Krakow is a uniquely charming city that will make you want to visit again and again.
It is rich in culture and history, with so much to do and see, and at the same time extremely visitor-friendly and easy to navigate.
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In the centre of the city, Krakow’s Old Town looks like a picturesque postcard, with its cobbled streets, magnificent architecture and huge market square, all surrounded by the lush Planty Park.
By the river sits the fairy tale Wawel Castle and further down is the cool, trendy part of the city, the Jewish Quarter.
This guide, alongside my guide to Museums in Krakow, includes all the highlights and you can use it to plan your itinerary for your visit to Krakow.
It is a perfect city for a short city break, although if you want to dig a bit deeper and really enjoy all it has to offer, I suggest you stay for about a week.
The Old Town of Krakow
The main square in Krakow is simply huge. That was my first impression of it. Later I read that it was indeed one of the largest medieval town squares in Europe. The Polish name for the main square is Rynek Główny.
There seems to be a constant festive atmosphere at the square. It’s always so lively. Market stalls, streets performers (good ones!) and lots of people walking around any time of day and late into the night.
All around the square are plenty of restaurants and cafes, though unsurprisingly, they are far more expensive than anywhere else I’ve seen in Krakow. It also has a useful a 24h supermarket.
Some of the highlights in the main square are the Cloth Hall the 19th Century Polish Art Gallery right above it, St. Mary’s Basilica with its two towers that you can’t miss, the fascinating Underground Museum, the Town Hall Tower and “The Head”…
St. Mary’s Basilica
This church with the two towers has an interior that’s simply stunning, full of colour and intricate details and decorations. It has an entrance for tourists and another entrance for prayers.
The Veit Stoss Altar is an impressive wooden cabinet featuring scenes from Mary’s life, all done with fantastic skill and mastery.
The ceiling and the stained glass windows are incredible and you can see many different styles of art from different time periods around the building.
This church was where I first encountered the work of Polish artist Wyspiański; later I saw his work in other places around the city.
The Cloth Hall
This is a shopping centre in the main square. It dates back to the 13th century, when Krakow was a trade centre and the Cloth Hall was used by traders in textiles (hence the name) and other commodities.
These days it is packed with Polish souvenirs.
It’s a beautiful and colourful place to visit, even if you’re not looking to buy souvenirs.
The 19th Century Polish Art Gallery
This gallery is right above the Cloth Hall. It features mostly paintings, as well as sculptures. Some of the paintings are enormous in size, depicting epic historical scenes.
The location above the Cloth Hall means that when you out onto the balcony at the gallery, you will get a lovely view of the main square from above.
The Underground Museum
This museum is underneath the main square. You go underground to see the findings of the excavations that took place at that spot over 10 years ago.
They revealed many pieces of evidence of the life at the main square from the 11th century onwards. All the information is displayed in all sorts of creative ways.
The museum has a tremendous amount of materials, so I recommend you take a guided tour. I took a guided tour with Walkative Tours and I must say that having a professional guide show us around the museum was invaluable.
Read more about the Underground Museum in my post about Museums in Krakow.
When you take a walk around the Main Square, you will probably notice a huge hollow head lying on its side.
So what’s that?
This sculpture is called Eros Bendato and it was created by Polish artist Igor Mitoraj.
Some people may find it creepy, but the hollow eyes and the weird bandages around his face don’t seem to scare off the children who are climbing in and out of it enthusiastically. It’s definitely become a tourist attraction and everybody’s taking pictures of it.
Florianska Street is the street connecting the Main Square with the Barbican.
The street is full of souvenir shops and eateries, but what’s really special about it is the beautiful architecture, so do look up!
When you reach the end of the street, you’re at Floriańska Gate. This was one of the old city gates which has survived.
It usually has some street musicians playing underneath it (good acoustics!) and on the walls on either side of the gate there’s a great display of pictures.
