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, visitors can enjoy its perfectly preserved historic centre today from Gothic to Renaissance, through to Baroque and Art Nouveau.

However, in common with other Polish cities, the human cost of the Nazi occupation 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.

By spending 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.

Here’s a Kraków itinerary to start you on your way. 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. However, if you have 4 days available this is much better.

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 is the best way to explore the old town.

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 Head”, Kraków

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.

Sicilian Choir at the Franciscan Church Kraków
Sicilian Choir at the Franciscan Church, Kraków

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.

 

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Kanoniczka, 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 Free 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.
READ MORE: The Royal Road: A Kraków Walking Tour

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.

casimir-the-great-sculpture-wieliczka-salt-mine
Casimir the Great sculpture: Wieliczka Salt Mine

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 3.50 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 tour costs 64 PLN (£13). For further information, and to book tickets online, check the Wieliczka Salt Mine website.
READ MORE: Visiting the Wieliczka Mine: Is it worth its salt?

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.

Exploring Kazimierz

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.

kazimierz-krakow
Kazimierz, Krakow

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.

Corpus Christi Church, Krakow

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.

Plac-Bohaterow-krakow
Plac Bohaterów, Kraków

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’.

Tadeusz-Pankiewicz
Tadeusz Pankiewicz

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.

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The Germanisation of Kraków

Practical 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 24 PLN (£5). 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.
  • You may need to go there sooner rather than later. I have had an unconfirmed report that the museum is closing for essential work in June 2019

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. This 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, i 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.

 

Arbeit Macht Frei: Work will set you free - Auschwitz I
Arbeit Macht Frei: Work will set you free – Auschwitz I

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.

The unloading ramp at Auschwitz II - Birkenau
From the unloading ramp at Auschwitz II – Birkenau

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 (£24).
  • 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.
READ MORE: Is Auschwitz Worth Visiting?

Eating out in Kraków

For me, one of the best things about Kraków is that it hasn’t lost 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 (£3) washed down with a glass of craft beer for 5 PLN (£1).

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 (£5) 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 visit Kraków

How to get to Kraków – I flew there from London. 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 ’s central station ( Główny). A one-way ticket will set you back 9 PLN (less than £2) 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  – 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 standard ticket for a single journey is 3.80 PLN (less than £1). Ticket machines are at tram stops.

Where to stay in Kraków– I stayed at the Mercure Stare Misto, a comfortable 4-star chain hotel, conveniently located opposite the train station and 10 minutes’ walk from the Market Square. When I stayed at Christmas 2018, a room cost £60 per night.


Have you visited Kraków? What can you recommend doing during a long weekend there? I’d love it if you could share your thoughts by leaving a comment below. And if you have found this post useful, I’d be very grateful if you could share it on social media or pin it to your board for future reference.


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