So, you’re heading off to Krakow? Get ready for a whirlwind of Gothic castles, cobbled squares topped by majestic palaces, leafy parks, and, of course, more potent vodka shots than you’ll care to remember (or be able to remember!).
Yep, this cultural hub of Poland is unquestionably one of the most enthralling towns on the continent. It packs in mystical tales of dragons, bohemian neighborhoods, and its fair share of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
What’s more, just beyond its borders are some of Central Europe’s most jaw-dropping natural landscapes, spiking skywards with the Tatra ranges and blooming during the spring in the form of alpine meadows. So, without further ado, here’s that ultimate bucket list of the 41 best things to do in Krakow:
Cobbled alleys wiggle this way and that through the UNESCO World Heritage district that is the Krakow Old Town. This is the beating heart of the city and a haven for architecture lovers and history buffs. As you explore, you’ll spy stone-topped squares and Gothic churches, streets fringed by medieval chapels, and grand Neo-Classical rowhouses. It’s also a hub for eating, entertainment, and nightlife, so you might want to check that your hostel comes without a curfew!
The kernel of the Krakow Old Town is the vast Main Market Square. It’s been the hub of the city ever since King Boleslaw the Chaste (honest!) wandered the cobblestones (that’s way back in 1257). History oozes from every redbrick church tower and every filigreed wall of the centuries-old Cloth Hall here, but the real joy is simply strolling around, dodging the horse-pulled carriages, and dropping into the corner bars for a cold Polish beer!
Calling all people watchers – Planty Park is the place be. Come summer, it shimmers in emerald with oak and sycamore trees. Come winter, it’s caked in ice and dusted with snow. Whatever the time of year, you can take a seat in a cozy café, like Bunkier Sztuki, and simply watch the world go by. It attracts one of the most eclectic bunches of people of all the parks in Krakow, from twirling rollerbladers to dog walkers to groups of robed priests and nuns (or is that a lost stag do?).
A long-standing legacy of the Austrian influence in Krakow can be found stacked up in blue metal carts all around the center of town. Known as Obwarzanek, these are essentially a pretzel of the sort you might catch in Vienna, only the dough is soft and chewy and a range of toppings add a little Slavic twist to proceedings. The best part? A whole Obwarzanki (that’s the singular) should set you back around just $0.50 or so!
The majestic towers and turrets of the Wawel Castle stand proud above the Krakow cityscape like something out of Harry Potter. They are a constant reminder of just how old everything is here – it’s thought that the first residents on the hill arrived in the Paleolithic Age! Fast forward around 12,000 years and you’ve got a grand mass of Renaissance arcades, Gothic keeps, thick bulwarks, and elegant courtyards. Delve inside and you’ll find yourself following in the footsteps of iconic Polish monarchs.
It’s been said that Krakow has more bars and clubs per square meter than any other city in Europe. Helping you squeeze every last drop of gratis vodka and frothy Polish beer out of that factoid is the legendary Krawl Through Krakow. They’ve been guiding folks through the hazy basement dives, the pumping electronica outlets, and the DJ-spinning party holes of the Old Town for over a decade. A night out costs 60 PLN ($15) and includes a power hour of drink-till-you-can’t-drink-no-more booze!
You could be forgiven for thinking that you’d just hit 88 miles per hour in Doc’s DeLorean the moment you step foot in the draped interiors of Restauracja Stylowa. This classic Polish milk bar (a cheap and cheerful diner come drinkery) has been left virtually unchanged since the days Gorbachev ruled the roost over in Moscow. It’s got gaudy color schemes, dated tiled walls, and low-hanging light fixtures, which, of course, is all part of the nostalgic experience.
Trabant fired up and stacks of factoids about communist Poland at the ready, the folks at Crazy Guides can take you on a whirlwind tour of the Nowa Huta district. Along the way, you’ll explore a whole sector of the city that was purpose-built by the Soviets back in the 1950s, intended as the perfect socialist utopia. These days, it’s all Neo-Renaissance blocks and imposing tenements, with street names like Ronald Reagan Central Square.
The Tatra Mountains rise like daggers to the south of Krakow. The drive down is a journey in itself, as you wiggle through wooded valleys and then see the serrated peakHit the ski slopes of Zakopane (winter only)s swing into view on the Slovak border. The town of Zakopane is the prime base for hiking in the spring, summer, and autumn (Zakopane ski trips take over during winter). It’s nestled in a deep bowl of summits, which herald the stunning Tatra National Park. There are several famous treks within, from the Valley of Five Lakes to the challenging walk to the top of Kasprowy Wierch.
