Arguably Poland’s most popular tourist destination, visiting Krakow is a dreamland for those who love historic old towns and exploring local culture. Given how much praise I had heard for it beforehand, I arrived to the city in Poland’s south cautiously optimistic. Overhyping a destination can lead to unrealistic expectations, so I try not to build up too grand of a mental image of a destination before visiting. Thankfully, Krakow proved to be deserving of its good word of mouth and a city in which I thoroughly enjoyed spending a few days.
I often have trouble figuring out how to share the more popular places, the ones with so much already written about them. So instead, this is going to be a more personal post rather than a broad guide of must-see places. If you’re interested, these are my favourite moments and occasional insights from my time visiting Krakow, Poland’s tourism powerhouse.
As always, a great place to start with a city like Krakow is the Old Town’s Main Square. Here you’ll find everything you need to get a feel of the city, from the incredible gothic architecture to the cafes and restaurants to the swarms of tourists milling about. Just walking around the square I had that sense of wonder you get in a really atmospheric old town.
At the centre of the Main Square is the historic Cloth Hall. It has a pleasant enough exterior, but it’s really when you find yourself inside that it truly shines. The arcade that runs through the hall is imperial grandeur incarnate. Nowadays it sells souvenirs and trinkets and while I couldn’t care less about those, I did get a kick out of photographing the hall and its baroque features.
The real star attraction of Krakow’s Main Square is definitely St. Mary’s Basilica that looms high over the square. A masterclass of gothic architecture, it is truly remarkable especially with its uneven spires. The addition to the tower was made so it could serve as the watchtower for the local fire brigade as I understand it. Rebuilt in the 14th after it was destroyed by the Mongols, the tower’s history has given its signature hourly trumpet call a creative backstory.
Every hour, a trumpeter appears in the taller of the two towers performing a tune “Hejnał Mariacki” in each direction that is abruptly cut off. The story goes that this is in honour of a trumpeter who was shot in the throat by a Mongolian arrow after he had sounded the alarm for their imminent attack. It’s one of many legends attempting to explain the trumpet call but it’s definitely a compelling story.
Beyond the Main Square there’s plenty to see elsewhere in Krakow’s Old Town. Since Krakow was my last stop, I had visited quite a few Polish cities at that point and yet none had quite as much original and beautiful architecture as Krakow. Much of this is found within the limits of old town and is best experienced by just walking about. It’s easy, it’s free and it’s genuinely one of my favourite things to do in any new city. Of course, saying all this is also an excuse to share photos.
Krakow’s real advantage over many other Polish cities is the minimal damage it received during WWII. Lacking much industry at the time, it wasn’t seen as overly strategic and therefore not bombed into oblivion. Thanks to that, you’re going to find far more original historic buildings than in places like Warsaw, Gdansk or Poznan. If I had to pick a favourite away from the main square, it would have to be the above Arsenal building and its elegant walkway to the Czartoryski Palace. It’s just sublime and a perfect example of Krakow’s captivating beauty.
Old City Walls
I have to admit, I’m a sucker for a good city wall. Krakow is no longer completely surrounded by city walls but there is a stretch still preserved at the old town’s northern end. It’s enough to give you an idea of what must have once been there and that medieval feel. What remains is the lowering St Florian’s Gate and the large Barbican that lies beyond it.
As the centuries went on, the fortifications were no longer needed and the walls were taken down to allow the city to expand and modernise in the 19th century. Desperate to preserve this last part of the walls, the people of Krakow came up with all sorts of explanations to save it. From what I was told, the winning gambit was to claim that without the gate a strong wind would come down Floriańska Street and pull up women’s skirts, an indecency that could not be tolerated! Props for using conservative prudishness in such a creative way.
Another feather in its cap is that Krakow is home to Wawel Castle, lying just beyond the southern end of the old town. Having seen remarkably few castles throughout my travels in Poland, to find this superb just down the street from my studio apartment was an utter delight. Dating from the 13th century, the castle served as the royal residence when Krakow was the nation’s capital.
Like many castles, Wawel had an unfortunate habit of getting destroyed, be it by fire or occupation. This means it’s a curious mix of architectural styles, each harkening back to their respective rebuilds. Thanks to repeated reconstructions and renovations its in pretty good nick these days despite periods of neglect. This architectural jumble is best seen in the castle’s cathedral where nothing really matches. Sure it clashes but you also can’t look away.
The real highlight though of the castle has to be the gigantic renaissance courtyard found within. On three sides of the courtyard (the Nazi’s messed up the fourth) you’ll see magnificent arched balconies. The uppermost balcony also happens to contain fragments of frescos that you’re still able to make out from ground level. There really is a grand scale to this courtyard that I just can’t put into words. Oh and everywhere I’ve mentioned for the castle so far has free entry (not so for the museums).
Another pleasant aspect of visiting Krakow was the chance to explore the city’s neighbourhood of Kazimierz. Once the Jewish Quarter of Krakow, Kazimierz has managed to retain elements of its history and community despite the awful events of the 20th century. I quite liked exploring Kazimierz as it had a distinctive feel to it, with different architecture and a smaller community vibe.
In the neighbourhood you’ll find multiple historic schools and synagogues, but also a nice little local market, complete with pigeons digging into the berries! Maybe avoid those. Kazimierz is also well-known for its restaurants. Having ran into a friend from back in Australia, we ventured here to try one of the many restaurants in the area. No idea now what it was called but it was an unassuming restaurant and the food was pretty great. In fact, everywhere we went to eat in Krakow ended up being pretty good.
A point that should be made crystal clear is that there is and was a difference between a city’s Jewish district and the Jewish Ghettos formed during WWII. This goes for Krakow but also other for other cities in Poland. Historically, Poland had a far more welcoming disposition towards the Jewish people fleeing persecution from the rest of Europe. The neighbourhoods like Kazimierz were where the community lived for centuries, whereas the ghettos were formed between 1939-45 under Nazi occupation. Krakow’s former ghetto is found across the Vistula River and includes the below memorial as well as the factory owned by Oskar Schindler.
I’m going to sound like a broken record at this point, but if you’re in Poland, then look into taking a tour with the folks at Free Walking Tour. I again did a number of tours in Krakow with them and really got a lot out of them. I thought the dwarf tour in Wroclaw would have been my strangest and coolest but I think they may have been pipped by Krakow’s Macabre Tour.
Taking place in the evening, the tour takes you through the city’s old town and shares the darker, spookier side of Krakow. From tales of local serial killers during the country’s communist days, to ghost stories and haunted buildings, something’s bound to capture your imagination as you’re led through the dark city backstreets. If you’re easily spooked, maybe take a friend with you. To me it was just cool to learn a fun mix of history and urban legend, all the while seeing some parts of the old town at night that I hadn’t come across yet. Sadly no photos though, I forgot.
If you’ve been, where were your favourite spots when visiting Krakow? Have you also heard good things about this Polish city? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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