Krakow is such an incredible city that has been rising in popularity, and for good reason! The city is full of charm, history, art, good food, and beautiful sites. Krakow’s history is unfortunately rifled with tragedy, particularly throughout the Second World War, but much of the medieval history is incredibly unique and beautiful. Krakow was once the Polish kingdom’s great capital, and it has maintained much of its original charm and beauty with a historical center that is still surrounded by some of its 13th century city walls. Many tourists visit Krakow with the intended excursion to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial. While this memorial is incredibly powerful and important to visit, there are many sites worth visiting in Krakow and surrounding area that make Krakow an excellent destination for a long weekend.
Where to stay:
Krakow is a relatively small city, and it is easily walkable, so fortunately there are really no bad places to stay. If you’re looking to be in the heart of the old town, the Santi Hotel is an excellent historic option steeped in luxury. If this hotel isn’t quite in your price point, the Mały Kraków is a great alternative. It’s located just a couple of minutes from the Barbican gate, and it is perfectly clean and well taken care of.
If you don’t feel the need to be within the historic city walls, then I recommend spending your nights in Kazimierz! Kazimierz is the historic Jewish Quarter, so it is still packed with loads of history, but it has more local places to eat and drink. Additionally, the feel and culture of this area is vastly different from that in the historic center, so if you’re looking to avoid a touristy experience, this is the place to be. The Spatz Aparthotel is the place to stay in Kazimierz. The rooms are lovely, the location is perfect, the staff is wonderful, and the breakfast is delicious. I can’t recommend this hotel more highly! The Kazimierz district is the perfect place to stay in Krakow because it’s close walking distance to the historic center, but it’s a much more local area.
How to spend your time in Krakow:
As I recommend in many cities, Krakow is best first explored with a local guide who can point out all of the things that you’d miss otherwise. Free Walkative Tour is a great free walking tour company that operates in the city. They have a few different walking tour options, so you can pick one which best suits your interests. I recommend starting with a tour of Old Town Krakow, as this will give you great insight into the medieval history of the former capital of the Kingdom of Poland.
A stop at Wawel Hill to visit the castle and cathedral of Krakow is a must! The cathedral is the burial place of the historic royal family of Poland, amongst many other famous personalities. If you’re interested in Polish history, a tour through the cathedral with their audioguide will walk you step by step through the most important chapters in Polish history. During your visit to the cathedral, you’ll have the chance to climb into the cathedral’s bell tower, which I highly recommend. From the tower’s vantage point, you’ll have an incredible view over the historic city of Krakow. As an added bonus, there’s a statue just below the castle along the river that breathes fire by text message command, or every 5 minutes!
Once you’ve had some time to explore the historic city center of Krakow and Wawel Hill, you’ll want to make a stop in Kazimierz. Once the home of one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe due to relative religious tolerance throughout much of the city’s history, Kazimierz is an interesting neighborhood to explore. There are a couple of synagogues and cemeteries that will give you the history of the Jews in Krakow and Poland. The Old Synagogue is now a museum dedicated to the history of the Jews in Krakow, and is a cornerstone of the neighborhood. Beyond these museums and vestiges to past residents, the neighborhood of Kazimierz is now a booming cultural center of Krakow with great cafes, restaurants, bars, and nightlife. You’ll find many of the students of Krakow’s famous Jagiellonian University here in the evenings enjoying the somewhat alternative culture. While you’re there, you’ll want to try “zapiekanka”. These are a Polish take on french-bread pizzas, and are a fairly common street food in the city. Plac Nowy in Kazimierz is the best place to grab one to go. There is a small market in the square, and loads of stands with various food options, but most importantly zapiekanka. If you’re looking for some delicious Pierogies, I recommend Barfly, a lunch bar in the heart of Kazimierz.
Just across the Vistula River from Kazimierz is the former Jewish Ghetto of Krakow, made famous by films such as Schindler’s List. It was in this part of the city that the Nazis held the Jewish residents of Krakow and surrounding towns prior to their deportation from the city to various concentration and extermination camps in the region. Plac Bohaterow Getta (Ghetto Heros Square) is now a monument to those who were lost during the Second World War to the atrocities of the Third Reich and Nazi party. In this square, you’ll find chairs throughout, which symbolize the departure and absence of those who were brutally murdered.
Side note: Please do not sit on the chairs. It breaks my heart every time I see a group of tourists posing for photos on chairs which represent the death of thousands of people.
