Krakow is one of the best cities to visit in Poland – why? It was the capital before Warsaw and one of the few cities whose old town remain undamaged in WWII. It’s the final resting place of many Polish monarchs with a rich Jewish past. The city has surprised me with its historical and colourful architecture and affordability, and three days here is a perfect amount of time to see the highlights
- 1 Day 1: Krakow Old Town
- 1.1 Wawel Hill
- 1.2 Lunch at Czerwone Korale
- 1.3 Saints Peter and Paul Church
- 1.4 Florian’s Gate
- 1.5 Cloth Hall
- 1.6 St Mary’s Basilica
- 1.7 Dinner at the Hostel – Mosquito Hostel
- 2 Day 2 – Auschwitz Concentration Camp
- 3 Day 3 Jewish quarter
- 4 Where to stay in Krakow
Day 1: Krakow Old Town
The Wawel Hill is home to the historic complex that had been the center of Polish politics and religion since the 10th century. At 228m, the hill borders the Vistula River in the south and the old town in the north. There are numerous buildings around the top of the hill, most notable are the palace and the cathedral. While it is free to visit the area, tickets are needed for certain attractions.
Wawel Castle Complex Layout and the Ticket office
The hill is surrounded by a wall and can be accessed either from the north or towards the east. The most common route is the inclined footpath close to the old town that takes you directly to the central courtyard with the cathedral immediately to the left. The palace is then through and archway to the left, with the ticket office by the right side of the courtyard.
The office across from the cathedral for the cathedral museum only.
Do note that tickets for each attraction are limited per day and some have a specific time slots or requires a compulsory guide, such as the Private Apartments. Price and opening times also vary depending on season, so check the official website for full info. You will be given one tickets for multiple attractions so don’t lose it.
Here is a quick overview of the higlights:
The Wawel Cathedral has been the burial place of Poland’s kings and queens from the 13th to the 17th century. The cathedral was built in the. Unlike most churches I’ve visited, the interior is decorated with hanging tapestry, and the tombs of the kings are not in a crypt but placed around the church. Most of them are accompanied with a small signpost about the king or queen.
Note that no photos are allowed, however entry is free
Free entry, 12 for the museum and bell
The castle in the Wawel complex is hidden behind an archway left of the cathedral and the courtyard. Built in the 14th century by Casimir III the Great, its once ornate decoration has mostly been washed away by time save for the borders on the top floor.
A fire destroyed one of the wings and it was refurbished, but not long after King Sigismund moved the capital to Warsaw in the 16th century. While coronation still happens here, it had fallen into neglect which was further by the Swedish invasion and the latter partition of Poland in 1795.
The Austrians used it as a barrack, and after WWI it needs money for restoration. Funding was given from the government to refurbish and install a presidential suite in the 1920s, but it is no longer used.
There are two parts of the castle you can visit:
The staterooms are available for individual visits. Located on the second floor of the complex, it is the warmest part of the palace, despite the usual reverse set up. It has more decorated rooms than the private apartment and
Admission fee: 20 PLN for summer season, 12 PLN for winter
Private apartment tour
Only available as a guided tour visit, the private apartments are on the first floor of the palace.
These are the original rooms for the king and his family, decorated mostly in the 16th century Italian style from Florence. The palace was overbuilt on a 14th century castle, which can be spotted by the wider walls and big steps close to the courtyard.
I bought my tickets at the main office and had to run to my tour which starts in five minutes, dropping my bag at the cloak room left of the entrance to the palace courtyard.
Our guide was full of information as we toured the rooms. While they are plainer than I expect for a castle (especially compared to Habsburg’s palaces in Vienna where I was just before), the insider info made it interesting.
Admission fee: 23 PLN for summer, 18 PLN for winter
The Dragon’s Den is a small cave system accessible by stairs from the castle complex. It was rumoured to be the den of a dragon, hence the name, and existed long before the castle was built. The small tower leads to a long spiral stairs down and the cave is dark and slippery, so be cautious when descending.
It’s good for wrapping up the visit as it takes you down to the river level and exit towards the river banks of the Vistula.
Admission fee: 5 PLN
Lunch at Czerwone Korale
I had lunch back in the old town center near the main square. Czerwone Korale is actually one of my favourite (and cheapest) meal.
I ordered the pierogy – aka Polish dumplings with cheese and onions – and a local fruit drink for only 25 PLN altogether and they were delicious! Service was friendly albeit a little slow.
Address: Mikołajska 14, 31-027 Kraków, Poland
Opening times: Sun – Thurs 10:00 – 22:00; Fri – Sat 10:00 – 0:00
Saints Peter and Paul Church
A 17th century Baroque Roman Catholic Church, the white façade of the Saints Peter and Paul Church is best known for its statues of the 11 Apostles, with Judas missing. It is one of the biggest church in Krakow and worth a visit both for its exterior and interior.
