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Updated post: 31/08/20 | August 2020
Kraków had been on my travel radar for some time.
The capital of Poland until 1596, it was also the capital of the General Government during the German occupation. As it was not in the Nazis’ interests to destroy the city’s infrastructure, unlike many Polish cities, Kraków made it through World War II (WWII) with barely a scratch.
As a result, today you can enjoy its perfectly preserved historic centre from Gothic to Renaissance, through to Baroque and Art Nouveau.
And, better still, Krakow is one of the best solo travel destinations in Europe and is a great city to visit over Christmas.
Why you should visit Kraków at Christmas
Krakow is a great city at any time of year, but Christmas in Kraków is something special.
The city looks super festive, especially with Kraków’s Christmas market. If you are lucky, like I was, there will even by a gentle dusting of snow.
From a practical perspective, Kraków is open for business at Christmas. Public transport operates and there are enough restaurants open to ensure that you don’t go hungry. Even the free walking tours operate on Christmas Day itself.
As with many countries in Europe, Poland’s main festive celebrations take place on Christmas Eve. But, that said, I found somewhere to eat on the 24th December.
How many days in Kraków?
If you spend 4 days in Kraków, you will be able to explore the charms of the old town with its squares, its churches and its castle. But it will also give you time to visit the important places associated with WWII, remembering and honouring those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
Below is a 4-day Kraków itinerary to help you make the most of your time there.
However, if you are short on time you could compress this into 3 days; for example, tour operators offer a combined (long) day trip to Auschwitz and the Wieliczka Mine. Alternative, you could remove the Wieliczka Salt Mine from this Kraków itinerary.
Day 1 – Explore the Kraków’s old town and Wawel Castle
As many of Kraków’s landmarks are close together and much of the old city is pedestrianised, a walking tour of Krakow’s old town is your best bet.
Starting at St.Florian’s Gate, stroll along Floriańska Street to the Market Square, home to the Kraków’s Christmas market.
Dominating this square is St. Mary’s Church, the city’s geographic and spiritual beating heart. Arrive there at the top of the hour, and you will hear a bugle call (hejnal) sound from the taller of its two towers.
Across the Market Square from St. Mary’s Church is the Cloth Hall, Kraków’s temple to commercialism since 1257.
Exiting the other side of the Cloth Hall, adjacent to the remnants of the old town hall is Eros Bound, Igor Mitoraj’s sculpture of a disembodied head. Although controversial, this has become a popular Kraków landmark.
The next stop is the Collegium Maius (Jagiellońska 15), the oldest college of Poland’s oldest university. Don’t miss the show put on by the courtyard clock at 11 am, 1 pm and 3 pm (plus 9 am and 5 pm in the summer months).
Lovers of Art Nouveau should not miss the nearby Franciscan Church (pl. Wszystkich Świętych).
Upon entering the church, turn around and look up at the window above the main door. The stained glass masterpiece by Stansilaw Wyspicński – Let It Be – depicts God emerging from the sinuous, elemental cosmos.
This Kraków walking tour is now nearing its final destination.
Head along Grodzka and at the magnificent baroque church of St Peter and Paul, walk across Mary Magdalen Square and turn left down Kanonicza. Taking its name from the canons who lived there from the 14th Century onwards, this is one of the oldest streets in Kraków.
At the end of Kanoniczka is Wawel Hill, home to Kraków Cathedral and the Royal Castle.
Kraków was the capital of Poland from 1038 until 1596 and Wawel Castle served as the royal residence and seat of power. And don’t leave here without saying ‘hello’ to the fire-breathing dragon standing guard at the foot of Wawel Hill. According to local legend, Kraków was founded on his defeat, and his lair was in a cave at the foot of Wawel Hill.
How to explore Kraków’s old town
- I explored the old town on a guided tour with Walkative! I used this as a framework, returning to take a closer look at places pointed out by the guide later that day.
- This old town free tour was excellent. It runs three times a day, even on Christmas Day when I did it! As the name suggests it is free but tips are appreciated.
Day 2 – Visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Wieliczka Salt Mine, 12 km south-east of Kraków, is an easy day trip from the city. Over 700 years old, just 1% of the mine’s 300 km labyrinthine network of tunnels is open to those taking a guided tour.
Descending 47 flights of stairs to the first chamber, ‘The Bono’, at 64 meters below the surface, the tour takes you from chamber to chamber, through narrow corridors hewn into the mine’s salt base.
Learn about how salt played a major role in the fortunes of the Kingdom of Poland, and particularly in those of Casimir the Great (1310 – 1370).
Are you searching for an unusual wedding location? Then, why not get married at St Kinga’s Chapel? This is the most spectacular of the chapels dotted around the Wieliczka Mine and, at just over 100 meters below ground, it really will prove How Deep Is Your Love.
To be frank, if time is short, I would dump the Wieliczka Salt Mine from a Kraków itinerary. It’s expensive by Polish standards and feels like a bit of a tourist trap; you would be better off exploring the city’s other, more cultural, activities.
But having said that, it’s not often that you are given the opportunity to visit a Disneyfied mine complete with chapels made from salt. Embrace the kitsch!
