As first-time visitors to Krakow, we honestly weren’t expecting much from this former Soviet Union city. Actually, if we didn’t want to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, the former concentration camp, we might have left Krakow off our European road trip altogether. Fortunately, we didn’t.
Originally, we planned only one night in Krakow, giving us one day in the city and one day for Auschwitz. Though, when we arrived, we unknowingly walked straight into the city’s annual mid-August Folk Art Fair taking place in the main square. We live for stuff like this!
The ceremonies opened with a deafening call on the Ligawka, a Polish sheep horn, as the square came to life with dancers in traditional costumes. Stalls selling varied handicrafts and food made for interesting souvenir shopping.
Needless to say, we weren’t going to accomplish much exploring of Krakow that first day. So, we added three more nights to our stay, which gave us three full days to explore Krakow and Auschwitz.
If you can time your visit to Krakow for this mid-August festival, we felt it was worth it. Otherwise, this three-day itinerary includes all the main attractions first time visitors to Krakow should check out.
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Where to Stay in Krakow
Hopefully, you enjoy walking, because like many of Europe’s larger cities, walking is the easiest way to get around Krakow.
Surrounded by Planty Park and what’s left of the city’s defensive walls, the Old Town is where you’ll spend most of your time. A good rule of thumb is to find accommodation within a 10-to-15-minute walk of the main market square.
- We stayed at Parkside Apartments Old Town. Technically, it’s outside the Old Town but it took us less than a 10-minute walk to the Main Square. Everything in the apartment was clean and modern. We had a kitchen and washing machine, and felt it was fantastic value. Plus, the parking was within the building and reasonably priced.
- If you’re looking for something epic, take a look at Kanonicza 22. Not only does it have historical features, like ceilings dating from 1688, but it is also furnished to a royal standard. The luxury suite even has a rooftop Jacuzzi with views of the castle next door. Plus, the attached restaurant is award winning.
Day 1 in Krakow: Explore the Old Town
Start Your First Day in the Central Market Square
Typically, we tend to avoid town squares as they are often touristy and overcrowded. Somehow Krakow’s Central Market Square felt different. Though the restaurants lining the square still charge typical tourist prices.
According to its UNESCO World Heritage status, this 40,000 square foot 13th century town square is Europe’s largest market square. Some of Krakow’s best attractions are right here.
On a first visit in Krakow expect to spend 2 to 4 hours just exploring the Central Market Square.
Dividing the enormous square into two is the historic Cloth Hall. Inside the hall, you’ll find vendors selling a variety of handicrafts. You’ll also find the Gallery of 19th-century Polish Art.
Rynek Underground Museum
One of the most interesting museums in Krakow actually sits under the Central Market Square.
From the Cloth Hall, you’ll descend 13-feet underground to find an archaeological dig site, which is the Rynek Underground Museum.
As with most dig sites, it can be challenging to get excited about dirt and rocks. Though there’s a lot of English information, we opted for the guided tour. We rarely do guided tours, but we strongly felt the guide brought the museum to life. Plan to spend 1.5 to 2 hours.
Town Hall Tower
Pisa has its leaning tower and so does Krakow. After a storm in 1703, the tower, and only surviving part of the old Town Hall, leans about a foot-and-a-half to the east.
Though climbing the tower does give you nice views of the square, the views are from windows, not a platform. We didn’t feel it was worth climbing, but the tower is free on Mondays.
Saint Mary’s Basilica
One of the most eye-catching buildings on the square is Saint Mary’s Basilica. Inside the church is an exquisite alter known for its brilliantly bright colors contrasted in gold. Above the alter, the ceiling resembles the night sky, painted in deep blue with gold stars. It’s quite stunning.
St. Mary’s Charges a Mandatory “Donation”
In Europe, churches are a popular place to visit, even for the non-religious. They hold so much history and art, often they are more like museums. Some charge mandatory donations, like St. Mary’s. In our post on England’s Canterbury Cathedral we give our thoughts on the practice of charging admission.
