For decades, Poland was hidden behind the Iron Curtain, and since it opened its doors to the West in the 1990s, travelers from all over the world have rushed to Krakow.
Travel deals for a trip to Krakow
While entrepreneurs went to Warsaw, lovers of culture, art, and legends flocked to the country’s second largest city.
Krakow is an atypical tourist city. The sad Stalinist suburbs embrace the beautiful old town nestled along the Vistula river. Its numerous theaters, museums, and more than 120 churches have earned it the title of Cultural Capital.
Throughout history, Krakow was also the capital of Poland, which adorned it with beautiful palaces, wide boulevards, and breathtaking squares. Krakow’s turbulent past and cosmopolitan character have resulted in many European nations’ architecture, culture, and gastronomy blending today.
UNESCO has recognized the uniqueness of Krakow, and this city was on the first World Heritage List back in 1978, together with the nearby Wieliczka salt mine.
At the end of the 1970s, a man who became known to the world as Pope John Paul II served in Krakow. The first Slovenian pope in history was born in nearby Wadowice, and from the Wawel Cathedral, he set out for Rome and today has a legendary status in Krakow.
Krakow, by the way, is a city of tales, and you will hear many of them, but there is one that starts it all.
The legend of the Wawel dragon
The story of the dragon is at the very root of the collective memory of this city. According to the legend, a dragon lived in the cave beneath the Wawel, terrorizing the local peasants. The dragon required one virgin every month, or it would burn communities and destroy animals. Fearful residents complied with his requests until it came to the gorgeous king’s daughter Wanda.
The king, in despair, promises Wanda’s hand to the one who frees the city from the villain. According to the most popular version, a young shoemaker with a brilliant idea appeared. He wrapped a bag of calx in sheepskin and tossed it in front of the cave as a small gift for a dragon. The greedy, always hungry dragon swallowed the remnants in one bite, but the calx had left it thirsty, so it soared into the Vistula to satisfy its thirst. He drank and drank only to burst from the enormous water he had consumed.
The locals got rid of the big trouble, the shoemaker got Wanda’s hand, and today, in front of the cave beneath the Wawel, sits a dragon monument spewing flames as a memory of that legend.
What to see and do in Krakow
The Dragon’s Cave is the starting point for most Krakow tours. Because it’s positioned on the same hill as the royal castle, it’s linked to the mythology of a centuries-old inn and brothel hidden in a cave.
Today, the cave is empty, and there are no prostitutes or beer in it, except for a dragon sculpture that entertains tourists by hurling fire every few minutes.
Wawel Castle and the Cathedral
Only fifty steps from the Dragon’s Cave is the entrance to the castle complex on the Wawel. The place from which Poland was ruled for six centuries, or rather the six most successful centuries in the history of this country, because the fate of Poland started downhill after the capital was moved to Warsaw. The Royal Palace is full of intricacies and secrets that fascinate fans of history and legends, and it houses the Palace Museum.
However, if you want to discover the most valuable thing this city hides, you must visit the Wawel Cathedral. This almost thousand-year-old building is a national shrine and the most important sacral building in the country. Polish kings were crowned in it, and many found their last resting place here.
The cathedral’s interior is a dazzling display of gold, silver, and wooden carvings, but the remains kept in sarcophagi for Poles are far more important. Casimir III The Great, Sigismund I, Ana Jagelovi, the defender of Vienna, Jan Sobieski, and the eccentric Augustus the Strong, who shattered horseshoes with his bare hands and left behind over 250 offspring, are all buried here.
The entrance to the cathedral is free, and you will have to pay 12 zlotys if you want to visit the museum and the tower.
Planty Park and Jagiellonian University
The castle and cathedral on the Wawel are part of modern and historical Krakow’s magnificence. According to documents, the medieval city was surrounded by high, three-kilometer-long walls that were protected by over 45 towers. Nonetheless, they were destroyed two centuries ago, and in their place was built a lovely round park called Planty. Except for the Barbican, nothing remained of the medieval walls, but Planty Park is the most beautiful part of the walk to Jagiellonian University.
