Travel Poland. Kraków - Travel Guide For First Time Visitors

Is Kraków worth visiting? Yes. The picture-perfect town on the Vistula River in the south of Poland is one of the oldest cities in the country. 20,000 years ago, the Slavic tribe of the Vistulans settled on the Wawel Hill. Legend has it that their prince Krak killed a dragon and laid the foundation of a city. Over time Krakow prospered and the town grew bigger.

Read on to find out what the story about the Kraków trumpet is all about, and where can you find a ceiling full of golden stars. I tell you where you can find Polish souvenirs galore and where can you eat chocolate ravioli to die for, drink speciality coffee at a hipster café, dine at a candle lit historical restaurant or eat Polish/Asian fusion at one of the trendiest restaurants. You will also find out what the famous Zapiekanka is and where you get it. You will visit Kraków’s most popular flew market and if you want to know how many bookshops Kraków has and how to best pay in Kraków and where and how can you visit the Enamel Factory of Oskar Schindler, please keep on reading.

Travel Poland – Kraków For First Time Visitors

Kraków has never again been destroyed by wars after it had to be rebuilt once when the Mongols destroyed large parts of the city in 1241. It feels like an open-air museum with its 100 churches and monasteries, the Planty park, the remains of a medieval city wall, palaces and townhouses with its buildings and monuments of the Baroque, Gothic and Renaissance periods and the vast market square.

The Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site since it illustrates the process of continuous urban growth from the Middle Ages to the present day. Kraków is a University town; its most famous student was Copernicus who studied at Kraków University founded in 1364. Copernicus is the guy that understood early on that the earth revolves around the sun and this radical change of view is to this day the most important in the history of astronomy.

As so many places in Europe, this town also has a horrible recent history. Spending time here, learning about the Holocaust and the horrors of the German occupation, and also about the time when locals lived behind the iron curtain under the Communist regime until 1989, is fascinating. Once more, one can see that the rights we take for granted are fragile and can be taken from us at any time if we won’t protect them.

The town is a walkable one; you can easily walk from A to B and discover the culture, the history and lifestyle of Kraków by foot.

Three boroughs of Kraków: Old Town - Kazimierz - Podgórze

Old Town - Stare Miasto – the historical centre

The Old Town, in Polish Stare Miasto, is the historic central borough of Kraków. In medieval times the town was surrounded by a defensive fort, with towers and sturdy entrance gates. Until King Sigismund III Vasa relocated his court to Warsaw in 1596, the town used to be a merchant town and the country's political centre. Today, the old town is not only one on Poland's protected national Historic Monuments list, it has also been awarded UNESCO world heritage site status.

Sights around the Kraków icon

Rynek Glówny  

Rynek Glówny is the oldest medieval square in Europe and a Kraków icon. The main square of Kraków, created in the 13th century is lined by colourful townhouses. Visit the square at different times of the day, during the day and in the evening, and you will get to experience it in all its poetic splendour.

St. Mary's Basilica in Krakow

Make time to visit St. Mary's Basilica on the main market square. The largest gothic altarpiece in the world (by Veit Stoss), the stained glass windows of the nave, and the blue ceiling which is full of golden stars will let you hold your breath, it is this beautiful. The wooden altarpiece was at the time built for long twelve years by a German artist (today conservation work is ongoing). Time your visit so that you can listen to its church bell and the trumpet. Ever since the 14th century, a firefighter rings the bell every hour, day and night and plays the Cracow trumpet signal "Hejnał." In the middle of the tune, the signal breaks off abruptly and is thus intended to commemorate the trumpeter, who is said to have announced the attack of the Tartars in the 13th century and is said to have been killed by an arrow of the attackers.

Info St. Mary's Basilica: Plac Mariacki 5, 31-042 Kraków. Use the entrance off Rynek Glówny after you bought your ticket opposite the entrance. Tickets: Adults PLN 15, concessions PLN 10, free for children under seven, children up to the age of 12 must be accompanied by an adult. Hours 11.30am to 6pm, Sunday 2pm to 6pm. Tower to 11.30am, 1.10pm to 5.30pm, Sunday 1pm to 5.30pm. Monday closed.

