City Guide to Krakow: Must See Attractions and Exploring

City Guide to Krakow: Must See Attractions and Exploring

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Many argue that no visit to Poland is complete without time spent in Krakow. It’s described as a magical, fairy tale city that’s not only beautiful but inexpensive and full of great food. For us, traveling first to Warsaw and then continuing south to Krakow, we wanted to see and experience one of Poland’s most visited cities, but we also knew Krakow to be the gateway to the concentration camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau.

When we were walking around Krakow, we were sure to look in all directions becuase the buildings were so beautiful!

With a week planned in Krakow we set off to explore the city, and if you know us at all, you’re well aware that we plan our trips out in advance. We’re detailed in our research, curating a list of everything we want to do, from the tried and true tourist destinations, to local spots and always a few hidden gems that are off the beaten path. So, to possibly make your research on sightseeing in Krakow (and other destinations) easier, we’ve kept our maps with all of the information we gathered (accurate at the time of our sightseeing). Finding hours, prices, and general information can sometimes be challenging, so we’ve tried to include these details on our maps and provide appropriate links below.

 
 

NOTE: We used this sightseeing map for our personal sightseeing adventures, because of that, some notes may not make perfect sense, and some information could be outdated. Information on this map was valid at the time of creation. In general prices are shown in US dollars but are actually in Polish Zolty (local currency). That being said, feel free to save it to your Google account and use it as a starting point (or modify it accordingly) for planning out your personalized itinerary in Krakow.

Exploring Krakow

We loved all of the detail we saw while exploring the streets of Old Town Krakow!

Our favorite way to get to know a city is to explore it by foot. Walking in Krakow, if you’re physically able, is a fairly easy task, as it’s a small city. However, there’s no shame in taking public transportation, and buses and trams will get you just about anywhere within the city. The most popular part of the city, the area that gives Krakow its reputation as a wondrous fairy tale, is Old Town. It’s extremely popular and very crowded, making it a great place to people watch. Although, if you want to avoid crowds, do what we did and arrive first thing in the morning. We beat the crowds and were fortunate to have most of Old Town to ourselves when we started sightseeing on a Sunday morning at 7:30 am. It can be painful for people who aren’t accustomed to waking up early, however in our experience, it’s well worth the discomfort! It’s also an entirely different experience, as the city on a Sunday morning has a blanket of calm over it; locals are at home or in religious services, and tourists are probably still warm in their hotel bed.

The majority of your time will likely be spent exploring Old Town, however don’t take the outer areas of Krakow for granted. There’s plenty to see and there are less tourists to contend with in the rest of the city. We spent a fair amount of time exploring different parts of Krakow and felt we were able to see a side of the city that many visitors don’t get to experience, providing us additional depth and knowledge of the city. We highly recommend it!

 

You never know what street art you'll come across in Krakow!

 

Must See Attractions in Krakow

Wawel Royal Castle

It’s one of the largest castles in Poland and was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the Historic Center of Krakow in 1978. Visiting the grounds of the castle is free of charge, but there’s plenty more to do and see at the castle that require entry tickets (it has five separate museums in total!). For us, we found that walking around the grounds of the castle was the perfect experience for us. If you wish to explore more, check current visitor information on their website.

 

Wawel Castle is one of the major attractions in Krakow, so come early and plan on crowds.

 

Main Square (Rynek Główny)

Rynek Główny, the main square in Old Town dates back to the 13th century. It’s size took us by surprise and subsequently we spent a fair amount of time exploring it. We first arrived in the square in the early morning hours and enjoyed it nearly empty, sharing the space only with vendors and restaurant employees that were setting up for the day. However, the calm of the morning was long gone when we visited later in the day and found the square full of people! It’s two distinctively different experiences, and if you have the chance, you should do both.

Here are some of the different place you can find in Rynek Główny Square...

 

The size of Old Town Square is impressive, but don't overlook the details of the buildings, they're beautiful!

 

The Cloth Hall (Sukiennice)

The Cloth Hall, dating back to the 13th century, is an indoor market set up with stalls for vendors. Today it makes for a fantastic place to find gifts (although, you’ll pay a ‘tourist tax’). Historically, it was known for the trade of textile and fabrics, but has also seen a variety of commodities pass through its stalls.

 

Cloth Hall in Old Town Square is a completely different experience in the still of the early morning, compared to the crowds of mid-day! 

 

St. Mary's Basilica

Although set in a corner of Rynek Główny, you won’t likely miss this church. Its brick facade, two towers of different heights, and the hourly ‘hejnał’ (bugle call) make this church stand apart from its surroundings. Purchase tickets (separately) for a climb to the top of the tower and for entry to the front of the church.

 

St. Mary's Basilica is a dominating and beautiful presence in Old Town Square. 

 

Church of St. Wojciech (Kościół św. Wojciecha)

It’s the oldest church in Krakow, dating back to the 11th century. It may seem oddly situated in the main square, although, historically it was a place of worship for visiting merchants, which explains its location near Cloth Hall market.

Town Hall Tower (Wieża ratuszowa w Krakowie)

It’s the only remaining part of the town hall and to our surprise, its cellar was once the city prison and a torture chamber. Visitors can climb to the observation deck at the top of the tower for views of the surrounding city.

