Right before Christmas my friend Sven and I visited Krakow. The city had been on my radar for a while, but was never at the top of my list. I knew it would be beautiful and full of history, but for some reason (that I can’t pinpoint) it was never a top priority to visit. Krakow is filled with the most beautiful buildings, from churches to a castle overlooking the city, delicious food and cool street art. After spending three days in the city, I can’t believe I waited so long to experience Poland. Krakow could easily keep you entertained for days, so why don’t I share with you guys my tips for an interesting long weekend there!?
Wander around the Old Town
Krakow is one of the oldest cities in Poland and is often described as one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. It’s filled with history, beautiful churches and breathtaking architecture like the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre and the Barbican fortress. Krakow also boasts some beautiful pastel houses, often turned into cozy cafés and boutiques, making it a lovely city for a leisurely stroll.
Explore the Krakow Market Square
One of Krakow’s highlights is Rynek Glówny, the largest medieval market square in Europe. It was built in the 13th century after the city was demolished by the Tatars. You can easily spend a couple of hours at the square as many of the main attractions are located there. The Cloth Hall is the centerpiece of the market. This once important trading center is now filled with souvenir shops.
The Saint Mary’s Basilica is one of Krakow’s most popular sights and was for sure one of the highlights for me. The church is really beautiful and has the most stunning Gothic altarpiece. The blue colored ceiling is truly magnificent!
You can also climb the Town Hall Tower for a breathtaking birds-eye view of the Old Town Square. Unfortunately during our visit the tower closed, so we weren’t able to do that.
During the holidays you can expect the square to be extra festive. Besides the gorgeous Christmas decorations, the square was filled with vendors selling delicious Polish meals, handcrafted items and local specialties.
Visit Wawel Hill
Wawel Hill is home to some of the most beautiful historic buildings in the city; the Royal Castle and Cathedral. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to visit the palace as all tickets were already sold out when we arrived (because of COVID all monuments ran at a 50% occupancy).
Luckily we were able to visit the impressive Wawel Cathedral. It features over 18 chapels and is known for its massive bell called Zygmunt. The bell was designed in 1520 and is considered to be one of the biggest bells in the world.
Explore the Kazimierz neighborhood
South of the Old Town you will find Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter. For hundreds of years it was the center of Jewish life in Krakow. Sadly the area was destroyed during World War II by the Nazi occupation. Many of the Jewish residents did not survive after being forcibly removed from their homes and banned to a ghetto across the river. The history and war stories from this neighborhood are heartbreaking, but worth reading up on.
Nowadays, the Kazimierz neighborhood has been restored and is a huge draw for locals and tourists hoping to experience the culture, food and history of the old Jewish quarter. With its bohemian vibe and hipster spots is completely different from Krakow’s Old Town. Here you will find the oldest synagogue in Krakow, wonderful food options and amazing street art all together. Make sure to visit Plac Nowy and Plac Wolnica, two vibrant squares that are filled with street food stands.
Kazimierz is also where Steven Spielberg shot many scenes for the movie Schinder’s List. There’s a tour that you can take, but we decided not to do that. We did came across one of the alleys that was used in the movie.
Make sure you don’t miss the Pauline Church on the Rock at the Vistula riverbank. The gorgeous church was founded as the major shrine of St. Stanislaw, one of the main saint patrons of Poland.
Walk across the Father Bernatek Bridge & enjoy the view
The Father Bernatek Bridge connects the Kazimierz and Podgórze neighborhoods with one another. And while many bridges cross the river, this one is a beauty, so you might wanna add it to your route. The bridge is filled with love locks and between the two paths 9 gravity defying sculptures who balance on the construction of the bridge. From the bridge, you have an amazing view over the river and the city.
Explore the Podgórze neighborhood
South of the Vistula river is where you’ll enter the previous Jewish Ghetto. The main reason why tourists head over to Podgórze is to visit Schindler’s Factory Museum, but in my opinion it’s worth to stay a little longer.
Upon Ghetto Heroes Square you will find 33 empty chairs, as a memorial to the victims of the Krakow Ghetto during World War II. You will also notice a former German Guardhouse, and while it was converted to be used for people lighting a candle and reflection, the place actually looked abandoned. Sights like these are just another reminder of all the horror that has taken place during Nazi occupation in Krakow.
When you visit Schindler’s Factory, you will learn a lot about the wall that was built to close the ghetto off. Estimations say there about 16000 people were living in the ghetto once the wall was built. From this ghetto the Jewish residents were later deported to the concentration camps. While almost all of the wall was removed, you can still see a small section of it.
From the Ghetto Wall it’s a short walk to the St. Joseph Church, one of the most beautiful churches in the city.