Named after the famous Jagelovic dynasty, the University of Kraków is the second oldest in this part of Europe. That is why Krakow is a widely known student center, and hence there are so many young people in Krakow. Nightlife and a great time in Krakow are guaranteed! Nicolaus Copernicus also studied at this university.
Interestingly, in the courtyard of Maius, there is the oldest existing globe in the world and a clock that shows a small procession of figures five times a day (from 9 am to 5 pm, every two hours). For the Maius Museum, the ticket is 12 zlotys, and on Tuesdays, the entrance is free.
Just a hundred steps from the university, there is perhaps the most beautiful place in Krakow – the Old Town Square or, as the Poles call it, Rynek Glowny. The largest medieval square in Europe stretches over 40,000 square meters and dates back to the 13th century. Numerous magnificent Gothic and Renaissance buildings adorn this place, and the most impressive are the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Renaissance Sukiennica Market, and the City Hall Tower.
With its beautiful architecture, the square is always very lively. The food and entertainment options are great, so it’s no surprise that Lonely Planet named it the best square in the world a few years ago. You will have fun at Rynek Glowny, but caution is needed because pickpocketing is not uncommon.
Jewish Quarter and Ghetto
Outside the historic city center of Krakow, there is Kazimierz, once a separate medieval city and then a Jewish quarter. Krakow’s Jews were one of the most affected populations in Europe in World War II. world war.
This minority has lived in Krakow since King Casimir the Great, who gave the Jews significant rights, and they returned to him by bringing prosperity to the city. Although in the middle of the 20th century, this neighborhood lost most of its population in the nearby Auschwitz camp, Kazimierz is today a lively and exciting part of Krakow.
The main attractions in this part of the city are museums and synagogues. It is convenient to visit the Galicia Jewish Museum, which consists of five parts following the life, culture, suffering, and contribution of Krakow Jews to Poland.
The most culturally significant location in Kazimierz is the Old Synagogue. Despite the fact that a huge amount of wealth was stolen from it during World War II, it retains an important place in this city’s culture. Today it houses a branch of the Historical Museum of Krakow with a particular focus on Jews. The ticket price is 10 zlotys, and you can book it online at this page: https://www.muzeumkrakowa.pl/branches/old-synagogue
Across the Vistula river, there is the former Krakow Ghetto, where the Nazis imprisoned the city’s Jews. The place where director Roman Polanski spent his early days.
There is also the Oscar Schindler’s enamel factory in the Ghetto, which is now a museum that can be visited for 26 zlotys. If you want to avoid waiting, a surcharge is possible (https://www.muzeumkrakowa.pl/branches/oskar-schindlers-factory), and the tour of this part of the city should start on Ghetto Heroes Square. Among the numerous Krakow monuments, this one stands out with 33 memorial chairs of various sizes made of iron and bronze.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
In addition to the splendor of the old town, Krakow has a few more trump cards up its sleeve. There are two other very impressive sites within a radius of about fifty kilometers around the city.
Wieliczka is one of the oldest and most prominent European salt mines, which in its thousands of kilometers long tunnels hides a real art gallery of salt sculptures. The chapel at a depth of almost a hundred meters, carved by the miners themselves, is impressive. Wieliczka was on the first UNESCO World Heritage List in 1978 and is one of the most remarkable places you can see in Europe.
When visiting the mine, you should wear comfortable shoes because there are a lot of steps waiting for you, and it is desirable to dress adequately since the temperature in the tunnels is around 16 degrees celsius, regardless of the season. The ticket price is 100 zlotys, but various discounts depend on the age and the number of people who enter the mine together.
More information at: https://www.wieliczka-saltmine.com/
Auschwitz concentration camp
Another location near Krakow that provides one of the most incredible tourist experiences in the world is the infamous Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz. Two out of three former parts of this camp are open to the public. Auschwitz-Birkenau is a former extermination sector, and today admission to the sector is free as there is very little left to be seen. There are just a few wooden barracks, a monument, and a railway station that has been imprinted in the collective memory of many generations through countless documentaries and films about the agony of Polish Jews.
