Recently, we took our first trip to Poland and spent four wonderful days in Kraków. I wish we would have stayed at least one more day, because there were a few other things we wanted to do, but just didn’t have the time. However, we did cover a lot and thoroughly enjoyed the time we spent in this beautiful former capital of Poland.
The earliest mention of Kraków in the history books dates back to the 10th century. At that time, it was the capital of Poland, and Wawel Hill (pronounced like “vah-vell”) the seat of the Polish government. Over the next several hundred years, Kraków flourished. The city is very well preserved (and remarkably clean) and was thankfully spared from major destruction during two World Wars. Therefore, many of the majestic Renaissance buildings still stand today. Though the capital was moved to Warsaw in 1596, Kraków remains a city of great importance to all Poles and the historic city center was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978.
There are so many things to see and do in Kraków, but I am going to share the five things that I enjoyed the most and think are absolute musts for anyone who visits this wonderful city (and you definitely should!!).
Wawel Hill (Wzgórze Wawelskie)
Even though the capital of Poland was moved to Warsaw, Wawel – and specifically the Cathedral of Saints Stanisław and Wacław – has remained a spiritual capital for Polish people. The Gothic style cathedral is the final resting place of many members of Polish royalty, national heroes and poets.
Pictures are not allowed inside the cathedral, but it is beautiful. It doesn’t take much time to walk around and enjoy the many chapels and see the tombs. If you wish, you can also attend Mass, and there are services offered every day of the week.
Although we did not, you can also tour Wawel Royal Castle to see the Royal Apartments, the Royal Treasury, the Royal Armory and the Oriental Collection. You can climb the clock tower to see the Zygmunt Bell, which is the largest bell in Poland, or enjoy some beautiful views of the city from the top of the Sandomierz Tower:
There are two other towers (Senatorial Tower and Thieves’ Tower), a Cathedral Museum and an archaeological exhibition called “Lost Wawel”. If you visit all of these, you will easily spend the whole day on Wawel Hill, and if you find that you need a drink or a bite to eat, you have your choice of two cafés – one indoor and one outdoor (shown below). And, of course, there are gift shops!
Even though the day we were there was cloudy and a bit rainy, we spent a while wandering around the grounds and enjoyed the view of the Vistula River:
One thing to note is that Wawel Hill is…well…a hill. Although it’s not a steep climb, you do have a bit of an ascent that may not be easy for the elderly. You can either walk up a very wide cobblestone path or steps (the wide, short kind) on either side. So even if someone is in a wheelchair, Wawel is still accessible with some effort and assistance.
The Church of St. Mary’s (Kościół Mariacki)
Situated right on Rynek Główny (the main market square) is the beautiful Church of St. Mary’s with its two mismatched towers. Construction on the church began in 1355, but wasn’t complete until the early 16th century.
No matter what, if any, religion you identify with, St. Mary’s is a must see. The main draw is the Altar of the Virgin, which is a giant polyptych (which means it has more than three leaves/panels) carved by Veit Stoss between 1477-89. Even though the real wow factor is seeing the polyptych when it’s open, you really should see it being opened to get the full effect. Every day (Monday – Saturday at 11:50 a.m. and on Sundays at 2:00 p.m.), a nun comes in and opens the polyptych in front of a crowd that has been waiting patiently. Try to get there early so you can get a good seat in one of the front pews.
To view the altarpiece, instead of entering the church via the front door, you need to go around the right-hand side of the church to a separate entrance. You will need to buy a ticket to enter, as well as an additional ticket if you wish to take pictures, and the tickets themselves can’t be purchased inside the church, but rather in a different building that is located directly across from the side entrance (it’s really not as confusing as it sounds).Ticket prices are pretty cheap: 10 zloty (about $2.69) for a “normal” ticket, 5 zloty (about $1.34) for seniors and students and 5 zloty to take pictures. You will get a sticker that you have to wear showing that you bought the picture-taking ticket.
Spend some time walking around the church admiring the stained glass windows, stunning blue and gold ceiling, the many side chapels, and the sandstone crucifix, which was also carved by Veit Stoss.
Also, every hour on the hour, a trumpeteer opens a window the top of the taller tower and plays a famous trumpet call called the Hejnał (which is also what the tower is called). The tune is abruptly cut off, honoring the memory of a medieval trumpeter who was shot while sounding the alarm that the city was being attacked. Today’s trumpeter plays the tune four times, each time from a different window to cover all points of the compass. This is such an important remembrance to Poles that the tune is played live on Polish radio every day at noon.
