This post discusses fun things to do in Krakow, Poland’s second biggest city and a hub for culture, arts, and economics.
The train came to a halt around 6:00 a.m.
We waited and waited and then, waited a little bit more. Nobody seemed to be moving. In a haze, I came out from my little cabin, opened one of the main doors and stick my head outside. In the distance, I saw a guy signaling me to get back in.
After taking the night train from Prague, the arrival time to Krakow was near. That is when a streak of fear hit me. I was not sure how I ended up on a train so far from home, in a country that was completely foreign to me where I knew (maybe) two words of the local language. And, did I mention it was 6:00 a.m., dark and cold?
The oppressing feeling started to melt away once we made it to the hotel. We were lucky since they already had a room ready for us. Once upstairs, I opened the window and got my first view of Old Town. Minutes after that, I heard the trumpet (more on that later). At that moment, I knew I was about to embark on an adventure I didn’t even think was possible in my wildest dreams. I was in Poland, a country I thought I would never visit.
Krakow, situated on the banks of the Vistula River, is Poland’s second largest city and a center of culture, arts and economy. The history of the city dates back to the Stone Age. It grew from a small settlement to being the capital of the Kingdom of Poland during the Middle Ages.
In recent history, after Poland was invaded by the Nazis, Krakow became the capital of the General Government under the rule of Hans Franz. This terrible period brought a lot of suffering to residents. The Jewish population was forced to live in a Ghetto and many were sent to extermination camps. Because of Nazi occupation, the city’s buildings and monument escaped war unscathed.
Joy came to the city when its archbishop was elevated to Pope (John Paul II) and the Old Town was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status.
Nowadays, visitors have the opportunity to visit this beautiful, vibrant city and learn about its rich history. I have put together a list of fun things to do in Krakow. I hope you end up with tons of ideas if you plan (or want) to visit!
Things to Do in Krakow
Stroll the Main Square
Life in Krakow’s Old Town is centered around Rynek Glowny or the Main Square.
Measuring 200 square meters (or about 9 acres), Rynek Glowny is considered one of the largest medieval squares in Europe. Maybe the measurements in here do not make a lot of sense but believe me when I say this place is huge!
Because of its size, there is a lot going on. You will want to put on some comfy shoes and spend some time walking around and seeing the main buildings and monuments.
At the center of the square lies the Cloth Hall, a building once used as an importing and exporting center. The inside is full of stalls selling amber, lacework, wood carvings, rugs and all sorts of souvenirs. The outside has many cafes where a nice break can be taken.
The Town Hall Tower is the only remaining part of the Old Krakow Town Hall. Very close to the tower, you will find a sculpture called “Eros Bendato” or, in colloquial terms, “The Head.” This quirky piece of art became a hit once it was placed on the Main Square (to the dismay of historians). On a visit, you will see kids (and adults, ahem) climbing inside it and sticking their heads through the eyes.
The Saint Mary’s Basilica is another gem of the square. This brick Gothic church has foundations dating back to the 13th century, a stunning ceiling and a wooden carved altarpiece. Immigrants to the New World used St. Mary’s as a model for the churches in their communities. Visitors can ascend to the top of one of the towers.
Also, the square is home to the Church of St. Adalbert and the Adam Mickiewicz Monument. The monument was dedicated to this Polish poet on the 100th anniversary of his death.
Beyond the main structures, I loved the Main Square because it is a place full of colorful townhouses, restaurants, cafes, and people looking to connect with each other. I walked the entire perimeter each day of my stay. It was wonderful to walk around trying to take in the little details.
Listen to the Trumpet
If you are on the Main Square at the correct time, you are going to hear a song played by a trumpeter. You are not crazy. As a matter of fact, you are enjoying one of Krakow’s more unique traditions.
Every hour on the hour, a traditional Polish anthem is played four times in succession from the highest tower of St. May’s Basilica.
Legend says a watchman at one of the church’s tower alerted the town of a Mongol invasion by playing the song. The city gates were closed before it was too late but an arrow killed the trumpeter before he was able to finish the song.
I enjoyed listening to the trumpet since I enjoy legends and similar stories.
See More of Old Town
We have discussed the Main Square but this is only a part of the Old Town. Medieval Krakow was surrounded by a defensive wall with many towers and entrances. The wall is long gone but the “original” city is separated from the newer part of town by a green area known as “Planty.”
As you can imagine, there is a lot to see in Old Town. A map will help you to visit churches, the Slowacki Theatre, Jagiellonian University and remains of the defensive structure such as the Barbican and St. Florian’s Gate.
If you are not inclined to follow maps, do not worry. You are going to enjoy walking around while discovering the charms of town. Ohh, and you are not going to get lost. Believe me, you are going to hit the Main Square sooner or later.
Enjoy Breakfast at One of the Main Square’s Cafes
Meals in Krakow are affordable. As a result, eating at the Main Square will not break the bank.
While sitting on an open-air terrace, you can enjoy a feast of cold cuts, smoked sausages, fresh fruits, hard boiled eggs, cheeses, pastries and different types of bread. Scrambled eggs or omelets are popular too.
I had the pleasure of having smoked salmon and trout. They were delicious! I can’t recommend enough setting apart some time to have a taste of the traditional breakfast.
