Like many who grew up in the United States, my heritage is a mix of many different nationalities, and I’m not entirely certain what they are. However, I’ve always known that some relations on my dad’s side hailed from Poland. I knew almost nothing about the country, but when given the opportunity to travel across Europe, Poland was on my list, if for no other reason than to pay homage to my ancestors.
After I began traveling and talking with other travelers about their favorite places, Krakow, Poland, was mentioned more than once. I had previously associated Krakow only with the terrors of World War II. It was a wonderful surprise to learn that the city’s World War II history is only one element of the vibrant, beautiful, budget-friendly mosaic that is Krakow.
Here are my top 13 reasons to put Krakow on your list of destinations for the coming year. You won’t regret it!
- The gorgeous city center.
When I arrived in Krakow around 5 p.m. via a train from Berlin, the city was already dark and all I could see were streetlights darkened storefronts. The sun came out the next morning and revealed a city painted with the colors of fall, historic cobblestone streets, and ornate architecture surrounding a magnificent square.
Almost immediately, I fell in love.
2. Fantastic budget accommodation.
I make a point of finding low-priced accommodation wherever I go, but the hostel in Krakow was particularly great. I stayed at Greg and Tom Home Hostel, a top-rated hostel on Hostelbookers.com, and paid only about $11 a night. Even better? That price included a generous buffet breakfast and a buffet dinner (think pizza, roasted chicken, salad, bread, etc.).
The friendly hostel staff recommended a place for lunch that sold delicious toasted french bread pizzas called “zapiekanka” the equivalent of $1.80, so of course I had to check that out!
Because I was paying so little for meals and lodging, I had also room in my budget for some extra splurges. Keep reading for more details.
3. Wawel Cathedral & Historic Castle
Krakow’s Castle Hill is a truly stunning complex with Wawel Cathedral as its keystone surrounded by Wawel Castle. The 14th Century cathedral is the coronation site of Polish monarchs and includes an interesting museum, the massive Sigismund Bell, and royal tombs. When you visit the cathedral, be sure to get the audioguide. It costs the equivalent of about $5 extra and is very well done. I’ve seen numerous churches and cathedrals during my travels, and this was one of the most interesting and enjoyable of those I’ve seen, largely due to the audioguide.
There are several sections of the castle available for visiting. Admission to the castle’s State Rooms and “The Lost Wawel” exhibition happened to be free while I was in Krakow, so I saw both of those. I didn’t find either visit particularly captivating. Maybe I should’ve gotten the audioguide! But just walking around the exterior of the castle and through the courtyard is an enjoyable experience.
4. Kazimierz (Jewish Quarter)
Krakow’s former Jewish Quarter is located south of Castle Hill. It’s definitely the grittier side of town. But it’s also home to some interesting museums and synagogues as well as great restaurants and nightlife. This is also where you’ll find those amazing french bread pizzas.
It was sad to wander around these neighborhoods and realize that though the streets and homes were once filled with Jewish people (approximately 70,000 in 1939), today the Jewish population in Krakow totals only around 1,000. However, remnants of their rich culture still exist in the neighborhood.
The Galacia Jewish Museum was an interesting place to visit. The museum’s permanent exhibition uses recent photos of places relevant to Polish Jews to tell a poignant story of the past as well as a tribute to current reactions and remembrances.
5. Oskar Shindler Factory
Before visiting Krakow, I did not realize that Oskar Shindler’s factory, portrayed in the 1993 film Shindler’s List, was located in Krakow. Much of the factory has been converted into a museum that vividly portrays the plight of Jews and non-Jewish Poles in and around Krakow during World War II. However, a short documentary near the start of the museum tells the story of Oskar Shindler and his factory, with first-hand accounts from Jewish and non-Jewish employees of the factory. I found the movie fascinating, and also enjoyed seeing a few upstairs rooms that had been Shindler’s offices and provided more details about him.
The factory is southeast of Kazimierz, outside of the main city district. But it’s still a walkable distance from the city center and worth visiting if you have time.
6. Excellent Free Walking Tour
When I take the free walking tours in cities across Europe, I often have guides from other parts of the world touring me around a city where they’ve lived for a few years. There’s nothing wrong with that, but my tour guide in Krakow actually grew up just outside the city, and I really appreciated his perspective and local insights. He was also very entertaining and kept the group engaged throughout the tour. At the end of the tour, he handed out a great map that provided some discounts on attractions I actually wanted to see. It was one of the best walking tours I’ve done in Europe and well worth the few hours of time and a larger than usual tip.
A few different tour companies in Krakow give free walking tours, but I took the Old Town Krakow tour led by the company called “Free Walking Tour“…not hard to remember!
7. Chamber Music Concert
I read on TripAdvisor that concerts are performed by representatives from the Royal Chamber Orchestra every night in Krakow’s oldest church, St. Aldabert’s, which is a small white building that sits in one corner of the main market square. Attending a classical concert was something I hadn’t yet done on this trip, so I decided to try it one evening.
At first, I wasn’t sure if I’d made the right decision. Each musician came in a few minutes late. One by one, they tried to sneak quickly between the church pews and past the audience in the tiny church before ducking into a hidden room at the front of the sanctuary. About 20 minutes after the concert was set to begin, the ticket agent went into the hidden room and apparently convinced the performers to take the stage. Once they did, all my hesitations faded away. The music was heavenly, and beautifully performed by a quartet of very talented (if a bit tardy) musicians. The concert was one of the highlights of my trip to Krakow.
