At the stroke of every hour, a melodious trumpeting from St. Mary’s Basilica echoes throughout Krakow’s Old Town, a legacy that dates back seven centuries. Tradition is important in Polish culture, but Krakow is a city that perpetually looks forward. Its most storied neighborhoods host trendy cafés and buzzing bars alongside centuries-old buildings. Discover Jewish history in Kazimierz, explore the labyrinthine chambers of Wieliczka Salt Mine, and follow in the footsteps of kings on Wawel Hill. Here’s how to make the most of your stay in this city on the banks of the Vistula River.
Day 1: Royal rendezvous
Dive deep into Krakow’s historic center in Old Town. Make Rynek Główny, or the main square, your first port of call. Mornings are the best time in Europe’s largest medieval square. Overflowing buckets of blooms are hauled to the flower market while pushcarts dispense fresh obwarzanek—a ring-like Polish bagel topped with salt. The square’s centerpiece is the 14th-century, Gothic-style St. Mary’s Basilica, featuring stained glass windows, gilded interiors, and a wonderful choir during the evening service. Across the square, the 14th-century Cloth Hall now hosts a market selling Polish crafts and curios. Trendy cafés full of lunching locals surround the square’s grand statues and buildings. Step into Wesele for lunch, where you’ll have a prime view of the bustling square while dining on Polish specialties like pork chops with sauerkraut and fried potatoes, and żurek, a tangy rye soup with sausages and quail egg.
The seven-mile-long Royal Route was the coronation path of Polish kings and is the main sightseeing artery for many Old Town masterpieces. The route begins at the foot of Wawel Hill (maps are available on the street along the way) and runs through lively Grodzka Street. Pause at Saints Peter and Paul’s Church to examine the 12 apostles who adorn its grand frontage. Walk through leafy Jagiellonian University, where Copernicus studied in the 15th century. The path leads through the main square and St. Florian’s Gate, ending at St. Florian’s Church.
As the day progresses, Rynek Główny transforms into a melee of activity: street performers, horse-drawn carriages, and diners galore. Soak it in before ending the night at Piano Rouge, an upscale basement restaurant decked out in chandeliers and plush red carpets. Live jazz transports you to the 1940s while you order from the extensive wine list. The menu features everything from citrus-doused prawns to mini meat-stuffed samusas, pork tenderloin, and Polish specialties like grilled sheep’s cheese.
Day 2: Subterranean sojourn
Spend the better part of the day exploring the 13th-century Wieliczka Salt Mine, a wondrous UNESCO World Heritage site located about 30 minutes from the city center. This nine-level labyrinth runs 1,100 feet underground, and its 3,000 chambers, sculptures, and stairways were all painstakingly carved by miners. A rattling metal lift first takes visitors 210 feet below to galleries of solid black salt. Descend deeper underground on rock-hewn stairs, past a life-size statue of Copernicus in the Copernicus Chamber and intricate depictions of the miners. The highlight is the grand St. Kinga’s Chapel. It took three miners 70 years (1896–1963) to complete the 5,000-square-foot chapel, which sits at a depth of about 330 feet. The walls are carved with Biblical scenes, including the Last Supper, and chandeliers made with the purest salt crystals hang from the ceiling.
Visitors can also dine underground at the Miners’ Tavern in the Budryk Chamber, where everything is seasoned with Wieliczka salt. Polish specialties such as cabbage soup and pierogi are on the menu.
Head back toward the city center and spend what’s left of the day shopping at the Galeria Krakowska, which features international chains, Polish stores, and eateries. Stop at Wedel, a century-old chocolatier, for indulgent desserts and hot chocolate. Polish amber and ceramics are world-renowned. You’ll find delicate jewelry and decorative items at galleries such as World of Amber. For popular blue-and-white patterned Bolesławiec ceramics, Mila and Kobalt are good bets.
Day 3: Castles and cathedrals
At the southern edge of the Old Town, the Royal Castle and Wawel Cathedral looks over the city. It’s worth stopping atop Wawel Hill to take in the view of the Vistula River before exploring the castle. Polish monarchs took up residence on Wawel Hill in the 11th century. Since then, the castle has been built and rebuilt in Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance styles, featuring gilded walls, grand murals, and expansive courtyards. Spend a few hours exploring the castle’s ornate state rooms, intricate tapestries, and art collections.
Twenty minutes from the main square lies the historic Jewish district of Kazimierz, which featured prominently in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Pre-World War II, the area was a buzzing center of Jewish life, with nearly 65,000 residents, six synagogues, and kosher markets. But after the Nazi occupation, Kazimierz bore the aura of a ghost town for many years. Today, the district has been reinvented as one of Krakow’s trendiest enclaves, full of bohemian cafés, hip bars, and high-energy nightclubs. The district maintains a large part of its Jewish heritage. Oskar Schindler’s factory is now a museum devoted to Jewish experiences under Nazi occupation.
Take a stroll down Szeroka Street, lined by synagogues, 17th-century buildings, art galleries, and cafés. The early 16th-century Old Synagogue, the city’s oldest, is no longer functional, but hosts exhibitions on Jewish culture and tradition. The Jewish Memorial in the main square honors the 65,000 Cracovian Jews murdered here in 1942. Kupa Synagogue is still functional for religious services and visitors can stop in every day except Saturday. For a kosher meal, head to the 17th-century, baroque-style Isaac Synagogue, which runs the Szalom Falafel kitchen.
Kazimierz wears an entirely different look after hours. Grab dinner at Alchemia in Nowy Square, a cozy restaurant that serves burgers, and hummus platters. Head to Omerta for a whopping selection of well-priced Polish and international craft beers and in-house ales. The curious little Godfather-themed pub is frequented by locals, and features plaques with film quotes and Marlon Brando’s visage.
Where to stay
Make Krakow’s Old Town your base. With its historical charm and vibrant cafés, it is the seat of all the action. Charming Hotel Pod Roza, situated between the main Market Square and Florianska Gate, is housed in a 17th-century Renaissance palace. Rooms are cozy, with sloping roofs and large windows that look out onto red roofs and church spires. At the fringes of the Old Town is the trendy hotel Puro Krakow, with pop-colored furniture, free Wi-Fi, bicycles, coffee, and a roster of in-house events. Family-friendly and modern, Hotel Kossak is situated close to Kazimierz and has great views of Wawel Hill.
Malavika Bhattacharya is a freelance journalist who covers travel, culture, and food.
This story was adapted from National Geographic Traveller India.