This is also part of Krakow’s famous “Royal Route”. Krakow used to be the capital of Poland and this gate and this street were part of the Royals’ route towards Wawel Castle.
The Jagiellonian University
Krakow’s long standing university occupies various buildings around the city, and its original building is now a museum dedicated to its history.
This gorgeous building is right in the centre of the Old Town.
The museum is well worth a visit. You will get to see the library hall, the glorious professors’ hall and various objects connected with the history of the place.
Before or after you visit the museum itself, spend some time in the lovely courtyard and in the Professors’ Garden.
Read more about the The Jagiellonian University Museum in my post on Krakow’s great museums.
The Franciscan Church in Krakow
This beautiful church is a joy for art lovers. I admit I wouldn’t have discovered it myself. I’d probably pass by it thinking it’s just another church, if it weren’t for Jola.
The super knowledgeable Jola was the tour guide assigned to me by Krakow’s tourist board, and she took me into St. Francis Church while guiding me around the city.
The interior walls, ceiling and glass windows feature incredibly colourful paintings by Polish artist Wyspiański (whose art also decorates St. Mary’s Basilica).
The stained glass windows are awe inspiring, and as you walk around the church you will notice many different paintings and patterns on the walls.
If you want to see more of that stained glass wonder, right next to the Franciscan Church is the Stanisław Wyspiański Pavilion.
It’s the city’s tourist information centre inside an interesting building featuring three stained glass windows based on Wyspiański’s designs.
This is one of Krakow’s colourful streets that make the city centre feel like it came straight out of a fairy tale.
There are a couple of cute cafes and nice restaurants along the street.
Bona Bookshop is a great place to stop for coffee and browse some books (they have books in English too). Further down on this street is the museum of sacred art, a branch of the National Museum.
Look up to take in all the lovely painted houses, as the cobbled road leads you to Wawel Castle.
This is probably Krakow’s most famous, iconic landmarks.
When I was doing my research before my trip to Krakow, the photos of the castle drew my attention time after time. It was fascinating to see in real life.
When you visit Krakow, I recommend you make a reservation in advance to visit the Castle. As you might imagine, this is a hugely popular tourist attraction and it’s easier to book ahead, if you want to avoid the queue for the ticket office (book at the Wawel Castle Website).
There is a lot to see in the castle, the cathedral next to it and the gardens around it, so I suggest you dedicate at least half a day to it. Here are my highlights:
The Wawel Architecture and Garden Tour
This will take you all around the castle, through locked gates into magnificent hidden gardens.
I took a guided tour in English with an excellent, knowledgeable guide who told us the story of the castle.
The tour starts with an overview: a relief model of the castle and its grounds. You walk around the model while guide gives clear explanations. It really helps with orientation, because the place is so big.
The royal gardens are the highlight of the tour. They were reconstructed to show what the gardens looked like during the Renaissance period, with elegant beds of flowers and herbs.
As you stroll through the gardens and courtyards, your guide will give you interesting explanations about the history and architecture of the place, with various anecdotes, such as where the queen would take a bath.
The State Rooms
I also visited the State Rooms and highly recommend visiting. There’s just so much beauty and so much to take in!
These are the rooms where the Royals used to entertain their guests and are therefore so steeped in luxury they will leave you in awe.
Appreciate the beauty of the decorated ceilings in each room, the splendid wall tapestries, the wall paintings, all the interesting objects preserved, such as Persian carpets, vases and furniture.
The Sandomierska Tower
This is the tower at the corner of the Wawel complex close to the river. Formerly an artillery tower and possibly a prison, it is now open to the many visitors who come to marvel at the beauty of the castle.
It’s worth climbing up the 137 stairs of the tower, as you will get lovely views of the river from above, as well as views of the castle and the courtyard. There are many opportunities to stop on the way up if you need to rest.
The Wawel Cathedral
The Cathedral is right next to the castle and is hard to miss – it’s huge and extraordinary, both on the inside and the outside.
