polish cities, krakow, poland, city escapes

Guide to Krakow: Polish City Breaks

Poland

Guide to Krakow

This is my guide to Krakow, the second instalment in my three-part guide to a city break in Krakow. To check out part one, a guide to the capital of Warsaw, click here.

Here’s the lowdown on the best places to stay, what landmarks to see and a few other tips and tricks!

Arriving in Krakow

We stayed a few days longer in Krakow, which I was happy about considering how short our stay in Warsaw was. We arrived pretty late in Krakow and spent our first night in the hostel from hell. Our dorm roomed 18 people but could not by far fit that many beds. Every inch of space was occupied by bunkbeds. There was no space for storage and the hostel was right next to a tramline, which meant the whole room shook when a tram went by.

However, the worst part about the experience was our dorm-mates. When we’d already been trying to sleep for about an hour, a whole troupe of drunk men smelling potently like vomit, alcohol, and sweat stumbled into the room, swearing and talking with no regard for anyone else. One was so drunk that when that when the rest of the group finally went to bed, he kept getting up at random intervals to turn the light on for no reason. It was infuriating to say the least.

That night, Cloé, Nadia and I decided that we didn’t want to stay in the same hostel for the rest of the stay. Although the hostel can’t be blamed for rude and drunk dorm-mates, the whole dreadful experience was enough to put us off the accommodation completely so I booked a different accommodation on my phone. Despite the fact that we weren’t given a refund for the original hostel, we were so glad that we changed accommodation. Staying somewhere where we were extremely uncomfortable and had nowhere to securely store our backpacks would have completely dampened our stay.

Accommodation: Trzy Kafki Private Rooms

The next day we made our way to our new, extremely last-minute accommodation and were immediately shocked and impressed with how amazing it was. It was located in a large, traditional building only minutes away from Krakow’s old town.

Our private room accommodated just the three of us, yet was double the size of our 18-bed dorm at the last hostel! It was large, clean and beautifully decorated with wooden floors and fashionable decor. In the corner there was a table with a kettle and other facilities to make hot drinks at our disposal. The room had two large wardrobes with an excessive amount of space for the few clothes we had brought. The bathroom was shared with one other room, had modern equipment and was immaculately clean. We even had a balcony with a beautiful view of the traditional Polish architecture AND… free wifi!

We stayed here for three nights, for a total of £68 between us. This meant we paid a mere £7.50 per night per person for a completely private, spacious and well-equipped room with an unbeatable location. Look at the view from our balcony in the picture below!

For more information, and to book your stay, click here. I absolutely loved this accommodation!

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Exploring the city of Krakow:

Once we were up, ready and covered head-to-toe in cosy winter gear to protect us from the ghastly April winds, we head out to explore the city of Krakow. Krakow was the capital of Poland until the late 16th century and despite losing its capital status to Warsaw, Krakow is just as grand and arguably even more beautiful.

Although most of Krakow’s landmarks are within walking distance, if you prefer to use public transport for whatever reason, or your accommodation is a little far to walk from to the landmarks, the tram and bus systems are easy and cheap to use. We used the trams a fair deal while making our way to and from the central bus station for day trips. There are ticket machines at each tram stop and you can get a 20-minute ticket for 2.8 Polish zloty, which is the equivalent of around 60p! If you’re taking a longer trip, a 40-minute pass will only cost you a few pennies more at 3.6 Polish zloty (70p).

Without further ago, here’s my guide to Krakow’s best spots and landmarks in Krakow:

Main Square

Krakow’s main square dates back to the 13th century and is one of Europe’s largest remaining medieval town squares. Compared to a lot of cosy, medieval town squares, Krakow’s main square is massive and filled to the brim with beautiful buildings and statues.

In the main square, you’ll find the lovely Cloth Hall in the centre. The Cloth Hall was once a busy international trade centre, a spot where 15th century merchants used to sell exotic imports from the east, such as spices and silk. Nowadays, you can wander underneath its arches and peruse the gallery and its stalls that boast a variety of beautiful Polish souvenirs and artwork. On the upper level of Cloth Hall, you can find the Sukiennice Museum, which holds the largest permanent collection of 19th Century Polish artwork.

Within the square, you can also find the gothic Town Hall tower, the last remaining remnant of the Krakow Town Hall that was destroyed in 1820. On the other side of the Cloth Hall is the Church of St. Adalbert, one of the oldest stone churches in Poland, and the Adam Mickiewicz Monument, which bears homage to the greatest Polish Romantic poets of the 19th century.

It’s easy to admire the beauty of Krakow’s main square, yet it’s remarkably easy to bypass its long and colourful history. Researching the background of each landmark, even very briefly, helps you to appreciate how old the city actually is and makes you feel closer to the people that have made it what it is today.

We were also lucky enough to visit Krakow during it’s annual Easter market. The market begins about two weeks before Easter Sunday and ends on Easter Monday night. I had no idea that the Easter market would be going on during our visit and was absolutely elated to discover it in the Main Square on our first day in Krakow. Dozens of traditional stalls, boasting freshly cooked bread, hot and cold drinks, colourful souvenirs, assorted handicrafts, lucky horseshoes, jewellery, fabrics and much more filled the Main Square and made it even more lively and colourful than I possibly hoped for!

Don’t forget to get yourself a plate of traditional Polish pierogis from the market or elsewhere. They are filled dumplings that you can get boiled -my favourite- or fried in a massive variation of flavours and they are absolutely delicious. I love the potato and spinach ones!