Move over Alps, there’s awesome skiing in Poland too, you know? And the best news is that the cream of the crop is only a short drive away from Krakow. In fact, the so-called Winter Capital of Poland is a mere two hours to the south in the car. Surrounding it are the pistes of Kasprowy, Szymoszkowa, and Harenda, while cozy taverns warmed by flickering fires sit at the base of the runs. Even closer to Krakow is Białka Tatrzańska, which is the largest ski field in the country with modern lifts and nearly 20 kilometers of marked slopes.
The zapiekanka is a curious Polish street food that’s said to have had its origins in the communist era of the 1970s. Essentially a French baguette that’s sliced in two, the whole thing is toasted and topped with a mix of cheese, fried onions, mushrooms, and a potpourri of extras of your choice. The main square of Krakow’s old Jewish Quarter is considered the place to eat these snacks. Make for the round building in the center of it to bag yourself one for just 5 PLN ($1.30).
If you’re keen to escape the buzz of the city for a spell, the Ojcow National Park could be just what’s needed. It’s the smallest national park in all of Poland, and sits a mere 20 minutes or so north of the main town. What awaits is a curious series of deep gorges and valleys dressed in oak and beech woodlands. Now and then, the landscapes are punctuated by huge karst rocks that loom overhead, like the 25-meter-high Club of Hercules. The remains of Ojcow Castle keep watch: a 14th-century gatehouse and tower that look like something plucked straight out of Dracula.
Between the shadowy alcoves of the Main Square and the mist-swirling Gothic towers of the Saint Mary Church, Krakow oozes tales that are sure to get the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end. Cue the haunting walk throughs that are offered by Mysterium Tours. As dusk falls, they’ll reveal secret spots in the Old Town where vampires are said to lurk, alchemists once plied their trade, and supernatural goings-on have been reported.
Beyond the cobblestone walks of Old Podgorze (an immersive district) and the meanders of the Vistula River, the high Krakus Mound keeps watch over the cityscape. It’s one of four memorial mounds that skirt the edges of town, but is considered the oldest of the lot, with a history that links it to mythical founder King Krakus himself. During the warmer months, folks gather during the evening to barbecue and chat, and watch as the sunset glows ochre and golden across the sea of belfries and castle turrets beyond.
Linking the Planty Park with the Main Market Square, Florianska Street is the buzzing artery of the Krakow Old Town. It’s a mass of bars and restaurants that’s interspersed with emporiums and delis and fashion outlets. Have a credit card at the ready and you could find yourself haggling for handmade Polish soaps, sipping your way through artisan vodkas, or donning a new designer hat by the time you’ve finished walking the drag.
The Tatra Mountains are unquestionably one of the top day trips from Krakow. However, most people who wax up the walking boots and make for the peaks will be heading for tried-and-tested trails. If you’re keen to go off-the-beaten-track and see a wonder of the Polish highlands in full bloom, plan your jaunt for the early spring and make for the Chochołowska Valley. It’s a wide cleft in the hills that bursts with thousands of purple and pink crocuses each April.
The Old Synagogue has weathered near destruction at the hands of the Nazis and now stands as one of only two remaining Gothic synagogues in the world. It sits at the end of wide Szeroka Street with its redbrick façade and gabled extensions. Inside, you’ll catch an immersive museum collection that’s dedicated to the history and the culture of the Jews in Krakow.
When the sun shines in Krakow, there’s arguably nowhere better to be than down on the Vistula Boulevards. They fringe the urban river as it meanders under the castle, forever alive with whizzing cyclists and rollerbladers. You should spot a couple of bobbing boathouses on the northern banks, which are perfect for sipping a cold beer and watching the water drift lazily by. Favorites include boho Barka and the Wawel-view Barka Arkadia.
The Blonia meadow is a huge cutout of downtown Krakow. Encompassing a whopping 48 hectares, it ranges from the edge of the Old Town to the start of the Krakow woodlands in the west. Essentially an uninterrupted stretch of grass, it’s host to oodles of the town’s festivals and events, from marathons to football screenings to dog-training classes. A cycling and running path envelopes the whole lot, making it a top spot for that evening jog in the company of Polish pups.
City breaks don’t always have to be about exploring the city itself, and that’s especially true in Krakow, where dashes of dense woodland sprawl over low hills just a smidgen to the west. Buses link the main station with the forest via the zoo (more on that later), so a 20-minute ride can take you to where the walking trails begin. Then, it’s just a case of hitting the undergrowth and hiking through leaf-strewn groves of beeches, keeping your eyes peeled for sights like the Camaldolese Monastery and high Kosciuszko Mound as you go.