A Gothic style stone towers on the northern end of town, Florian’s Gate was built in the 14th century as part of a defense system after the 13th century Turkish attack.
It connects to the barbican on the outside and once had a moat surrounding it. it survived modernization of the old town and is one of the only eight original city gates that still stands.
In the center of the old town square is the Cloth Hall, which was the center of commerce since the 13th century in Krakow. The current iconic building with its elongated two storey brick and stone façade was reconstructed after a fire in the 16th century, overseen by the Italian native Queen Bona Sforza.
Hence the Italian parapet and gargoyles. Its two main entrances can be locked to keep thieves away at night, and nowadays it also houses souvenir shops. The upper floor is now the National Museum.
St Mary’s Basilica
The St Mary’s Basilica is another iconic landmark in Krakow, across from the Cloth Hall in the central square. Its two towers stand at 80m high, with sound of trumpets coming from the tower hourly during the day. The red brick facade is of the Gothic style and built in the 14th century to replace the one that was destroyed during the Mongol Invasion in the 13th century under Casimir III the Great.
The cathedral requires tickets for different part, and some have limited numbers with an allocated time slot. I highly recommend going up the tower during sunset for the best view. Do bear in mind that there are a lot of stairs! The ticket office is to the right if you are facing the church and it’s best to get your tickets before midday.
While the cathedral also require ticket entry, you can enter at any time during its opening hours. The starry sky fresco on the ceiling are gorgeous and part of the complete interior renovation done in the 18th century in the late Baroque style. It is also famous for its wooden altarpiece that was unfortunately under construction during my visit.
Admission fee: 5 PLN for the basilica, see here for more information
Dinner at the Hostel – Mosquito Hostel
I was really tired after such a full day and went back to my hostel for a rest. Turns out Mosquito Hostel do free food in the evening and they let me sign up last minute. This saved me from going out again! Skip here to see my hostel review.
Day 2 – Auschwitz Concentration Camp
Auschwitz day tour
One of the best day trips to do from Krakow is to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. The camp itself does a great job of giving you a glimpse of what life is like for those who had been sent there, so I’ll cover only the logistic here:
- Tickets are sold out weeks in advance for individual visit, but most hostels or hotels can put you in a group tour
- There are two camps: Auschwitz and Auschwitz Birkenau, which is the newer one with the train track
- You can only bring a small bag less than A4 size to the Auschwitz Camp, which you would have to leave in the van. Birkenau does not have a restriction.
- There is no eating inside allowed, but you can drink water. Also No selfies, no flash indoor, and no calls
- Most tours lasts over lunch time so be sure to pack a sandwich to eat before you enter Auschwitz or between that and Birkenau.
- I paid 160 PLN for my tour which includes transport and entrance fee. We were led by a guide around both concentration camp in a large group with headphones.
You can combine it with a visit to the Salt Mine as well, but I didn’t want to be so rushed. I came back to Krakow in the late afternoon and decided not to let the beautiful day go to waste and went to Wawel Hill for Sunset:
Dinner at Trattoria Degusti
I decided that I should treat myself for dinner since I didn’t really have lunch and went to this beautiful Italian restaurant that I passed by a lot in and out of old town. It is a little on the pricier side, but I enjoyed the gnocchi that I had and with a cola it costed me 47 PLN.
Address: Floriańska 28, 31-021 Kraków, Poland
Opening times: 9:00 – 23:00
Day 3 Jewish quarter
Kazimierz – Jewish quarter
Krakow is home to one of the largest Jewish communities in Poland before WWII, where it later was converted to a grotto that was preserved. The best way to explore the Jewish Quarter is by doing a walking tour, and my hostel recommended Cracow free tour, which runs daily at 10am and 2pm.
Its origin can be traced all the way back to the time of Kazimierz (King Casimir III of Poland). The Jewish were expelled 800m away from Krakow after a ‘suspicious fire’ that only burned Christian and not Jewish houses around the square near Cloth Hall. It was a ploy to get the Jews out of the city, since In the late 15th century when Christian merchants had to join guilds while Jews did not hence they gave lower prices.
Kazimierz was never as rich as Krakow, so the houses are smaller and less decorated. It was separated by a wall from Krakow. In 1848, Jews could get citizenship of Krakow and live outside of Kazimierz; this saw 75% leaves and only Orthodox Jews stayed.
Of the 3.5 million Jews that lived in Poland, only 45 thousand people survived the Holocaust. However, the area survived for propaganda purposes under the Nazi.
If you want to skip the walking tour and do a self-guided walk, here are some highlights:
One of the oldest synagogues in Kazimierz, Starà Synagogue is no longer a working one today but house a small museum on Jewish life and the history of the Jews and rabbi in the area. It is located in a sunken area by the Jewish Square and near the former city. There are several theories as to why that is:
- They say the hole is dug because the nearby Catholic Church said they can’t be taller than one level
- It shouldn’t be higher than the city wall.
