Krakow attractions - what to see in Kraków, Poland
Located in southern Poland in the region known as Lesser Poland, Krakow (or Cracow) although the country’s second largest city, is undoubtedly the most popular Polish tourist destination. The country’s capital for over five centuries (from 1038 to 1569) boasts a stunning cultural and historic heritage.
Krakow’s monuments – comprising the Old Town, the Wawel Castle and the Kazimierz district - are a part of the original UNESCO Worlds Heritage Culture dating to 1978 (where their counterparts were, for example, the iconic Great Wall of China or the pyramids of Giza). Krakow is home to nearly one quarter of all Polish museums, art collections and artefacts. The Jagiellonian University of Kakow is one of the oldest universities in Europe and academic culture thrives in the city.
See below a suggestion of top tourist attractions in Krakow and in Krakow area.
Krakow Old Town – Market Square, St. Mary’s Church and the Cloth Hall
Unlike in most other cities worldwide, the historic quarters (or the oldest part of the city, with original architecture of historic value) spread on a quite vast area and Stare Miasto (that is the Old Town) is only a part of them.
A visit to Main Market Square (Rynek Glowny) is simply inevitable for any tourist in Krakow. Simply charming with its gothic and renaissance architecture, a vast selection of cafés and handcraft stores, the Market Square is usually a starting point to sightseeing trip in Krakow, as the city’s most important historic streets radiate from here.
In the centre of the square, the Cloth Hall or Sukiennice, once a trading place for merchants, preserves the tradition, except that nowadays, instead of silk and spices brought from over-seas you can buy mostly souvenirs, handcraft and amber jewellery.
The gothic St. Mary’s Basilica on the edge of the Market Square is the most important church of Krakow. Step inside to admire the beautiful stained glass artwork by Wyspianski and Mehoffer, some of the most recognized painters of the Polish Romanticism and the stunning triptych altarpiece by Wit Stwosz.
The trumpet signal, or hejnal, played every hour from the top of the basilica’s tower is an important landmark of Krakow, if not all the country, as it is broadcasted live by the national radio station. The signal is finishes abruptly as a reference to a historic event: in the past it was played to warn the city inhabitants of the enemy in sight and a 13-century guard lost his life taking an arrow in the throat during an attack by the Mongols.
From the Market Square, take a stroll through any of the historic streets within the limits of the original city’s fortifications. Try out the restaurants and cafés on the Bracka Street, visit the magnificent Slowacki Theatre on the Szpitalna Street, or head through Florianska Street along the so called Coronation Way towards the Wawel Castle.
Wawel is the name of a natural elevation on the bank of River Vistula which was used to build Krakows first fortifications back in the 11th century. Developed during several centuries the fortified Wawel complex includes the Wawel Cathedral, the original coronation place but also the country’s pantheon and the fascinating Wawel Castle.
Home to three generations of Polish monarchs during the Jagiellonian dynasty, the Wawel Castle mesmerises with its lavishly decorated halls and chambers featuring priceless exhibits, amongst them the collection of Flemish tapestry.
In Wawel, do not miss out on the Crown Treasury and Armoury collection as well as on the Krakow branch of the National Museum which has Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Lady with an Ermine’ on display (the painting belongs to the Czartoryski Museum, also in Krakow).
Find more information about Wawel Hill attractions.
Krakow Jewish heritage
Jewish culture plays an important role in the history of Krakow. In the past Lesser Poland and especially Krakow were home to a significant Jewish community. Some of the oldest Jewish religious buildings and sites are located in Krakow, having survived the turmoil of the Second World War. Amongst those are the 14th century Tempel Synagogue and the Old Synagogue, the 16th century Remuh Synagogue and the Old Jewish Cemetery where many notable Polish Jews were buried since the 16th century.
Most of the monuments of the Jewish culture are found in Kazimierz district of Krakow. With its labyrinth of narrow streets and low-rise buildings, Kazimierz is a very charming place, bearing a distinct difference to Krakow’s Old Town. Many renowned traditional restaurants are located in Kazimierz and thanks to the efforts of re-vitalizing this area of the city, it is also a new hot-spot for trendy bars, cafés and art galleries.