On one corner of the square, you will find the Apteka Pod Orłem, The Eagle Pharmacy, which was the one non-Jewish business allowed to operate in the ghetto. Tadeusz Pankiewicz was one of the few non-Jews allowed into the ghetto, and as a result, he served as a witness to one of the worst atrocities in human history. Not only did he serve as a witness after the war, but he worked to help the residents of the ghetto as much as possible prior to their eventual deportation without ever being caught by the Nazis. This exhibition is very well-done as an interactive look into the lives of those living in the ghetto, and the work that Tadeusz Pankiewicz did in helping those he could despite the dangers he faced.
About 10 minutes from Plac Bohaterow Getta is the former site of Oskar Schindler’s factory, which is now a museum dedicated to life in Krakow during the occupation. While I know some have been disappointed that little of the museum is actually dedicated to Schindler and the stories of those he saved, the museum itself is interesting if you want to learn more about life in Krakow during the period.
If you’re looking to take a trip outside of the city, you should check out the Wieliczka Salt Mine. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the tour brings you through an underground salt mine that includes full rooms, chapels, carvings, and statues. If you can, try to catch this one on a week day, as it’s way less fun if you visit with a ton of other tourists. I also booked a bus tour in advance for the salt mine, just because it seemed easiest to hop on a bus with a built-in guide. Keep in mind that if you want to take photos, you’ll have to purchase a photo pass (fairly common in this part of Europe), so bring some money for this. There is a restaurant in the salt mines far underground that serves some fairly good Polish specialities, like Pierogies, so you may want to budget time for lunch while you’re there.
Visiting the Auschwitz Museum and Memorial:
Many tourists come to Krakow with one intention, to visit the infamous extermination and concentration camp complex known as Auschwitz. This camp, created by the Nazis during the Second World War, is located in the town of Oświęcim about an hour outside of Krakow, and was the largest concentration and extermination camp responsible for the murder of more than 1 million people. I have personally visited the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum five times, with more visits planned as a part of my full-time job, and I have to tell you that it never gets easier to visit. I believe that visiting this memorial is incredibly important. It’s one thing to read about the atrocities of the Holocaust, it’s another to see them in person.
The Auschwitz Memorial and Museum is actually divided into two parts, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Auschwitz I was the concentration/prison portion of the camp originally created mainly for Polish political prisoners, and was not an extermination (or death) camp. Later, a gas chamber was installed and other prisoners were held there including Soviet POWs and other nationalities, but extermination was not carried out at the rate it was in the more famous Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp. Birkenau is the camp featured in many films, with a railroad track running straight into the camp with a platform where families were separated for the “selection” process. In this case, those coming off the trains were either selected for death, or selected to live in horrific and torturous conditions. When planning a trip to the museum, a visit to both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau is important. In Auschwitz I, you will find the actual exhibition and museum, which explains exactly what happened, and to whom. The exhibition is held within the former barracks, and is truly heartbreaking. In Auschwitz II-Birkenau, you will visit the barracks which held the prisoners of the extermination camp. Additionally, at the very end of the railroad tracks, you will see the remains of the destroyed gas chambers (destroyed in an attempt to destroy evidence as the camp was approached by the Soviet army) and the memorial to those who were murdered in the languages of all people who were held and killed. Both portions of the museum and memorial are powerful and worth visiting.
Tours book quickly, so I recommend making a reservation in advance. The tour of both camps takes approximately 3-3.5 hours. There are buses from Krakow which stop outside of the Auschwitz I camp, where the ticket offices are located and the tours begin. You can also book a tour from the city of Krakow which will bring you with a private bus directly to the museum. As a visit to the Auschwitz museum is a long day including the travel time from Krakow, you will find a small cafe on site, as well as restrooms. Photos are allowed throughout some parts of the museum, but are forbidden in certain areas, so please follow all photography instructions carefully and be respectful of what you’re photographing, and how.
Krakow is an absolutely incredible city to visit on its own, or in conjunction with a trip to the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum, as many visitors do. The city is one of the most historic in Poland, and is truly regal with a great deal of history, art, beautiful architecture, and amazing local culture. It’s the perfect city to visit for a long weekend, or for even a few more days if you’re interested in soaking up all there is to see.
If you’re planning to visit Krakow and need some help planning your trip, book a travel consultation with me! I’ll be happy to plan out your itinerary to ensure that you get the most out of this beautiful city.
Please note that some links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you book using the link on my website, I’ll be paid a percentage of your booking fee at absolutely no extra cost to you. As always, all opinions are my own, and all recommendations are based on my own personal experience.