Perfect for a short break on a European tour, this Eastern European gem is packed with history and culture
Trade, domination, resistance, tragedy: Krakow’s story encompasses the most fascinating and the most tragic elements of European history. While the city’s dark history under Nazi occupation and communist rule is well known, its story goes back over 1,000 years to the birth of the Polish nation.
Krakow’s main square is one of Europe’s most beautiful. It’s tempting to linger in a cafe and soak up the sounds of a bustling yet easy-going city before taking a short walk to the magnificent Wawel Castle. To the southeast of the Old Town is the Kazimierz district, which was one of Europe’s most vibrant Jewish neighborhoods for many years. After a period of neglect, it now buzzes with galleries, cafes and nightlife.
Follow the locals: The view from the cafes around the Rynek Glowny is worth the few extra zloty you’ll have to pay for a drink. Most locals eat at restaurants away from the square where the prices drop and the quality typically rises.
Late night snacks: Satisfy those late-night hunger pangs at the non-descript sausage stand outside Hala Targowa. The sausages are cooked in a wood-burner on the roadside and served in fresh bread rolls by cheerful men in white coats.
Jewish revival: Restaurants opened by Israeli immigrants can be found in the restored buildings of Kazimierz, as well as galleries showcasing the work of young Jewish artists, including the excellent Galicia Jewish Museum.
Wawel Castle & Cathedral: For over a thousand years, Wawel Hill has played a central role in Polish history, serving as the seat of power and burial place of Poland’s great and good. Allow several hours to explore the castle with its State Apartments and cathedral. wawel.krakow.pl
Rynek Glowny: All roads in Krakow lead to the Rynek Glowny (Main Square), the largest medieval square in Europe. There are stunning buildings in every direction, while the grand Cloth Halls (Sukiennice) run through the center of the
Rynek. Once the city’s trading hub, this lavish arcade is now the place to shop for Krakow souvenirs.
St Mary’s Church: At the northeast corner of the Rynek Glowny, St Mary’s Church is best known for its carved wooden 15th century altar by Veit Stoss. Listen outside the church to hear Krakow’s iconic sound — the interrupted bugle call. mariacki.com
Where to eat
Aperitif: Polish and international dishes in a contemporary setting. The six-course tasting menu is recommended. aperitif.com.pl
Kogel i Mogel: Hearty Polish dishes served with an ironic communist twist. Diners are encouraged to address waiters as ‘Comrade’. kogel-mogel.pl
Bar Uniwersytecki: Authentic Polish cooking in a communist-era canteen setting. No frills at bargain prices. T: +48 12 357 50 88.
Where to sleep
Hotel Stary: A 15th-century Old Town tenement tastefully converted into a five-star hotel. stary.hotel.com.pl
Hotel Wyspianski: A short walk from the station and the main square. Rooms are large, if slightly dated. hotelwyspianski.com
Hotel Pod Roza: Lavish rooms in a recently restored former Renaissance palace, with two elegant restaurants in an enclosed courtyard. podroza.hotel.com.pl
Oskar Schindler factory: The Emalia factory where Oskar Schindler employed hundreds of Jewish workers and saved them from certain death opened to the public in 2010. Inside is an excellent museum depicting life in Krakow under Nazi occupation. mhk.pl/branches/oskar-schindlers-factory
Rynek Underground: A hi-tech interactive museum that explores the city’s colorful history. Holograms of medieval characters will guide (and even insult) visitors as they wander through the maze of excavated tunnels and discover Krakow’s role as a major center for European trade and commerce. podziemiarynku.com
Hipolit House: The carefully restored home of a wealthy 17th-century trader. Each room is full of the junk more typically found at an eccentric grandmother’s house, laid out with no apparent rhyme or reason. mhk.pl/branches/hipolit-house
Nowa Huta Art Festival: A celebration of Polish and international art and design trends in the Nowa Huta suburb of the city, built in the 1950s as a vision of communist utopia (October 3-5). nhfest.pl
Krakow Christmas Market: The Rynek Glowny and Old Town are transformed into a winter wonderland for six weeks, with plenty of local handicrafts, street food and Christmas carols providing a warm seasonal glow (late November-early January).
Bayit Hadash — Encounters with Jewish Culture: A program of events for locals and visitors, celebrating modern and traditional Jewish culture (September 30-November 30). judaica.pl
Where to shop
Polish bling: Amber is Poland’s national gemstone, and you’ll find bracelets and necklaces hanging from every other shop in the old town. You can find bargain prices for amber jewelry, but ask to see certificates of authenticity before you buy as there are plenty of synthetic imitations for sale.
Knock on wood: Woodcarving is part of the traditional culture of southern Poland and there’s a wide selection of goods in the stalls of the Cloth Halls in the Rynek Glowny. Intricately decorated boxes and over-sized chess sets are popular purchases, while a ciupaga (a decorative mountain axe) is a great fireside ornament.
Modern art: Browse in the contemporary art galleries along the old lanes of Kazimierz. At Galeria Szalom (ul. Jozefa 16), casual visitors are welcome and you might be tempted by one of the brightly colored masterpieces on display. Prices in the city are surprisingly reasonable.