Krakow, an unexpected gem of a destination.
Beautiful architecture, friendly locals, good food, great culture and amazing affordability, Krakow is all these things and more. During the weekend, I couldn’t get over how beautiful all the pastel buildings were, how much greenery there was in and around city centre, and how interesting it was to see so many pieces of WWII history.
From watching the sun set atop a hill that local legend says a dragon used to live in, to sampling strawberry Polish vodka, to wandering the city’s aged cobblestone streets, to descending 800 steps into salt mines- I loved every moment spent exploring Krakow.
If you’re visiting Poland, the neighbouring Baltic countries or the Czech Republic, and have time you should definitey stop in Krakow.
Short on time like I was during my weekend visit? All of the activities I’ve included below can be accomplished easily in 2.5 days.
4 Reasons to Book a Trip to Krakow
The decision to visit Krakow was a spur of the moment trip booking- I found a cheap flight (£40 return), and a beautiful Airbnb near Old Town for £32 a night. And so, I booked a city break without much further thought.
Flight and lodging aside, over the course of 2.5 days, I spent less than £80 (excluding £30 for a tour of the salt mines). That £80 includes: transit to/from the airport; 2 cocktails; vodka samplings; 3 ciders; 3 dinners; 2 breakfasts; cafe snacks; 1-2 coffee drinks a day; attraction admission to the church; apartment snacks (chocolate, pretzels, bottled water); locker storage for my bag on the last day; and likely one or two other things I’m forgetting about. Point being: I had great food and drinks while in Krakow, but still spent under £30 a day. Score! Easy to see why Krakow made the top of The Telegraph’s list of cheap city breaks in Europe.
A Charming Old Town
Old Town in Krakow is small enough to walk everywhere. It may be a small city, but there’s a lot to do. The city’s historic centre was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978, largely because it was lucky to come through WWII almost untouched.
Krakow’s main market square is packed with bars, restaurants and cafes- it’s a great place to peruse throughout your trip. Dating back to the 13th century, the main square is one of Europe’s largest medieval squares. It’s framed by beautiful pastel buildings, cobblestone streets and a towering church. Major heart eyes.
Activities you shouldn’t miss in Old Town:
- Free walking tour: I’d booked a walking tour with Cracow Free Tours, but my guide failed to show. Still managed to see everything on my own, but I’ve heard these tours are an awesome way to get more context on the city’s history
- St. Mary’s Basilica: I’ve seen my share of gothic cathedrals in Europe, and was still blown away by this one. A small admission price + photo taking fee (under £3) gets you entry into the cathedral. The interior is spectacular- built in 1397, the basilica is known for its Veit Stoss altarpiece and an incredible ceiling painted in dark blue and gold to look like the night sky. Another fact about the basilica: the two towers, of different heights, were added in the 1400s. Legend has it the towers were built by two brothers, each trying to out-do the other, until one grew jealous of the other’s work and killed him
- Wawel Castle: A mixture of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, Wawel is a series of buildings and structures arranged around a central courtyard on Wawel Hill. Overlooking the Vistula River, a folklore tale says a dragon used to live in the foot of the hill. Legend has it a Polish Prince named Krakus defeated the dragon, and built his palace over the slain dragon’s lair
- Old Town Tower: Climb to the top for a stunning view of Old Town Square
- Planty Park: Daily strolls in this park were a main fixture during my time in Krakow. Surrounding Old Town, the park is lush greenery, a perfect place to find reprise from the afternoon sun or for a morning stroll
Great Food & Cute Cafes
Polish cuisine doesn’t make too many headlines, but it’s some of my favorite comfort food. Growing up in a family with strong Polish heritage, pierogies and haluski were staples in our home. So, I was excited to visit Poland and try some of my favorite Polish eats in the country they originated.
