There are so many things to do in Krakow, it can be hard to decide what to put on your itinerary when you’re there. The right answer: all of them, of course! Krakow is one of my favorite cities in the world, and I’ve stayed there three times now, each time finding new adventures and gems around the city. Here are my recommendations for what to do when you visit yourself.
Explore the Old Town
Krakow is a fascinating city with a history that dates back to the 7th century. It was the capital of Poland until 1596 and became the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. While the city has been modernized quite a bit in the past few decades, it still holds its medieval charm, which is most apparent in the city’s Old Town.
Krakow’s Old Town accounts for only 0.5% of the total size of the city; rather small compared to the whole city which has a population of 750,000 – the second largest in Poland. Despite the small size of the old town, there’s still plenty to see and do there.
The Old Town was once surrounded by a defensive wall 1.9 miles long with 46 towers and 7 gates until the 19th century when most of the fortifications were torn down and replaced with a park. You can visit the Kraków Barbican on the north end of the Old Town to see the last remnants of the defensive network.
Rynek Główny, or Main Market, is the Big Market Square which dominates the center of the Old Town. This square, measuring nearly 10 acres, is the largest medieval town square in Europe. The massive Cloth Hall sits in the center of the square. It was rebuilt in 1555 in the renaissance style, although nowadays it mostly sells overpriced souvenirs and jewelry.
Under the north end of the square is the city’s history museum, which is well worth a visit! Tickets to the museum are only about $6. It’s interesting to note that the museum is actually at the old level of the city. Over the centuries, the ground level rose several feet due to the refuse that piled up. You can also see this at the Church of St. Wojciech in the square, where you can clearly see the original street level around the church.
Delve into the Wieliczka Salt Mines
Although it’s outside the city limits, one of the two main things to do in Krakow is to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mines. They’re located about 10 miles southeast of Krakow, and there are usually dozens of tours going there every day from the city center.
The mines date back over 700 years and were in operation as recently as 1996. The deepest part of the mines is 1078 feet below the surface, deeper than the Eiffel Tower is tall, but the truly impressive figure is the 178 miles of tunnels. Be prepared to climb up and down over 800 stairs on your tour. You can take the local train down to Wieliczka for just under $1 or the 304 bus for just over $1. Admission to the mines is about $25. If you want to buy a tour from the city center, they start around $35.
If you want to get a bit more extravagant, there is a health retreat deep in the bowels of the mine. The salt-laden air is said to have rejuvenation properties. For as little as $40 a night, you can spend some time down there to see if the claims are true. If that’s not your thing, I’d still highly recommend a tour. The mines are absolutely fascinating, especially since nearly every object in them is made from salt. That even includes the chandeliers in the four chapels, one of which is stunning. One of the caverns is even big enough for hot air balloons! The mines were also on the list of the original UNESCO World Heritage Sites back in 1978.
Be Humbled By Auschwitz
The second popular attraction which isn’t actually in Krakow is the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp. I’ll start this one off by saying it’s one of the most humbling experiences I’ve had in all my travels, and not just because my grandfather barely escaped capture in Rotterdam as a Jew during World War II.
Most people don’t have a concept of how extensive Auschwitz was as a concentration camp. Auschwitz was divided into three camps – Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II (Birkenau) and Auschwitz III (Monowitz). The Germans obliterated Monowitz and most of Birkenau before they pulled out at the end of the war. The current memorial site covers 472 acres, although the original camp size spanned nearly 10,000 acres!
Auschwitz I is fairly well preserved. Located nearly 40 miles west of Krakow, you can get there by bus, train or tour. The bus and train both cost under $5 each way. Entrance to the memorial is free, but I’d recommend pre-booking a guided tour for $10. If you want a full tour from Krakow, it will cost between $20 and $40. There is a free shuttle between Auschwitz I and Birkenau, where you can see the ruins of 174 barracks, as well as the railway tracks.
