Krakow is a city making up for lost time. After shaking off the shackles of communism, it stood idle for a period, as tourists came to admire the Old Town before spending the bulk of their visit at the nearby Wieliczka Salt Mines and making the sombre trip to Auschwitz.
Finally, though, Krakow has embraced its status as Poland’s leading tourist destination: the medieval main square has transformed into an enormous archaeological site, while the Rynek Underground museum opened to visitors in September 2010. At the same time, the Emalia Factory in Podgorze — famously, once owned by Oskar Schindler — was remodelled into a museum chronicling life in Krakow under Nazi occupation.
And despite the occupation, the city’s impressive gothic and renaissance architecture remain relatively intact. The Nazis swept in during September 1939 and quickly designated it as a regional headquarters; in January 1945, the Soviets easily expelled the disintegrating German army. As a result, Krakow’s grand buildings have survived for several centuries and show signs of gradual decay, unlike in Warsaw, where the city had to be almost entirely rebuilt. Look closely as you wander through old Krakow and you’ll see many impressive facades undergoing restoration.
Visitors will discover there are two distinct centres of gravity. Tourists have long flocked to the Old Town, with its grand medieval square and narrow lanes, and climbed the hill to Wawel Castle, seat of the Polish capital for over five centuries. Kazimierz, meanwhile, is a new stop on the visitor trail. For many years, this southeastern quarter was one of Europe’s most vibrant Jewish neighbourhoods, though its population was all but wiped out in the war, and in the following decades, the streets and buildings of Kazimierz suffered from neglect.
It was film director Steven Spielberg who inspired the revival of Kazimierz when he chose it as a location for Schindler’s List. The area was used to depict the Jewish ghetto in Krakow, even though the real ghetto was across the Vistula River in Podgorze. Interest in the area and its Jewish heritage instantly grew and Kazimierz is once again an important centre of modern Jewish culture, not just for Poland but for the whole of central Europe.
With the wave of new attractions in, around and even under the city, there’s never been a better time to visit this beautiful city.
See & do
Wawel Castle and 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 the magnificent cathedral. www.wawel.krakow.pl
Rynek Glowny (Main Market Square): All roads in Krakow lead to the Rynek Glowny, the largest medieval square in Europe. Order a drink in any of the cafes and admire the stunning buildings in every direction. Running through the centre of the Rynek is the grand Cloth Hall (Sukiennice). Once an important centre of commerce, this grand arcade is the place to shop for kitsch Krakow souvenirs.
St Mary’s Church: At the northeast corner of the Rynek Glowny, St Mary’s Church is best known for its beautifully carved, wooden, 15th-century altar, created by Veit Stoss. Set your watch to ensure you’re outside the front of the church to hear the bugle call, bellowed every hour. www.mariacki.com
Rynek Underground: A worthy new addition to the Krakow tourist route is this high-tech interactive museum, exploring the city’s colourful history. Holograms of medieval characters will guide (and even insult) you as you wander through the maze of excavated tunnels and discover Krakow’s role as a major centre for European trade and commerce. www.podziemiarynku.com
Hipolit House: This little gem is tucked away behind St Mary’s Church. The home of a wealthy, 17th-century trader, it’s been carefully restored to its former glory. Wander inside to explore rooms full of the junk and bric-a-brac, laid out with no apparent rhyme or reason. T: 00 48 12 422 4219.
Kazimierz: Once the most important centre of Jewish life in Poland, the Kazimierz district is witnessing a strong revival of its cultural roots. As well as being home to seven synagogues that survived the war, a clutch of new kosher restaurants now ring out with the distinctive sound of live Klezmer music. www.kazimierz.zaprasza.net
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. www.oskarschindlersfactory.com
Crazy Guides: For a light-hearted, nostalgic view of communist-era Poland with some informative — not to mention alternative — guides, take a trip in an old Trabant to the failed utopian new town of Nowa Huta. The unmistakable sound of the approaching two-stroke engine can be heard from a mile away. www.crazyguides.com
Polish bling: Golden amber bracelets and necklaces hang from every other shop in the Old Town. There are bargains to be had but ask to see certificates of authenticity, as there are plenty of synthetic imitations that are easy to mistake for the real thing.
Knock on wood: Browse the stalls of the Cloth Hall, draped in all manner of wood carvings — part of the traditional culture of southern Poland. Intricately decorated boxes and chess sets are popular. T: 00 48 12 422 1166.
Modern art: Wander through contemporary art galleries along the old lanes of Kazimierz. At Galeria Szalom (ul. Józefa 16), browsers are welcome and you might be tempted by one of the brightly coloured masterpieces on display.
