Let me introduce you to your next favourite Central European city: Kraków, Poland. Since the fall of communism, Poland’s become a traveller’s dream. Historical Polish towns and cities await in every corner of the country. But none demands attention more than Kraków, the former royal capital.
For culture lovers Kraków is magical. Its architecture and museums will inspire you, its food will fill you, and, most of all, the hospitality of its people will warm you.
Like a great book, Kraków shouldn’t be glossed over. But if you’re tight on time, steal some of these ideas for your first 24 hours in Kraków:
24 Hours in Krakow: An Itinerary
Rynek Główny (Main Market Square)
Nearly every traveller’s first day in Kraków starts in Rynek Główny (Main Market Square), the heart of Old Town Kraków. However you choose to arrange your schedule, you’ll end up back at Rynek Główny—whether by design or inadvertently.
Start the day off grabbing your morning coffee buzz at one of the many cafés overlooking this massive square. For people watching, this is Kraków’s switchboard. Take your time and enjoy watching Kraków’s early morning crew dodge pigeons as they wander across the square.
See that massive hall on Rynek Głowny? That’s Sukiennice (Cloth Hall), a marketplace that’s been rockin’ out mad bargains since the 15th century. Test out your haggling skills (yes, you can still do that outside of the Middle East) to snag some cool Polish souvenirs for your loved ones back home.
Above the “Grand Bazaar” vibe of the lower Cloth Hall sits the Sukiennice Museum, the world’s biggest 19th-century Polish art exhibit. While it might not rival the Louvre, if you have a passing interest in art—or Polish history—you might enjoy a quick browse for minimal 2zł ($0.64) fee.
Two other major Krakow attractions are worth your time in Rynek Główny: St. Mary’s Basilica and Town Hall Tower. Even if you’re “all churched out,” the impressive interior of St. Mary’s Basilica is well worth the 10zł ($3.19) fee. Since the tower at St. Mary’s is currently closed, ascending up Town Hall Tower is your best bet to catch bird’s eye views of Kraków. And at 7zł ($2.23), it’s not exactly a budget killer.
Old Town Kraków
Half of the fun of Kraków is throwing your plans out the window and simply wandering. And there’s no better place to do it than Old Town.
Culture vultures could spend a lifetime randomly uncovering Old Town Kraków’s innumerable charms. Whether it’s hunting down architectural genius in medieval squares or drenching yourself in Polish culture at Kraków’s best museums such as the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow or National Museum in Krakow, boredom is impossible in Old Town Krakow.
Of all of the amazing moments I experienced in Kraków none was more memorable than eating a traditional lunch at Restauracja Kuchnia u Babci Maliny. There’s absolutely zero chance I would have ever found this place on my own, but thanks to a friendly local, we snaked through the courtyard of the Polska Akademia Umiejętności at ulica Sławkowska 17 into a dark basement full of simple wooden dining tables to eat what may have been one of the most filling meals I’d eaten for such little money. Hunt for it and you won’t be disappointed! (The heavily meat-based servings might not appeal to vegetarians or vegans, though.)
An entire day—and a big chunk of your daily travel budget—could magically float away perusing the innumerable treasures you’ll discover in Poland’s former royal home.
The exhibits on Wawel Hill each command their own price, but if you have to choose, try the Royal Tombs in the Wawel Cathedral (12zł) and the Crown Treasury in Wawel Royal Castle (18zł in high season). Mondays can be hit or miss with opening times, so plan accordingly.
Once you’re done exploring Wawel Hill, introduce yourself to Wawel Dragon, a badass (literally) fire-breathing dragon immortalized in bronze in front of his former mythical lair below the northwestern side of the castle walls. Watch your eyebrows!
Not long ago Kazimierz, Kraków’s historic Jewish quarter, was a no-go zone. Outsiders rarely came, and the odd one that wound up here, would have discovered a dismal place far removed from the ageless beauty of Old Town.
Today, things are different. Kazimierz is on the rise and the district that once scared off all but the bravest souls now attracts them; it’s quickly becoming Kraków’s new hipster hangout.
Start your tour of Kazimierz on ulica Szeroka, the former main drag of Jewish Kraków. Ulica Szeroka is one of Kraków’s most distinctive streets, lined with restaurants and bars and anchored with two major synagogues—Remuh Synagogue and the Old Synagogue—and the Remuh Jewish Cemetery.
If you’re hungry you could grab a bite at one of the restaurants on ulica Szeroka or wiggle through the alleys of Kazimierz to Restauracja Starka (ul. Jozefa 14) for a taste of traditional Polish cuisine.
When evening slides in, finish off your day by rehydrating with a refreshing piwo at one of Kazimierz’s many pubs. Popular Polish beers include Żywiec, Okocim and Tyskie, but to for a better idea of what Poland’s been brewing up lately retire to Omerta Pub, home of Krakow’s best selection of Polish craft beers.
Krakow Travel Essentials
Where to Stay
You’ll probably spend most of your time in and around Old Town, so it’s a good place to start looking for accommodations in Krakow. A great choice in Old Town Krakow is Aparthotel Stare Miasto. Here, you’ll find rooms infused with modern Polish charm, for under $100. And the location is absolute perfection. Just be aware: this place is popular. Book ahead several weeks/months if you can!
If this is your first stop on your Central Europe trip, you can find flights to Krakow (both direct and indirect) from most major North American and European cities. For more savings, flights to Warsaw are generally cheaper for long-haul international trips.
From Warsaw (another interesting Central European city, of course!), you can catch a train that will zip you between central stations in about 2.5 hours. (Double check the schedule or risk getting on a slower local train!) The ticket cost for the Warsaw to Krakow train varies, but booking ahead a few weeks in advance you can find 2nd-class tickets for as low at 49zł for the faster trains. Search for Polish train fares and schedules here.
Already in Central Europe? Here’s how to get to Krakow from other Central European cities:
- Prague: From Prague to Krakow, I’d recommend hopping on a night train, unless you want to waste nearly an entire day in transit. The train leaves Prague at 23:00, arriving in Krakow at 07:00. Prices start from €29 for a couchette to €49 for a 2-bed sleeper. It’s not luxurious, but it’s a time- and money-saver!
- Vienna: Trains from Vienna to Krakow take about 4 hours with prices starting at €19.
- Berlin: It’s about an 8-hour train ride from Berlin to Krakow. There is a night train that costs about €29. Buses are quicker and cheaper, but less comfortable. You can find fares starting at €18 for the 7 and a half hour journey.