Some things to note – there’s no cafe in the parks, so go well fed or bring a bit of food. You’re allowed to bring a very small bag into the memorial with you (think purse or fanny pack size), or you can check your bag into the storage hut for a small fee. Plan to spend a full day for this attraction. I would recommend going on your own (not as part of a tour) so you can go at your own pace. Get there early enough to take the guided tour provided by the memorial, and then go through again for photos and further information.
Take a Food Tour
Now that we have the gloomiest thing to do in Krakow out of the way, it’s time to boost your spirits, and how better to do that than with an amazing food tour?
There are two food tours I have to recommend in Krakow, both fantastic in their own right. The first tour is with Krakow Urban Adventures and is organized like a four-course meal spread over four different restaurants. First, you’ll get appetizers and beer at a secret haunt near Krakow’s Little Square where the tour starts(not far from the Big Square mentioned above). From there, you’ll head across the Old Town to get your soup course. Poland makes some of the best soups in the world that I’ve tried, and you’ll get to sample more than one. Then it’s on to the Jewish Quarter for the main course – pierogi. They’re basically Polish dumplings, but don’t let the locals you call them that. The tour ends near one of Krakow’s liveliest squares for some dessert and bison vodka.
The Urban Adventures Krakow Food by Foot Tour costs $80 and lasts about 3 hours. It leaves every day from Little Square at noon and 6 p.m. I’d recommend the evening tour.
The second food tour in Krakow is organized by Secret Food Tours. This tour covers far more dishes, but smaller portions of each. As the name of the tour implies, they like to keep the restaurants on the tour secret, which is partially due to them sometimes changing up which restaurants they visit. My tour might have also been special as we tried two dishes not listed on their itinerary page. This tour starts at the Old Barbican and sticks to the Old Town, visiting half a dozen restaurants, and lasts up to 3.5 hours. The price of this tour is $65.
Both of these tours are amazing, and if you have the time and money, I’d recommend taking both (but maybe not on the same trip). Whichever tour you choose, I’m willing to bet you’ll fall in love with the Polish cuisine as much as I did.
Learn How to Cook Pierogi
If you loved the pierogi from the food tour, why not learn how to cook it yourself? Also presented by Krakow Urban Adventures, the Home Cooked Krakow Tour will teach you how to cook one of Poland’s top dishes. And you’ll do it in the best setting too – at the home of the tour guide or perhaps even their mother.
I loved this tour, I took it twice myself. Once, the tour guide brought us to her apartment where we all took turns in the cooking process before devouring the fruits of our labor. The other time, we were brought to the tour manager’s mother’s home. She imparted her decades of cooking experience to us, and we even got to use the special cup her family had been using for ages to cut the pierogi circles.
The tour is more than just the cooking class. You’ll be brought to Krakow’s oldest farmers market – Stary Kleparz – where you’ll be taught enough Polish to purchase the necessary ingredients for Pierogi. The guide will also pick up a dessert to enjoy after your meal – possibly one that was enjoyed by the Pope himself.
The tour meets every day (except Sunday) at 10 a.m. at the bookshop “Pod Globusem”. The length of the tour is 3.5 hours, although this might run a bit longer. The price of the tour is $71.
Take a Bike Tour
Now that you’ve filled your belly, it’s time to work off some of those calories! As Krakow is a very flat city and most of the attractions are within a few square miles, taking a bike tour is a great opinion. My tour was delivered by Cruising Krakow Bike and Segway Tours.
My tour lasted four hours, starting from the center of the Old Town and winding all around the nearby neighborhoods on both sides of the river. It was a very thorough tour, covering nearly all the points of interest, but the best thing about the tour was the guide – Brian. When he started giving tours over 15 years ago, he was required to take a grueling training class by the government which made him a tourism expert in every aspect regarding Krakow – even able to give private, knowledgable tours of the castle. Although he’s Canadian, I can guarantee that you’ll have a massive understanding of Krakow’s culture and history by the end of the tour.
The cost of the tour is $25. You can also rent bikes from Cruising Krakow, but then you won’t get Brian and all the information he imparts. Between a food tour and a bike tour, you’ll have covered most of Krakow.
