Think of the most charming city you’ve ever visited. Then take that image and multiply it tenfold. That is Krakow. This city oozes charm. Every stereotype of what you would consider charming is here in Krakow. If you’ve ever needed a reason to visit, go just to try and prove me wrong.
Krakow escaped relatively unharmed from WWII and thus preserved the character of the city. As such, it is the most visited city in Poland and for good measure. Not only is it an affordable city to visit, the “bang for your buck” factor is through the roof.
Getting here is easy. An express train leaves Warsaw every hour and will get you here in just over 2 hours. The main train station spits you out in the heart of the city and from there, it’s a simple tram ride to most parts of the city. Walking is easy and signs for most of the tourist attractions are clearly marked in Polish and English. This city understands tourists are coming and really makes sure everything is easy to navigate.
Speaking of attractions, there is plenty to do. Wawel Castle is the large structure along the water and you can’t miss it. St. Mary’s Church is the church in the town square with the tall bell tower. Food is varied and everywhere with high tourist restaurants having both English and Polish menus.
Wawel Castle is probably the main attraction of the city and for good reason. Not only is it undeniably beautiful, it’s the first thing you notice when looking around. Getting up to the top is a bit of a walk but once there, the grounds are immaculate and on a sunny day, you can’t find a better place to sit and enjoy some coffee. The grounds are free to walk and even walking into the church (like most churches in Krakow) is free. You can pay for an audio guide as well as gain access to parts of the church that aren’t accessible for free if you like.
Bell tower – Pass on this. In theory you would think you would get amazing views from the top. Unfortunately you only get views from 3 sides and the side that would look out onto the main part of the square isn’t open. I don’t care if it’s free (it isn’t), don’t waste your time or money.
St. Mary’s Church – I’m probably going to get some negative reaction on this one but I honestly wouldn’t spend money to go in. The church is free to enter if you’re there to worship (enter through the main entrance) but if you’re a visitor, there is a side entrance and a fee of 10PLN. If you want to take pictures inside, it’s another 5PLN. Here’s the thing. There are so many amazing churches in Krakow and they’re all free. No joke, amazing churches. St. Mary’s, in my view, just happens to be the one with the best location. Sure it has an amazing altar but now that it’s kept open all the time, I would say save your money, pretend like you’re entering to worship, and see everything from there. The church might look big from the outside but it really isn’t.
Salt mine – about a 30 min train or bus ride outside of city center is the Wieliczka salt mine. If you have the time, I would definitely recommend going. A guide will take you through the mine where you’ll not only learn about the mine but also see all the carvings that were done with the salt. It really is impressive. A couple things to note. First, tours are provided in different languages but they all start at different times. If you’re pressed for time, an English guide begins every half hour and is the most frequent of all the tours. Even if your English isn’t that great, you may want to ask for that tour vs. waiting around for the tour in your native tongue. Also, go early. The mine opens at 7:30 and the first English guide was at 8:30. Here’s the thing. The mines will continue to allow people to enter in intervals throughout the day. However, exiting the mine is done via an elevator that holds 18 (very skinny) people. Thus, if you get caught behind large groups or later in the day when numerous people have gone before, you could easily be stuck in line for over an hour just to get out. I was lucky to be one of the first groups in so I didn’t have to wait but when I asked the guide how long it usually takes to exit, she couldn’t tell me since it depends on the number of people.
Kazimierz – the old Jewish quarter is THE place to be if you’re looking for food and nightlife. Tons of bars and restaurants are located here so this is where you’ll want to be if you’re in the mood. It’s also less crowded than the city center during the day so I felt prices were cheaper overall. From the city center, it’s about a 10 min walk and well worth it for the food alone. Find the market square here to get your fill of zapiekanki and then walk around to work up an appetite for some pierogi.
Aushwitz – Unfortunately I was unable to go. It seemed like earlier this year (2018), a rule was instituted that everyone needs to have a ticket to enter the grounds. Although the tickets are free, they seem to be snapped up by tour guides who are happy to sell you a space one their tour for entry. Sure, they’ll mask it with transportation to/from your hotel but it isn’t too hard to figure out what’s gong on. So, my tip is to make sure you get your free ticket WELL BEFORE you arrive. It seems like you can reserve your ticket up to 3 months in advance. If you can’t, a tour isn’t the end of the world as long as you know book it with some advance notice. I only found out about this until after it was too late.
General observations. On Sunday, everything is closed except for certain restaurants and shops. Basically anything catering to tourists is open but outside of that, it’s closed. If the weather is nice, it’s the perfect day to people watch as everyone is out enjoying the day with their friends and family. That said, I really wouldn’t try to plan any site seeing on Sunday as I’m not entirely sure if it’ll be open. There were plenty of places that were closed but I also wasn’t sure if that had something to do with it being Easter weekend. Also, lines are unbelievably long for food stalls on Sunday because everyone is out and about. Be prepared to wait in line for ice cream if it’s really nice.
Karkow is a huge city for parties. Whether it’s a bachelor party, weekend out with the boys, or a reunion of sorts, you’ll see and hear people partying at all hours of the night. It probably won’t affect most people but you may want to think twice about staying in that super cheap hostel or hotel near the city center if your idea of fun doesn’t involve drinking or boisterous groups.
Overall I can’t think of any other city that surprised me more than Krakow. I went in with no preconceived notions of the city and came out wishing I had more time to explore. The well preserved city is a real treat to experience. The people take pride in their city and welcome tourists with open arms. The combination of an amazing city with a welcoming citizenry is tough to beat.