Take a Free Tour
Free tours are available in many European cities. For those who are not familiar with the concept, certain companies offer “pay what you like” tours. They do not charge a fee upfront but you are expected to tip at the end. It is up to you how much you want to tip (I recommend tipping a reasonable amount based on what is suggested).
In Krakow, I took two tours. On one, we were taken around Old Town and on the second, we visited the Jewish Quarter. Both of these were excellent. Learning about the city from an expert on the topic will help you to appreciate even more the place you are visiting. My time in Krakow would not have been the same without the expert knowledge of the guides.
A company called Free Walking Tour offer daily free and paid tours. They have tours in English, Spanish and German.
Explore Wawel Castle
Do you believe in fairy tales? I hope you do because you are going to feel like you are inside one once you visit Wawel Castle.
The castle, as the name implies, is located in Wawel Hill, the place where Krakow was originally settled. It was built under the rule of King Casimir III the Great. For centuries, the castle became the residence of Polish royalty and a national symbol.
The castle is exceptional since it has a representation of most of the European architectural styles. Think about it as a mishap of Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque elements. The result is a conglomerate of lines and colors that seem to come from the mind of a creative genius.
Not only that, there are plant-covered buildings, brick towers, sentry boxes and wonderful views of the Vistula River.
I am going to sound clichély but you should not leave Krakow without visiting this beauty.
Count the Dragons
Remember I told you about Wawel Castle being exceptional? Well, it even has a dragon’s den. Yes, you read that right.
According to folklore, a dragon (his name was Smok) used to live in a cave below Wawel Hill. To keep him happy, locals had to feed him cattle. If not, he threated to eat humans. There are different stories describing who killed him (the king’s sons, a cobbler, etc.) but there seems to be agreement on how he died. Apparently, he was fed a sheep filled with sulfur. The dragon exploded after ingesting water.
For a couple of bucks, you can see the cave where the dragon used to “live.” A sculpture commemorating Smok can be seen outside the caves. What is more, dragons are everywhere in Krakow. Try to keep count of how many you see.
Have a Meal at a Milk Bar
A milk bar is a cafeteria-like establishment selling traditional cuisine at rock bottom prices. They had their beginnings during the Communist era. Hence, get prepared to have a cultural experience like no other.
I visited Bar Mleczny, located close to the Main Square, and had an order of pierogies, two mains plates, two salads and two drinks for less than 10 dollars. The fare was simple but I enjoyed it a lot. I felt like I was at my grandma’s kitchen.
Get a Dose of History at the Jewish Quarter
Kazimierz (Jewish Quarter) was an independent city for many centuries. To understand this, we entered the district by crossing what is left of the wall that used to surround the city.
In the 13th century, Jews were allowed to worship and trade in the area. They lived in peace along with their Polish neighbors until the Nazis relocated its inhabitants to the ghetto (the Krakow Ghetto was NOT located in this quarter).
The history of the area is fascinating and moving. I recommend visiting with a guide (you can take a free tour). The things you hear about this place will keep you thinking for a long time.
Discover the Hipster Side of the Jewish Quarter
The Jewish Quarter is full of incredible history but it has become one of Krakow’s main tourist attractions because of the hipster vibe that is felt in its many corners.
In the quarter you can find trendy restaurants, funky cafes (there is one with a Singer sewing machine at every table), colorful stores, street art, markets (like the one at Plac Nowy) and movie filming locations.
In addition, you can enjoy walks along the river, airy plazas, wine bars and galleries. After experiencing this place, I wish I had more time in Krakow.
Enjoy a Traditional Dinner
The food in Krakow knocked me out of my socks! We had one delicious dish after another.
There are plenty of restaurants serving traditional fare in Old Town. We ate at U Babci Maliny (Raspberry Grandmother), a restaurant that was highly recommended by one of our guides. The place is full of kitsch (old posters of beauty queens, dusty curtains, heavy tablecloths) but the food is full of flavor.
At the moment, I cannot remember the name of the other restaurants we visited but it doesn’t matter since we tried dishes such as bigos, duck in cranberry sauce, crispy potato pancakes cover with a meat stew and roasted veal.
I recommend reading a bit about Polish cuisine before visiting the country. Another food idea is to ask servers for recommendations.
Other Things to Do in Krakow
Here are other things to do in Krakow:
- Cart rides – As you may have seen in my photos, cart rides are available at the Main Square. I did not include the activity on my list of things to do because of previous (bad) experiences (have seen too many abused horses). Seems like the horses in Krakow are well cared for. I am mentioning the option in case you are interested
- Jewish Ghetto – This is a list of fun things to do in Krakow and therefore, it makes no sense to include such a horrible place like this on the list. The Ghetto’s area never prospered after the war. It is like nobody wants to live in a place where so many atrocities happened. You can visit the Heroes Square were empty chairs represent the Jews who died during Nazi occupation.
- Oskar Schindler’s Factory – The place that inspired Steven Spielberg’s movie is located in the same district as the Ghetto.
Day Trips from Krakow
The following places can be visited as day trips from Krakow:
- Auschwitz – the largest concentration camp complex where more than one million people lost their lives
- Wieliczka Salt Mine
- Find more about the city at the Visit Krakow website
- Plan to see more of Poland with the help of the Polish Tourist Organization site
More European Cities
Have you visited Krakow? What fun things to do you recommend?
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