Visit the Wawel Royal Castle and Cathedral
Although both the food and bike tours will take you past Wawel Castle, it’s worth returning to explore them in detail. First of all, I should point out that the W in the Polish language sounds like a V, so Wawel is pronounced Vavel, just like Krakow is pronounced Krakov.
Wawel Castle dates back to the 14th century when Krakow was the capital of Poland. The large complex sits atop a hill overlooking the Vistula River. There’s a lot to see here including the cathedral, an extensive museum and the remains of ancient buildings on the center of the hill, not to mention the castle itself and a nice cafe.
There are several attractions around the hill, most of which you have to pay for, although they’re not that expensive. Among the exhibits in and about the castle are the State Rooms, the Royal Private Apartments, the Crown Treasury and Armory, an Oriental Art exhibit, the Royal Gardens, Dragon’s Den, and Sandomierska Tower. Each is priced separately and they range from $1.25 to $7.50. Admission to the cathedral is free, or you can pay $3.50 to visit the Sigismund Bell, Royal Tombs, and Cathedral Museum. If you really want to see everything on Wawel Hill, it will take you the better part of a day.
Listen to the Trumpeter of Krakow
My first introduction to Krakow was from the book The Trumpeter of Krakow, which I read as a child. The story wasn’t actually about the legendary trumpeter who saved the city from the invading Mongol hordes in 1241, but about alchemy. Then again, I didn’t even understand where Krakow or even Poland was until years later.
To carry on the tradition of protecting Krakow, the hejnał mariacki, or St. Mary’s Trumpet Call, is played on the bugle every hour on the hour from the highest tower of St. Mary’s Basilica. It’s a little faint, but it still draws a crowd in the main square. As to why the towers of the church are a different height, well, you’ll just have to take one of the tours to find out about that.
Learn How to Make Candy
This next attraction is an interesting one. If you have a sweet tooth, you’ll feel right at home in Krakow where the lines for the ice cream parlors routinely extend hundreds of people long in the summer. Along the main street in the Old Town are several confectioneries and chocolatiers where you can indulge your sweet tooth.
At Ciuciu Sugar Artist, they deliver a candy-making class every hour. They make rock candy of nearly every flavor and shape, and they’ll show you the whole process and might even let you make a shape of your own. It’s a unique attraction and free, although you’ll probably want to buy some more candy before you leave.
Indulge on Zapiekanka
On the subject of food, I should probably mention zapiekanka, a product you’ll be hard-pressed to find outside Krakow. Built around the circular Okrąglak market in the Kazimierz quarter are several kapiekanka stands, all serving basically the same item at a similar quality and price. Zapiekanka is essentially half a long baguette topped with sauteed white mushrooms, melted cheese and ketchup, plus any additional toppings you want.
Although I’m not a big drinker, I’ve been told these are the perfect late-night snack after a few pints or shots of vodka. Thus, it’s not surprising that the square is ringed by some of the liveliest bars in Krakow. Best of all, the sandwiches start around $2, and a fully loaded one will only set you back about $4. Of course, if you don’t like mushrooms, you’ll have to pass this one up as the cheese and mushrooms come standard.
Explore the Street Food Markets
If you love street food as much as I do, head to one of the lots where you’ll find numerous food trucks selling a wide range of international dishes. The biggest and best is about three streets southeast of Okrąglak market, simply named the “Street Food Market” on Google Maps. Here you’ll find real Belgian fries (double deep-fried), German wurst sausages, Japanese ramen and sushi, hamburgers and, of course, ice cream. Prices are far cheaper than what you’ll find in the Old Town.
Just around the corner to the east is another small collection of food trucks serving mostly Polish dishes (but a few other cuisines too), and for even cheaper prices. Personally, I loved the food at Mr. Tortilla’s Spanish food truck, where the most expensive meal is $5.
