The Norwegian fjords, the Swiss Alps, the Greek islands, and Italian architecture are some of the famous European landmarks recognized around the world. But what about Poland? What’s the first thing that crosses your mind when you think about Poland?
When I introduce myself as a Pole, especially outside Europe, I often see the confusion on people’s faces. I’ve met a dozen people who have never heard of Poland or were unable to find my home country on a map. So, it’s no surprise that Poland is not on the top of the list for globetrotters. I’d like to do my part to change that a bit.
Before I virtually take you around my favorite Polish city and share things to do in Krakow, I’d like to dispel some common misconceptions about my homeland. Poland is not an ice-locked country with never-ending snowfall. No polar bears are roaming the streets, and Poles do not speak Russian.
Poland is not a tiny country tucked away somewhere in a corner of eastern Europe. In reality, Poland enjoys an average summer temperature of 20 to 25 degrees Celsius (68 to 77 F) and -3 to 3 degrees Celsius (27 to 37 F) during winter. It’s the 9th largest country in Europe by land size and population. Picture a country with as many people as California squeezed into the land about the size of New Mexico. Lastly, Poles speak Polish which is distinct from Russian.
The number of visitors to Poland dramatically increased after it joined the EU in 2004. The opening of borders and expansion of tourist infrastructure from EU funds are only some reasons why over 18 million tourists visit Poland annually. But the main reason is its beauty. From amber beaches of the Baltic Sea fringed with white sandy dunes and beautiful cliff shores to the clear, calm waters of the Masurian Lake District to the snow-capped peaks of the Tatra Mountains, Poland has something for everybody. All of my friends who traveled to Poland with me were amazed by its rich history, friendly people, and mouth-watering local cuisine. The Poland they found was far more interesting and complex than what they imagined.
Welcome to Krakow
The recipe for the perfect city to visit probably involves some combination of fascinating history, great architecture, rich cultural life, fine dining, and a vibrant nightlife — this is Krakow. It is the historical capital of Poland, full of legends, beautiful architectural monuments, and art. If you ever visit the city, give yourself extra time to discover some of its most iconic specialties. Poland proudly boasts many regional cuisines which I plan to introduce in future articles. For now, here are my top 10 things to do in Krakow:
The Old Town
Any list of must-see places in Krakow starts with the Old Town, Stare Miasto. The oldest and the most famous part of the city was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List over 40 years ago. This part of Krakow never sleeps. There’s always something happening 24 hours a day through activities that vary by season. In the summer months, social life revolves around the restaurants and cafes located in the main square, Rynek Główny, and nearby streets. Things get a bit quieter during cold and snowy winters when locals and tourists enjoy mulled wine in old Krakow cellars.
If the Old Town is the center of Krakow, the Market Square is certainly its beating heart. It is the largest square in Poland and, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful in Europe. The square is always noisy and loud. You can expect to hear street musicians entertaining crowds, horse-drawn carriages clattering on cobblestone streets, and the sound of the bugle from the tower of St. Mary’s Basilica at the top of the hour. It’s far from serene and that’s part of its charm. For those looking for tranquility, side streets off the Market Square offer an escape from the hustle-and-bustle. For me, this place is what Krakow is all about. I could spend hours in the square watching kids chasing soap bubbles, people feeding pigeons, admiring street artists, or simply enjoying Polish specialties served by many restaurants surrounding the square.
The Cloth Hall (Sukiennice)
Right in the middle of Market Square is Cloth Hall (Sukiennice in Polish), one of the most important historical buildings in the city. It’s considered the world’s oldest shopping mall. Sukiennice includes two rows of stalls selling leather goods, folk-inspired artifacts, hats, lace, jewelry, woodcraft, and souvenirs. A decade ago, a branch of the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow opened in its basement. The museum is a real treasure and worth a quick visit for those interested in Krakow’s past.
St. Mary’s Basilica
The basilica is the most prominent landmark of Old Town and one of the most famous churches in the country. It is full of priceless objects, including brilliant stained-glass windows and a magnificent altar. Two towers top the basilica, the taller of which served as a watchtower during medieval times. A guard manned the tower day and night. He would blow on his bugle to warn citizens of fires, invaders, and other dangers. Even today, a “guard” blows his bugle from the watchtower, though it is done to mark the top of the hour, and it is decidedly more mellow. The bugle call has become the musical symbol of Krakow, and crowds gather to hear it. This watchtower offers a gorgeous, panoramic view of Krakow for those willing to climb its 300 steps.