Go inside for a lesson on the history of Poland. This is the place where Polish kings and queens were crowned throughout history and you can learn a lot through the pieces of art and various tombs you’ll find inside. It’s a big place, so take your time.
There is a lot more to see at Wawel Castle, visit the official website for full details
This is the artsy, bohemian part of the city, and also very Jewish, as you’ll notice once you get there and see Jewish food restaurants with bands playing Jewish Klezmer music all around you.
Hipsters love Kazimierz and you’ll see that especially on Jozefa Street, which is full of trendy shops, designer boutiques, vintage shops and small galleries.
Some of my favourites were Szpeje – a charming vintage shop and a contemporary concept store called Marka. I wrote more about my discoveries on Jozefa street and elsewhere in Krakow in my Krakow Design Guide.
Plac Nowy (New Square) in Kazimierz is the place where people go to hang out, eat, drink and listen to street musicians.
Originally a Jewish marketplace, this is now a food market surrounded by bars.
The most popular food there is zapiekanka – a typical Polish bread with cheese and mushrooms plus other toppings.
Vegetarians will manage easily, but for vegans it may be tricky (through maybe you can ask to have it without the cheese?) In any case, there’s an excellent vegan kebab stall at the square (called Vegab) so vegans won’t go hungry.
So you can definitely visit the Jewish Quarter as a free spirited tourist who wants to enjoy the restaurants and bars and pretty shops.
You can also take the opportunity to learn about Jewish culture and history.
Krakow’s Jewish History
While there aren’t many Jews living in Krakow these days, Kazimierz district used to be the place where Jews lived for many years, from around the Middle Ages up until the Second World War.
Poland, though a Catholic nation, was relatively tolerant towards the Jews, even at times when they were deported from other countries in Europe.
This allowed the Jewish population to grow and thrive. Just before the Second World War they were about 25% of Krakow’s population, and during that war they were completely wiped out by the Nazis.
The main street in the Jewish Quarter is Szeroka (broad) Street, where Jewish culture looks very much alive. At the end of it is the Old Synagogue, which today is a museum.
Most synagogues in Krakow are not active anymore, but some can be visited.
Isaac Synagogue is worth noting and worth a visit. It’s much bigger than ordinary synagogues, with high ceilings and impressive decor.
Synagogues usually were not as fancy as churches, because the Jews as a minority were not allowed to stand out too much, but this one is an exception.
Right in the centre of Szeroka Street you’ll see a statue of a man sitting on a bench, looking pensive.
This is Jan Karski, a Polish Christian who collected evidence about the holocaust in Poland and made reports to the British and US governments. Unfortunately, they refused to believe him.
Not far from the main street in Kazimierz is the Galicia Jewish Museum, documenting Jewish life in the region.
Kazimierz is the part of Krakow where Steven Spielberg filmed Schindler’s List. This has attracted many tourists to the place, which turned it into a very lively district.
However, the Jewish Ghetto was not in Kazimierz, but in another district called Podgórze, right across the river.
One of the most striking holocaust memorials in Podgórze is in Ghetto Heroes Square (Plac Bohaterów Getta).
Large metal chairs fill the square, but these are not ordinary benches. They’re a bit too tall to sit on and there’s way too much space between them.
This is meant to signify loneliness, emptiness and despair.
The empty chairs are facing the Eagle Pharmacy. It belonged to a Polish Christian who didn’t want to move out when his district became a Jewish ghetto. The Germans let him stay and keep his business.
He and his staff then started to help the Jews with food and medicine and even sheltered some of them to help save them from being sent to the camps.
A 15 minute walk from the Ghetto Heroes Square is the museum documenting the history of Schindler’s Factory and of Krakow under Nazi occupation.
You can dig deep into the information archives here and learn a lot about the history (which Spielberg, admittedly, tried to simplify in his movie).
The museum is on the premises of what used to be the factory itself (which no longer exists), right next to the wonderful Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCAK).