Tucked into the swaying woodlands of Las Wolski, Krakow Zoo roars with lions and swings with chimpanzees. It’s thought that the collection of wild creatures here began life way back in the 15th century, when the Polish king kept a curious menagerie of imported beasts in the grounds of the Wawel Castle. These days, a whopping 260 species can be seen, covering exotic amphibians, hulking jungle mammals, and wild wolf packs.
SPACE Craft Pub is one of the mainstays on the craft beer scene of Krakow. You’ll find it wedged into a small, covered alleyway in the midst of the Old Town, with nook seating and a narrow al fresco terrace. On tap are countless creations, with the leading lights coming from Krakow’s own Browar Twigg, a local brewery that’s led by a hops maestro and qualified theoretical physicist from England.
Clutching a bluff that’s strewn with ivy vines and peppered with trees on the edge of the Vistula River just southwest of Krakow, the Benedictine Abbey in Tyniec is a beautiful palimpsest of old architecture. It melds influences of the Gothic, the Romanesque, and the Rococo in one unforgettable complex of cloisters and churches. Choose to cycle in and you’ll find yourself weaving through forested slopes as the river bends and winds. When you arrive, there’s a place to sample hearty Polish sausage just under the main Abbey entrance.
How many Polish cities can you name? What’s the capital of Botswana? What’s the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow? These are the sorts of questions you can expect at the weekly pub quiz in House of Beer. It all takes place in a lively underground bar where craft beers flow from the taps. Everything’s in English, while prizes include six free drinks at the bar, and sometimes consolation tipples for those who come in last.
Standing tall over the Market Square in the epicenter of the Old Town, the dual towers of redbrick Saint Mary’s Basilica are up there with the most revered landmarks in all of Poland. Before you even go inside, be sure to wait for the turning of the hour when trumpeters play a traditional tune from the top of the belfry. Through the doors and you’ve got star-speckled ceilings and vaulted chapels, all culminating with a stunning altarpiece by the German sculptor Veit Stoss.
No ultimate bucket list for Krakow could possibly be complete without a mention of the boho Jewish Quarter that sits to the south of the Old Town. It’s known as Kazimierz, and it comes with moody bars and atmospheric lanes where jazz joints and street-food outlets combine beautifully. History is high on any guide to Kazimierz, too. You’ll find it in the Jewish Old Synagogue or with the Jewish Galicia Museum and its moving photographic exhibits. In short, set aside at least a whole day to explore this enthralling neighborhood!
Sautéed olives meet chewy flatbreads meet stacks of za’atar herbs and nutty muhammara dips in the local favorite of Hamsa Hummus & Happiness. Channeling the flair and creativity of new Israeli cooking, the joint fields a menu of sharing platters, spicy breakfasts, light Middle Eastern snacks, and hearty meat cuts. You can choose to sit in the enclosed garden, go to the light and airy inside, or settle out front on Szeroka street to watch the world go by.
Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory was made famous by Steven Spielberg’s WWII epic, Schindler’s List, back in 1993. The site of that amazing story can still be found in the depths of Podgorze district on the south side of the Vistula River. Amid industrial depots, it rises with jagged roofs on Lipowa Street. The complex now hosts two of Krakow’s most enthralling museums: MOCAK (the Museum of Contemporary Art in Kraków) and the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow. The latter is great for insights into a tumultuous 20th-century past, with hands-on exhibits that chronicle wartime Krakow and the region.
Some 42 miles outside of Krakow sits one of the darkest UNESCO sites in all of Europe: Auschwitz-Birkenau. Throughout the early 1940s, this vast complex of barracks and crematoriums was one of the epicenters of the Holocaust. Today, it’s a sobering and striking museum come monument, chronicling the destruction of the Jews at the hands of the Nazi regime. Guided groups can be organized with pick-up from the city center, or you can travel to Oswiecim by bus and join a guided tour individually.
Prepare to be stunned by the sheer audacity of the UNESCO-tagged Wieliczka Salt Mine. Delving some 327 meters underground in the suburb of Wieliczka, this colossal warren of tunnels and caverns is packed with hand-carved figurines made from rock salt and comes steeped in legends and myths related to Polish princesses. There’s even a whole cathedral chiseled into the stone at the opening of St. Kinga’s Chapel, which has chandeliers made from crystals and a sculpted replica of The Last Supper.