Albeit a cute area, I didn’t eat at any of the restaurants or cafes right on the square- generally, I find these kind of places to be too touristy. Instead, these were a few of my favourite places to grab a bite or have a drink:
- Zarowka Cafe: An insanely cute cafe, slightly removed from the street so you can truly relax without the bustling sounds of tourists
- Coffeebook: Said to be the best flat white in town
- Big Hat of Coffee: Strong, excellent latte
- Singer Cafe: Cosy cafe with a Singer sewing machine on each table, came here one morning for coffee. Heard it’s a lively bar at night too
- Pierogarnia KRAKOWIACY: Went here three times for pierogi- that good. Pierogi are kind of like ravioli- the dough is a bit thicker, and traditionally, pierogies are filled with mashed potatoes and cheese, and topped with sautéed onions. The pierogies here were amazing. Especially loved the traditional potato and cheese ones, and the apple cinnamon dessert variety
- Hummus Amamamusi: Ace hummus in Krakow? I was as surprised as you may be! Simple, yet delicious- tried the classic hummus, which came with fresh vegetables for dipping and pita
- Moment: Awesome place for brunch! Had a huge omelet stuffed with cheese, spinach and tomatoes for under £5, and a fresh orange-grapefruit juice for less than £1. 10/10 recommend
- Charlotte: Another great brunch find, like Paris in Poland. Great cafe creme and tried a goat cheese, honey and thyme sandwich on the cafe’s fresh toasted bread
- Cafe Camelot: Stopped in this pink beauty to read for a while, and snacked on baguette topped with goat cheese, beets and sprouts. Very yum
- Truckarnia: Didn’t eat here, but walked past it to check out the food trucks. If you’re into street food, looks like there are a few good options here if you’re hungry while wandering the Jewish Quarter
- Mercy Brown: You know a speakeasy is good when it’s completely unmarked, and to get to it, you have to speak to a man at a building reception desk, then head through hallways reserved for kitchen staff. Seriously impressed with the cocktails being served here- for less than £6 a drink, I tried a variation on the Manhattan and a gin inspired tea drink
- Scandale Royal: Preferred Mercy Brown, but this was a fun stop for a final drink (bit busier, closer to market square)
- Mleczarnia: Krakow is full of beautiful, casual beer gardens, but this was one of my favorites
- Wodka: Great vodka tasting, you can choose individual flavors to try or choose several as part of their sampling tray
A Sobering Connection to WWII
After the invasion of Poland at the start of World War II, Hitler made Krakow the capital of Germany’s General Government. At that time, the Jewish population was foced into a walled zone, known as the Krakow Ghetto only to be sent to Auschwitz or other nearby camps.
On one of my mornings, I wandered the Jewish Quarter. The square, known as Ghetto Heroes Square, is where Jews were forced to live in poor conditions. Just across the road is Schindler’s Factory, the inspiration for Schindler’s List.
If you really want to cram in as much as possible on your trip, I’d also book a tour to Aucshwitz. I hadn’t planned any activities before visiting, and missed out on booking a tour when they all filled up. If this is on your must-visit list, book your visit in advance- there are plenty of tour companies that leave from central Krakow, usually early morning and early afternoon. Visiting on your own is a bit tougher, because unless you’re there before 10 am, you have to register your visit on-site and join a tour.
Today, the Jewish Quarter is an up and coming part of Krakow. With interesting beer gardens, restaurants and cafes down every alleyway, it’s a good place to spend a few hours, taking in history and being entertained.
The Wieliczka Salt Mines
Just outside of Krakow, the salt mines have been around for over 700 years, and are some of the oldest in Europe. If you book a tour to visit from the city, expect to spend a half day there- it’s about ~25-30 minutes each way, and the tour itself takes ~2.5-3 hours.
It’s time well spent though, the mines are fascinating.
Inside, you’ll descend 800 steps over the course of the tour (don’t worry, there’s an elevator at the end) to see carvings of important figures in Polish history, churches (yes churches inside the mines!), model equipment, enormous chambers and narrow passageways.
You’ll have no doubt of the salt around you- at a few points in the tour, you can try the salt from the walls or the salt water running through the mines.
Visiting was such a unique experience, I’d recommend it to anyone visiting Krakow.
Have you ever been to Krakow? What was your favorite part of your visit?
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PS. Never stayed in an Airbnb? If you use this link, you’ll get a £25 discount (off a trip of £55 or more), and I’ll earn credit towards finding great places to stay on one of my future trips.