Whether you come to Krakow to relax, party or to soak up the history and culture, you certainly won’t be disappointed. The city’s numerous cafés, restaurants, museums, bars and clubs will keep you coming back for more. The downtown area is full of attractions, but if you’re wondering what the best free things to do are, I have few tips for you.
An incredibly beautiful and culturally-rich city that somehow managed to survive WWII, Krakow epitomises the beauty of Central Europe. Polish people are refreshingly humble and polite, there’s no huffing and puffing when you speak English to them, they welcome tourists with warmth and open arms. Their food is hearty and natural and unbelievably cheap – I’m talking three-courses, beers and desserts for less than €5 per person! It makes it very easy to have fun and really indulge in the things that you might normally reserve for special occasions.
So what to see there ?
Rynek Glowny (Main Square) is in the heart of Krakow and is the largest medieval square in Europe. Dating back to the 13th century, the square is approximately 40,000 m² and has been home to commerce and markets. Visit the square in the daytime and in the evening to appreciate all of its beautiful splendor.
Have a breakfast there! For an authentic Polish breakfast, order a plate of kielbasa sausages, sliced ham and creamy soft cheese. Everything in Krakow seems to be sprinkled with dill, providing that classic Eastern/Central European aroma. For something a little bit more hearty, do as I did and order the scrambled egg with kielbasa sausage – also sprinkled with dill, naturally!
There are a few places off the main square offering typical Polish breakfast, but I’d definitely recommend Loza Cafe. It’s owned by a famous Polish celebrity (I think) and decorated so that you feel as if you are on an ’80s cruise liner. It’s a great place to sit and relax and watch the scenes of daily life in Krakow unfold.
Also in Market Square is located Basilica of Santa Maria, where at the stroke of every hour (day and night), a man looks out through each of the basilica’s four towers to play the characteristic sound ,,Hejnal Mariacki’’ in commemoration of the first bugler who spotted the Tartars who were about to attack the city in the thirteenth century. This bugler managed to announce the attack, but was inevitably pierced by an arrow and killed.
Krakow’s famous royal castle of Wawel sits at the top of Wawel hill and is visible from almost everywhere in the city. It is to Krakow as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris: an impressive and truly worthy icon. It’s an easy walk up to the castle, where the dramatic spires and elegant fairy tale windows encourage your mind to disconnect from modern day life. But make sure to keep your eyes peeled for the dragon, which is said to live in a cave at the foot of the hill.
A popular destination for the visitors is Dragon’s Den, where tourists crawl inside the dragon’s cave, which is also called Smocza Jama in Polish. This limestone cave is located in Wawel Hill , and once on the other side of it, will lead to a spectacular structure of the imposing statue of the mythological animal. Bonus: It actually spits fire! Here, you can also discover the legend of the humble shoemaker who, thanks to a clever ploy, managed to kill the dreaded monster and thus save the fate of the city.
Jagiellonian University is the oldest university in Poland and a landmark worth visiting. The University, which was founded in 1364, is where the likes of Nicolaus Copernicus, Karol Wojtyla and Nawojka, the legendary first woman to attend school in the fifteenth century, attended.
Head to Schindler’s Factory, which is now a museum. This personality was made famous by director Steven Spielberg’s movie “Schindler’s List, based on the thousands of Jews saved during World War II. This factory was used for the production of enamelled objects for the army, including pots and lids.
Take a moment to stop and think amidst the 70 metal chairs placed in the Ghetto Heroes Square to symbolize the dark period in which 15,000 Jews were crammed into this corner of the city to be killed, deported or left to die in concentration camps . The lights beneath each chair give the square a charming appeal when visited in the evening.
Enter the Underground Museum of Krakow, which is located just below Market Square, and enjoy their display of interactive installations and archaeological finds, from the discovery of the footsteps of the first urban settlements to artefacts dating back to the medieval times and the building of the square.
Lose yourself in the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, a young and alternative area, where you can find real works of street art around every corner. If you are looking for restaurants , bars and a cheap atmosphere this is also the neighborhood for you to check out.
Take a detour outside of the city centre and visit the district of Nowa Huta. Nowa Huta is located in the esternmost area of Krakow and its name means the New Steel Mill, because it was built for the steelmill workers that inhabited the area in the 1950s. The town’s architectural style was imported from the Soviet Union. When you go, visit Arka Pana church, which was erected in 1977 and historically was a source of conflict between the communist authorities and the Polish workers backed by Karol Wojtyla.
One of the more beautiful details of this Church of St. Francis of Assisi are the stained-glass windows. Visit in the early hours of the afternoon when the light brings out the colors of the stained glass windows, creating an impressive game of lights. The entire church was decorated in the art deco style by artist Stanisław Wyspiański.
Also look for this statue dedicated to Karol Wojtyla, the Polish pope who was born in Wadowice, near Krakow. This statue was erected in the 70s.
Krakow at night can be as entertaining as the sights you’ll see during the day. Visitors wanting to retreat to an evening in a location that is a bit alternative with the qualities of a bar, events locations and a club, visit the Forum. Located in the district of Kazimierz, tourists can enjoy the Forum with great company among the hipsters of Krakow. It´s also open during the day!
Take a ride to the area of Theatre Slowacki. It is reminicsnet of the Paris Opera and at nightm it seems even more stately. This arhictencture represents a symbol of the more flourishing times of Poland, the 1800s.
And what about the activities in the city centre?
