01 Castle and cathedral
Wawel Hill, with its Royal Castle and Cathedral, was home to Poland’s monarchy for more than five centuries before the capital moved to Warsaw. The sloping grounds are an atmospheric place to wander, with indoor highlights including the Royal Chambers, Crown Treasury and Armoury, plus artworks spread across several museum spaces. www.wawel.krakow.pl
02 Explore the Jewish quarter
See the deserted chairs in the Square of the Ghetto Victims, a contemporary, open-air installation at the heart of Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter. Visit the Stara Synagogue, one of Europe’s oldest, the Eagle Pharmacy founded by heroic Tadeusz Pankiewicz, and the museum in the former Schindler’s factory.
03 Visit Auschwitz
For an afternoon out of the city, a visit to the most notorious of the Nazi concentration camps is a harrowing but essential part of any visit to Krakow. The main site is now a fully fledged museum, but the nearby Birkenau camp has been left as it was in World War II and is all the more challenging for it.
04 Go to church
A soul-soothing antidote to Auschwitz, the red brick St Mary’s Church (Kosciol Mariacki), dominating one end of the huge, medieval Market Square, is Poland’s oldest, dating back to 1222. Its chancel, with 14th-century stained glass windows, bright wall paintings and Gothic altarpiece, is arguably the country’s most gorgeous ecclesiastical sight.
05 Drink and debate
Drukarnia, long-time hub for Krakow’s artsy youth, has moved to a lovely riverside location in Podgorze, a mark of this area’s upcoming contemporary cool. Come here for fruit beers, banter and live music — from DJs to jazz. And on a clear day, admire the great sunsets over the water. Ulica Nadwislanska 1.
06 Micro-brew marathon
The Beer Gallery is just that, a cute and quirky bar displaying more than 100 types of local, national and international ales at Ulica Warszauera 10 in the heart of Kazimierz, the city’s Jewish quarter. Then move to nearby Alchemia for candle-lit cocktails, more local brews and live music. www.beergallery.pl
£££ Wierzynek: Signature dishes such as suckling pig, game dumplings and wild boar have been served to Poland’s richest since it opened in the 14th century. It’s still the best place in town for a blow-out. Rynek Glowny 15. T: 00 48 12 424 9600 www.wierzynek.pl
££ Cava: A slick restaurant offering a unique Polish take on Mediterranean-style food. Snail dishes and strong cocktails are the rage here. Ulica Nadwislanska 1. T: 00 48 12 656 7456. www.cafecava.pl
£ Chimera: The best basement retreat for a cosy coffee, sandwich or glass of wine, in between sightseeing. For something more authentic, try a platter of herring or the smoked salmon blini. Swietej Anny 3. T: 00 48 12 423 2178. www.chimera.com.pl
Did you know: Krakow is a city of many mounds. For panoramic views, the best of these hilly knolls is Kosci Uszko (www.kopieckosciuszki.pl), with vistas of the fort, the city and surrounding countryside.
Off the wall: On the south bank of the Vistula River, Podgorze is Krakow’s fastest gentrifying district, buzzing with new art galleries and bars like innovative Club Oko, with its exhibition of local photography (www.cluboko.pl). The new Qubus Hotel (www.qubushotel.com) and the much-talked about redevelopment of the Soviet era landmark Forum Hotel will further put this postcode (where film director Roman Polanski lived as a boy) on Poland’s tourist map.
Published in Mar/Apr 2011 issue of © National Geographic Traveller (UK)