Krakow is considered a gem of medieval and Renaissance architecture and a European cultural capital. It's a magical place where legends are mixed with reality and stories from the old times still find relevance in contemporary life. Krakow proves to be Poland's prime tourist attraction.
The Old Town district is located where the medieval city was established in 1257 by Prince Boleslaw V. The well preserved original grid of streets with Europe's largest central square seems to be the last stage in the perfection of city-planning in the Middle Ages. In its long history, Krakow has seen many ups and downs. The proud capital of a mighty kingdom for centuries, it was turned into a sleepy borderland town of the Austrian Empire in the 19th century. Then, at the turn of the century, it became a vital center of Polish national awakening and the cradle of Poland's rebirth, only to be oppressed again under the Nazis, and then under the Communist regimes. Today, Krakow, a city of nearly one million people, has been restored back to its well deserved status as one of Europe's great cities.
Whether it’s legendary castles with their Gothic tops or leafy parks that flit from snow-dusted wonderlands, to people-watching meccas with the seasons, this list of the top 20 attractions in Krakow is sure to have something for every type of traveller.
- Market Square The buzzing, bar-packed, café-spotted heart of the UNESCO-attested Krakow Old Town, the Market Square, is where all the action has played out since the Middle Ages. Come here for people watching, history, beautiful architecture and more.
- St Mary's Basilica The redbrick façade and great twin spires of St Mary’s Basilica have become veritable symbols of the city of Krakow. Looming high over the Market Square, they were first raised in the 14th century, have weathered Mongol invasions, and still host the hourly trumpet call – the Hejnał Mariacki.
- The Sukiennice Hailed as the world’s oldest shopping centre, the Sukiennice has stood in the middle of the Krakow Market Square for centuries. Delve in to flit between the bustling souvenir stalls and their mounds of interesting folk trinkets, or stay outside to wonder at the handsome Renaissance architecture.
- Planty Park The green belt Planty Park rings the whole area of Krakow’s historic Old Town. Pathways weave this way and that past sculptures and babbling fountains, while locals walk their dogs and cafes spill onto the sidewalks. It’s filled with life in the summer and a veritable winter wonderland during the colder months.
- Barbikan The Barbikan is the only remaining gatehouse of the medieval fortifications that once encircled the whole city. It’s redbrick bulwarks and formidable turrets helped to fend off the Mongol hordes during the 13th century. Today there are occasional theatre productions and other art shows hosted inside.
- St. Florian's Gate Looking wonderful in its Polish Gothic shell, St Florian’s Gate marks the start of the so-called Royal Route. Pass through and note the buskers that play everything from highlander folk to Dylan-esque country in the echoing tunnel, before heading into the Old Town in the footsteps of the erstwhile Polish kings.
- Florianska Street Cutting through the very heart of the northern half of the Old Town district, the bustling drag that is Florianska Street hosts everything from craft beer bars to souvenir emporiums to vodka tasting joints. It’s one of the beating nerves of Krakow, and fills to bursting with visitors during the high season.
- Wawel Castle The medley of Gothic, Renaissance, Rococo and Romanesque architecture that is the great Wawel Castle can be seen towering over the whole city. It was once the home of the Polish kings and queens, and still has great museums and court rooms as a testimony to its former glory. There are also top views from the bulwarks!
- Wawel Cathedral Hidden behind the old walls of the Wawel Castle, arguably the most important church in all of Poland can be found looming high with its Baroque and Gothic frontispieces. Attractions are both high and low, going from the soaring lookouts of the Belfry to the national crypts under the main basilica.
- The Dragon's Den After hearing all the enthralling, swashbuckling tales of beasts and princes that surround the founding of Poland’s southern city, be sure to head to the base of the Wawel Hill, where a deep cave is said to have once been the lair of the formidable Smok Wawelski dragon himself! And just to prove it, a statue outside even breathes fire!
- Błonia The great wedge of a green space that is the Błonia meadow sits on the western haunch of the city. It’s not much to look at in the winter, when it comes caked in ice and snow, but summertime brings runners, dog walkers, rollerbladers, cyclists, and even the occasional open-air festival, to the grass.
- Kościuszko Mound Built in the image of the primeval Pagan mounds that surround the city at various points, the soaring hill of Kościuszko was raised in 1823 to honour its namesake national hero Tadeusz Kościuszko. From the top, travelers enjoy sweeping panoramas of the city, while clear days even reveal the Tatra peaks to the south.
- The Jewish Quarter Set within walking distance of the Old Town, the historic Jewish Quarter of Krakow was once a separate city in its own right. Today, it’s totally subsumed into the fabric of the town, but still retains a unique culture and vibe with its crumbling tenement blocks, great synagogues and oodles of cool bohemian beer joints.
- Plac Bohaterów Getta Cut-through by rattling tram lines and fringed with shops and cafes, this central square of Podgorze District is home to one of the most sobering memorials in the city. A series of large and small chairs have been placed in a grid across the cobbles, designed as a memorial to the people of the Jewish Ghetto in Krakow, which once crossed these very streets.
- Market Hall Unitarg Krakow Hit the lively Unitarg on the weekends to experience a bona fide Polish flea market. Ramshackle stalls overladen with everything from Soviet trinkets to band patches, to age-stained metal tankards are what awaits. Haggle for everything, of course, and be sure to get in early for the best deals.
- Vistula Boulevards As the winding courses of the Vistula River snake through the heart of Krakow, its banks host wide spaces of greenery, ad hoc summertime markets, beer bars and bobbing boat cafes aplenty. Perfect for a stroll, people watching, jogging and cycling, these are known as the Vistula Boulevards.
- Cmentarz Rakowicki Packed to bursting with the graves and grand sepulchres of Polish artists, politicians, poets, film actors, generals and more, the sprawling grounds of the Rakowicki Cemetery are like Krakow’s answer to Paris’ Père Lachaise. Head down on All Saints Day on November 1st to see thousands of twinkling candles in honour of the dead.
- Slowacki Chamber, Wieliczka Salt Mines For hundreds of years, the miners of the Wieliczka tunnels fuelled Krakow’s growth, pulling tonnes of valuable rock salt from the earth below the city. Today, their gift to the town continues, albeit in the form of carved artistry in the subterranean passages, and even the breathtaking wonder of St Kinga’s Chapel – an underground cathedral made totally of salt!
- Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial, Museum Dark, emotional, moving, and sobering in the extreme, there’s really nowhere in Europe quite like Auschwitz-Birkenau. It remains one of the top activities to do in Krakow, offering an informative and sensitive insight into the horrors of the Holocaust and the destruction wrought by the Nazis on the Jews and minorities of the continent. The memorial and museum are around an hour from the city centre.
- Ojców National Park The bulbous stone peaks and forest-clad valleys of the Ojców National Park can be found just 20 minutes by car outside of Krakow. Crisscrossed by walking trails and peppered with deep caves, they also boast some beautiful haunted castle ruins and traditional country taverns. It’s a great choice for a day away from the city.