Originally, the synagogue is only for men. Eventually a door and separate room for women was created so they can look through the window. It was opened to all Jews so also act as a town hall for registration and wedding.
The Nazi stole the silver and turned it as a uniform warehouse during WWII, and the Communist renovated the synagogue for propaganda and turn it into a museum which it remained to be.
Admission fee: 11 PLN, reduced 9 PLN, free on Mondays
Opening times: differ depending on season, check here
The big square that is closest to the Krakow old town, Jewish Square is surrounded by restaurants and often serve as a parking space. It hosts the biggest Jewish festival end of June and 19th century popular for the Jews. The streets of Kazimierz are narrow and this is one of the few open squares where trading can be set up.
Adjoined to the synagogue by the Jewish Square, it is also known as the Old Cemetery act as a burial ground for the Jews since the 18th century. Due to the restriction on land, the cemetery actually have 3 layers of graves. It was dug up under the Nazis and the broken stones are turned into the wall around it.
The side with Hebrew letters are put facing inside and it came to be known as the wailing wall. You’d need to purchase a ticket to visit the Remuh Synagogue to visit, but you can also catch a glimpse through one of the windows on the other side.
Admission fee: 5 PLN
Opening times: Closed Saturday and Jewish Holiday; November – April: 9:00 – 16:00; May – October: 9:00 – 18:00
Smaller than the Jewish Square, the Nova Square (aka the new square) was opened in 1900s to sell fruits, vegetables etc. It was a cheaper spots for restaurants, however, it became famous due to Alchemia – a Narnia themed bar that opened here to save rent and now become majorly popular. On Sundays there is a large market taking place on site, mostly for women’s clothing.
Although it’s referred to as a sandwich, this polish local fare is more like a long baguette with pizza-like toppings that is almost as long as one’s forearm (it certainly is longer than mine)! You can get it from one of the stalls in the center of the square. With a wide selection of toppings available at a low cost, it’s the perfect snack and even a full meal. I ordered one with mushrooms, onions, and cheese and it basically became my lunch!
Mlekowoz coffee break
One of the cutuest cafes I’ve came across in Krakow, Mlekowoz has a little garden with crawling red leaves during the warmer months where you can get coffee and cake.
You can also get beers and other drinks in the restaurant across from it, but since I was alone and not that hungry, I grabbed a delicious chocolate cheese cake for 9 PLN and settled in for a rest after walking so long! It’s self service, so I had to grab food first before snatching up a seat.
Address: Polen, Beera Meiselsa 17, 31-058 Kraków, Poland
Opening times: Sun – Fri 10:00 – 23:00; Sat 10:00 – 0:00
Father Bernatek’s Bridge
A beautiful modern bridge spanning across the Vistula connecting the Jewish Quarter to the Jewish Ghetto, it is most notable for the swaying modern art statues between the two lanes. Completed in 2010, the perfectly balanced sculptures are called Between the Water and the Sky. It spans 145m and is built by local architect Andrzej Getter. Note: there are no old bridges in Krakow as they were bombed when Soviet came.
Podgorze – Jewish Ghetto
The Jewish Ghetto is set across the river. Most of the original buildings are gone under communism rule. As the area is outside of UNESCO heritage, blocks are built between the 60s and the 70s with many giving way to modern apartments. Over ten thousand factory workers were cramped in the buildings here with low sanitary and little food. Only 8000 survived out of 80 thousand.
Ghetto Hero Square
A spacious square sat on the edge of the Jewish Ghetto neighbourhood, the Ghetto Hero Square is known for the 68 metal chairs sprawled across the square. Each one stands for one thousand Jews who had lived in Krakow before WWII, and the chair is symbolic of the furniture of the Jews left behind. They were brought here under the pretense of being resettled but sent to concentration camp, hence all their belongings were left behind. In the corner is the only pharmacy in the Krakow ghetto, run by the only non-Jewish resident who was allowed in here during the time as Nazi is afraid of epidemic
Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory
While I had ran out of time to visit the factory and the tickets had sold out for the day, it’s worth mentioning Schindler’s Enamel Factory as he had saved the two hundred Jews that had worked there from the ghetto. You can find more information on the tickets and opening times here, and my advice is to get here in the morning as tickets are limited and you’ll be assigned a time slot to visit.
Where to stay in Krakow
Budget: Mosquito Hostel
I don’t usually have a lot of expectations for hostels but Mosquito Hostel has been a warm, welcoming place that know just what a traveler needs! It has nightly activities from drinking games to trivial nights, as well as nightly snacks that’s basically a free dinner.
There’s also a big kitchen, a common room area, and good range of breakfast option. The only thing I’d say is that I’d like it better if they have female dorm, but they also have private rooms. It’s north of St Florian Gate, just outside of the city wall but only ten minutes to the central square. It is a little far from the Jewish Quarter but makes up for it with being 5 minutes from the train station.