Krakow Sightseeing

Things to do in Krakow

I have been lucky enough to call Krakow my home since 2001, and whilst I cannot think of many better European cities to live in, I am also constantly recommending it to friends and family just looking for a great place for a short break. Needless to say, a lot of emails I have written to friends prior to their visits have contained some tips of varying usefulness, which I thought I would bring here together in one place. I trust this will not only save me a bit of time in the future when more friends and family ask for tips about Krakow, but will also provide useful information for others. If course, if you’d like to get more detail about any of these suggestions below, please feel free to contact me (details at the bottom of the page) and I’ll do my very best to answer. Enjoy Krakow!

Mark Bradshaw


#1 / The Salt Mines

A wonder of the underworld
Wieliczka Salt Mine

A visit to the Salt Mines in Wieliczka provides a remarkable insight into source of much of Krakow’s wealth through the centuries, as well as a chance to see a true marvel of engineering. Salt had enormous value as a trading commodity, and Krakow was famous throughout this part of Europe for its abundance of quality rock salt, mined for hundreds of years in a labyrinth of tunnels and caves that stretch for almost 300 kilometres under the Polish countryside. A visit to the salt mines (in the nearby town of Wieliczka) involves a very long walk down a flight of stairs, followed by a zigzag tour through this network of tunnels in the company of a guide. The highlight for most is almost certainly the Chapel of St. Kinga, an unexpected and large underground church hewn from the solid salt. Everything is made of salt, from the altar to the candelabra, as well as the cave itself. Able to fit up to 400 people, the Chapel is also a show-stopper location for marriages and major events.

At the end of your trip, you can look forward to being crammed like sardines into the cage of a miner’s lift that will save you walking a few hundred steps to the surface. This experience alone is worth the visit! And one more thing - depending on what time of year you visit, with underground temperatures year round barely fluctuating more than a degree either way from a cool 15 degrees Celsius, a trip to the salt mines may also offer either a respite from the heat of a continental summer day or a welcome break from the bitter cold of the Polish winter.

Salt Mine Tour booking

#2 / Auschwitz Tour

A profound Experience
Auschwitz

Although Krakow draws natural comparisons to Vienna or Prague, Krakow can never feel quite like one of Europe's other beautiful, historical cities, because only Krakow lies in the nearby shadow of one of the most fearsome sites of the Holocaust - the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Just over an hour away by bus or train, nothing can properly prepare the visitor for the impact of coming face-to-face with the camp that claimed the lives of over 1.1 million people in the confines of its hideous barbed-wire fences.

A trip to Auschwitz is not something I ‘recommend’ as one would some sort of attraction. For many visitors to Krakow, it is simply something that they feel drawn to do, and indeed their obligation. Certainly no-one who does visit will return unaffected by the overwhelming sense of loss and sadness, but few will regret the choice to make the journey.

There are several ways to get to Auschwitz from Krakow (a journey of about 75 km) - by train, public bus or on a private tour. The former options are the cheapest, naturally, and for some provide the best sense of personal journey. But if your time is limited, your best option is with a private Auschwitz Tour. A driver will pick you up directly from your accommodation, take you to Auschwitz and the nearby (and more horrifying) Birkenau. A guided tour of the camps themselves is included (visitors are not allowed to wander around on their own). An overwhelming experience that nothing said or told in advance can prepare you for.

More Auschwitz Tour info

#3 / Eataway

Share a meal with local cooks
Eataway Krakow local meal
A shameless plug for my wife Marta’s amazing home cooking, as well as that of countless cooks around Krakow who have opened their homes to host delicious home-cooked meals. Described as “Airbnb for food”, Eataway is a recently-launched sharing economy project that allows you to invite yourself to supper at a local’s home, where you will meet new people and enjoy a home-cooked meal. Marta cooks Polish food, naturally, but there are all sorts of cuisines to choose from (including Korean, Bangladeshi, Indian and Italian), all cooked by people from those countries who have now made Krakow their home.

Eataway brings people together over shared meals. It is a great opportunity to meet fellow travellers and locals, and also a chance to see how local families live and ask for tips about your stay. I would therefore recommend it as something to do towards the beginning of your stay. With several dozen cooks active in Krakow, you should quite easily find something that suits your taste and is also quite close to your accommodation.

Booking can be made directly on the website at Eataway.com - just choose the city, select your meal and number of guests and away you go! After booking, you will receive a confirmation note with the exact address of your host, as well as their direct phone number. Then just turn up and enjoy your meal!