Eros Bendato (Eros Bound)

Also known as “The head”, this sculpture by Igor Mitoraj is very popular among tourists. If you don’t arrive before the crowds, you’ll find it’s hard to take a picture without people on top of it or climbing in it.

 

Town Hall Tower stands in the middle of Old Town Square and fits in with its surroundings. However, Church of St. Wojciech is in the south east corner and looks a bit out of place, almost as if it was placed in its location as an afterthought. Additionally, consider yourself forwarned, by mid-day the Eros Bendato scultpture was covered in kids climbing it from all sides, so arrive early to get a picture of it alone.

 

Wieliczka Salt Mine

This salt mine was opened in the 13th century and actively produced salt until 2007. It’s officially a National Historic Monument of Poland and is open to the public, but it’s a ways out of city center Krakow. You can only enter the mine by joining a tour, although there are a few tour (‘Route’) options to choose from. Take the Miners’ Route for a more hands-on tour, or the Tourist Route for a fast-paced walk through the mine (while 'fast-paced' it's still 90-120 minutes in length). We opted for the Tourist Route and found it well designed for visitors, with restroom breaks along the way and places to stop and get a snack or buy a souvenir. For our liking, we would have been satisfied with a tour about half the length. Additionally, we were disappointed that there wasn’t enough time to take photographs at each stop before being rushed along by the next tour group. Find up-to-date visiting information on their website.

Wieliczka Salt Mine is located a bit out of downtown Krakow but is a great attraction to visit, especially with a family! Just remember, you'll be going into the mine, which is deep below ground level.

The walls in the mine are covered in salt and form in popcorn-like structures, or in a smooth shiny finish. From the salt sculptures, large salt cathedrals, to the salt water lakes, the mine has been turned into a tourist spot!

Wawel Cathedral/ (królewska bazylika archikatedralna śś. Stanisława i Wacława na Wawelu)

While visiting, it didn’t take long before realizing that Pope John Paul II (formerly Karol Wojtyla) is widely celebrated throughout the city. Visit the 900 year old Wawel Cathedral to see where Pope John Paul II offered his first mass the day after his ordination in 1946. The cathedral is the coronation site of Polish Monarchs and is the Cathedral of the Archdiocese of Krakow. Find visiting information on the cathedral website.

 

The Wawel Cathedral is located in the same area as the Wawel Castle, and since both are major tourist attractions, be prepared for lines to get entrance tickets. Walking the grounds and entering the crypt is free for all visitors.

 

Planty Park

Planty Park consists of thirty smaller gardens that surround Old Town and can be found where the medieval city walls used to stand until the 19th century. Walk the four kilometers (two-and-a-half miles) around the park and you’ll enjoy scenic walkways, ponds, monuments, and fountains.

 

Planty Park is a series of gardens and parks that surround Old Town Krakow. We highly recommend starting at one side and walking the perimeter of Old Town through the paths within Planty Park!

 

Kraków Barbican (barbakan krakowski) & St. Florian's Gate (Brama Floriańska)

Built in the mid-15th century, Krakow Barbican was a fortified outpost that connected the city walls and served as a gateway to Old Town through St. Florian's Gate.

 

When visiting, be sure to take a close look at the Barbican and St. Florian's Gate, the detail is the finishing touch you don't want to miss!

 

Kościuszko Mound (kopiec Kościuszki)

This artificial mound was erected between 1820 and 1823, dedicated to Tadeusz Kościuszko, a Polish National Leader, and modeled after the prehistoric mounds in Krakow. Walk the serpentine path to the top for views of the city.

 

The bus that runs to Kościuszko Mound only runs once an hour, so plan accordingly! 

 

Collegium Maius (Muzeum Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego)

Originally constructed to be the main building of the Jagiellonian University, the arched courtyard is worth a visit. Historically, professors lived and worked in the upper level and lectures took place on the ground level. As you take in the courtyard, you may be inspired to know that Nicolaus Copernicus attended the university in the late 15th century. See beyond the courtyard with a tour, of which more information can be found on the website.

 

The beauty is in the details! From afar the courtyard of Collegium Maius is nice, but take a closer look and you'll fall in love with the artistic details throughout!

 

St. Francis' Basilica (Klasztor i Bazylika Franciszkanów św. Franciszka z Asyżu)

Visit St. Francis' Basilica to see its beautiful and colorful Art Nouveau interior.

 

St. Francis' Basilica in Krakow surprised us with an Art Nouveau interior and elegant stained glass windows.

 

Manggha Centre

Located on the bank of Wisla River, the Manggha Center is the Center of Japanese Art and Technology that was inspired by the Oscar winning Polish film maker, Andrzej Wajda. When visiting, you’ll first notice that the contemporary building is designed in a traditional Japanese wave-shaped fashion, and inside, depending on when you visit, you’ll find a mixture of Japanese, Polish, and other international exhibitions.

 

We didn't expect a Japanese art museum to be in Krakow, but we're glad we took the time to visit the Manggha Centre. The exhibits were well done and while it was a Japanese Art Museum, they featured Polish exhibits as well.