If you’re someone who doesn’t agree with paying admission to a church, most churches in Krakow are just as beautiful as St. Mary’s, but donations are appreciated, and not mandatory.
St. Mary’s is also known for its two grand towers, the Bell Tower and the Bugle Tower. The church allows a limited number of reservations to climb the towers Tuesday through Sunday.
The legend of the Bugle Tower states that the taller tower once served as the city’s watchtower. A bugler would play the horn for opening and closing the city gates, for fires, and for attacks. In the 12th-century, when the Tatars attacked the city, the bugler played his warning call from the watchtower window, but he cutoff mid-way when he was shot with an arrow.
Today, a bugler plays his call hourly from the tower, but cuts the song off at the same spot, as a tribute to the heroic bugler.
Art in the Square
As you wander the Central Market Square you’ll notice several lovely sculptures, but none as interesting as Eros Bendato (Eros Bound), the Greek god of love and desire, or more commonly known as The Head.
Randomly, its twin is in St. Louis, Missouri.
St. Florian’s Gate & the Barbican
From the Central Market Square, follow Florianska Street to the city’s defensive walls and the St. Florian Gate. Part of the Krakow Museum, the Barbican sits outside the gate as the old entryway to the city. At one point, the Barbican connected to St. Florian Gate.
Admission to get inside this 15-century gateway and up on the defensive walls is very reasonable and worth doing.
Free Days in Krakow
Most museums and attractions in Krakow have free days. They often fall on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday. The trade-off is how much busier the attractions are on these free entry days.
If you’re wondering if it is worth it, we found most attractions in Krakow relatively inexpensive. Most entrance fees were equivalent to $3 to $4 USD. Plus, the Medieval Krakow tickets gets you into several historic attractions for roughly $10 USD.
The Museum of Krakow keeps an updated list of opening hours, free days, and admission fees.
Heading south from the Central Market Square, Grodzka Street cuts through Krakow’s Old Town. With restaurants, shops, and ornate architecture, the street is an attraction in its own right.
Along Grodzka Street is Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church, worth a quick look. Plus, they often have orchestral concerts in the evening.
Next door, built around 1079-1098 in the Romanesque style, St. Andrew’s Church is less imposing, but more impressive.
Places to Eat in and Around the Old Town
You’ll find plenty of choice for something to eat in the Old Town. Here are our favorites.
- Czarna Kaczka / Black Duck (Poselska 22): With so many classic Polish dishes to try, we ended up eating here for both lunch and dinner. Served in a bread bowl, Bigos is like a hunter’s stew, with chopped meat stewed with sauerkraut and shredded cabbage. Another traditional food to try is the roasted duck.
- Miód Malina Restaurant (Grodzka 40): We really enjoyed this restaurant. It is a little fancier but makes a great dinner spot.
- Lajkonik | Bakery & Cafe (Starowiślna 1): Convenient takeaway sandwich shop when you just want something quick. Located just outside the city walls.
- Cafe Mini Cukiernia Kawiarnia (Grodzka 45): Those that follow us know we both have quite the sweet tooth, so it’s no surprise we hunted down a dessert shop. Though their cakes are delicious, their ice cream is heavenly.
Surrounding Krakow’s Old Town is Planty Park. Dotted with art works and benches, we spent our downtime enjoying this beautiful green space.
Wawel Royal Castle and Cathedral
At the end of the Old Town, sitting on the Vistula River, is the majestic Wawel Royal Castle. The complex is free to walk around, and honestly there is plenty to see without going in the buildings.
If you do want to go in, ticketing can seem a little complicated. Each attraction within the complex requires a separate ticket and some have strict timed entry.
The Crown Treasury and Armoury requires a timed ticket, and they often sell out early. We recommend buying this online before your visit. The Royal Private Apartments and the State Rooms also require timed tickets, but they don’t tend to sell out as fast. We were able to get them at the onsite ticket booth when we were ready to enter.
Other areas of the castle complex, like the Royal Gardens and the Sandomierska Tower, require tickets, but are not timed.
