Krakow, Poland is a special place. First settled during the 7th century, Krakow blossomed during the Middle Ages as both the capital of Poland and a member of the Hanseatic League, a powerful confederation of merchants. Trade made the city prosperous, and the founding of a major university brought science and art into the mix. Perhaps it’s this illustrious history that prompted the Nazis to spare the city during WWII while nearby Warsaw was bombed into oblivion. Krakow’s wealth of medieval structures are a wonder to behold!
While the city is spread over a large geographic area, Krakow’s top attractions are congregated in three main districts: Old Town, Wawel Castle, and Kazimierz. I’ve arranged this Krakow travel guide accordingly to help you maximize your time in each neighborhood. Here you’ll find details on the top points of interest as well as restaurant recommendations and shopping tips. Know of a fabulous place I missed? Tell me about it in the comments!
Stare Miasto (Old Town)
This is the medieval core of Krakow, from which the rest of the city grew. Here you will find sturdy brick buildings surrounded by brightly painted homes and a bevy of churches.
Krakow’s Old Town Square is centered around the Cloth Hall, a magnificent covered market dating to the 1300s. Although many commodities were traded here, the market specialized in fabric, hence its name. Once bustling with Hanseatic merchants and overflowing with exotic merchandise, the Cloth Hall of today is purely for tourists.
St Mary’s Basilica was first erected in the 13th century, though its appearance has changed much over the years. The basilica’s most noticeable feature is its mismatched spires, one of which you can climb for spectacular views of the city. (Go up in the morning for the prettiest skies. I went up late afternoon and was looking directly at the sun.) Even if you don’t plan to ascend the tower, the church’s vaulted, star-covered ceiling is still worth a look.
Prestigious Jagiellonian University was founded by King Kasimir the Great in 1364, making it one of the oldest in universities in Europe. Three courses of study were available: medicine, law, and “liberal arts” such as astronomy. Famous astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus studied here during the 15th century. Pope John Paul II was also a student for a short time before WWII. The historic campus has been preserved as the Jagiellonian University Museum and can be visited on guided tours.
A cozy dumpling restaurant, Pierogarnia Krakowiacy, can be found one block over from the University Museum and is a great option for lunch. I enjoyed a hearty plate of classic pierogi (potato, cheese, and onion), along with a cup of warm beet soup and a bottle of cider for around US$8.
Restaurant Miod Malina – Polish for Honey Raspberry – is as charming as its name. The restaurant occupies the ground floor of a mansion situated along what was once the Royal Route leading to Wawel Castle. It is decorated with beautifully painted ceilings in warm earthy tones that are complemented by crisp white linens and china. The menu features Polish classics like pierogi, potato pancakes, and stuffed cabbage rolls, as well as an odd assortment of Italian dishes. I was most excited to try zurek, a traditional soup made with fermented rye, sausages, and egg. Miod Malina’s version came in a raspberry-shaped bread bowl and was delightfully tangy.
For a modern take on Polish cuisine, head to Pod Nosem Restaurant. Award-winning head chef Przemyslaw Bilski creates seasonal menus that showcase the best products from the region. Featured dishes at the time of my spring visit included delicate venison dumplings in mushroom sauce and beef tenderloin with whipped potatoes and asparagus. I also savored a slice of light-as-air Polish cheesecake made with farmer’s cheese. Pod Nosem is located at the southern end of Old Town near the base of Castle Hill.
Technically part of Old Town, Wawel Castle is perched high on a hill encircled by thick walls. As in Prague, the “castle” is a collection of palaces and churches from different periods of Krakow’s history. Each attraction requires its own entrance ticket; no combination tickets are offered. I found this frustrating as the tickets are timed and it was tough to gauge how many I would be able to fit into one day. Plus, many slots were already sold out by the time I arrived.