More info about Eataway

#4 / Communism Tour

Cold War Memories
Communism Tour Krakow

Take an old Trabant (the Eastern Bloc’s ‘People’s car’), throw a couple of travellers in the back and a crazy guide in the driving seat, and you have the recipe for a entertaining trip to Nowa Huta, Krakow’s satellite industrial city - an Orwellian town with one of the largest steel factories in Europe. An epic example of Soviet central planning, Nowa Huta (“The New Steelworks”) was created in the period after the Second World War in an attempt to show the world that such practices could create a thriving economy, and also to try to dilute the troublesome ’intelligentsia’ of Krakow (a university town) with a large influx of worker families. Neither really worked. For one thing, Nowa Huta’s location was not ideal as a steelworks, as none of the raw materials required for iron smelting are found close to Krakow, and everything had to be sent enormous distances by railroad. A large number of workers did indeed enter both Nowa Huta and Krakow itself, but the latter never lost its rebellious intellectual edge, and was the hub of much anti-communist activity in the period that eventually led to the overthrow of the Soviet shackles.

A tour around Nowa Huta reveals amazing stories of streets and buildings designed to prevent potential attacks from the West, of propaganda stories about heroic bricklayers, and true stories about how Nowa Huta was the location of the world’s very first pre-fabricated concrete apartment blocks, the need for the rapid deployment of housing inspiring an architectural practice which continues to this day.

As the Soviet system started to crumble, and the economic realities of Communism began its collapse, Nowa Huta itself never reached the proportions and size that had been planned for it. It remains an epitaph to a failed system, but with its Ronald Reagan Square and architectural curiosities, it is well worth paying the time to visit. Tours can be arranged, or you can just take a tram (about 45 minutes) and wander around yourself. If choosing to do the latter, do read up in advance or take a guide book with you to make the best use of your time, as the most interesting aspects of the town are not necessarily immediately apparent.

Book Communism Tour

#5 / Jewish Krakow

A community destroyed and reborn
Kazimierz Krakow
In the public imagination at least, Krakow’s association with the Jewish community is now almost completely dominated by the horrors that took place in the nearby concentration camp of Auschwitz during the Second World War. What is less well known, is that prior to those 6 years of terror, Krakow had been the peaceful home to a large Jewish population for over 700 years, its Kazimierz district the home to a very large and active community.

The impact that the Nazi occupation had on Krakow is well documented in Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece “Schindler’s List”, which was filmed in and around Krakow in the 1990’s, and the story of Oskar Schindler and his factory can be followed in the outstanding Schindler Museum which is located on the site of the factory itself (well worth visiting and also right next to Krakow’s Museum of Contemporary art, MOCAK). The whole story of Jewish Kazimierz is well explained in a number of guided tours readily available to book. These tell the story of Krakow’s vibrant Jewish community Kazimierz prior to the War, then how that community was forced into a ghetto south of the river, before being sent to Auschwitz to meet an inhuman fate. The final chapter of this story starts with the recent re-emergence of an active Jewish community in Krakow, centred around the Jewish Community Centre which was opened in 2008 and which supports the tiny surviving community in Kazimierz. Its an inspiring story of rebirth after unspeakable horror, and well worth your time.

Further Tour info

#6 / Zakopane & The Tatra Mountains

Magnificent Mountains
Zakopane
Poles do like to claim that their country is a smorgasbord of seaside, lakes and mountains, but the reality is that, unlike the first 2, the latter (the Tatra mountains) is crammed onto a fairly small strip on the border with Slovakia. Don’t even mention to Poles the fact that the vast majority of this impressive range lies in that neighbouring country! Thankfully, if you are visiting Krakow, it is the one Polish city that is genuinely within reach of the mountains, and easily accessible by bus, train or car. Any trip to the Tatra is bound to start at the town of Zakopane, which is about 100 kilometres from Krakow. The roads between the towns have benefitted in recent years from huge improvements (thanks to EU grants), but so too has the amount of traffic, and whilst the journey can typically take an hour and a half, at weekends and public holidays the road can be almost gridlocked.

Zakopane itself, whilst in the minds of most Poles is a beautiful mountain town, in reality has become a bit of a tourist trap. There are some wonderful old wooden houses, but sadly a lack of town planning has left most of them surrounded by less attractive modern buildings, and the whole town is rather awash with ugly advertising hoardings. That said, the scenery itself is stunning, and there are wonderful walks (both short and long) available nearby.

The biggest attraction naturally is ski-ing holidays in the winter, but there are also day tours to Zakopane available from Krakow, which can give you a good overview of the district and its history if your time is more limited.