The cost was equivalent to about $12. The church is very small, and it’s chilly…so bring a jacket! Because I visited in the fall, I didn’t have any trouble finding a seat. But I was told that i the summer months, it’s best to come early. Tickets are sold at the door.
8. Auschwitz Tour
While visiting Auschwitz could never be characterized as a fun activity, I believe it’s an important one. Partly because I didn’t want to go on my own (that just seemed a little too sad), I joined one of the Auschwitz tours. A comfortable coach bus provides transportation from central Krakow to the concentration camp, which is about a two-hour drive. On the way, the tour company showed a documentary that included extensive video footage and photos taken at Auschwitz during its operation and after liberation. The film provided helpful background information for the visit. Once on camp grounds, our group was paired with a local guide. We each had headsets so that we could clearly hear what he was saying even when he was speaking quietly.
Our guide spoke excellent English and was adept at presenting the gravity and horror of what happened at Auschwitz. We did not visit every building on the grounds, but spent about two hours walking through exhibitions that displayed photos of prisoners as well as rooms filled with shoes, suitcases and other personal belongings taken from the prisoners as they arrived.
After our time at Auschwitz, we took the bus to Birkenau, a massive camp closely associated with Auschwitz, where we spent about an hour before the tour concluded. The day-long tour, in my opinion, was well worth the $27 or so that I spent. I wasn’t able to see everything at Auschwitz that I could have seen on my own, but the video and tour guide both provided helpful and impactful context that I likely could not have gotten on my own.
9. Salt Mines
Another organized tour I took from Krakow was a visit to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. In two unrelated conversations with Polish natives, I was told that I should visit the salt mine, which is one of Poland’s largest attractions. It may sound like a tourist trap, but it’s actually a UNESCO World Heritage site. If you plan to go (and you absolutely should!), prepare to hear and say the word “WOW” a lot.
The salt mine is enormous and “peppered” (pun intended) with incredible carvings made entirely out of salt by miners over the centuries. Entire rooms can be rented out for weddings, conferences and concerts. The sculptures themselves are truly amazing.
If you go to the mine on your own, you will be led by an official Polish guide employed by the mine. I went as part of a group tour, and our group also had a fantastic, entertaining guide employed by the tour company in addition to the mine escort. In the summertime, the mine can get very crowded. But because I visited in the fall, there were only six people on my tour and we had plenty of room to move around!
Take my advice…do not miss the opportunity to see the salt mines!
If you like vodka, you can find it anywhere, right? Maybe so, but in Poland, vodka is almost a religion. And honestly, I’ve never had flavored vodka like I had in Poland. Check out the aptly-named bar Wodka for a fun vodka-tasting experience. If you’ve consumed a flight of wine in the past, you’ll be familiar with the presentation. In this case, the glasses of wine are replaced with shots of flavored vodka which can be sipped from tiny wine-like glasses. There are about 100 flavors available, so if you have trouble deciding what to order, just ask the bartender and he’ll make recommendations based on the types of flavors you typically like.
I tried three vodkas (the bartender and I agreed that more might be dangerous!): hazelnut, fig and apple-cinnamon. All were smooth and flavorful, but the apple-cinnamon vodka was truly amazing.
11. Polish Food Tour
Because I love food tours and was saving so much money on the aforementioned accommodation, I decided to splurge on a food tour. As always, I had a great time!
There are a few different food tours in Krakow. The food tour through the “Free Walking Tours” tour group costs about $5 for food samples. If you’re on a tight budget, that’s definitely one to check out. However, I indulged in the food tour from Eat Krakow. We ate a multi-course meal throughout numerous stops (I actually lost count) at a few nice restaurants, a roadside stand, and a farmers’ market in different areas across the city of Krakow. The guide shared so much about Polish history and culture as well as the food. By the end, I was stuffed – with both food and information! The tour cost about $75 US, so it’s not something I’ll do again anytime soon. But it definitely made for an enjoyable afternoon!
12. Krakow is easy to navigate
Granted, I like to walk more than some travelers. Rather than waiting for a bus or tram, I’d rather just start walking and see what there is to see along the way! But Krakow really is simple to navigate. Good maps are easy to find, and everything I saw apart from the tours to Auschwitz and the Salt Mine were within walking distance. If you don’t enjoy walking as much as I do, you may want to catch a tram or bus to the Schindler Factory. Otherwise, you can save that money you’d otherwise spend on public transportation and put it toward a good meal or tour!
13. Pope John Paul II
I’m not Catholic, and maybe that’s why I didn’t know that Pope John Paul II was from the Krakow area or that he was so revered. My guide on the free walking tour told me much about the pope that I did not know. (And by the way, there’s only one pope if you’re in Krakow!) Apparently, Pope John Paul II started out as just a regular guy. He was active in theater while studying at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University. During World War II when all Polish were subjected to forced labor during the Nazi occupation, he worked in a rock quarry while studying at a secret seminary run by the archbishop of Krakow. In 1978, he became the first non-Italian pope in more than 400 years.
Pope John Paul II may still be Krakow’s most popular son. You’ll find statues and murals honoring him around the city. And if you’re interested, you can participate in one of the full Pope John Paul II walking tours (here’s a link to one) to learn more about his life and his impact on Krakow.
My visit to Krakow was wonderful and memorable. I hope you will have the chance to experience this beautiful city, and I hope a few of these tips will be helpful to you. Is there anything I missed? If so, let me know!