Shopping heaven: Max out your credit card on a visit to the ultra-modern Galeria Krakowska mall, next to Krakow’s main railway station. www.galeria-krakowska.pl/en
Like a local
Food on the go: Feeling peckish? Pick up a obwarzanek (pretzel) — a local favourite — from one of the many carts on Krakow’s streets. Costing around PZL1.50 (30p), it’s a fresh and tasty snack to keep you going. Under EU law, the name obwarzanek can only be used for breads baked in Krakow.
Ticket to ride: Most places of interest are within walking distance, but if you do choose to travel on the buses or trams they’re inexpensive and easy to use. Single tickets usually work out cheapest; they can be used on multiple journeys within the stated time period.
Avoiding a square meal: Rub shoulders with the locals around the Rynek Glowny — they love a drink and a mingle around the square’s cafes; the view is worth the few extra zloty. Do as they do, though: shun the crowds and head away from the square to eat. You’ll find the prices drop and the quality rises.
You won’t struggle to be sated in Krakow, with great-value dining in a wide variety of restaurants, from Polish pierogi bars and pizzerias to kosher cafes and curry houses.
£ Bar Uniwersytecki: Visit a bar mleczny (milk bar) to sample old-fashioned Polish cooking in a communist-era canteen setting. Uniwersytecki is one of the superior ones in the city. Expect no frills but bargain prices.
T: 00 48 12 357 5088.
££ Kogel Mogel: For hearty Polish classics served with an ironic communist twist, try this restaurant. A newspaper menu offers advice from ‘The Party’, while diners are invited to address waiters as ‘comrade’. Velvet curtains complement the mood. www.kogel-mogel.pl
£££ Aperitif: Serves a wide selection of Polish and international dishes, including a six-course tasting menu — a good choice at PZL119 (£24). www.aperitif.com.pl
Drinks are cheap and the variety of bars and clubs across Krakow means that a good night out won’t break the bank.
House of Beer: Follow the after-work crowd to this busy bar in the Old Town. It’s a favourite with the young workers of Krakow, who come to let off steam after escaping their desks for the day. www.houseofbeerkrakow.com
Omerta: This cosy pub is ideal for beer lovers. Of the 28 brews on tap (the most of any bar in Poland allegedly), half are Polish; the others make up a bewildering mix, some with a scarily high alcohol content. www.omerta.com.pl
Alchemia: This popular hang-out in Kazimierz is open till late and hosts a range of live music, from jazz to techno. In the summer, grab a seat outside and be entertained by the lively activities in Plac Nowy (New Square) opposite. www.alchemia.com.pl
Stay central to the action and bed down in the Old Town.
£ Stajnia: If you’re looking for a place just to sleep and hoard your luggage, this basic but clean property in the Jewish district of Kazimierz is ideal. Guest rooms are next to Pub Stajnia, located in a pretty courtyard used as a backdrop in Schindler’s List. www.pubstajnia.pl
££ Hotel Wyspianski Krakow: There’s nothing fancy about the Wyspianski — named after the Polish artist — but the location is hard to beat, just a short stroll to the rail station and the main square. Rooms are clean and large, if a little dated. www.hotelwyspianski.com
£££ Hotel Stary: This 15th-century tenement has been converted into a smart five-star hotel in the heart of the Old Town. Take a swim in the medieval cellar’s pool or enjoy a dessert at its rooftop bar. www.stary.hotel.com.pl
EasyJet, Ryanair and Jet2 fly from 12 UK airports directly to Krakow. Wizz Air flies from Doncaster and Luton to nearby Katowice, where an 80-minute shuttle bus ride provides a direct link to Krakow. www.easyjet.com www.ryanair.com www.jet2.com www.wizzair.com
Average flight time: 2h20m.
A regular train between the airport and the city costs from PZL19 (£3.80). Public transport is cheap and plentiful, although you can visit most of the main sights on foot.
When to go
Summers get very hot and winters are harsh. The city hosts many festivals (including the International Soup Festival in May) and a large Christmas market in December.
Need to know
Currency: Zloty (PZL). £1 = PZL5.
International dial code: 00 48.
Time difference: GMT +1.
How to do it
Most visitors book their flights to Krakow directly with an airline and arrange their hotel online. Check out
www.expedia.co.uk or www.laterooms.com for hotels.
Regent Holidays offers three nights’ B&B at the Hotel Alexander Krakow and return flights from £399.
Published in the March 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)