Learn Jewish History in the Kazimierz Quarter
While you’re in the Kazimierz quarter, you might as well learn some of the history. It’s best to take a walking tour to get all the information (although it’s also covered on the bike tour). You’d never guess it looking at a current map, but Kazimierz was once an island in the Vistula River and settlements there date back to the early medieval days. The Jewish starting arriving in the 13th century and remained until World War II when the Nazi soldiers relocated them into the Krakow Ghetto on the south side of the river. When Spielberg filmed Schindler’s List, he used locations in Kazimierz, even though most of the events didn’t take place in this district. Despite this, Kazimierz became a tourist destination and the Jewish have been moving back and building it up in recent years.
Remuh Synagogue is one of the oldest synagogues, dating back to the 16th century. It was remarkably well preserved during the war, as was the cemetery behind it. Down the street is the Old Synagogue, now the Museum of Krakow Jewish Culture & History. The two synagogues are on a square where you’ll find several busy Jewish restaurants, in case you have a hankering for their cuisine.
There are several attractions around the neighborhood, like the alleyway where they filmed the famous scene in Schindler’s List of the girl hiding under the stairs. Jump on a tour to find them all, such as a free walking tour with Krakow’s Free Walking Tours.
Cross the River into Podgórze
Podgórze is the district on the south side of the Vistula River where the Krakow Ghetto was located. Covering more land than the Old Town and Kazimierz combined, there are plenty of more attractions here.
Crossing Father Bernatek’s Bridge over the river is beautiful. Aside from the hundreds of love locks on the wire walls (which really don’t help the structural integrity of the bridge), there are nine sculptures hanging from the cables. What’s fascinating is that the sculptures aren’t secured to the bridge, but rather balance in poses despite the elements.
Aside from the remains of the Ghetto, you’ll also see the beautiful Église Saint-Joseph church, Schindler’s Factory, and Ghetto Heroes Square filled with chair sculptures. This is also where you’ll find some of Krakow’s best street art.
Take a Tour of Schindler’s Factory
For the best information on Schindler, you need to visit his factory in Podgórze. The factory is now a museum where you can take a self-guided tour to see relics of the war and read the extensive information panels. Whether Schindler’s actions were done for the good of the Jews or his own self-preservation is for you to decide, but there’s no doubt that he helped save the lives of over a thousand Jews. Admission to the museum is $6.50, or free on Monday. I wouldn’t recommend spending money on a guided tour, as the information panels are pretty self-explanatory and most of the tours don’t include the cost of the museum, but if prefer to have a guide, go for one.
Practice Your Archery Skills
I have to give a shoutout to Old Town Archery. It’s an activity not related directly to Krakow, but it’s still super fun. Located on the hillside beneath the castle, you can fire off a few arrows at the targets in a controlled environment. They’re open during the summer, and a dozen shots are only a few dollars. I originally found the company in Riga, Latvia, and I was glad to see they opened up other locations around Europe. I loved archery as a kid, and it’s nice to get to practice now and then.
See the Fire-Breathing Dragon
Although you’ve probably already seen it on a tour, you can’t leave Krakow without witnessing the fire-breathing dragon. The legend of the Wawel Dragon goes back to the 12th century when a dragon was said to be eating cattle and kids from the countryside. It was either defeated by the sons of the king or a cobbler, depending on the account.
Beneath the castle on the bank of the river is a metal dragon statue in tribute to the legend. Every 10 minutes, the dragon spits out a breath of fire. You can also visit the Dragon’s Den from the top of Wawel Hill for $1.75. It might be slightly overrated, but it’s still fun for the kids.
Visit Krakow in the Winter for Their Christmas Markets
You don’t have to visit Krakow in the summer to enjoy the city. Last year, I went in December to see the Christmas markets. After traveling through Luxembourg and different cities in Germany, I have to say the Christmas market in Krakow was one of my favorites.
While Germany has bratwurst and mettwurst sausages, Poland has kielbasa sausages. Trying to say which ones are the best is impossible – they’re all fantastic in their own right. But kielbasa isn’t the only thing you can get at the markets. My personal favorite is the farm-fresh oscypek cheese topped with cranberries. There also several stalls with over a dozen Polish soups available, stalls with chocolate-covered fruits, and, obviously, stalls selling the best Polish alcoholic beverages.