The Cloth Hall Sukiennice 

The Renaissance Cloth Hall is right in the centre of the market square. You can go and hunt for Polish souvenirs in fairy-tale surrounds of the arcade during the day. Special: Make your way to the second floor of the Cloth Hall and grab a seat on the terrace of Cafe Szał. Bring your camera; the views of St. Mary's Basilica and the square are magical. Hours: 10am to 11pm.

Eat Chocolate Pierogi 

Eat dumplings and indulge in one of the most beloved dishes of Polish cuisine, pierogi. Similar to Italian ravioli, they are filled with various ingredients and are either served boiled or fried. Highly recommended are the chocolate ones at E. Wedel Chocolate Lounge at Cracow Rynek Street. Rynek Glowny 46, Kraków 31-017, Poland.

Lunch at Żarówka Café 

The cafe is somewhat hidden, next to a tattoo parlour and a tobacco shop, and if you walk through the archway off Florianska Street, you find yourself in a cosy courtyard. I recommend the beetroot salad for lunch.

Info Żarówka Café: Floriańska 20, 31-021 Kraków, Poland. Hours: Sunday to Thursday 9am to 9pm. Friday and Saturday 9am to 11pm.

Planty Park 

The Planty park created in the 19th century to cover fragments of the old fortification has been laid around the historical old town of Kraków like a green pearl-necklace. If you go on the four-kilometre-long circuit walk, which will take you almost an hour, you can people watch, have a picnic or visit some of the beautiful cafes along the way. Just follow a street straight out of the old town to reach this little city wonderland. If you enter Planty park through Brama Florianska (Florian's Gate) from the old town, imagine how many millions of others must have walked through this gate before you, ever since it was erected in 1307.

Speciality coffee in Kraków 

This café is just outside the old town. The people at Sweet Life state to prepare the highest quality espresso drinks, where each is handcrafted from the finest coffee from around the world. Friendly staff with a passion for excellence in coffee, pretty interior with light pink and grey, avocado toast for breakfast plus flat whites, what is not to like? Info Sweet Life: ulica Warszawska 7, 30-001 Kraków, Poland. Monday to Friday 8am to 8pm, Saturday 9am to 8pm, Sunday closed.

Kazimierz – the Jewish quarter

Popular among all visitors is Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter of Kraków. In this borough, you are going to find several synagogues, bookshops, and cafes and restaurants where you can listen to and learn about Klezmer music. At night you will be out and about with thousands of others who love to be in the area around Plac Nowy (Nowy Square), the heart of Kazimierz. If you are looking for street art, trendy restaurants and bars, this is the area for you.

Eat Zapiekanka 

A Zapiekanka is a favourite of almost everybody. Buy a Zapiekanka, a baguette sprinkled with grated cheese before oven baked, at Plac Nowy in Kazimierz to find out why.

Synagogues in Kraków 

The Old Synagogue is the oldest surviving synagogue in Poland. At the Remuh synagogue, you find a beautiful Jewish cemetery. If you have the time you can attend a Klezmer concert at the Isaac Synagogue. On Plac Nowy there is a flea market on weekends, whereas during the week you can eat a Zapiekanka (see above).

Once Upon a Time in Kazimierz 

The restaurant is set in four former Jewish shops, the walls that separated them are gone and today everything happens on one large floor. Before you enter, check out the restored shop signs above the windows to get an idea of how the original place might have looked. The dining room, candle lit, with only a few chandeliers here and there, is filled from floor to ceiling with antique furniture and dresses, uniforms, a stove, work benches, and a Singer sewing machine that illustrate Kraków’s history fantastically. I eat pierogi with cabbage and mushrooms followed by nut cake. While sipping coffee, and being the only guest on this afternoon, it felt like I sit in my great grandmother’s living room. I think of times gone by and daydream about that hopefully these will affect the future positively. When I ask for the bill, the waitress tells me that Klezmer music is played live at night, since I visit on a Saturday, it isn't on.

Info Once Upon a Time in Kazimierz: Kraków, ul. Szeroka 1. Hours: Monday to Sunday 10am to 12am. Best to book a table for dinner in advance +48 12 421 21 17.

