly from the city gates to the castle.
But wait! That route is congested as heck. Take your time to explore around the town and discover such weird, unique attractions as Collegium Maius (the oldest university in Poland), the house with four faces and the building where the pope John Paul II went to high school.
Start the day right with a breakfast and a view at the Market Square (Polish: rynek glowny). Café Magia is located right next to St. Mary’s Cathedral and I really can’t decide which I like better, the outdoor seats with a view over the cathedral or the cozy, funky decoration inside. Their menu is extremely affordable; a lemonade, cheesecake, muesli with yoghurt and cheese toast with salad set me back about 8 euros. They also have a cute café cat who, unfortunately, is rather indifferent to petting.
Old Town highlights
Wander around Rynek Glowny, the market square. The uneven brick towers of St. Mary’s cathedral rising above the line of horse carriages are without a doubt the most iconic sight of the city. (Please consider the horses’ well-being and skip a ride, though.) Find souvenirs in the old market hall and climb up to the second floor for a pidgeon’s view over the square. During the summer the square is also often crowded with more stalls selling traditional Polish handcrafts and delicious snack foods.
Check out the humble white building on the corner of the square. St. Adalbert’s church is over 1,000 years old, making it the oldest church in Krakow.
A visit to St. Mary’s Cathedral is a must. You can buy your tickets (5 PLN) from the ticket office, whose entrance deceptively enough is not at the church door but in the building opposite to it.
If you want to climb the bell tower, be early – there is a limited amount of tickets sold every day (15 PLN), and you can’t book them beforehand. The tower is open from Tuesday to Saturday 9.10–11.30 and 13.10–17.30, with admissions every half an hour. Try to get a ticket that allows you to ascend at twenty minutes to an hour so you can watch the trumpeter in action.
Who is this trumpeter, you ask? Well, at every hour – and I mean every, even in the middle of the night – a volunteer from the local fireman’s squad sticks his golden trumpet out of the bell tower window to play the hejnal, the bugle call. This tradition originates from the Medieval times when the call was used to warn citizens of approaching danger.
Another iconic sight of the city is the Wawel castle. Standing next to the Vistula river, it is not only the number one tourist attraction in Krakow but also a great sunset spot. Entrance to the castle grounds is free (yay!). Don’t skip a visit to the cathedral (12 zl adults; 7 zl students)! It’s beautiful, and is said to be the most important church in Krakow. (That is saying something. Locals claim that there are over 300 churches in the city.)
Top tip: While the buildings open at 8.30, castle gates open two hours earlier. Beat the crowds and arrive early!
Speaking of local legends, the Wawel Hill is home to the most famous one of them all: the Wawel dragon. According to myth, the beast was killed by a local shoemaker, and his bones were hung by the cathedral entrance. While the bones might be fake (sorry), the dragon is still very much alive: you can take a look at his den under the castle and see his statue by the river behind the castle. The statue breathes fire every five minutes, so get ready to boomerang that ish!
Hungry yet? Sure you are, that’s some intense sightseeing we’ve been doing. For a big, great, affordable dinner, head to Pod Wawelem Kompania Kuflova right by the castle. (Reservation might be needed, since it gets quite busy.) The waitstaff speaks good English and the menu offers plenty to choose from. Mains approximately 19-35 zlotys.
Pod Wawelem is a tourist favourite, so for something more local, find Kuchnia U Babci Maliny on the other side of the Old Town. It offers affordable Polish menus in a dining room that is reminiscent of a rural grandma’s living room – that is, if your grandma is really into MMA fighters. A portion of pierogi starting from 12 zloty.
How about dessert? Just a short walk away lies Massolit Books & Café that serves the second best cheesecake in Krakow (10-12 PLN). Or maybe the best. It’s cheesecake, it’s hard to tell. There’s also a second-hand bookstore by the same name right near the café where you can easily find English titles as well to add to your travel library.
