Kraków isn’t somewhere I’d always dreamed of going to, and it hadn’t been one of my first considerations when I started to think about a Christmas market city break in December. However I noticed a few places were offering deals to go there. Curiosity piqued, I soon realised I could get there myself much cheaper (always look around!), there were direct flights from Bristol, and it came recommended by various friends. Suddenly I had a plan! Recently returned, I feel like I’m recommending the city to everyone I see. It was a great place for a short break, and I’d happily go back (although maybe when the weather’s a bit warmer…). Here’s my guide to a short city break in Kraków.
Things to see and do in Kraków
Kraków is perfect sized city for a long weekend. There’s plenty to do to keep you entertained, but it’s small enough that you don’t feel like you’re rushing the whole time or spending all your time travelling between locations. We were there for four nights and it was just the right amount of time, although we possibly could have managed with slightly less time.
The Main Square
The Main Square is the heart of the old town, and you’ll probably find yourself coming back here multiple times. We spent a lot of time here as it was where the Christmas market was located. It’s surrounded by shops, bars and restaurants which are housed in some beautiful buildings. You’ll also notice a queue of horses and carriages, waiting to give you a tour through Kraków’s historic streets. We decided to pass on this experience as it was quite pricey, but it added to the picturesque scenes.
The square is home to St Mary’s Basilica, one of Poland’s most famous churches. Make sure you’re standing outside on the hour so that you can hear and attempt to spot (it’s harder than it sounds!) the bugle player. I’d also recommend going in for a look – the interior is incredibly ornate and I think it has the most impressive ceiling I’ve ever seen.
Kraków’s Main Square is also home to the Cloth Hall, which was once a major centre for global trade. The building dominates the market square and is still a great place to look for some unique gifts and souvenirs to take home.
We saved Rynek Underground until our last day when it was raining, but unless you are facing a similar weather predicament to us I’d recommend going on your first day if you can. This interactive museum is underneath the Cloth Hall and takes you through Kraków’s history with an underground route through medieval market stalls and a vampire graveyard. The series of videos at the end of the museum are a really comprehensive introduction to Kraków’s history which will provide you with an interesting context to everything else you see. I only knew about
Kraków’s more recent history so learned a lot.
Wawel Castle served as the Royal Residence and site of Polish governance for five centuries, and consists of multiple structures on top of Wawel hill. It’s now a museum, giving you the option to see the royal chambers, amoury and cathedral. We didn’t go into the museum, but you can still admire the building from the outside and it’s a great place to watch the sun set and enjoy views over the city rooftops. Don’t leave without saying hello to the dragon, who will even breathe fire for you!
Kazimierz is an interesting place to visit as for much of its history it was actually a separate town to the rest of Kraków. The mixed Jewish and Christian communities lived side-by-side, so walking through the streets you’ll find an abundance of churches and synagogues. After completing a walking tour that was in our trusty Lonely Planet city guide, we visited the Remuh Synagogue and Cemetery, as well as some of the impressive bookshops in the area. The main attraction is the Jewish Museum, which we chose not to visit on this occasion as we’d already decided to take an excursion to Auschwitz.
Excursions from Kraków
There are two main excursions that you’ll see advertised from Kraków – one to go to Auschwitz-Birkenau museum and memorial, and the other to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. We did both in one day through the same tour company which made for a very long day but meant we weren’t taking two days out of our trip to leave the city. It also meant that we ended the day on a slightly more positive note, seeing the salt mines last.
It took quite a bit of deciding whether or not to go to Auschwitz. I felt like I ought to, but I’ll be honest, I really needed a good break and going to somewhere I knew was going to be quite dark and depressing wasn’t necessarily something I wanted to do. In the end I decided I would kick myself at passing up the opportunity if I never returned to Kraków, having spent so long studying the Nazi regime in history classes and having spoken to some colleagues who had been recently.
It’s a tough trip. I knew a lot of the history and the facts before I arrived, so nothing particularly shocked me, but there’s a difference learning about it in a class in school and seeing everything in front of you. The moments which moved me the most were seeing the mounds of human hair that had been cut off, and walking into what we knew used to be a gas chamber. It was a really harrowing visit, but an important one.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Everyone I mentioned that I was going to Kraków to absolutely raved about the salt mine and so I knew I had to go. It lived up to the hype and I’d certainly recommend the short excursion out of the city to see it for yourself. Over the course of the tour you’ll walk about 3km, going down approximately 350 steps to end up 135 metres underground – luckily there’s a lift for the way back up!
You’ll learn about the history of mining, the conditions the miners worked in and about the legend of Princess Kinga. You’ll get to see examples of old mining equipment, and some seriously impressive chambers and chapels that have all been carved out of the salt. The Chapel of St Kinga is one of the most impressive rooms, with incredible carvings on the walls, sculptures and chandeliers constructed from wood and salt. Some of the chambers are used for concerts and theatre performances as the acoustics are really good.
What to eat in Kraków
When in Kraków you should definitely take the opportunity to try some Polish food. We were there whilst the Christmas market was on which gave us an advantage for trying some local food. After sampling a variety of flavours and both boiled and fried pierogi (polish dumplings) we decided that the fried ones with beef were our favourites. Another night we headed to U Babci Maliny- Szpitalna which was a bizarre restaurant split across multiple rooms – the one we were in was a little like being inside a log cabin or chalet, but the other rooms were decked out like an old fashioned boudoir. Here we had Goulash served in bowls of bread which was very tasty and the perfect hearty food for the cold weather outside.
If you decide you want something that isn’t local, or a little lighter, there are an abundance of other places to eat in Kraków. Urban Coffee (in Kazimierz) was an unexpected find, but their lunch bowls were delicious. Plenty of food at a very reasonable price, and you got to build your own. Their cakes also looked great but unfortunately we didn’t have room! We also tried Indus Tandoori, which was described in our guide book as “reputed to be the best Indian restaurant in town”. It was very tasty and made a welcome change to bread and dumplings.
‘Tis the Season
We visited Kraków at the start of December, specifically whilst the Christmas market was on. The market takes over one half of the main market square and has an abundance of different food, wine and gift stalls. It got an awful lot busier at the weekend, so if you can I’d recommend trying to see it mid-week. It was a good market, but certainly not the biggest I’ve been to. I’d still recommend going at this time of year though as the Christmas decorations around the city were beautiful, and there was definitely a festive atmosphere.
We were there on the first Thursday of the month, which is when the traditional Christmas Crib competition takes place. They looked less like cribs and more like cathedrals or castles, but it was an interesting spectacle to see and clearly very popular with the locals!
In the summer I imagine it’s still a great place to visit – with plenty more opportunity to sit outside of cafes and watch the world go by. There are plenty of green spaces to explore which I imagine are very inviting in the warmer months.
Some top tips
- I’d recommend staying centrally if you can as then you won’t really need to use public transport. Kraków is easily a walking city if you stay in the city centre, and it’s the best way to admire all of the architecture.
- If you’re there in the winter, don’t underestimate the cold. Take plenty of layers, wear thermals and make sure you have a hat and gloves on when you’re outside.
- We found a lot of places closed or had their last entry before 3pm in the winter because of the daylight hours. Keep this in mind if there’s something specific you want to see.
- Some attractions (including Rynek Underground) have a limited number of tickets each day. Book ahead if you don’t want to be disappointed.
- Quite a few attractions charged extra if you wanted to take photos. It wasn’t a lot, but it’s something to take note of.
Have you ever been to Kraków? What would you recommend?