How to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine
- Whilst all of the main tour operators in Kraków offer a half-day tour of the Wieliczka Mine, it is very easy to get there under your own steam. Catch a train from Kraków Glówny (the central station) to the end of the line at Wieliczka Rynek Kopalnia. The salt mine is a five-minute walk from the train station; the route is clearly signposted.
- This 30-minute journey through Kraków’s suburbs costs 4 PLN (less than £1). You can buy your train ticket from the machines at the station or from the conductor on board. Check the train timetable here.
- The standard tour costs 100 PLN (£20). For further information, and to book tickets online, check the Wieliczka Salt Mine website.
Day 3 – Explore Kraków’s Jewish history
Your third day in Kraków is one of two halves. Spend the morning exploring Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter, and the afternoon in Podgorze, the site of the ghetto and Schindler’s Factory.
In common with other Polish cities, the human cost of the Nazi occupation in Kraków was immense.
In 1941, the city’s Jews were forcibly moved from the Kazimierz across the Vistula River to a ghetto created in Podgorze. Immortalised in Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, the Nazis subsequently emptied the Kraków Ghetto in three waves, including deportation to Auschwitz.
Kazimierz was founded in 1335 by Casimir the Great (remember him from the day before?) as a separate city, only becoming a district of Kraków in the 19th Century. Boasting its own town hall, defence walls and large churches, Kazimierz rivalled Kraków in position and wealth.
The history of Kazimierz is closely entwined with that of Kraków’s, and Poland’s, Jewish population.
Although Jewish merchants started to arrive in Poland as early as 966, the first extensive emigration was at the time of The Crusades in the 11th Century. The tsunami of religious zealotism and intolerance sweeping across Western Europe meant that non-Christians were forced to pack their bags and seek a new home.
This mass immigration was a good deal for both the Jewish and the Polish people. In exchange for safe haven, Poland could take advantage of the Jews’ not inconsiderable knowledge.
However, it was King Jan Olbracht (1459 – 1501) who was responsible for Kazimierz’s distinctive nature. In the wake of anti-Semitic protests in the late 15th Century, he moved the Jewish population here under his protection and Kazimierz became an important centre of Jewish culture.
Kazimierz’s sacred architecture bears silent witness to centuries of peaceful co-existence between Christians and Jews.
To the west is Kazimierz’s Christian section, centred on Plac Wolnica, the site of a popular Sunday flea market and also a filming location for Schindler’s List. A visit the nearby Corpus Christi Church is worth it for its extraordinary 15th Century altar.
In the east, you have the Jewish half, centred around Szeroka which boasts the oldest preserved synagogue in Poland.
The aptly named Old Synagogue dates from the 15th Century with some remodelling done in the 16th and 18th Century. It now houses the Galicia Jewish Museum, chronicling the history and culture of Kraków’s Jews.
This harmony between the two faiths changed with the arrival of World War II. Prior to 1939, there were an estimated 60,000 Jews living in Kraków. After the Germans occupied the city, Kraków was ‘ethnically cleansed’ and those Jews who chose to remain in the city – or were unable to leave – were forcibly relocated across the river to Podgorze.
Today, officially there are just 840 Jewish people living in Kraków, 100 of whom are Orthodox Jews.
Visiting Podgorze, the Eagle Pharmacy and Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory
Traces of the former Jewish ghetto in Podgorze are still visible today. Cross the Bernatek footbridge, linking Kazimierz with Podgorze, and keep going until you reach Plac Bohaterów, the heart of the Kraków Ghetto. Today, a memorial comprising evenly-spaced wooden chair fills this square, symbolising the furniture destroyed by the Nazis during the liquidation of the ghetto.
At No. 18 is the Eagle Pharmacy.
Tadeusz Pankiewicz, the Polish owner of Apteka Pod Orłem as it was then known, and his staff were the only non-Jews living and working in the ghetto during the occupation. Pankiewicz and his staff risked their lives to help the ghetto’s inhabitants, acquiring food and falsifying documents.
Along with Oskar Schindler, the pharmacist is now today as one of the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’.
Today, the Eagle Pharmacy has been restored and is an interactive museum charting the lives of those in the Kraków Ghetto. It is well worth spending at least an hour there. It’s not often that a pharmacist is cast as a hero!
Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory is a ten-minute walk from the Eagle Pharmacy.
Since the release of Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List in 1993, the story of Oskar Schindler has become well know. Along with his wife, Emilie, this German industrialist risked his life to save more than 1,200 Jews from the gas chambers by employing them in his factories.
Today, the site of his former factory is a thoroughly absorbing museum chronicling life in Kraków under the Nazi Occupation, through a series of documents from the archives, photos, artefacts and multimedia. MOCAK, Kraków’s contemporary art museum, is the adjacent, larger part of the factory.
Tips for visiting Schindler’s Enamel Factory
- The museum is located at 4 Lipowa Street
- Plan on spending at least a couple of hours here, more if you can manage it.
- Entrance fee is 26 PLN (2020 price). Reserve a timed ticket online or take your chances by just showing up.
