Charming Kraków was the unexpected gem of our trip through Central Europe. Although we spent one full day there, we were immediately taken aback by the city's history and beauty.
Dates: May 20–22, 2016
Time on the Ground: Approx 36 hours
Overall Rating: 5/5
Pizza Rating: 7/8 – Our first night, after a long day of traveling, we grabbed a pizza and some pasta from Invito Pizza. We’re not sure whether it was the exhaustion or it really was that good, but this was some of the best pizza we had on our trip!
Airport Rating: We flew into FRA before driving from Prague to Kraków.
Airplane: Airbus 330-200 (to FRA)
Walkability: 5/5 – Kraków is an extremely walkable city around the Old Town area. There is not a focus on public transportation for tourism, but it is not really required. There is a park surrounding the walls of Old Town and it’s a short 15-minute walk down to Wawel Castle or over to the Jewish Quarter.
Free Walking Tour: 4/5 – We found our walking tour through freewalkingtour.com. Similar to others, it was a great way to get a feel for the city and most of the the tour guides were exceptional.
Lay of the Land
Kraków, also written as Cracow, is the second-largest city in Poland. It is also one of the oldest and most historically maintained cities in the area because of its historical prominence and location during World War II. Kraków is located a little over 5 hours east of Prague by car. Our trip took closer to 6 hours because we went north through Harrachov for a more scenic drive and to avoid some construction traffic that was east of Prague. In Harrachov we stopped at a glass making factory, which you can read more about in our Prague blog! Harrachov is right on the border of Czechia and Poland, and Kraków is due east 4 to 5 hours, depending on traffic.
Driving in Poland was an adventure in itself. There was a lot of construction on the highways, and once we were in the cities, the fun really started. A Polish driver is similar to a New York cabbie, except half as patient and even less concerned with following the rules of the road. In one instance driving in Kraków, Stephen pulled up to make a right at a stop sign and the 4 seconds he took to check it was clear both ways was evidently longer than Polish norm, because the car behind us zoomed around with their horn blaring and turned in front of us. If you plan on driving in Poland, definitely be ready for an interesting and exciting adventure!
Kraków itself was one of the smaller cities we stayed in on our tour of Central Europe, with a population slightly more than half of Prague (around 750,000 within the city). Because of that, the city quickly feels like home, even on a quick trip like ours. The city is also organized in a way makes it easy to understand and get around by foot. The Old Town square is centrally located, and surrounded by a several blocks of streets all contained within the original wall of the city. There is a circular park around the outside of the wall that is beautiful to walk through at night.
Directly south, you will find Wawel Castle, and to the Southeast is the Old Jewish Quarter. Compared to other cities in Poland, Kraków is very well preserved. During World War II, Hitler fell in love with the city’s charm, so instead of attacking the city, he moved in, making Kraków the capital of his newly acquired territory. This safeguarded the historical aspects of the city, especially when compared to other major cities such as Warsaw.
For our stay in Kraków, we booked two nights at the Apartamenty Parkside, which was a beautiful modern apartment seconds from the park surrounding the Old Town. The apartment was a little difficult to find, but our host quickly answered our call and got us checked in. They also have a parking garage you can rent for a small fee, which is a huge plus if you are driving. The apartments are sleekly furnished inside and come with a full kitchen, which would be great for longer stays. The price was a little higher than the other hotels on the trip and in the area, but if you are in the mood to splurge a little, we highly recommend staying here!
We arrived in Kraków late after a day of traveling, so we grabbed some delicious takeaway pizza and fell right to sleep. We had planned an early departure on the 22nd because we were going to visit Auschwitz on our way down to Budapest, leaving us with only one full day to explore Kraków. So, we set out to make the most of it! We managed to fit three different walking tours and a night market into what was probably the most exhausting day of our trip. We were glad we did it though, because we quickly learned that for its size, Kraków has a lot to offer.
Old Town Free Walking Tour
The day started as usual, with a walking tour of the Old Town part of the city. The tour begins near St. Florian’s Gate, one of the original gates built to defend the city back in the 14th century. You can also see the protective wall and remnants of a moat that were also part of the city’s defenses. The tour leads you through the Florian Gate to explore the outer streets of Old Town before stopping in the main square.
Here, we learned more about the city's role in World War II as well as the interesting tradition where a bugler plays a short five-note Polish anthem from the four windows of the tower of St. Mary’s Basilica—one for each cardinal direction. This occurs every hour on the hour, and although its origin is unknown, the earliest documentation of the tradition dates back to the 14th century! The noon trumpeting is broadcast all over Poland every day as well. The song stops eerily short of completion, leaving the audience hanging.