 
 

Exhibits are rotated throughout the year at the Manggha Centre, and what we had the pleasure of seeing as very well curated.

 

Church of Saints Peter and Paul (Kościół ŚŚ Piotra i Pawła w Krakowie)

Built between 1597 and 1619, the Baroque style church is the largest historic church in Krakow when it comes to seating capacity. Before entering, you’ll likely notice the church’s most memorable feature, the 12 disciples that line the outer gate.

 

The view of the front exterior of Church of Saints Peter and Paul is sure to catch your attention with the row of sculptures that top the gate.

 

Sanctuary of Divine Mercy

This modern basilica was built between 1999 and 2002 and is located on site of the monastery complex of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. When visiting, you’ll be among three Popes and millions of pilgrims who’ve visited the site. Don’t miss a climb (or ride up the elevator) for a view of the city, which is free (accurate at the time of our visit).

 

Krakow is full of historical churches, however, for a touch of the modern be sure to visit Sanctuary of Divine Mercy.

 
 

The tower of Sanctuary of Divine Mercy is hard to miss, but the best part is that it's free to climb the stairs (or take the elevator) to the viewing tower and take in the views.

 

St. Andrew's Church (Kościół św. Andrzeja) 

Built in the 11th century, this church is a fascinating example of a European fortress church. The church was the only one in Krakow to survive the Mongol attack of 1241, and to this day you can still see the small openings of the defensive windows along the lower section of the building.

 

St. Andrew's Church is on the smaller size, but the decoration and detail inside are magnificent!

 

The Wawel Dragon (Smok Wawelski)

On the bank of the Wisla River is the Wawel Dragon. It’s quite popular among visitors, and children especially enjoy climbing on it. If you’re patient and keep your eyes on the sculpture, you’ll be rewarded with its fire breathing show!

 

A short walk down hill from Wawel Cathedral and Wawel Castle is Wawel Dragon, which kids love because it breaths real fire! Also, if you're interested in Polish celebrities, there's a walk of stars on the walkway along the river, just in front of the Wawel Dragon.

 

Oskar Schindler's Enamel Factory (Fabryka Emalia Oskara Schindlera)

The former metal factory is now the home of two museums, Museum of Contemporary Art in Kraków MOCAK and Historical Museum of the City of Krakow. If Oskar Schindler sounds familiar, you may recall the name from Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List. Today visitors can see the permanent exhibition ‘Kraków During Nazi Occupation 1939-1945’, it covers everyday life of Krakow inhabitants during Nazi occupation. Find visitor information on the official website.

 

Oskar Schindler's Enamel Factory played a large role in Krakow's history during World War II, so most tours make a stop here. We'd suggest arriving early to miss the crowds.

If you're a fan of modern and contemporary art, then be sure to stop by the MOCAK while in Krakow!

 

Stary Kleparz Covered Market

 Stary Kleparz Covered Market is an 800 year old local produce market that’s a fantastic place to see the ‘local’ side of Krakow.

 

In our humble opnion, visiting a local market is a fantastic way to get to know the neighborhood!

 

Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau (Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau w Oświęcimiu)

The Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, memorial, and museum isn’t located in Krakow, but was a main reason for our visit. It’s about an hour and a half drive from Krakow but worth the visit for its historical significance and for a time of reflection.

Due to the significance of Auschwitz-Birkenau, we’ve written two individual posts, one on our experience during our visit and one with tips to visiting the camps and memorial. Check back soon, or sign up for our monthly digest to stay updated!). We recommend reading them, not only for the pictures and experience, but also for tips on how to secure free tickets, as they are a bit tricky to obtain.

 

Two of the three camps at Auschwitz are open to the public. Clockwise (from the top): Ruins of a gas chamber at Auschwitz-II Birkenau, a guard tower at Auschwitz-I, the entrance to Auschwitz-II Birkenau, the double barbed wire fences that enclose Auschwitz-I.

 

Final Thoughts

If you’re visiting Poland, Krakow’s probably on your destination list. We’re actually split on our take of the city, Sergio enjoyed Warsaw more, while Shannon preferred Krakow. Either way, the cities are a short distance from each other and are inexpensive to reach by either plane or bus, so we recommend adding both to your itinerary if time allows. Plus, while in Poland, don’t miss out on a traditional Communist Era Milk Bar experience (coming soon)!

And, we don't want to leave you without sharing just a few more of our favorite photos! We hope you enjoy them!

 

On the grounds of Wawel Castle and Wawel Cathedral is Baszta Sandomierska, which is a tower that you can buy tickets to climb to the top and view Krakow from up above.

 
 

The grounds of Church of St Michael Archangel and St Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr are magnificent!

You'll never really know a city fully until you explore the streets by foot. You'll discover alleyways, markets, monuments, and memorials. In our exploration of Krakow we came across the Empty Chairs Memorial (bottom left image), which is in memorial of the World War II Ghetto in Krakow and its victims.

 
Experience Traditional Polish Food: At a Milk Bar (Bar Mleczny)!

Experience Traditional Polish Food: At a Milk Bar (Bar Mleczny)!

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