Back in Kazimierz, the restaurants are serving Jewish food and the bands are playing Jewish music. These days, Auschwitz Concentration Camp is probably the most popular day trip from Krakow, alongside the Wieliczka Salt Mine. But if you prefer to see what Jewish life could have been like, then Kazimierz is the place.
The Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow
Every summer the city of Krakow celebrates Jewish culture is what is one of the most popular festivals in the city.
The festival is held at several venues around the city and its program is packed with concerts, workshops, lectures and meetups.
It celebrates the food and the music, with events that have a general appeal, but also goes into more serious discussions about religion and politics.
The Vistula River
Take a walk by the beautiful Vistula river. It’s charming and relaxing, with plenty of grass ideal for a picnic, cycling paths and wonderful views.
When you cross Grunwald Bridge you can see Wawel Castle in all its glory. Go there before sunset for the best light.
The Bridge of Locks across the Vistula has, as the name suggests, lots of love locks, but these are similar to the ones you’ve seen at any other bridge of locks around the world.
What’s really special about it is the sculptures of acrobats hanging on the strings over the bridge. It’s amazing to see how they are connected to the strings and keep their balance.
Street art in Krakow
I loved the murals around the city. There are many pieces of legal, commissioned street art in Krakow, which means they don’t disappear as quickly as the illegal ones.
The two districts that are best for searching for street art are the Jewish Quarter and Podgórze. You can reach Podgórze from the Jewish Quarter by crossing the Bridge of Locks.
To see more great artworks and read about what’s behind them, have a look at my guide to street art in Krakow.
Where to stay in Krakow
The Old Town or Jewish Quarter are the best places to stay in Krakow, but an ideal location would be right in between those two districts.
That would give you easy access to all the attractions, museums, churches, restaurants and bars as well as the river.
Krakow is a walkable city, so staying where everything is within walking distance is a huge advantage.
I had a fantastic stay at Hotel Legend, which is at a perfect location – very close to the charming Planty Park that surrounds the Old Town, and a short walk from the Jewish Quarter, the Old Town and Wawel Castle.
The Vistula River is also quite near, so basically you have all the highlights close to you. It’s also a very short and convenient tram ride from the central train station (Krakow Glowny).
The hotel is very modern with a clean, sleek design. My room had a really comfortable bed, wide screen TV, tea and coffee, plenty of storage space machiand a comfortable desk.
A screen on the wall lets you control the lights and the temperature in the room. Ultra modern.
Get a room facing the park and you’ll get a perfect view of green trees out of your window.
If you travel with a laptop you’ll find the desk and the free wifi extremely useful, and there’s a safe in the room that a laptop can fit in.
How get around Krakow – Public transport
The easiest way to get around Krakow is on foot, but if you need public transport, the city has a convenient system of buses and trams.
You can use the same ticket on both trams and buses. Buy it at the machine next to some of the stops, or on board the bus or tram. No need to approach the driver.
The machines have an English language option. They’re quite easy to use, but if you get stuck ask someone around you – locals are very happy to help tourists use the machines.
Buy a ticket according to the time you intend to spend on the bus or tram. There are tickets for 20 minutes and 40 minutes.
To move around the centre you will probably only need the 20 minute ticket, but there’s no need to guess.
A user-friendly app called Jakdojade will tell you where to go and calculate for you how long it would take. It then displays the type of ticket you need on the screen.
Note that Google Maps transport directions won’t work in Krakow, so the Jakdojade app is essential if you want to use public transport.
There are also tickets for longer periods of time, so if you’re travelling further or staying in the city for a long time, they may be worth buying. See details and current prices on mpk.krakow.pl.
Once you get your ticket, don’t forget to stamp it on board the bus or tram.
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I was a guest of Krakow Tourism Board, Walkative Tours, Wawel Castle and Hotel Legend and would like to thank them for the kind hospitality. All opinions are my own.