We quickly learned that there is a story behind this as well: According to the legend, a sentry posted in the tower (the highest vantage point in the city) was able to see a Tatar attack coming back in the 13th century. He sounded the alarm and the gates were closed in time, saving the city. He, however, was shot dead by an arrow before he could finish the whole song, thus leaving the tune hanging. The modern day playing of the tune also stops short to honor the memory of this sentry.
From the square the tour proceeds through the south side of the old town to the Wawel Castle. Wawel Castle was a beautiful structure, but unlike the Prague Castle, most of the building has been turned into exhibits that you have to pay extra to visit. While our tour guide recommended many of these, she advised you also had to plan ahead because they limit how many tickets are handed out daily to each attraction. By around noon, when our tour was completed, they had already sold out of several of the types of tickets.
On the free tour, you do get a guided walk-through of the grounds and courtyards of the castle as well as a visit to the Wawel Chakra. The Wawel Chakra is supposedly one of several areas around the world where spiritual energy is emitted from the earth. Although it’s hard to say if we really felt anything, we were able to complete three walking tours in one day, so maybe there is something to it….
The tour completes at the top of the castle overlooking the Vistula River, which runs south of the older sections of the city. From there, the tour guide pointed out meeting places of additional tours on the map, good places to find restaurants, and where you could find a fire-breathing dragon! Although the dragon turned out to just be a statue, it was certainly a dramatic way to end the tour.
Jewish Walking Tour
After the tour of Old Town, we took a walking tour focused on the history of Jews in Kraków that was highly recommended by our first tour guide. We made our way east from the castle to the Kazimierz district and found a bite to eat in a less touristy area before finding the meeting place of our second tour. The Kazimierz area is the arts district of modern-day Kraków, filled with interesting and unique shops and restaurants, but it is also the city’s historic Jewish district.
The tour starts in the old section of the Jewish neighborhood, where some of the first Jewish families were relocated to ghettos under Nazi rule outside of Germany. You follow their movement through the tour, from their original homes to the ghetto across the river, eventually ending at a factory that employed up to 1,750 people. (This factory was made famous in the movie Schindler’s List, and you may recognize a few locations from the movie in our pictures.)
The tour involved a lot of walking—we highly recommend comfortable walking shoes as a woman in our tour in clogs was bleeding by the end of the tour. It was an eye-opening experience to see the beginnings of the Holocaust firsthand, especially heading to Auschwitz the next day. The tour guide did a great job of giving perspective of what it must have been like for families to be coerced out of their homes and forced to live together outside of town in the ghettos. Our tour guide was extremely knowledgable, passionate, and sported a cool haircut that inspired Ashley’s haircut the week we got back from our trip!
The tour also includes a stop at a market a the center of the Jewish district, where you could purchase some really unique souvenirs and taste authentic Polish food. (It was delicious!) The market mostly had second-hand goods but included some really cool pieces, including some World War II memorabilia. Ashley walked away with a beautiful silver bracelet from the early 1900s. Overall, we cannot recommend this tour enough. Walking the same streets where Jews were persecuted only two generations ago is an experience that no book or movie can provide.
We rounded out our only full day in Kraków with a third tour and some exploring at a night market in the middle of the town square. The photography tour set out around golden hour (an hour or so before the true sunset) and walked similar streets to the original Old Town tour we took first thing in the morning (again, through the same group). We were expecting to be intrigued by a different perspective of Old Town from someone who knew the best spaces for pictures and interesting architecture.
In reality, the tour guide did not really seem to have a plan, and although it may have been due to the fact that it was our third walking tour in the same day, there was not a ton of added value in the tour from our perspective. While it was interesting to see the city in a different light, the tour itself was not all that valuable and we would probably skip it if we were to do it all again. But we did capture a few excellent pictures.
The night market, on the other hand, is a must-visit! The town square transformed into a lively market with booths hosting all kinds of homemade and imported goods as well as delicious food. There were a variety of things—from touristy souvenirs to handmade ornaments to imported handbags from Italy. The building in the center of the square has most of the touristy items, although several of the vendors had unique items as well. If we had had the energy, we could have easily spent a couple hours wandering through the vendors and sampling the food. However, after about an hour, we decided it was time to call it quits and head to bed before our early departure for Auschwitz.
Overall, we loved Kraków and regretted only budgeting one full day there. (Although, in hindsight, we are not sure where we would have cut from.) The city was small enough that you quickly felt like you knew your way around, but there were still tons to see and do. We loved how vibrant the city felt, both during the day and at night. There were always people walking around and hanging out at restaurants, cafes, and bars.
If we were to do it all again, we would stay longer, and in fact, we plan on making our way back to Kraków at some point in the future. There were several other things we would have liked to see, such as the various salt mines in the nearby areas that gave the region its source of wealth. There are also several museums, including one built under the main square of the Old Town. We definitely recommend a visit to this wonderful city, but be sure to not underestimate what it has to offer!