Ride like a king through the narrow cobbled streets with a guided horse in a cart. This is exactly the kind of thing I would normally advise against, but in Krakow, it’s so insanely cheap that it’s easy to adopt a new mindset. For about €20, you can take a horse and cart ride through the city streets up to the Wawel Royal Castle. Your guide will talk you through all of the important buildings along the way and it really is a fantastic way to familiarise yourself with the city. Plus you’ll feel like Royalty!
Try the free walking tour. I loved how passionate the Polish people were about preserving their culture, and how willing they were to share the stories of their arduous past. It’s one of those places that you leave feeling like a better, more rounded person. Krakow’s free walking tour starts in the Main Square and tells the heart-wrenching story of how the Jews were forced to move around the city. Following in their footsteps, you learn how they came to establish the Jewish Quarter, which is now the city’s capital of cool, and how they helped shape the city for good. The tour ends on a somber note as you learn how the Jews were carted off to “work at farms outside of the city,” only to end up at the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. If you really want to get under the skin of Krakow, I cannot express how strongly I would recommend this two-hour tour.
Fly over the city in a balloon and experience a beautiful aerial view that will truly be unforgettable. The balloon rises from the opposite bank of the river from Wawel. If you aren’t afraid of heights this is an experience you should try.
If you love Jazz, you’ll love the chance to enjoy a live performance at Piec Art, where every Wednesday night at 20:30, admission is free.
Shop at the local shopping mall Galeria Krakowska with more than 300 stores of all the different kinds inside!
Enjoy the hustle of Plac Nowy. Plac Nowy is the living, beating heart of Kazimierz, brimming with flea markets and antiques bazaars. Fresh produce, sweets and random rubbish are sold here constantly, but the real highlights are definitely the weekend markets. Krakow’s hip and trendy crowd also tend to hang out at the venues located on this square – here you can spend an entire evening hopping between cafés and bars.
Visit the oases of Skałki Twardowskiego and Zakrzowek. Once closed to the public and filled with water, the old Skałki Twardowskiego limestone quarry is now a turquoise oasis that everyone can enjoy. It’s just a short ride from the city centre, and the biking and hiking paths in the surrounding forest make it a great place for a break and some fresh air. It’s also in the vicinity of the Zakrzowek Reservoir. Although you’re unfortunately not allowed to swim here, you can take scuba diving lessons.
Take a relaxing walk through the Wisla boulevards. Sitting on both sides of the Wisła River, the Wisła boulevards are perfect for a stroll, a run and even a picnic. Take a bike, a book or a loved one with you and enjoy the calm atmosphere and scenic views. There are also many events held on the boulevards throughout the year.
Climb Kopiec Kraka for beautiful views of the city. It costs nothing to climb up this ancient mound, and the views of Kazimierz and the Old Town are splendid. Its age and original purpose remain a mystery, though it’s assumed to be the resting place of the legendary Prince Krakus.
Here are a few tips for those, who like to try local and unusual food and drinks:
Drink Vodka at a Proper Polish Wodka Bar. It’s surprisingly difficult to find a vodka bar in Krakow. Eventually, however, I noticed a tiny little wodka bar called, well, Wódka. Inside you will find groups of smiley people and a rather worn out looking barman. Squeeze yourself in and ask him to recommend you a variety of his favourites. He will create a sort of vodka smorgasbord for you, which is a great way to try different flavours – and it’ll warm you up, too! //nope I haven’t tried any, no reason to be boggled
Try Obwarzanek, delicious salted donuts. These lovelies are sold in street carts throughout the city. So, what makes it so special and tasty ? They are covered with salt, poppy seeds and sesame!
Once you devour a “zapiekanka”, a sort of amazing bruschetta the shape of a half baguette, you’ll realize why it is such a loved snack. You won’t have to go too far to try one- they are on sale in Plac Nowy, in the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz. A central kiosk called “Points” will have these delicious sandwiches available.
Give yourself a break during the sights-filled journey by tasting one of the most popular dishes of the Polish tradition, the Pierogi. Resembling the Italian ravioli, it is stuffed with various ingredients and can be served boiled or fried . Enjoy them with a good Polish beer; it is the best option.
Maczanka is a traditional dish from Lesser Poland region: slice of pork loin served on a roll and slathered in a rich gravy. Chef Kamil Bryś has adapted this old recipe to modern times. At his Andrus Food Truck you can get Maczanka in a convenient sandwich form. Chef Bryś serves slow-cooked and extra tender meat in big roll with copious amount of sauce and various toppings. Feel warned: this sandwich is still a messy business.
When you think about eastern European cuisine, stereotypes come to mind: meat and potatoes. Even though Polish cuisine has much more to offer, we still love our potatoes. Kumpir is a nice example of a creative approach to this simple root veggie. Basically, kumpir is a huge baked potato, split in the middle, served with a stuffing of your choosing. The flesh is soft and slightly sweet and the potato has nice and chewy crust. You can order it with just cheese and chives or more elaborate toppings like fried eggs and bacon.
Oscypek cheese is a well-known local delicacy. For some people, the salty and smoky flavor of this firm sheep’s milk cheese is an acquired taste. They usually change their mind after trying grilled oscypek served with cranberries. The combination of flavors (salty, smoky, sweet, sour) and textures is a heaven for taste buds. Look for it in street markets and fairs.
Have I listed enough reasons for you to consider visiting this lovely city? No? Well, I’ve been there quite a few times, so I can continue and continue…well, for a really long time. I decided to add photos from June ’17, because they basically shout “summer”. And because summer is approaching…why would I post photos, though newer, of other seaons?
Have a nice day everyone! 🙂