The Best Things to Do in Kraków

A visit to Kraków inevitably brings highs and lows: few other destinations have must-see attractions that include a charming medieval old town, architecturally stunning castles and churches, a lively bar and café scene, as well as the solemnly preserved sites of World War II concentration camps. From Kraków’s start as a Stone Age settlement up through its golden age during the 15th and 16th centuries, and honored place in the Hanseatic League; through the dark days of the 20th century when it was the site of a ghetto and the nearby Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Płaszów extermination camps, and its emergence as a rising star of European culture, this small city has seen its share of human history.

7 plac Mariacki
St. Mary’s Basilica is Krakow’s most iconic church, occupying a prominent spot in the northeast corner of the main square. The main structure dates back to the 14th century and its two towers are distinctly asymmetrical, with one doubling up as watchtower during the church’s early years. The interior of the church is magnificent throughout, but the highlight is the 15th-century wooden altar carved by German artist Veit Stoss. Entry to the main part of the church is free but it’s worth buying the separate ticket required to see the intricate beauty of the altar up close. On a weekday try to visit just before noon when the wooden doors of the altar are opened.
Kazimierz, 30-001 Kraków, Poland
Founded as a separate city by King Kazimierz the Great in 1335, Kazimierz became home to a growing Jewish population in the late 15th century, as Jews fled persecution in Western Europe and were welcomed by Polish kings. Today, the district is one of the most important centers of the Jewish diaspora in Europe, with as many as seven surviving synagogues to prove it. Every year in early summer, Kazimierz hosts the largest Jewish culture festival in Europe, drawing musicians and visitors from all over the world. The area is worth exploring year-round, however, as it’s also home to a variety of lively cafés, bars, and pubs as well as several trendy stores along Józefa Street.
4 Lipowa
Located in the former administrative building of the famous Oskar Schindler Factory is a branch of Kraków’s Historical Museum, which tells the story of the city under Nazi occupation from 1939 to 1945. The museum ignites imaginations with its set-like displays, packed with realistic details about Kraków’s former residents and their lives during those very difficult years. Throughout the museum, visitors can also hear recorded testimonies of Holocaust survivors—don’t miss the documentary (with English subtitles) in the movie room. Other exhibitions worth seeing include the art installation in Schindler’s former office, and the last display before the exit, called “The Room of Choices.” It takes at least three hours to see the museum properly so be sure to plan accordingly.
30-062 Kraków, Poland
Rynek Główny, the main square of Kraków, is the largest medieval marketplace in Europe. The site of several historical events, it’s now home to the greatest concentration of outdoor cafés and souvenir shops in town, and serves as a stage for concerts, shows, and occasional political rallies. Within the square, visitors will also find several museums (two of which are located in the Cloth Hall in the middle of the square) and two churches (including St. Mary’s Basilica with its famous Weit Stoss altar). Horse-drawn carriages, flower stalls, street musicians, and pigeons all crowd the area, where time is measured by the trumpet call played from St. Mary’s tower every hour.
3 Rynek Główny
During the last decade, Krakow’s market square has been heavily excavated to create what is now one of the city’s most intriguing museums. The subterranean Rynek Underground museum takes you directly under the square to explore Krakow’s history as one of the most important commercial and cultural cities of central Europe. This is a very modern twist on an archaeology museum, with highly interactive exhibits throughout the dimly lit passageways that try to recreate life in Krakow during the Middle Ages. Look out especially for the holograms of medieval characters who hurl insults at visitors in their own language as they appear throughout the maze of excavated tunnels.
1-3 Rynek Główny
The Sukiennice (Cloth Hall) acts as the spectacular centerpiece of the market square and it’s in this covered area that much of the trade in 15th-century Krakow was done. Today it’s a long stretch of shops selling souvenirs to visitors from around the world. It’s a great place to stroll and browse and while there is the usual selection of tacky T-shirts and plastic toys, it’s not hard to look beyond these for a wide variety of handcrafted wooden gifts and skillfully embroidered items. The stalls of the Cloth Hall and nearby Old Town streets are also a popular place to pick up amber jewelry, although those tempted to buy should always obtain a certificate of authenticity before they part with any cash.
Kraków, Poland
Wawel Hill occupies a special place in Polish history—the seat of kings, it served as a symbol of Polish identity even when the country was erased from the map during partitions. Perched on the limestone hill above the Vistula River, the Wawel Castle and Cathedral are filled with treasures, including a unique collection of Flemish tapestries and several other wonderful artworks and artifacts. Visitors can tour the state rooms and royal private apartments (note that there are a limited number of timed tickets available each day, so it’s best to book in advance) as well as the Crown Treasury and Armory, but the can’t-miss attraction is the cathedral, where royal christenings, weddings, coronations, and burials once took place.

If you dare, climb the steep wooden staircase from the cathedral’s sacristy up to Sigismund’s Tower, where the famous Sigismund Bell (commissioned in 1520 by King Sigismund the Old) still tolls on solemn state and church occasions. When you’ve caught your breath, descend to the crypt below the cathedral, where several Polish kings and national heroes are buried. On your way out, exit Wawel Hill via the Dragon’s Den—the rock cave where it’s believed the fire-breathing dragon Smok once lived.
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