In recent times, Krakow has had a bit of a reputation for attracting the stag weekend brigade. Whilst still partly true, Krakow has a lot more than this to offer and is fast becoming a sophisticated city break destination with its blend of tourist attractions and fine entertainment. It’s not just stags that head to Krakow for the weekend.
Krakow is Poland’s second city, with a population of just under 800,000 is located on the Vistula River in the far south of Poland about 50 miles north of the border with Slovakia. Krakow has some fine architectural interest, notably the showpiece Wawel Castle which has undergone major restoration since the country gained independence in 1918 and the superb Rynek Glowny which is supposedly Europe’s largest medieval city square. During the Second World War, much of the old city fortunately survived the Nazi occupation unlike much of the rest of Poland. Auschwitz concentration camp, about an hour from the city, makes for an uncomfortable but worthwhile visit, for which you should put aside the best part of a day; a lasting reminder of the impact of the Second World War on Poland and its people.
Top Things to Do and See in Krakow
As the political and cultural heart of Poland through the 16th century, Wawel Castle is a potent symbol of Polish national identity. It is now a museum with five separate sections: Crown Treasury & Armoury; State Rooms; Royal Private Apartments; Lost Wawel; and the Exhibition of Oriental Art.
Located some 37 miles west of Krakow, the Auschwitz concentration camp complex was the largest of its kind established by the Nazi regime. There were three main camps, all at which prisoners had to endure forced labour and one functioning as an extermination centre.
The Jewish Quarter – Kazimierz
Parts of the film Schindler’s List were filmed in Kazimierz but today only the architecture reveals that this was once a Jewish town, although a handful of ‘themed’ restaurants, complete with live klezmer music most nights, have been opened on ul Szeroka. Miraculously, seven synagogues survived the war, but only one of them continues to function as a regular place of worship, Tempel Synagogue.
St. Mary’s Church
St Mary’s Church, or the Church of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven is a Brick Gothic church re-built in the 14th century. It is adjacent to the Main Market Square, standing 80 m tall and is particularly famous for its wooden altarpiece carved by Veit Stoss.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
The Wieliczka Salt Mine is a monument to both the material and spiritual culture in Poland. Each year it is visited by more than one million tourists from all over the world.
It is also a world class monument, featuring among twelve objects on the UNESCO’s World Cultural and Natural Heritage List.
As it states on the official website – “The mine is a product of work of tens of generations of miners, a monument to the history of Poland and to the Polish nation – a brand, present in Polish consciousness for centuries.”
Market Square – Rynek Glowny
Krakow’s central Grand Square (Rynek Glowny, often translated wrongly as “Main Market”) has been the hub of the city ever since its Old Town historical district got the present grid of streets in the 13th century. The huge 10-acre square is the largest of all Europe’s medieval cities and is arguably one of the most beautiful.
St. Florian’s Gate and the Barbican
This is the only part of Krakow’s medieval city walls that has survived. Originally constructed as part of the city defences against possible invasion of the Turks, it had 4 towers and an arsenal. This was the main gate to the Old town, separated from the Barbakan by a moat. Today it leads onto Florianska Street which is now busy with shops and places to eat.
Cloth Hall – Sukiennice
The Renaissance Cloth Hall is one of the Krakow’s most recognisable icons. It is the central feature of the main market square (Rynek Glowny) in the Old Town.
It was once a major centre of international trade. Traveling merchants met there to discuss business and to barter. During its golden age in the 15th century, the hall was the source of a variety of exotic imports from the east – spices, silk, leather and wax – while Krakow itself exported textiles, lead, and salt from the Wieliczka Salt Mine.
Nowadays the Cloth Hall has stalls and shops in the arcades, many selling assorted souvenirs. Upstairs, since the 1880s the Krakow National Museum has exhibited its unparalleled collection of the 19-century Polish art, including Jan Matejko’s famous movie-like giant paintings. There are also a selection of cafes.
Town Hall – Ratusz
Krakow’s historic Town Hall,known as Ratusz in Polish, was constructed of brick and mortar for the first time in 1316 as one of its several versions built over the following centuries. It was the Krakow’s administrative hub and seat of the great council, magistrate, and mayor from the 14th until the early 19th century.
Church of Saints Peter & Paul
Kraków’s most famous Jesuit Church was built in the early 1600s, and its crypt serves as the new national pantheon for Poles distinguished in the arts, science and culture (with Sławomir Mrożek being the first interred here in September 2013).
The twelve disciples standing on the gates outside are the church’s most striking feature, although the interior has been extensively renovated and the airy, austere grandeur of this late Renaissance building is now evident.
There is also a 46.5m Foucault Pendulum – a device invented by French physicist Leon Foucault in 1851 which proves the earth’s rotation, shows demonstrating its use generally occur on Thursdays at 10:00, 11:00 and 12:00, but check ahead to be sure.
The Planty is a ring of beautiful gardens and parklands circling Krakow and were built in 1806 after the medieval fortifications that once surrounded the city were demolished.
To walk the entire circumference of the park takes around 40 minutes at a steady pace and covered with a labyrinth of paths, pretty flowerbeds and a multitude of park benches.
The Planty is an attractive location to spend an afternoon and admire the different angles of the city, and can be enjoyed any time of year and locals proudly describe how inspirational it is during the changing of the seasons.
Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory
The Oskar Schindler Enamelled Goods Factory re-opened to the public as a world-class museum in 2010. The story of Oskar Schindler and his employees is one which has been well-known since Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List (which was shot almost entirely in Krakow) brought it to audiences across the world in 1993.
The story is now covered in detail on the original site where many events took place whilst the museum also covers wartime more generally in Krakow.
So there you have it. Krakow is a great place to visit and an ideal destination for a short break.