St. Mary’s Basilica

Of course, I didn’t forget to add St. Mary’s Basilica, what I consider to be the most iconic landmark in all of Krakow. Guarding the corner of the Main Square, St. Mary’s Basilica’s asymmetric, gothic towers really steal the skyline. St. Mary’s Basilica was built in 1320 as a replacement for the church that once stood there, which was destroyed in Tartar raids. The left tower was raised in the 15th century to create a watchtower for the city, creating it’s iconic asymmetric appearance that it is known for today. It is in this tower that the hourly bells are rung out to the city. However, if you listen closely, the melody is broken off abruptly each time, in a tradition that honours the city guard trumpeter that was shot in the neck while warning Krakow of Mongol invaders.

I obsessively took pictures of the basilica from the outside, snapping it’s beautiful architecture from every angle but I didn’t expect to be even more blown away by it’s interior. Every aspect of the basilica’s intricately detailed and vibrant interior leaves you in a state of awe. From its startling blue and gold domed ceiling to its gothic, golden altarpiece, I was absolutely stunned with by its beauty- and I’ve seen a lot of medieval basilicas!

Tourists can visit the basilica from the side entrance for 10 Polish zloty (equivalent to around £2) for an adult ticket and kids can visit free! Purchase the tickets in the building opposite to the side entrance.

Warning: the basilica is closed for renovation in September and October 2018, so if you’re desperate to view it (you should be!) maybe keep this in mind when planning your travel dates.

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Wawel Castle and Cathedral

Another place that you mustn’t forget to visit on your visit to Krakow is the beautiful Wawel Hill, home to both the 13th century Wawel Castle and the 11th century Cathedral. The whole Wawel Hill area is a lovely spot to spend a good few hours walking around, admiring the grounds and architecture. There is also a beautiful restaurant on Wawel Hill if you’d like to have lunch on the grounds. We ate there before perusing the Castle and again, I recommend the pierogis!

You can enter the beautiful Renaissance courtyard of Wawel Castle free of charge (pictured below). However, there are different individual tours you can take in and around the castle, each with different prices. For example, to visit the Royal Chambers, it is 20 zloty (£4.18) for a full price ticket whereas the Oriental Art exhibition is only 8 zloty (£1.70) for a ticket.

There are also different seasonal tours throughout the year, including a tour of the Dragon’s Pit and the Sandomierz Tower -the best spot for beautiful views of Krakow-, so make sure you look into what’s available before you visit.

Also, keep in mind that at specific times on certain days you can visit areas of the castle for free, including Mondays until midday and Sundays between 10am and 4pm. Check the website for full details, here.

Wawel Cathedral is situated next to the castle and has been standing for over 900 years. The cathedral was a popular site for the coronation of Polish Monarchs and in St. Leonard’s Crypt, below the cathedral, you can visit the tombs of many Polish kings and other national treasures. The cathedral itself is free admission, however to visit the tombs, the Sigismund Bell and museum, it is 12 zloty (£2.50) per person.

As well as the tombs, we visited the Sigismund Bell as well as the four other bells hanging in the Sigismund Tower of Wawel Cathedral. Climbing up the creaky tower, you come across startling, massive bells that increase in size the higher you climb. The largest, right at the top of the tower, Sigismund Bell, weighs a total of 13 tonnes and requires 12 people to swing it. It’s a sight, to say the least.

Day Trips from Krakow

Auschwitz

While you wonder around Krakow’s main square you’ll likely be approached by people attempting to sell day trips from Krakow. As I stated in my first instalment of my three-part guide to Poland, we visited Krakow mainly in order to witness the nearby Auschwitz. This is among the day trips that are sold as a package trip, including transport and a guide, however we made our own way to the site easily enough. You can take a local bus from Krakow to Auschwitz from Krakow’s main bus station. It is free of charge to enter, however you must leave any large bags at the lockers or behind in cars.

Auschwitz is now a memorial and museum of the former German Nazi concentration camp and extermination centre. There are two main parts, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau and a free shuttle bus runs between the two.

Auschwitz I is the first Auschwitz camp opened by the Nazis and where the Nazis conducts their first experiments using the gas Zyklon B for murder. This is also where they carried out criminal experiments on prisoners and executions by shooting. Here remains the possessions that were looted from the millions of Jews that were transported to and murdered on the site, as well as displays of hair, cut from those murdered in the gas chambers.

Birkenau is the site on which the Nazis built the mass extermination centres, where one million European Jews were murdered. In 1944, this was the largest concentration camp in Europe, at over 200 hectares. Now, the grounds contain the ruins of the gas chambers after they were destroyed in a desperate cover-up attempt by the Nazis, as well as barracks, crematoria and places filled with human ashes.

Although it was a very sobering day, all of us are glad we visited Auschwitz. Yet, please only visit the camp if you are willing to be respectful and mindful of the nature of the place. Keep in mind that over a million adults and children lost their lives there and it is not a normal, fun tourist destination to skip around and take pictures (you’d be surprised how much of this I saw at Auschwitz).

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to visit the salt mine, but if we’d had an extra day, it would have definitely been on my itinerary. Visited by over a million tourists annually, the salt mines are a national treasure and are recognised as an official national historical monument. Opened in the 13th century, it produced table salt continuously until 2007, making it one of the oldest salt mines in operation.

The salt mine reaches a depth of 327 meters and is over 287 kilometres and includes four chapels carved completely out of salt. There is even a reception room where private functions, including weddings, take place. It sounds incredible!

Thank you for reading this guide to Krakow, let me know your favourite part of Krakow in the comments below.

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