Visit Schindler’s Factory Museum
Anyone who has seen the movie ‘Schindler’s List’ will be familiar with Schindler’s Factory standing in Krakow. The old factory is now turned into a museum. It not only tells the story of Oscar Schindler and the factory, but also the stories about the everyday lives of the Jews living in Krakow. The museum details the struggle during the Nazi occupation of Krakow in 1939 to 1945 through a series of well-organized, interactive exhibits. If you want to visit the museum, I would recommend to buy the tickets in advance, as they sell out quickly.
Visit the Auschwitz Birkenau Camp
I am not going to say much about Auschwitz-Birkenau, because quite frankly there is nothing I can say to describe this experience or do it justice. It is easily one of the most humbling experiences of my life. I think it’s really important for anyone visiting Kraków to take a day trip to honor the victims to make sure that this horrible event is never forgotten or repeated.
We booked our tour via GetyourGuide.
Go underground at Wieliczka Salt Mine
Many day tours to Auschwitz also include a visit to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Inside you will find a labyrinth of corridors and chambers all carved out of salt rocks. The mine is quite spectacular, but I would only recommend visiting it if you have some spare time in your itinerary. As we only had three full days in Krakow, I rather would have spend a bit more time in the city center. If you are there longer, it’s definitely worth the trip.
In terms of food Krakow happily surprised me. I didn’t know that the city had such a vibrant street food scene. I can imagine, it’s really cool during spring and summer to eat outdoors. However as it was freezing big time, we decided to focus on the restaurant scene instead. We stumbled upon so many cool hotspots, that it was quite difficult to choose sometimes.
Café Camelot – the place to be for delicious breakfast and brunch. The interior is unique and enchanting. Back in the early 1920’s, the cafe used to be a brothel, where artists gathered. You can still feel the’ fin de siècle’ vibe there.
Mak – a cafe and bakery located in the trendy PURO Hotel in Kazimierz. They bake natural sourdough bread, bagels, baguettes, cinnamon rolls, butter rolls, pastries, cakes and pies. We decided upon the Avocado toast and it was absolutely delicious!
Bistro Bene – this might be a little bit off the beaten path, but the sandwiches and pastries are worth the detour. During our time in Krakow we experienced the friendly hospitality of its citizens often, but the staff at Bistro Bene were for sure amongst the nicest people we’ve met.
Emalia – located in the Podgórze neighborhood, just around the corner from Schindler’s Factory. I loved the industrial vibe of the restaurant. The food was also really good. The menu combines traditional, often forgotten Polish recipes with world cuisine.
Two Rzywo – hip coffee spot in the Podgórze neighborhood. The vintage interior is quite the vibe and the Illy coffee delish!
Ministerstwo Tajemnic – We stumbled upon Ministerstwo Tajemnic when walking back from the castle into town. The sparkling Christmas decorations and the fact that the place looked like it came straight out of a Harry Potter movie drew us in. We only had a cup of coffee there, but it was such a cozy spot to hang out and play a game of chess… We immediately loved it.
Hamsa Humus & Happiness – While in the Jewish Quarter, why not enjoy the multi-flavored Middle Eastern kitchen? Believe me, Hamsa is a must while visiting Krakow! The restaurant offers a range of authentic Middle Eastern specialties in a casual environment. The Mezze plates are perfect for sharing and give you the chance to try several delicious starters like Humus, Babaganoush, Labnah and Muhammarah. The dishes are also beautifully presented in hand-painted dishware.
Del Papa – Italian restaurant with Michelin & Gault Millau nominations. They pride themselves in hand-made pasta and pizza’s. I went for the Prosciutto Parma Pizza (as always – I know) and it was absolutely delicious.
If you are going on a day trip to Auschwitz Birkenau and the Wieliczka Salt Mine, make sure to pack breakfast and lunch. It’s a long day and the restaurant options are very slim and not good, so keep that in mind!
Where to stay?
During our Krakow adventure we stayed at Hilton Garden Inn Krakow, which was located about three kilometers outside of the old town. Usually I prefer to stay more inside of the city center, but as my friend was able to book some very cheap Hilton Friends & Family rates, we decided to stay there. Hilton Garden Inn Krakow is a four star hotel, but the service wasn’t exactly upon that level in my opinion. Housekeeping forgot to clean our room after the first night and we had to run down to reception every night, as our room key didn’t work. Fortunately our room was spacious and had great beds. As we didn’t spend much time at the hotel, I didn’t really mind. Nevertheless as the rates for fabulous hotels in the city center are very affordable, I would recommend to look for accommodations in the old town or Jewish quarter Kazimierz. The PURO Hotel Kazimierz and Hotel Indigo Krakow Old Town looked like cool spots. Although I haven’t stayed in these hotels myself, they are definitely on my “places to stay” list for a next visit.
• Krakow is only a two-hour flight for Brussels, making it a perfect destination for a weekend break.
• We took a taxi from the John Paul II Kraków-Balice International Airport to the hotel, which cost us about € 20. Uber & Free Now are very cheap in Krakow, so we didn’t use the public transportation to travel to the city from our hotel. An Uber back to the airport was about € 10.
• Currency: Polish złoty