Day 2 in Krakow: Take a Day Trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau
Auschwitz-Birkenau Former Concentration Camp
In all my travels, even considering some of the tragic places I’ve visited like the Cu chi tunnels in Vietnam and Hiroshima in Japan, I don’t believe I’ve ever had as strong of a reaction to a place as I did to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Heartbreaking doesn’t begin to describe it.
The Auschwitz complex is gigantic, with around 35 buildings divided by small roads and contained within barbwire fencing. Many of the buildings house memorials and photographs, such as the room of shoes.
Though Birkenau is part of the same museum, it is on the other side of town. This was the train station where victims arrived at the camp and were either selected for work or killed. The complex is even bigger than Auschwitz. Over 60 buildings still exist, but most were destroyed.
As we felt compelled to look at every photo and read every personal story found throughout the Auschwitz Museum, we spent an entire eight hours at the site. This left us little time to see much of Birkenau on this first trip to Krakow.
We recommend reserving at least four hours for each site. Tickets are free, but you must reserve them ahead of your visit.
Day 3 in Krakow: Tour the Jewish Sites
On our last day in Krakow, we took the tram out to the neighborhood of Stare Podgórze, tram stop Plac Bohaterów Getta on lines 24 or 73, which took about 10 minutes. After visiting a few attractions, we walked back towards the Old Town via the former Jewish Quarters of Kazimierz.
Jewish Ghetto Memorial in Stare Podgórze
The first thing we noticed when alighting from the tram was a town square filled with oversized empty chairs, a memorial to those who once lived in Krakow’s Jewish ghettos.
During the days of Nazi occupation, the square’s name was Plac Zgody. The Nazi’s used this square as a deportation station during the “liquidation of the ghetto.” The Jewish people had to wait here as the Nazi’s decided their fate.
Today, the square goes by the name Ghetto Heroes Square. In the memoirs of Tadeusz Pankiewicz, the local pharmacist and only non-Jewish resident allowed to stay in the area, he wrote, “In Plac Zgody, an incalculable number of wardrobes, tables, sideboards and other furniture was rotting.” This passage was the inspiration for the chairs, which symbolize the belongings left behind by the Jewish people in the square.
Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory
Just a short walk away from Heroes Square is Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory.
Most people who visit do so because of the infamous movie Schindler’s List. Though the museum does touch on Schindler’s life, the focus is on explaining life in Krakow before, during, and after World War II. Incredibly well put together, plan to spend around two to three hours in the museum.
Jewish Square & the Neighborhood of Kazimierz
Before walking back to the Old Town, we spent the rest of the day exploring the old Jewish Ghetto of Kazimierz.
With a bohemian feel, the neighborhood is full of quirky restaurants, street art, and surprisingly interesting Jewish bookstores. While you’re here, also visit the Remuh Synagogue and the Jewish Cemetery. Otherwise, it’s fun to just spend your last day in Krakow wandering this less busy area of the city.
Books on Krakow
- DK Eyewitness Krakow City Guide – Eyewitness is our go-to brand of travel guides. Always with inspiring photos, we use these guides to help us find the hidden gems.
- Go for the broader DK Eyewitness Poland book if you plan to extend your trip to other areas of Poland.
- Culture Smart Guide to Poland – These books are great if you’re spending a decent amount of time in Poland, if you plan to befriend locals, or if you just want to understand the culture better. I just love them. They give an in-depth knowledge of customs, way of life, festivals, transportation, and just understanding the country in general. The best part is they are small and easy to carry around in your bag.
- The Krakow Ghetto Pharmacy – I mentioned this book earlier. These are the vivid memoirs of Tadeusz Pankiewicz, the Polish pharmacist in the Krakow Jewish Ghetto that witnessed the horrors of the Nazi occupation first-hand.
- Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account – The terrifying memoirs of the Jewish medical doctor, Dr. Miklos Nyiszli. Spared from death, he was ordered to perform scientific research on his fellow inmates under the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele. It’s an honest and gruesome account of the atrocities that took place at Auschwitz.