- Backpacks are not allowed into the museum and you will need to check these in. Bring a smaller back if possible.
How to get to Kazimierz and Podgorze
- You can walk to Kazimierz and Podgorze from the old town. From Wawel Castle to Kazimierz, this will take you 15 minutes. Alternatively, catch tram #3 or #24.
Day 4 – Take a day trip to Auschwitz
Auschwitz, the final destination for many in the Kraków Ghetto, was an important reason for my visit Kraków.
It was, in fact, a collection of camps. Auschwitz I, a former Polish Army barracks, had its first intake of political prisoners in June 1940.
However, Hitler’s murderous ambition had no limits. In 1941, to increase the camp’s capacity from 30,000 to 100,000, the Nazis built Auschwitz II – Birkenau, 3km northwest of Auschwitz I.
Today, Auschwitz I serves as a museum, many of its red-brick barrack buildings housing exhibitions displaying a total of 80,000 artefacts from lives lost during the Holocaust. By contrast, Auschwitz II – Birkenau, twenty times the size of Auschwitz I, is more of a memorial to those who perished.
From the moment you enter Auschwitz I under the twisted iron of the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate, a visit to this former death camp is an unforgettable and profoundly moving experience.
Documentary images of those who perished stare out at you, frozen in at that moment in time. Their collected belongings – pots and pans, suitcases, footwear, combs and brushes, tins of hair pomade – declare their belief that they were moving onto a different life.
Take time to stop and reflect at the unloading ramp at Auschwitz II – Birkenau.
It was here that the cattle-cart rail transport unloaded its human cargo and, with a swift flick of his finger, the SS Commander decided how would live and who would die on that day.
It was here also that dreams started to die. Dreams of a new home. Dreams of a new life. Dreams of meeting children and grandchildren yet to be born.
How to visit Auschwitz
- Allow a full day to visit Auschwitz. As a bare minimum, you will need at least 90 minutes to visit Auschwitz I and a further 60 minutes for Auschwitz II – Birkenau. You can either visit Auschwitz independently or as part of a tour group from Kraków.
- I went with a tour group which, on the whole, was the right decision for me. I went with Cracow Local Tours who were excellent; it cost 119 PLN (2018 price).
- I used Get Your Guide to identify options for day trips to Auschwitz. In my experience, they are reliable, offer a good selection of tours and you can cancel up to 24 hours before your excursion for a full refund.
- The organised trip was convenient and the guide was excellent, providing far more context than I could have gleaned from a guidebook. However, it sometimes felt rushed and it didn’t give much of an opportunity for quiet reflection whilst there.
- Both buses and trains run between and Kraków and Oświęcim. Taking the bus is more convenient as most will drop you by the entrance to Auschwitz-I. A free shuttle bus runs between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau every 30 minutes. Click here to plan your journey to Auschwitz.
- As it’s a little complicated, check the Auschwitz – Birkenau Memorial and Museum website for detailed information on tickets, including how to book.
Where to eat in Kraków
For me, one of the best things about Kraków is that it hasn’t sold its soul to tourism.
This is largely thanks to its large student population, 200,000 at the last count, around a quarter of the city’s population. This keeps things real.
Away from the more tourist-oriented bars and restaurants, you can feast on a meal for 15 PLN washed down with a glass of craft beer for 5 PLN.
Here are a few places that I can recommend:
Pierogarnia Krakowiacy (Szewska 23)
For cheap and delicious pierogi, this wonderfully old-fashioned cafe has deservedly garnered plaudits from foodies.
Take a seat, peruse the small menu and order at the counter. You will be given a ticket and, when your number is called, you collect your tasty dish. It’s as simple as that.
I paid 25 PLN for a plate of Ruskie Pierogi and a beer.
Klimaty Poludniul (Św. Gertrudy 5)
For a more upmarket experience, visit this friendly restaurant on the outskirts of the old town. Delicious food with an Italian emphasis and the best glass of Primitivo I have ever tasted (and I have tasted quite a few).
Cafe Camelot (Świętego Tomasza 17)
This characterful cafe tucked in a side street behind Market Square serves fantastic coffee and food from breakfast through to dinner. I recommend their hot honey vodka!
Cukiernia Cichowsky (Starowiślna 21)
If you are walking between the old town and Kazimierz, stop off here for gloriously sinful cake and coffee.
How to get to Kraków
Getting from Kraków airport to the centre of the city is easy, thanks to a great rail connection.
Frequent trains run from the train station at the airport to its central station ( Główny). A one-way ticket will set you back 12 PLN (as of September 2020) and the 16km journey takes just over 15 minutes.
You can buy your ticket from the machines on the platform or from one of the conductors on board.
There are also rail connection to other major European cities.
How to get around Kraków
Due to its compact size, the old city is walkable.
However, if you need to go further afield or your accommodation is not centrally located, then a tram is your best bet. Kraków’s tram network is modern and efficient. A ticket for a single journey costs from 3.4 PLN, depending on its duration. Ticket machines are at tram stops.
Where to stay in Kraków
There is no shortage of places to stay in Kraków, accommodating all budgets. Here are a few options.