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Krakow, Poland is One of Central Europe’s Most Underrated Destinations

If I’m being honest, Poland had never been on my travel bucket list, but this summer when my husband and I were deciding where we wanted our next destination to be after spending two months in Southern Turkey and Greece, Krakow came up several times as a great city break. After doing some preliminary research, my interest was piqued at all the interesting things to do and the deep and dark history to be learned – so we booked our tickets and off we went!

After spending a week in Krakow in the month of July, I can say that it is one of Europe’s more underrated destinations, not as widely mentioned as other nearby cities such as Budapest or Vienna. Krakow is filled with fascinating history, delicious cuisine and beautiful architecture, and I highly recommend adding it to your Europe bucket list! We thoroughly enjoyed our time and were delighted by how friendly the locals were. The city was clean and safe, and didn’t feel crowded at all, even during the peak of summer. The most crowded area was the Main Market Square (inside the Old Town), but even that didn’t feel as touristic as a main square would in, say, Florence or Sevilla. Krakow was also a great place for family travel, as we traveled with our then 11-month-old baby.

Getting around in Krakow was very easy, as most attractions are within walking distance, and Ubers were widely available.

Below I will detail 16 unforgettable things to do in Krakow in addition to local Polish foods you should try, and lastly, where to stay in Krakow!

  1. Visit the Main Square 
  2. Explore Polish-Made Souvenirs Inside Cloth Hall
  3. Stroll Through Planty Park
  4. Visit Wawel Castle
  5. Cross the Vistula River Via Father Bernatek Footbridge
  6. Photograph the Disney-Like Eglise Saint Joseph Church
  7. Wander the Hip, Local District of Podgorze
  8. Climb Krakus Mound to See the Best Panoramic View of Krakow
  9. Treat Yourself to a Thai Massage
  10. Visit Schindler’s Enamel Factory (free on Mondays)
  11. Take a Free Walking Tour of the Jewish Quarter
  12. Pay Your Respects at the Ghetto Heroes Square
  13. Try Delicious Polish Cuisine in the Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz
  14. Try Zapiekanka – a Tasty Local Snack
  15. Shop at Stary Kleparz Market
  16. Go Deep Underground at the Wieliczka Salt Mines

The Main Square is the center of the city and the most touristic part of Krakow. Here you can marvel at the Neoclassical and Renaissance style architecture of Cloth Hall or relax at one of the many cafes and restaurants – a prime spot for people watching.

Be sure to go inside to check out the interior – this is a great place for souvenir shopping.

While Warsaw was heavily destroyed during WWII, Krakow remained in tact, and its historic center has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1978. It’s a humbling feeling to know that you’re walking the path of such historical significance.

Planty Park lines the circumference of the old town. Find some reprieve from a hot summer day (uncommon in Krakow, as temperatures are relatively cool), or rest your feet from a day of walking. Wawel Castle is on the South entrance of the main square and is walkable within minutes. The grounds are stunning and the landscape is well manicured. Wawel was the necropolis of Polish rulers and is where much of Poland’s history was shaped.

Walking along the Vistula River is a relaxing thing to do in any type of weather.

When you’re ready to exit the historic center and explore other parts of Krakow by foot, you can cross the Vistula River Via Father Bernatek Footbridge. Decorated with acrobatic statues, this picturesque bridge will bring you right to Eglise Saint Joseph Church, which looks like a castle straight out of a fairytale book.

Once you’ve crossed the bridge, you will now be in the hip, local neighborhood Podgorze.

While you’re in the Podgorze District, check out Krakus Mound to see the best panoramic view of Krakow.

What’s up with all the mounds in Krakow? Historically, mounds were erected to honor famous people or to commemorate historic events. Now they are used as hangout spots to enjoy a picnic with friends. There are five mounds in Krakow.

To get to Krakus Mound from downtown Krakow, you can take an Uber, or, if you enjoy walking, it will take around 45 minutes from the Main Square.

After all the walking you’ll be doing in Krakow, why not treat yourself to a Thai massage? There are many places offering Thai massage, and it’s one of our favorite things to do after a long day of walking.

Jewish History and World War II in Krakow

After exploring some of Krakow’s most beautiful city architecture and natural sights, you may be interested in learning more about the dark history in Krakow during WWII. Before the war began, 65,000 Jews were living in Krakow, and just six years later only 2,000 remained. This is one of the saddest and most painfully shameful chapters of our world history.

Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory is a well curated museum that gives a great deal of insight into this horrific time in history. Each room is built to resemble a specific place during that time (a hair salon, a labor camp, a train station, etc.) and the use of all the senses brings you into the moment as if you were there. The museum is free of charge on Mondays.

TIP FOR PARENTS: if you’re traveling with a baby, it’s best to hold them or take them in a carrier instead of a pram because it’s quite a tight squeeze with small spaces inside. This museum is not recommended for children under the age of 15, as the themes are very mature.