In the area across River Vistula from Kazimierz the Nazis established Krakow ghetto during the war and there are several sites in this part of the city commemorating the tragic events of the Holocaust, amongst them the Oscar Schindler’s factory, known from Spielberg’s Schindler’s List movie. The site nowadays holds a permanent exposition as a branch of Krakow City Museum. Only 1.5 mile away from the Schindler’s factory is the site of a Nazi concentration camp Plaszow, depicted in the movie. Read about Auschwitz (Oswiecim) concentration camp further below.
According to the legend, during the reign of King Krakus a dragon lived in a cave at the foot of Wawel hill, on which the city is built. Many brave knights failed to slain the beast tormenting the city’s inhabitants, until a simple, yet clever, cobbler’s apprentice came up with a trick: he filled a sheep’s skin with sulphur and fed it to the dragon. Thirsty because of the sulphur, the dragon started drinking water from the Vistula river and drank until it exploded. The statue of the fire spitting dragon is placed by the entrance to the caves in Wawel Hill, which are open for visiting.
Wawel Dragon cave is an attraction especially popular amongst the youngest visitors.
Day trips from Krakow
While the city of Krakow itself holds enough attractions to fill in several days of sightseeing, many places of interest can be found also around Krakow. Daytrips trips from Krakow are widely available, not to mention over-sold, in most tourist locations and hotels in the city. It is, however, usually quite simple to travel to most of the attractions on your own by public transportation, taxi or a hire car, so do think twice before purchasing the often overpriced organized trips.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Dating back to the 13th century, the Wieliczka Salt mine – a UNESCO World Heritage Site - is well worth a trip from Krakow. The mine is located in Wieliczka town (approximately 14 km southeast of the city centre) produced salt for seven centuries and used to be one of the most profitable enterprises in Europe in the medieval times, when salt was very sought after and expensive. During the centuries of exploitation of the site, a labyrinth of passages and caverns spread on many levels was created, soon to be decorated both by crafty miners themselves and by profissional artists.
Today, the most remarkable sections of Wieliczka mine include the lavishly decorated Chapel of St. Kinga, the world’s biggest mining museum, saline lakes and a sanatorium for people suffering from respiratory tract diseases.
Only a small section of nearly 200 km of underground passages is open for visiting, yet you should be counting with at least 2 hours tour (may last longer, depending on which route you chose). The tours starts at the depth of 64 meters and descends to 135 meters below the surface. Wieliczka salt mine experience is not recommendable for visitors suffering from claustrophobia.
Find more information about Wieliczka Salt Mine opening times and tickets.
Auschwitz concentration camp
The village of Oswiecim, west of Krakow, was a scene to one of the saddest chapters of WWII history, if not of the all human kind. It was chosen as a location for the one of the deadliest Nazi concentration camps, having taken at least a million of lives (4 million according to some historians). The story of the Holocaust is told in Auschwitz in a very realistic way: barracks, gas chambers and the Auschwitz museum do not make for a ‘light’ visit. The recommended minimum age for children is 14.
Please keep in mind that if you are based in Krakow, a visit to Auschwitz is a whole day affair. It takes approximately 1.5 hour just to cover the 65 km distance to Oswiecim from Krakow.
Zakopane, winter capital of Poland
If you are in Krakow for a longer time and fancy a change of scenery, a daytrip to the lovely village of Zakopane, at the foot of Tatra Mountains is an option.
Nicknamed Poland’s ‘winter capital’, due to the access to ski routes and infrastructure for winter sports it provides, Zakopane is popular at any time of the year, attracting hikers or simply admirers of the beauty of the Polish mountains also outside the snow season. Zakopane itself is a lovely, vibrant town, offering in equal proportions folklore and touristy kitsch. At the peak season, both in winter and summer, the town may get very crowded. If possible, aim to visit Zakopane in the shoulder season, in spring, or in early autumn, to get the most of what the town has to offer, with as little of the tourist hustle and bustle as possible. Enjoy the Polish highlanders’ unique culture and traditions and the natural beauty the Polish mountains are blessed with:
Although Zakopane is located about a 100 km south of Krakow, this distance may take unexpectedly long to cover as the access road to the town often gets jammed. Train, is not a quicker option, due to the way the rail tracks were laid in the mountainous terrains. Count on at least 2 hours trip one way.
In the predominantly Catholic Poland, Czestochowa sanctuary is by far the most important place of cult. The Jasna Gora monastery, home to the icon of the Black Madonna is a destinations of pilgrimage for Poles and foreigner alike. The city of Czestochowa is located approx. 150 km north-west of Krakow.