More Zakopane tour info

#7 / City Walks

Cracow at walking pace
Krakow city walk
One of the real attractions of Krakow is that so much of interest can be discovered in a small area of the Old Town, centred around Krakow’s impressive Market Square. This makes Krakow ideal for just walking around. Apart, naturally, from the myriad of churches and museums that you would expect to find in this beautiful medieval town, there are endless cafes and restaurants to recharge when you need a break. I always recommend spending at least half a day just getting lost in the Old Town. A map is helpful, but it is almost impossible to get lost. The Old town itself is ringed by a wonderful garden (the Planty) which marks the boundary of the old city walls. As long as you stay within the gardens you will never be more than 10 minutes walk from the Market Square.

Highlights of the Old Town include the Mariacki Church (two towers of differing heights have their own unique story, and one of them contains a trumpeter who plays on the hour, every hour, come rain or shine!), the Barbican and Florianska Gate (one of the few sections of the old town defences that remain intact), and of course Wawel Castle (home of the Polish Kings of old, when Krakow was the capital city). All of these can be discovered on your own, though there are also options to join free walking tours (tips for the guides gratefully accepted but not required), or you can join a number of paid tours either as part of a group or individual. All are good options, and the standard of guiding in the city as a general rule is very high. The only option that is perhaps less easy to recommend is a journey in a golf cart (you’ll see them everywhere and no doubt be pestered to jump in), where most of the guiding is simply done by audio tape. The price for these tours is generally quite high, and I would recommend forgetting this option and either just walking around yourself or paying to join a proper tour and getting the benefit of a professional guide who can actually answer your questions and bring your trip to life.

Book walking tour

#8 / Schindler's List

The real places behind the film
Schindler's List Krakow
Oskar Schindler was a German businessman who saved the lives of more than a thousand Jewish refugees in Krakow, by employing them in his enamelware factory. His story inspired the Steven Spielberg film “Schindler’s List”, which in turn is based on the prize-winning historical fiction novel “Schindler’s Ark”. The majority of the film was shot on location in and around Krakow in the 1990’s and the film itself came out in 1994. The film has now inspired a tour exploring some of the sights both of the factory and of the film locations.

The Schindler Factory is now a museum housing a memorable exhibition (I suggest allowing at least 3 hours to do it justice), and whilst you can simply visit the museum on your own, if you opt for a guided Schindler’s List tour, you will also get to visit his apartment near Wawel Castle, as well as the dilapidated house on the outskirts of the Plaszow Concentration Camp where Commandant Amon Goeth lived. Plaszow itself contains the remains of the Jewish ghetto, including fragments of the ghetto wall

Schindler's List tour reservations

#9 / Bike Tour

Two wheel heaven
Bike tour Krakow
An old campaigner for cycle tracks in Krakow has an amusing (and true) story to tell about the sorry state of two-wheeled transport in the city 20 years ago. Biking around town one wintry day, he spotted some bike tracks in the snow. So few were the number of cyclists in those days that he knew everyone's bike tracks by sight - but this was a new one! Puzzled by these tracks, he snaked after them through the city, until he eventually stumbled upon a recently arrived student from Cuba who was equally mystified why he was apparently the only person in Krakow on a bike!

Needless to say, things have changed a great deal since then. Cycling has now become so popular that the city's cycling infrastructure is being rapidly developed. Most of these improvements are outside the historic Old Town, and include quite a few longer distance routes allowing you to get out of the city quickly and safely on two wheels. You can hire a bike from a number of companies and do your own thing, or join a dedicated bike tour and take advantage of a great way to see the city in the company of a guide. Our favourite (which lasts about 4 or 5 hours), takes in most of the major sights in the city at a leisurely pace, but there is also an option for a countryside tour which winds along the riverside to Tyniec Abbey and back, also highly recommended for the warmer months (May to September).

Bike Tour bookings

#10 / Krakow Valley Tour

Where the locals go for R&R
Krakow Valley
A little bit different, and not really included in most of the tourist recommendations, is the Ojców National Park just a few kilometres north of Krakow. The park is centred around a long and winding valley where a river has cut its path deep into the limestone landscape. Poland’s smallest National Park, Ojców is nevertheless ideal for a few hours’ stroll through both the countryside and the beautifully preserved village of Ojców itself (think picture-perfect wooden buildings).

The valley itself is a Tolkien-like landscape of stunning white rock formations jutting out from forested slopes, with scenic spots poetically named such as Eagles Nest, Cudgel of Hercules or The Gates of Krakow. The whole area is pockmarked with caves and castles in various states of disrepair. It is possible to simply take a bus to Ojców and explore on foot or bike from there, but if time is limited, The organised Krakow Valley Tour takes in all these sights, then finishes off with the obligatory beer and, weather permitting, barbecued Polish sausage!

More info