Buy books and music at Austeria 

By now, you listened to Klezmer music, probably even learned about its origin, you visited a Synagogue, heard that Jews have been living here in this town for hundreds of years and you saw what has been done to them in the Holocaust. Krakow has approximately about 80 bookshops, and Księgarnia Austeria is a beautiful one of them. Bookshop means Księgarnia in Polish.

The bookshop in the Old Synagogue, on the ground floor beneath the temple, offers books, recordings of klezmer music, notebooks and postcards related to Judaism and Jewish culture. Even if you don't plan to buy books or music, go and visit this shop, simply to see how wares are stacked up between the old vaults. I'm sure while you browse books and listen to Klezmer music you'll certainly find something that catches your attention. I recommend to by The Krakow Ghetto Pharmacy (A Testimony to the Holocaust) by Tadeusz Pankiewicz and The Rough Guide to Klezmer (CD by Rough Guides).

Infos: Bookshop Księgarnia Austeria. Józefa 38, 31-056 Kraków, Poland. Hours: Monday to Thursday 09.30am to 6pm, Friday, Saturday, Sunday 09.30am to 7pm.

Eat Hummus in Krakow

Hamsa Hummus & Happiness Israeli Restobar. The only word I didn't understand from this rather clumsy long name is Hamsa. A quick google search reveals it means peace in the Arabic language. That somehow already explains why the restaurant’s logo is the hand of Fatima, a symbol of good luck. They even served my hummus and babaganoush in a porcelain Fatima. This Middle-eastern restaurant has loads of character, is housed in a pretty building and even has a garden. It was completely packed and the atmosphere was a friendly one. Wooden tables, tie-died lampshades, pots of herbs growing on window sills make the place Instagram worthy.

Info Hamsa Hummus & Happiness Israeli Restobar: ul. Szeroka 2, Krakau 31-053, Poland. Hours: Monday to Friday 10am to 11pm. Saturday and Sunday 9am to 11pm.

Zenit Café 

A mix of Polish and Asian fare in stylish settings, the room is decorated with soft blue and dark grey fabrics and dark wood. Add on: Even the bathroom is beautiful.

Info Zenit Café: Miodowa 19, 31-055 Kraków, Poland. Hours: Monday to Thursday 9am to 10pm, Friday and Saturday 9am to 12am. Sunday 9am to 8pm.


Before it became a district of Kraków in 1915, Podgórze on the banks of the river Vistula, was an independent town. In March 1941 the Germans started to establish a ghetto in the area. The Germans forced Jews to relocate from the Kraków borough of Kazimierz to this fenced area in Podgórze. If you cross the Bernatek Bridge over the Vistula River you reach Podgórze, the former Jewish ghetto.

Go and visit the square in front of the Kraków Ghetto Pharmacy, called Plac Bohaterów Getta (Square of the Heroes of the Ghetto). It is a rather quiet part of town, every now and then a tram stops and people get on and off, on their way to someplace. Imagine that 15,000 Jews were crammed into only 320 townhouses in the ghetto. The square at the tram stop is filled with 70 empty chairs. It is here on this square that Germans held appeals, and made their selections during the time of the occupation. Here the Jews were rounded up by the Germans for deportation to the concentration camps. The installation of empty steel chairs commemorates the victims.

Buy the book about the Pharmacy which is a testimony to the Holocaust. Written by the only Pole who was allowed to work and live in the Ghetto. A short walk from here you can visit the Enamel Factory of Oskar Schindler that houses a museum.

Enamel Factory of Oskar Schindler  

Over the decades the area around the former factory of Oskar Schindler used to be neglected, and nobody wanted to live here. Today there are modern built apartment houses and offices, and trendy restaurants and bars. You will experience firsthand what the city did to turn the area into a hot spot for locals as well as tourists.

The factory of Oskar Schindler is still on the original site. You might have heard about Oskar Schindler through the feature film by Steven Spielberg "Schindler's List." The party member managed to save one thousand Jewish workers from the concentration camp and with that certain death. Today the factory houses a museum, which tells about the carefree life in Kraków before the German occupation, and how the Germans changed life in the city for Poles and Polish Jews after the invasion. You can see how they were harassed, humiliated, relocated, deported and murdered. The sound, the temperature, the lighting and displays, photos and films create an oppressive atmosphere, which makes it easy to understand how life was in Kraków at the time.