INTERESTING FACT: The movie Schindler’s List actually was actually based on a novel called Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally.

Mr. Schindler employed over 1,000 Jews to work in his factory, saving them from the Nazi death camps. The factory was originally a manufacturer of various enamels, but pivoted to making bullet casings in order to be deemed essential for the war effort and to not be shut down. There are 45 rooms total, and the cumulative effect of experiencing each room as a timeline through this piece of history will linger on your heart for a long time to come.

The Museum of Contemporary Art is located next door to Schindler’s Factory, so you can plan to visit both in the same day. However, do note that the Museum of Contemporary Art is closed on Mondays while Schindler’s Factory is free of admission on Mondays.

Next to the museum you will find an indoor food hall serving international cuisine with comfortable outside seating, beanbag chairs, and a small playground and swing for children. Kresova was our favorite food stall, serving Georgian, Armenian and Ukrainian dumplings.

Whenever my husband and I visit a new city, the first thing we do is take a free walking tour. I highly recommend the company Walkative. If you’re not familiar with how free walking tours work, you can sign up online (or just show up at the designated time and meeting spot) and you tip at the end based on how you felt the tour guide was. We did two free walking tours with this company and really enjoyed them. The guide handed out a personalized city guide book that he curated alongside his colleagues, and it was full of hidden gems for recommendations on where to eat, shop, support local businesses, and sightsee, along with other local tips.

Taking a tour of the Jewish Ghetto was the best way to learn about the history and bring the area to life, to really understand the significance of what happened in that area. The main spot to visit in this area is Ghetto Heroes Square, a living monument of 70 large chairs, commemorating the people who were killed during the liquidation and deportation. It is a somber and emotionally provoking sight.

On a lighter note, the Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz) is now home to some of the best local Polish cuisine in Krakow. Head over to the round building called Plac Nowy to try a local Polish favorite, zapiekanka, a toasted baguette street food filled with as many toppings as your heart desires! My choice was mushrooms, chives and cheese.

For more immersion into local Polish food, head to Stary Kleparz, the oldest continually operating market in Krakow for 600 years (closed Sundays). Here you’ll get a glimpse of local life in Krakow with folks doing their weekly grocery shopping.

For a unique experience, which is particularly great on a rainy day, go deep underground at Wieliczka Salt Mines.

Located 64 meters (around 200′) below ground, this unique attraction requires walking down 53 floors of stairs (not to worry, there’s a lift to get back up to the top), and is not for folks with claustrophobia because it requires going through tunnels and tight spaces.

Tip for parents traveling with littles: if you bring a pram, you’ll have to leave it at the top upon check-in and put your baby in a carrier, hold them, or have them walk. Our baby enjoyed touching the cool, smooth salty surfaces.

I highly recommend booking your tickets online in advance to select a time slot, as it gets very busy.

The salt mine brought a lot of wealth to Krakow because salt was used for food conservation before electricity and refrigeration became common. Excavation started in the year 1280 and ended in 1996. Conditions for the miners were actually relatively good, as the temperatures inside are always mild and they didn’t have to be outside during harsh Polish winters.

Where to Eat in Krakow

We dined at several tasty restaurants even though we were a bit limited by having our baby with us. There were two that stood out as unique: the first was Dobra Kasza Nasza, located in the main square. Typically we avoid restaurants in main squares because they cater to tourists and tend to be pricier, but this one in particular is known as a buckwheat-based restaurant that makes groats (hulled kernels of various grains such as oats or barley) the traditional way. The interior is beautiful withe gothic and renaissance elements. My favorite dishes were the duck leg (fall-off-the-bone tender, juicy meat) and the buckwheat groats pierogi.

The second was Goose Restaurant located in the Podgorze district. The star of this restaurant is – you guessed it – goose! Almost all of the dishes have goose incorporated into them, and it was so flavorful and delicious from the starters to the vodka tasting to the entrees. I ordered pulled goose with sour cherry compote and barley.

It would be blasphemous to leave Poland without trying pierogi. It seems that nearly every culture’s cuisine has a type of dumpling; Russia has the pelmeni, Japan has the gyoza, India has the samosa, etc. Pierogi are served in nearly every authentic Polish dining establishment and can be filled with all kinds of goodies. Below we have pierogi filled with spinach and cheese topped with pumpkin seeds and served with a side of sour cream.

If you’re visiting during summertime, cold beet soup is also popular and very refreshing in hot weather.

Where to Stay in Krakow

The great thing about visiting Krakow is that it’s quite small (as far as cities go), and most things are close and walkable. We stayed in a beautiful flat called Papillon Apartment by Loft Affair, located in more of a local neighborhood, so it was very quiet. We lived one block away from a supermarket, bakery and coffee shop, and just 15 minutes’ walk to the old town. We liked the tall ceilings and large kitchen, as well as the spacious living room. This two-bedroom flat worked well for us traveling with a baby.

Photo from Booking.com.

In conclusion, Krakow was a delightful city break and 100% worth the visit!

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