Chase the sunset
To end the day as it should be ended, catch bus number 100 or 101 to Kościuszki Mound to catch a view over the whole city. (One-way ticket 3.8 zloty.) On clear days it’s possible to see the Tatras mountains in the distance but normally not because you know, smog. Entry costs 14 zl adults / 10 zl students.
Did you survive the whole intense day of sightseeing? Congrats! You deserve a cheap beer now! Or pivo, as locals call it. While most places serve beer ridiculously cheap (think 6-10 zlotys), the cheapest places I have found are Huki Muki, a burger joint on Florianska street; Pijalni wódki i piwa with multiple locations; and BaniaLuka, the most popular Erasmus student bar in Krakow. All these places serve beer for 4 zloty (well, Pijalni wodki for 4,5 zl; and their pints are smaller).
Sightseeing: 46 zloty = approx.. 12 euros
Meals: 61 zloty = 15 euros
Transportation: 7,6 zloty = 2 euros
Beers: Treat yo self! Idk? Like three beers, 12 zloty? = 3 euros
Altogether: 32 euros
Day 2. Kazimierz and Podgorze (The Jewish Krakow)
Welcome to the dark part of our tour! Spend your second day feeling really, really bad as you dive deep into the Jewish history of Krakow.
Poland used to be home to the largest Jewish population in the World before the Second World War, and a quarter of the population of Krakow were Jewish. In 1495, the Jewish population of the city was forced to move to Kazimierz, a suburb bordered by the city centre in the north and by the Vistula river in the south. Nazis forced them to relocate again over the river to a ghetto in Podgorze.
Nowadays, Kazimierz is known as the hip part of the city and the heart of Krakow’s bar and restaurant scene.
But first, breakfast.
Kolanka No.6 is bigger on the inside; decorated in rustic fashion and featuring a pretty outdoor garden, it serves an amazing buffet breakfast for 24 zloty (and the only breakfast buffet I found in Krakow). It’s also a nice place for lunch and has special lunch menus in case you’re one of those weird people that only take a cup of coffee for breakfast and hate life.
Well fed? Let’s go!
Start your exploration of Krakow’s Jewish history at Stari Synagoga, the Old Synagogue, named so since it is the oldest surviving synagogue in Poland. (Who’d have guessed?) The exhibition inside familiarizes the visitor with the moist important Jewish holidays, presents some historical artifacts and tells stories of the history of the synagogue itself. Entrance costs 8 zloty adult / 6 zl student, free on Mondays.
After that, visit the Remu synagogue, the smallest but also the most important synagogue in Krakow. Named after a Jewish scholar and a rabbi Moses Isserles (abbreviated as Remuh), it is one of the two still active synagogues in the city. Entrance 10 zl adult / 5 zl student.
Hungry? Good, because it’s lunch time.
Okay, by now it’s been around two hours since we had breakfast, so it’s time for a snack. Head to the square Plac Nowy to find the best zapiekanka in Krakow. Described best as Polish pizza bread, the basic version topped with tomato, mushroom and oregano only sets you back 4 zlotys. Sharing is caring; if you’re only peckish, split it with a friend.
Time to get hipster…
While some might call Kazimierz gritty, it is best described as edgy. As any respectful hipster district, it is home to many little bars, cafes and craft breweries. And best of all – street art. Pick up a street art map at the tourist info or join a free street art walking tour. Can you find Gene Kelly and Rhett Butler?
(There are also two fantastic food courts in Kazimierz that open for the summer, but since we’re mostly eating on this tour anyway, you might want to swing by them some other time. Or, you know, live a little and get stuffed. Pan Kumpir on Skwer Judah square has amazing jacket potatoes; for something lighter, find acai smoothies that taste just like the ones on Brazil at Plac Izaaka.)
The river Vistula marks the south border of Kazimierz; cross the Father Bernatek footbridge (Kladka Ojca Bernatka), decorated by acrobatic sculptures and love locks, to get to Podgorze. This suburb served as the Jewish ghetto during Poland’s Nazi occupation.