Calling all coffee buffs! Karma is up there with the finest brew spots in the city. It’s linked to its own roastery in the district of Kazimierz, but the main café is on a bustling side street near to the Old Town. It’s small and cozy and has some of the most aromatic artisan beans going. What’s more, the lead barista is a veteran of Polish coffee-making competitions.
On a balmy summer’s evening in Krakow, any local is likely to point you in the direction of Forum Przestrzenie. Spilling onto gravel gardens and green lawns by the Vistula River, it’s a huge bohemian bar that boasts broadside views of the Wawel castle. It occupies the ground floor of what was once a communist hotel, which means you’ll be sipping your beer under the shadow of an imposing Brutalist building.
Poland and vodka are a match made in history. It’s thought that the tipple was invented here back in the Middle Ages (shh – don’t tell the Russians!), and Poles have been glugging it away in shots and cocktails like there’s no tomorrow ever since. If you’re keen to learn the unique heritage of the Polish national drink, be sure to join up with Taste Vodka. They are the premier vodka tour in Krakow, offering packages that showcase different flavors, traditional Polish vodka accompaniments, and lessons in distilling techniques.
On Sunday mornings there’s a motley medley of stalls and hawkers in the open-air marketplace of Unitarg Hala Targowa. It’s one of Krakow’s most energetic and unusual shopping spots, with all the energy and variety of an Istanbul bazaar. Look one way and there are stacks of knock-off designer football kits. Look another and you’ll see retro vinyl towering over paraphernalia from the USSR. If you’re looking to shop for local goods and fresh veg, it might be better to come during the week.
Lurking under the flagstones of the main Market Square is a whole other world. It opens up a window onto ancient Krakow and its medieval roots. You’ll need to descend beneath the earth to reach it, where exhibition rooms are set over archaeological dig sites that were begun in 2005. Included in the collection are vintage coins, age-old blacksmith tools, and house decorations from the Middle Ages. Oh, and there are clues to Krakow’s onetime trading empire, found in the Far Eastern beads and Tartar weaponry.
Shouldering above the walking paths of Blonia on the side of the Krakow Old Town is the hulking National Museum. Beneath its Brutalist shell, some of the most impressive artifacts and works of art in Poland can be discovered. They include the priceless canvass of Lady with an Ermine by none other than Leonardo da Vinci, but also oodles of opuses by Polish greats like Stanisław Wyspiański and Tadeusz Kantor.
The Wawel Cathedral is considered the jewel in the crown of the Wawel Castle complex. It rises with its gold-topped chapels and bell-ringing belfry from the heart of the ancient fortress. Within are crypts where Polish luminaries have been laid to rest for centuries; keep a lookout for the graves of no fewer than 10 kings and the honored revolutionary general Tadeusz Kosciuszko. High above all that is a soaring lookout at the tip of the bell tower, offering 360-degree views of the metropolis.
Tucked between clusters of green woods and the runways of Krakow Airport, big Kryspinow Lake is a gift for the people of the city when the mercury cranks skywards. Yep, between May and August, bodies flock to the beaches of this reservoir to enjoy BBQ pits, sandy sunbathing spots, and wild swimming. The vibes are best in midsummer when a few beer bars open on the edge of the water.
Feeling the call of the wild? The so called Witches’ Mountain of Babia Gora is an accessible place to head to from Krakow. It straddles the Slovak-Polish border as it hulks some 1,725 meters above sea level. The climb is a challenging one, especially if you opt for the Academic’s Path and its craggy rock-scrambling sections. However, the views make it all worth it. The Carpathians sit in a haze to the south, while the plains of Malopolskie unfold with farmlands and forests to the north.
Hop over the railway lines behind the vast shopping mall of Galleria Krakowska and you’ll soon find the reaches of Rakowicki Cemetery. It covers 42 hectares of land, with a grid of crisscrossing lanes that pass grand, austere, elegant, and haunting tombs of Polish luminaries and famous folk. The best time to visit the great cemetery is on November 1, All Saints’ Day, when the graves are illuminated by thousands of glowing candles left by loved ones.
Built back in the early 1800s as a nod to the great achievements of Polish freedom fighter and revolutionary Tadeusz Kosciuszko, this 34-meter mass of earth and stone lofts above the western side of Krakow. A trip here can be about taking in majestic panoramas that sometimes even extend out to the Tatra Mountains in the south. Or, it can be about learning the swashbuckling history of Kosciuszko himself, all chronicled in the adjoining biographical museum.