Today, Auschwitz is a museum and memorial center and the most visited tourist site in Poland. A shocking experience that leaves no one indifferent is fully experienced only with the accompaniment of a local guide. Tickets without a guide are free at this location as well. The guide will cost you 60 zlotys, but it also guarantees a much faster entry into Auschwitz. You can reach both locations from Krakow by public transport, i.e., by train and bus.
Gastronomy - what to eat in Krakow?
For centuries, many others have influenced Polish cuisine, ranging from the Habsburg and Russian through the Baltics and Jewish specialties. Hence, its diversity is understandable, and these are the five most popular dishes to try when you are in Krakow.
Pierogi is the most famous and most successful culinary export product in Poland. These are pasta rolls filled with sweet cheese, meat, cabbage, strawberries, or potatoes. This Polish delicacy is a favorite student food, and you can find it on every corner. They are mild in taste and slightly spicy and are often served with sour cream.
The best pierogis in Krakow are at Pierogi Mr Vincent in the Jewish Quarter (Bożego Ciała 12) as well as in the Milkbar Tomasza (Tomasza 24).
It is a Polish variety of blood sausage, which is a sausage made with pork blood and semolina that is usually fried with onions. Poles bake them on massive trays at big food festivals. The story from Polish tradition is equally intriguing, as it states that if the girl’s parents offer Kaszanka to her suitor, it is an indication that their relationship won’t work.
Placki are greasy, fried potato fritters that go well with goulash and can be be topped with sour cream.
The food that first pops to mind at 4 a.m. when you get home from a party after many drinks and feel scraping in your stomach. Zapiekanka is a simple dish, and in Krakow, it is often called Polish pizza. It is a baguette cut in half, filled with cheese and mushrooms, baked in the oven, covered with ketchup and toppings of your choice. At a price of 8 to 10 zlotys, it attracts young, drunk people, those without a lot of money, and every traveler who wants good homemade fast food. Every Krakow resident has their favorite fast food, but you will find places with the reputation of the best Zapiekanka in the Jewish Quarter.
If you decide to try Golonka, roll up your sleeves because a big pork knee cooked or roasted will come to your table. The meat should slip off the bones, and it is served mainly with horseradish and goes well with larger amounts of beer.
What to drink in Krakow?
Coffee lovers must know that it will be tough to drink espresso in Poland that will meet higher standards. There is no sophisticated tradition of drinking a dark brown drink in this country, and it may be better to drink tea.
Also, if you are in doubt between wine and beer, beer is a better choice. The Poles don’t have outstanding wines, and the beer is pretty good, although they can’t be compared to the Czech beer. The most popular are Okocim, Tyskie and Zywiec. If you are not going to try Polish beers, better restaurants have the famous Czech Pilsner Urquell.
When in Krakow, you can’t go wrong with vodka. Poles love it, claiming that the first vodka was made in Poland.
Where to eat in Krakow?
Krakow is ideal for gourmands and gastro hedonists. Polish cuisine is rich, with generous quantities and reasonable prices.
There are often stalls with traditional Polish food on the Old Town Square, and the Jewish Quarter is an ideal place if you want to try something traditional for Polish Jews. Just 50 meters from the Old Synagogue, you will find the Ariel restaurant, which has a long gastronomic tradition. A truly fantastic service complements pleasant ambiance and great food, so do not be surprised if you realize that the waiter speaks 6-7 world languages. Prices are also acceptable for shallower passengers.
Most locals will still recommend the Pod Wawelem restaurant, where a kilo of meat means a kilo of boneless meat for 15-20 euros. A feast for the whole family!
What souvenirs to bring from Krakow?
The ideal souvenir from Krakow is certainly salt or items made from salt from the nearby Wieliczka mine. You will also find them in the city itself, but the best choice for shopping is the souvenir shop of the mentioned mine.
Along with salt, a popular souvenir is traditional Polish pottery, and if you want to bring something to consume when you get home, vodka is the best choice. Elite brands are Chopin and Belvedere, but there are dozens of others. The variations are countless because Poles combine vodka with practically all types of fruit.
If you are looking for something that is a symbol of Krakow, then the ideal choice is a souvenir with a Krakow dragon. It’s up to you to choose which one because you will find the Krakow dragon on absolutely everything – from condoms to puzzles.