I love Kraków. You can walk all over it and find all sorts of wonderful spots to get a coffee, lick some gelato, grab a last-minute dinner of żurek and fresh bread or simply walk into a żabka and get yourself a cheeky polish beer and drink it by the river at sunset.
Here’s the thing with Kraków: it was occupied by the Nazis in World War 2 so it wasn’t heavily bombed. Then, the Germans fled the city when the Soviets came at the end of the war so there was no real fighting, which left the city largely untouched. Therefore: Kraków is a stunning relic of Polish history and is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Poland itself has a strange history. In fact in 1772, and for the next 123 years, Poland wasn’t even Poland, but just parts of the three separate countries of Russia, Prussia and Austria. Kraków was in the Austria section which treated it much better than the Russian or Prussian counterparts got treated and therefore retained a lot of its traditional beauty. Over the centuries, Kraków was known as a cultural capital, a bastion of Polish culture and art, and a large source of pride for the country (even when the country wasn’t a country!).
Walking around this city, you can really feel and see that pride alive and well.
The Rynek Główny (large central square) is similar in size to Wroclaw’s (but I think Wroclaw’s is prettier– I’m biased). As you stroll you can see markets, churches, medieval architecture, and selfie-stick sellers.
The free walking tours in this city are pretty good. I did the Jewish tour and the old town tour last summer. I found that the English was at times “iffy” but the information about the buildings and architecture was worth it (even if the guide couldn’t answer a question in English because they didn’t understand what you asked).
Some of my favorite places to visit include:
- St. Andrew’s Church. This is an unbelievably old church built somewhere around the 1080s! I love looking at this structure and imagining it saving the medieval inhabitants of Kraków when the Tartars invaded (twice) in the 13th century and raised the city (twice). This church saved many people form the fires and invaders.
- Wawel Castle. I think this is much prettier than Prague Castle and far less popular. The grounds give beautiful views of the city and the church at the top is lovely. There’s even a legend of a dragon associated with this castle and at the base there’s a metal dragon that emits flames every so often. Cool! It’s free to see.
- The Kazimierz district. Jackson and I found this area to be like the “Brooklyn” of Kraków. It’s got old buildings, funk, street art and lots of great places to eat. It also feels younger and more hip than the rest of Kraków. Originally this was the Jewish neighborhood and the area has tons of old synagogues. Unfortunately, the holocaust decimated the population of the Jews and the area is still being revived. It’s really really sad to think about all the tens-of-thousands of people who were rounded up and murdered in Kraków during the war. It’s a great place to walk around and think about the history and the people who lived there.
- Walking around the green belt. Formerly the Kraków wall, it’s now all green space filled with tree lined walkways and statues (as well as a few medieval gates). It’s a lovely walk around the city and a great place to walk off the gelato you’ll inevitably buy.
- The Underground Museum in the Rynek. A really cool exhibition to check out. For 19 PLN ($5USD) you can get a ticket to see some medieval ruins and remnants of Kraków that have been buried under the square.
Places to eat:
- Zazie Bistro. Holy Mother. Do yourself a favor: make a reservation (because the locals KNOW WHAT’S UP AND THIS PLACE IS ALWAYS PACKED). Order anything off that menu. Eat. Cry tears of joy. Then, when you get the bill, cry tears of relief because our 3-course meal was $30 bucks. Hot damn.
- Go to a milk bar (you can tell it’s a milk bar because their name will start with “Bar ___”, but it’s not a bar like in The States). There are a few around the city. These milk bars are cheap and will provide delicious, filling Polish food. Ever had żurek? Get some.
Where to stay:
- I’ve stayed near the center and in Kazimierz and I think, of the two, Kazimierz is better. Both times were through AirBnb. The center can be touristy and outside the green belt, the city gets very quiet and residential. In Kazimierz there’s a bunch of coffee shops and bars which made getting breakfast and coffee quite nice.
I would recommend Kraków to someone if it’s their first time in Poland. I think Kraków is much less crowded than Prague, has a ton of history, and can be consumed in 2-3 days. It’s cheap, vibrant and full of culture.