These days, Podgorze (humbly) boasts some great cafés, international dining and St. Joseph’s, one of the most beautiful churches in Krakow. Almost all signs of past horrors have been erased, except for two: the memorial Bohaterów Getta square, where empty chairs have been erected to commemorate the deportation site of the residents of the ghetto; and a piece of the wall that separated the ghetto from the outside world. The wall was gruesomely built in the shape of tombstones.
This dark period in Krakow’s history was immortalized in Spielberg’s Academy Award winning film Schindler’s List (1993) which centres around Oscar Schindler, a factory owner that saved the lives of 1,200 Jews working in his factory. The film was largely shot on location in Podgorze and Kazimierz, and many tour operators arrange Schindler tours around the city.
The real Schindler factory has now been turned into museum of wartime in Krakow with one room dedicated to the famous factory owner. Warning: the movie glossed over some of his less, eh, charming features. Entrance is 19 zl adults / 16 zl students.
Guess what? It’s time for dinner, and you’re not gonna wanna skip it.
This might come as a shocker but… Yeah, it’s time to have dinner. Now, just so this doesn’t become too Simon Says, I’ll give you a choice:
a) Pirozki U Vicenta (Pierogi at Vincent’s). Pierogi is a Polish dumpling and it’s SO DELICIOUS. Pierogi at Vincent is a small restaurant decorated with Vincent van Gogh art with the best variety of pierogi in Krakow. Pierogi starting from 12 zl.
b) Warsztat. If you’re starving, this place is the best bang for your buck. With three locations around Kazimierz, they serve delicious Italian style food – and ya’ll, their pastas and salads are HUGE. Like, have-the-leftovers-for-lunch-tomorrow huge. My favourite location is the one on Miodova street since it’s the only one that also serves Polish specialties, like lazanki – Polish pasta with cabbage and mushrooms (13 zl).
c) Kuchnia u Doroty. Possibly the cheapest restaurant in Krakow. I’d highly recommend getting the potato pancakes for 8 zl and mushrooms for 4 zl on the side.
What’s next? Party time!
Even though you’ll only find clubs in the old centre, Kazimierz is considered the heart of Krakovian nightlife and has a bunch of great, atmospheric bars and small breweries to choose from. If you like craft beer, check out Craftownia. For atmosphere, Singer café and Alchemia are my favourites. (Both look like they could have been decorated by Edgar Allan Poe.)
Sightseeing: 37 zl = 9,5 e
Meals: 40 zl = 10 e
Transportation: 0 zl
Beers: One craft beer might be like 8 tl 12 zl, and if we drink three again, then, uh – 36 zl? = 9 e
Altogether: 29 e
Day 3. Build your own adventure!
Now, we’ve had a pretty intensive two days, so you might want to take a break. Or not?
There are lots of dope things to do in or around Krakow, so if you’re planning on spending a third day in the city (which you totally should,) pick and mix from the lists below!
Nowa Huta – Nowa Huta is one of the only two planned socialist realist suburbs in the world. It was built as an ideal utopian city and has a definite Orwellian vibe to it. While communist architecture might sound bleak, today Krakow’s most Western suburb is a pleasant surprise.
Tyniec abbey – The historic town of Tyniec lies by the Vistula river, almost unchanged by the thousand years it’s been standing there. The main attraction is the Benedictine abbey that is known for its easily approachable character: chatty monks and delish local produce. The monks even brew their own beer! It’s possible to reach Tyniec by boat or by bus, but to make the most of a pretty day, hire a bike and cycle the 10 odd kilometres.
For the museum lover
Rynek underground – A museum hidden just underneath the bustling main square offers a peek into the lives of the ordinary folk in medieval Krakow. While this museum came highly recommended, I found it slightly underwhelming. Book your tickets in advance! Entrance 21 zl adults / 19 zl students.