One detail is disturbing and I wonder why this was done; there is one room that is completely decked out in swastika tiles, probably to show that literally, everybody was in the grip of the Germans at this time. Still, somewhat unnecessary to produce tiles like that.

Info Enamel Factory of Oskar Schindler: Ul. Lipowa 4, Kraków 30-702, Poland. Hours: April to October Monday 10am to 4pm and Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 8pm. Every first Monday of the month open till 2pm. November to March Monday 10am to 2pm. Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 6pm. Last admission 90 minutes before the closing time. Tickets: Adults PLN 24, concessions PLN18, family ticket PLN 55. Best to book tickets in advance.

Orzo People Music Nature Restauracja 

This is a restaurant in what feels and looks like a greenhouse. It is inviting, airy and full of plants and light and freindly smiles. I recommend the Gnocchi Verdure:  Spinach Gnocchi, roasted three-coloured carrots, vegan demi-glace, mollet egg, red wine, Grana Padano DOP, rocket, sugar snap peas, butter and garlic.

Info Orzo People Music Nature Restauracja: Lipowa 4A, 30-702 Kraków, Poland. Hours: Sunday to Thursday 9am to 12am, Friday and Saturday 9am to 1am.

Best time to visit Kraków

Spring and Summer May, June, July, August and September are pleasant travel months, with temperatures of about 20 degrees Celsius. It may rain in May, June and July, which means it is best to take a raincoat and an umbrella. The warmest months are July and August.

Autumn and Winter November and December are cold and grey and can be beautiful snowy, whereas February is the coldest month of the year.

Where to stay in Kraków

Venetian House Apart Hotel More central than this? How? The locally owned hotel is in a renovated 16th Century town house that sits directly on the market square. The Venetian House Apart Hotel has 34 boutique studios and apartments. When I booked my room, I had a few questions and send some emails; every time I got an answer within a few minutes of my enquiry. With that they had already won my heart before I even arrived.

On arrival, everybody I meet is helpful and friendly, rooms are spacious enough, the bed is comfortable, and the style of the room and bathroom is bright, minimalist, modern and inviting. The view over Krakóws rooftops adds a romantic touch. Freshly prepared breakfast can be eaten at Urban Garden, the restaurant on the ground floor. Rooms have a fully equipped kitchen, for all the ones who love to cook on vacation (I rather made use of all the restaurants in town).

Info Venetian House Apart Hotel: Rynek Główny 11, 31-042 Kraków, Poland. Phone: +48 12 346 46 70. Rates: From 110 EUR. Please contact the hotel for prices plus breakfast from PLN 26. Wi-Fi is free. There is secure parking a five to ten minute walk away for PLN 35/day (simply ask for the details when you book).

How to get to Kraków

By plane Easyjet, Ryanair, Please visit the website of the airport to see which airline brings you to Kraków. John Paul II International Airport Krakow-Balice (that is its name) is only eleven kilometres form the centre of town. There is a bus service from the airport to the centre of Kraków. Kraków Airport is served by two bus lines, 208 and 252 plus the night line 902. Tickets are from PLN 4,00. Please note that the ticket machine is in the airport terminal.

By Car

From Budapest, Hungary: 398 kilometres via the E77.
From Gdansk, Poland: 585 kilometres via the A1.
From Berlin, Germany: 600 kilometres via the A4.
From Ljubljana, Slovenia: 840 kilometres via the E59.
From Hamburg, Germany: 882 kilometres via the A24 and A4.
From Munich, Germany: 900 kilometres via the A1.
From Copenhagen, Denmark: 1,000 kilometres by ferry and via the A4.
From Strasbourg, France: 1,160 kilometres via the A4.

By Train Please visit the website of Polrail Service for timetables and prices.

How to pay in Poland?

Credit cards are widely accepted, apart from tips (as in for example tipping the room maid at the hotel); you can survive cashless for days. That way you can save on the fee for the ATM. Speaking of tipping, leaving 10 to 15% of the bill for the wait staff is the standard.

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