Krakow’s Christmas market starts at the end of November and continues usually until December 26. The stalls cover the Large Market Square in the center of the Old Town, and there are more stalls and an ice rink in front of the Krakow Galeria. If you’re on a budget, you’ll be happy to know that Polish markets are quite a bit cheaper than their German counterparts.
Attend the Dachshund Parade
The one activity in Krakow I’ve yet to see for myself that I’ve had on my bucket list since I first heard about it is the Dachshund parade. Since 1994, hundreds of the wiener dogs have marched down the street from the Barbican to the Market Square. The event takes place on a Sunday in September…just a few days after I left on my first trip to Krakow. I’m just going to have to make sure my fourth visit there is in September.
Stumble Upon the Pierogi Festival
When I first arrived in Krakow in 2015, I was incredibly lucky to accidentally stumble into the annual pierogi festival. Held every year in the Small Market Square behind St. Mary’s Basilica, several stalls were set up to see who’s pierogi was best, just like chili cook-offs in California.
There are common flavors of pierogi, the most traditional being potatoes, onions and cheese – known as ruskie pierogi. Each of the two dozen or so stands had their own favors, which means there were more than a hundred different pierogi dishes available at the festival, both savory and sweet! Believe me, by the end of the evening, I was absolutely stuffed, and only a few dollars lighter in the pocket.
Things to Do in Krakow Within 48 Hours
Fitting all the above activities into two days is impossible. Auschwitz and the Salt Mines each take a full day to explore. Some of the activities are seasonal, although none of them (except perhaps the archery) are weather-dependent. If I were to recommend a 48-hour itinerary for Krakow, I’d say to get up early on the first morning to explore the Old Town when the crowds are light and listen to the bugler perform at St Mary’s Basilica. Then head off to spend the day at Auschwitz. Be back in town by 6 p.m. for the food tour. At the end of the night, you can either take a walk along the banks of the river or go to the bars, whichever you prefer (I’d certainly go for the walk!).
On the second day, you’ll have to decide if you want to see the salt mines or not. If you do, you’ll sacrifice a lot of the other activities, which is a hard choice as I’d highly recommend going to Wieliczka. If you’re not interested, then you should be able to squeeze in most of the other activities. Take the pierogi cooking class in the morning (it starts at 10 a.m.), then go on the bike tour. Afterward, make your way back to Schindler’s Factory for the tour there, and then spend your evening in Kazimierz learning the history and indulging on street food and zapiekanka.
Where to Stay in Krakow
Unless you’re a party animal, I’d recommend staying outside the Old Town. The first time I visited Krakow, I stayed at the Pink Panther Hostel on the north end of the Old Town. The hostel is sadly closed down, but it was a little difficult to sleep there with all the noise and the drunks and bachelor party boys coming in at all hours from the night.
The second time I visited Krakow, I stayed at the Galaxy Hotel by the Kazimierz Galeria along the waterfront. My room was super comfortable and the breakfasts there were amazing. It was a few minutes to walk to the Old Town, but you can always take the tram which is very cheap.
The last time I went to Krakow, I stayed at an AirB&B just outside the Old Town. It couldn’t have been better. My host was very accommodating and allowed me to cook my own meals at home (not that I did, since the Polish cuisine is so delicious and meals in Krakow are budget-friendly). As the most popular city in Poland to visit, there are hundreds of options available when it comes to accommodations.
Krakow is one of my favorite cities I’ve visited in my travels. Here are some other activities and guides to help you out when you arrive there yourself.
- Click here to read about my first adventure in Krakow back in 2015
- A Humbling Day in Auschwitz
- Taking a Homemade Pierogi Class with Krakow Urban Adventures
- 10 Cool Things I Learned About the Wieliczka Salt Mine in Krakow
- I Ate Too Much Good Food on the Food Tour in Krakow
- Krakow Revisited: Returning to One of My Favorite Cities in Europe
- Exploring Krakow by Bike with the Cruising Krakow Bike Tour
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.
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