This sprawling market square is one of the largest in Europe, and really seems to be the heart of the city. We were extremely fortunate to stay at a hotel located right on Rynek Główny, the Hotel Wentzl (read my review on the hotel here), so we spent a lot of time there. There was a daily market (mostly antiques, jewelry, paintings, fresh flowers, etc.), tons of cafés, shops, street performers, horse-drawn carriages…the square is constantly teeming with life.
There is just so much to do and see right there on the square, and one of the main attractions is the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice).
On the main floor of this beautiful Renaissance building, you will find both sides lined with stalls filled with pottery, cut glass, ornaments, hand-embroidered table linens, and, lots of amber jewelry and carvings. Amber is very popular in Poland and mostly comes from Gdánsk and the surrounding regions.
If you want to buy amber jewelry, which can be quite pricey, Boruni is a place that is recommended in guidebooks as having high quality, authentic pieces. We bought several items there and they had a great selection of beautiful pieces that all came with certificates of authenticity. On the upper level of the Cloth Hall is the Gallery of Polish Painting. We never made it up there, but did spend a bit of our money on the lower level.
Also on the Rynek is the Gothic style City Hall Tower. Built in the 14th century, this tower is the only part of the former City Hall that still remains. There is branch of the Historical Museum inside of the tower, and a café occupies the lower level (because another one was clearly needed in the area).
Rynek Underground Museum
If your Poland guidebook was printed more than a few years ago, chances are you won’t find any mention of the Rynek Underground Museum. An excavation of the east side of the Rynek began in the summer of 2005 and was originally supposed to be complete after six months. However, uncovering over 1,000 years of history took a bit longer than expected, and the excavation was not completed until 2010.
The underground museum that exists today is well worth a visit. You can buy your tickets online or from a ticket office that is located on the left-side of the Sukiennice (if St. Mary’s is on your right), which is directly opposite the actual entrance for the museum. The museum is open every day of the week, with slightly more limited hours in the winter months. Normal tickets are 19 zloty, senior and student tickets are 16 zloty, and kids under seven are free.
Up to 30 people are admitted every 15 minutes and it takes a couple of hours to walk through the entire exhibition. Audio guides are available in many different languages, and there is an elevator for those who need it.
The museum is a somewhat interactive, multi-media presentation. It is just so fascinating to wander from room to room and see the old streets with grooves worn in by wagon wheels, old coins, jewelry, shoes, tools and even skeletons unearthed from the Middle Ages.
They also have touch screens in several languages that explain what you are looking at in the different areas.
If you are even mildly interested in archeology or history, this museum is not to be missed!
Wandering Around Old Town (Stare Miasto)
Kraków is a very walkable city. When we were there, the weather was perfect almost every day, so we did quite a bit of wandering. You should definitely take a stroll down Ulica Floriańska, which is pedestrian only and filled with restaurants and shops. It begins at the main market square and takes you to the Florian Gate, which is one of the few remnants of Kraków’s medieval fortifications.
If you find that all that walking has made you thirsty, you should stop at the lovely little shop pictured below where you can sample several different types vodka for free (tips appreciated). I’m not sure how many shots they will actually give you…they might just keep ’em coming until you either pass out or are drunk enough to buy a whole lot of bottles.
We tried wheat grass flavored as well as a couple of different lemon flavored vodkas, which were all very good. Then we skedaddled out of there before we wound up face down on the pavement.
Another really fun experience was when we happened upon a little street festival that was taking place in the square behind St. Mary’s. There were stalls set up with kielbasa, soups, pierogi, beer, oscypki cheese (#obsessed), many other things to eat and souvenirs to buy. There was also a group of Polish ladies singing traditional songs (there’s a clip of this on my Instagram, if you’re interested), and we happily spent time enjoying the festivities.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Kraków before we got there. My ancestors are from the area and I wondered if I would feel some sort of innate connection to the city, which I didn’t, but I really liked it a lot. There is so much to do and see, and the city is so clean and easy to navigate. We had some fantastic meals (read about them here) and took day trips to both Auschwitz and the Salt Mine.
All in all, Kraków is a beautiful, affordable city and a very worthy destination. Have you been to Kraków? If so, what did you think? Is there anything different that you would include in your top five? Let me know in the comments below!