Wawel Royal Castle was the imposing abode of Poland’s kings. Now a museum, the Royal Residence wraps around a central courtyard and is dizzying in its size. Two levels of arcaded galleries are topped with a two-story balcony with a Renaissance-style frieze. Dragon-headed gargoyles seem to fly off the roof. My biggest regret is that I did not go inside to see the vast collection of royal furnishings and ceramics. But each floor requires its own timed ticket and the royal apartments can only be toured with a guide.
Wawel Cathedral is considered Poland’s most important structure, but I was a bit underwhelmed to be honest. The interior isn’t nearly as impressive as that of St Mary’s Basilica and was so crowded with Italian tour groups I could barely move. While entrance to the cathedral is free, tickets are needed to visit the chapels, bell tower, and crypt. To climb the bell tower, one must squeeze through narrow wooden flues and the view from the top is just okay. I was pushed through the crypt in a single file line that greatly detracted from the experience. Unless you have a keen interest in religion or Polish history, you might consider skipping the cathedral in favor of the Royal Residence and Cathedral Museum.
All the treasures from Wawel Cathedral can be found inside the John Paul II Cathedral Museum. The beloved pope opened the museum in 1978 when he was Archbishop of Krakow. In addition to Pope John Paul II’s personal memorabilia, the collection includes gifts given to the cathedral by Poland’s royal family, foreign heads of state, and the religious community. I was awestruck by the amount of silver on display!
Krakow’s former Jewish neighborhood is tucked between Wawel Castle and the Wisla River. Once considered a separate town, Kasimierz was founded by King Kasimir the Great in the 14th century. Jews began moving to the area about a century later. By the 1930s, Krakow boasted over 100 synagogues and a Jewish population that was over 60,000 strong. Then the Nazis came to town and destroyed everything they touched. The neighborhood was largely forgotten until Stephen Spielberg shined a light on it with his famous film, Schindler’s List. Today, Kasimierz is once again rich with Jewish restaurants, shops, synagogues, and museums.
The fortress-like Old Synagogue was built at the end of the 15th century and is the oldest Jewish house of worship in Poland. Now a branch of the Krakow City History Museum, the Old Synagogue provides an informative introduction to Judaism and its significance within Polish culture.
The restored Remuh Synagogue dates to the mid-16th century and has resumed religious services for the neighborhood’s growing Jewish population. The adjacent cemetery served as a burial site for the community for nearly 300 years until a larger one was opened nearby. Completely desecrated by the Nazis, the tombstones in Remuh Cemetery have been righted and restored as much as possible.
The small-but-powerful Galicia Jewish Museum focuses on the lost Jewish heritage of Galicia, an erstwhile kingdom now split between modern-day Poland and Ukraine. The museum’s permanent exhibit, Traces of Memory, features photographs from the region and honors the Jews who once lived there.
In a neighborhood bursting with dining options, Miodova Restaurant is a true gem. The dishes served here are modern interpretations of classic recipes that were unearthed in a Polish cookbook from 1897. Many come in small copper pots and include an eclectic mix of ethnic flavors. Winners include potato dumplings with beef brisket and pickles in a light cream sauce, and a stack of rye blinis layered with beef shank, sour cream, and apricot preserves. A shot of flavored vodka makes the perfect digestif.
Those with a penchant for street food should queue up at Kielbaski z Niebieskiej Nyski, the famous Krakow sausage van. Every night except Sunday you can find the dark blue Soviet-era van near the railroad tracks at the northern edge Kasimierz. The owners fire up their grill right on the sidewalk and a line of hungry customers forms almost immediately. The smokey kielbasa are served simply with a roll and dollop of mustard and are shared standing up around nearby tables. The experience is definitely worth seeking out.
Polish pottery makes a wonderful souvenir of your trip. The highest quality comes from Boleslawiec, a small town in the Silesia region, and can be found all over Krakow. I bought mine from Ceramika Boleslawiecka, a shop on Starowislna street between Kasimierz and Wawel Castle. Boleslawiec pottery can be identified by its folksy blue-and-white designs. But if you really want to ensure the pieces you are buying are authentic Boleslawiec, flip them over and look for the stamp on the bottom.