Galicja Jewish museum – For anyone who is interested not only in the Jewish history but also the current state of Jewish culture and heritage in Krakow, this museum is an excellent, informative visit. The photography exhibition covers the rise, fall and new rise of Jewish culture in the city. Entrance 16 zl adult / 11 zl student.
For a nice day out
Krakus mound – On the other side of Podgorze, an ancient mound rises up above the city. While its origins are unknown, it is assumed to be an ancient burial mound. It also offers a great view over the city. You’ll also find another bizarre attraction behind the mound: Liban Quarry first served as a site for a Jewish-owned quarry business, and was later transformed into a prison camp for over 800 Poles during the war. Later it was used as a set for Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List; the structures left behind are props from the movie.
Hang out by the Vistula – Rent a city bike and cruise along the river, put on your trainers and jog off all that pierogi you’ve been having, or simply sit by and people-watch. The river Vistula is the heart of local life in Krakow.
For little something special
Escape rooms – Krakow has a variety of escape rooms (many of which seem to be horror themed!). I loved the Pirate room at Combinator and would highly recommend it.
Horror games – You can find Lost Soul’s Alley on Florianska, either by the discreet signs pointing towards it or by following the screams; a masked promoter handing out flyers in front of the joint likes to scare passerbys. This 15 minute horror house experience can be cool for thrill seekers, but be warned: while you won’t be hurt, the actors might touch you, push you or grab you.
Pub quizzes – A pub called TEA Time serves excellent craft beer and hosts weekly pub quiz nights for English speakers on Mondays.
Make some friends – The local language exchange group assembles every Sunday night at the Artefakt Café to enjoy some beers and good company. While I was there, most attendees were travellers passing through wanting to meet new people, and the emphasis on actual language learning was lackadaisical at best.
Day 4. Daytrip
With its prime location, Krakow is an excellent launch pad for adventures around Southern Poland. How about a quick visit to the high Tatras or an excursion to one of the first original UNESCO World Heritage sites? Check out these 7 Totally Rad Day Trips from Krakow.
Most people like to spend 2-3 days in the city, but if you wanted to be thorough, you could easily hang around for a week and find something new, cool to do every day.
Last but not least, the BEST OF KRAKOW summed up:
Best burger: Antler Burger. Huge burgers starting from 11 zl in a Canadian themed joint right in the centre – are you gonna get an Ottawa or a Montreal?
Best cheesecake: After extensive research, I have concluded that the best cheesecake in town is served at Café Camelot – which also happens to have extremely pretty interior décor! At 16,50 PLN it is also the oist expensive cheesecake I had in Krakow, but seriously, no ragrets.
Best cupcakes: Cupcake corner serving American-style cupcakes and awesome smoothies. While there are 3 locations around the city, go to the one in Szewska street. They have a very cozy inner yard and more seating than the other locations.
Best ice cream: Lody Tradycyjna Receptura at Starowislna 83 is legendary for both its delicious ice cream and long queues. Try to get there outside of lunch time on a weekday and you might be able to avoid the lines!
Best hot chocolate: Hands down, Nowa Provincja. Their cheesecake isn’t much to rave about but their apple pie is delicious.
Best café: Oh man, there are SO MANY. One of the coziest is Urban Coffee in Kazimierz; the best for working on your laptop is Cytat café, also in Kazimierz (their cheesecake is also good, and their ice coffee awesome!). The best hidden gem is the tiny Somnium Café Bar that has probably the best brownies in Krakow.
Best cats: Yes, there’s a cat café in Krakow; you’ll find Kocia Kawiarnia Kociarnia opposite to the main shopping centre Galeria Krakowska. Their cats are cute and cheesecake on point.
Krakow is a fascinating city with almost too much to see and do. The best time to visit would be early in the spring or autumn, but don’t believe the rumours that dub it as the less crowded cousin of Prague and Budapest. Even in the middle of the winter, the city is still bustling with tourists, and during the summer even more so. Still, it is a city worth seeing – for its history and its legends, for its food and its nightlife, and above all, its medieval, modern heart and soul.