Town Hall Tower
Also known as the Krakow Leaning Tower, the Town Hall Tower is the only remaining part of Krakow’s old town hall built in the 1300s. The tower displays black and white photographs of Krakow, medieval costumes, and a nice view of the city. Near the top, there is an old clock mechanism that visitors have a chance to see from inside. There is also a small café and theatre located in the basement.
Made famous by Steven Spielberg’s film, Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory attracts record numbers of tourists from Poland and around the world. This museum not only exhibits the life and work of Oskar Schindler but also illustrates both the tragic and uplifting life in Krakow during World War II. In my opinion, Schindler’s Factory is one of the best museums in Poland and one not to be missed during a visit to Krakow. I highly recommend booking your tickets in advance.
Planty is the garden that surrounds the Old Town. It is one of the largest parks in the country, with a circumference of over four km. Originally the park was planted with mainly chestnut trees, but nowadays, it’s a home for a variety of the trees like lindens, maples, and spruces. It is the Central Park of Krakow (albeit smaller in scale) where we can find joggers, walkers, and cyclists. With plenty of areas for rest, the park is the perfect place to relax for locals and tourists alike.
Florianska has always been one of the most important streets in the city. It’s been the center of artistic life for many famous Polish writers, painters, and performers. On both sides of the street, there are beautiful, historic tenement houses, including the oldest hotel in the city from the 1800s and a pharmacy museum that showcases exhibits from over 1,000 pharmacies from all over the country. Today, the street is a major tourist attraction. There are many shops, restaurants, cafes, and similar establishments, but their exterior building has been carefully preserved to maintain their original beauty.
The Wawel Royal Castle on Wawel Hill is one of Poland’s greatest places of historical and cultural importance. For centuries, it was the home of kings and the place where Polish history was made.
It has become one of the most important museums in the country, and, in 1978, it was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List along with Old Town. The complex has beautiful gardens, courtyards, a chapel, a treasury, stately rooms, city views, and, of course, the Wawel Castle itself. Make sure to plan your visit and be sure to pick up self-guide headsets. Allow yourself half a day to discover this magical place.
Kazimierz is the former Jewish district situated a stone’s throw from the Old Town. After the Jewish population resettled here in the 15th century, it quickly became an important center of Jewish culture in Poland and the world. Many outstanding scientists, writers, and politicians were born in this area. Before WWII, approximately 60,000 Jews were living in Krakow, but tragically most did not survive the war.
Today, Kazimierz is one of the main attractions of Krakow, buzzing with cultural and artistic life. It tends to attract those who want to feel Krakow’s bohemian spirit. Endless cafes with unique character and artistic flair, as well as many well-known art studios and galleries, fill the district. You can expect to see a mix of historical monuments and synagogues (including the Old Synagogue, the oldest surviving synagogue in Poland from the 1400s) along with highly-rated restaurants and food trucks.
The Vistula River (Wisla in Polish) is the longest river in Poland. It traverses through four countries (Slovakia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Poland) and cuts through Krakow and Warsaw before flowing into the Baltic Sea in Gdansk. The Vistula riverbank in Krakow is among the most relaxing places in the city, along with Planty. It’s where locals sunbathe, picnic, and go for a leisurely walk or bike ride. There are a wide variety of churches, new developments, industrial parks, and bridges along the Vistula. Visitors can walk along the riverbank or enjoy the view from one of the restaurant ships that dot the river.
You can explore Krakow in multiple ways. Guided tour options include walking, biking, golf carts, and even Segway tours. Traveling couples may opt for romantic boat tours. It’s a city for those interested in history and art as well as culinary and alcoholic adventures. Krakow caters to students, families, and seniors by offering a variety of activities like vodka tasting, traditional Polish dumpling cooking classes, food tours, pub crawls, and museum tours. It’s worth mentioning that visiting Poland won’t break the bank, and your dollars (or pounds or euros as the case may be) will go farther than many other European countries. You will be able to eat, see, and enjoy so much more compared to better-known tourist hotspots.
Hopefully, I have piqued your interest to discover what is in my mind about the most beautiful city in Poland. I personally can’t wait to be back there again. Stand by for my gastronomic guide to Poland for all you foodies out there.
by Anna Lech