The sheer number of attractions and activities in Kraków means that 24 hours is not enough time to visit the city in its entirety. Not only will you have to miss the many attractions of the Wieliczka salt mines or one of the tours to Auschwitz concentration camp, but you won't be able to see some very worthwhile sights in the city itself.
However, with a good itinerary you will be able to see the city's must-see sights. The small size of the Stare Miasto (the World Heritage-listed Old Town) and the short walking distances will allow you to visit at least the Market Square, Wawel Castle and part of the Jewish Quarter.
1. Search for the Wawel Dragon on the banks of the Vistula River
To start the tour of Krakow it is very important to be sure that you will have to get up early in the morning to make up for the lack of time. The first place to go is to the banks of the Vistula River, more specifically to the iron statue of a dragon under the Wawel Hill.
This dragon is one of the main symbols of the city. The legend, which you can read in more detail at this link, tells that many centuries ago, an animal of this type inhabited a cave on the hill and terrorised the inhabitants of the area.
The fact that the statue spits fire from its mouth every few minutes should definitely be at the top of this list of things to do in Krakow with children, as they are sure to be fascinated.
On the other hand, the so-called Dragon Cave, located next to the statue, can be visited during the summer months. However, on this occasion we will have to pass it up in order to continue with the itinerary.
Guided or self-guided tour?
There are several guided tours in Kraków that will cover approximately the points of interest I'm pointing out. Hiring one or doing it on your own has its pros and cons, so it's up to you to decide what to do.
The main advantage of a tour, especially when you are short on time, is that you will get to the sights without having to stop to get your bearings. In addition, the guides will always provide you with interesting information about the places you visit.
On the other hand, Krakow is a very easy city to explore on your own, as its size means that you can get almost everywhere on foot. However, even if you prefer this option, it is worth hiring a guide for some of the tours.
2. Climb up to Wawel Castle and soak up history
From the base of the hill you have to take a short climb to reach one of the must-see places in Kraków: Wawe Castle.
This castle, named after the hill on which it was built, is one of the symbols of Polish national identity, as well as being one of its cultural centres. It was also the official residence of the country's kings for several centuries.
The complex is quite large, with a large central courtyard surrounded by several buildings, all with interesting interiors that are well worth a visit with time to spare:
- John Paul II Cathedral Museum: inaugurated by Karol Wojtyła, the Polish-born pope, in 1978, inside is an exhibition of religious artefacts.
- Entrance to the Dragon's Cave: From the castle you can enter the cave where a legendary dragon used to live. The exit is on the bank of the river, right where a statue has been built to commemorate him.
- Royal Palace: it was the first seat of the Polish monarchy. Later, the building was abandoned until it was rebuilt again.
- Other attractions include the Sandomierska Tower, the armoury and the remains known as the "Lost Wawel".
My advice, given the lack of time, is to dedicate the visit to see the exterior of the castle and the inner arcaded courtyard. The Palace and the royal flats take several hours, so it might be better to leave them for another time.
- Price: Entrance to the courtyard is free, while each of the attractions inside have a different price.
- Opening times: The usual opening time is 9.30am and the gates close at 5pm.
3. Enter the Wawel Cathedral, a symbol of Catholic Poland
One of the most important cathedrals in the country is locatedwithin the hilltop enclosure. This temple, with more than 1,000 years of history, was the place where some of the Polish kings were crowned and also buried.
Together with the palace, this Gothic-style cathedral made Wawel Hill the centre of religious and political power in the country for many centuries.
Inside you can see 18 funerary chapels, among which the one of Sigismund I stands out, considered to be the best example of the Renaissance in Poland. Also of interest is the mausoleum of St. Stanislaus, the patron saint of the country. Finally, it is worth climbing the Sigismund Tower and contemplating the 12-ton bell that stands there.
- Price: Entrance to the cathedral is free, but the Sigismund Chapel has to be paid for. Entrance to the church is free, but to enter the Sigismund Chapel you will have to pay an entrance fee of around 15 zlotys (just over €3). Students and pensioners pay half price.
- Opening hours: Monday to Saturday the chapel is open from 9:00 to 17:00 (except from September to March, when it closes one hour earlier). On Sundays it opens later, at 12:30.
4. Stroll along Grodzka Street
After leaving the cathedral, descend the hill to enter the Old Town of Kraków, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To do so, look for Grodzka Street, one of the liveliest streets in the city.
This street, nowadays eminently commercial, was once part of the so-called Royal Road, a route that crossed the entire walled enclosure from the castle to St. Florian's Gate. During this walk you can take the opportunity to browse the craft shops, but without losing sight of the beautiful pastel-painted façades of the 16th and 17th century buildings.
If you prefer (or have time to see both), you can choose the street parallel to Grodzka, the Kanonicza. Here you can see Renaissance houses and some old churches.
No matter which one you walk along, you should stop (at least to look outside) at the Church of St. Peter and Paul to see the statues of the 12 apostles. Likewise, it's well worth a visit to the church of San Andrés to revel in its baroque style. Both are among the most important churches in Krakow.
5. Market Square, the heart of the city
At the end of Grodzka Street is the extraordinary Market Square with all its monuments and activities. It is, without a doubt, the heart of the historical centre and the city's landmark. Surrounded by Renaissance buildings, it is one of the most beautiful medieval squares on the continent.
If you go to Krakow at Christmas time, you cannot miss the fabulous flea market that is set up here and which you can stroll around while listening to the Christmas choirs that perform on some of the stages set up for the occasion.
Among the highlights of the square is the Lonja de Paños, built in 1257 and today occupied by several souvenir and craft shops. The beauty of this palace has made it one of the most photographed buildings in Kraków. In its time, it was a place dedicated to trade, to the extent that some historians consider it to be the first commercial centre in history.
Depending on your interests, you can go up to the first floor of the building, where the National Museum of Krakow is located, or go down to the underground to see the Rynek Museum.
Another point of great interest not to be missed as you wander around the square is the Old Town Hall Tower, the only remnant of a building demolished at the beginning of the 19th century. My advice is to climb its 110 steps to reach its viewing platform, one of the most outstanding in the city. .
The visit to the Basilica of Santa Maria is a must. Inside you can see the largest wooden altarpiece in Europe, measuring 12 metres in length. You can also climb one of its two Gothic towers to see the views, although if you have already done so in the Town Hall Tower, this is not necessary.
Joaquín's Traveller Tip:
Try to make your visit to the basilica coincide with a certain time of day. At that time a small door opens in one of the towers and a trumpeter comes out to play a melody.
6. Dine at Bar Mleczny Filarkami
You've probably worked up an appetite after all this sightseeing. To recharge your batteries I advise you to go to a reminiscence of the communist era: the Bar mleczny or Milk Bars. These are small restaurants that originally catered mainly to workers at a modest price.
Some of them have survived the passage of time and retain some of their characteristics. The food they serve is simple and traditional and the prices are among the lowest you will find in the country. Another point to remember is that they do not serve alcoholic drinks.
Obviously, they don't have the style of the best restaurants in the city, but I can assure you that the food is more authentic and the atmosphere is worth it.
For this day I recommend Bar Mleczny Filarkami, as it is only 10 minutes away from the square, on the way to the Jewish quarter where the tour continues in the afternoon. One of its advantages is that it has a menu in English, which is not always the case in this type of establishment.
Note that in Poland, people usually eat at around 13:00, although there is no problem to stay late until 14:00 or even a little later.
- Address: ul. Starowiślna 29
- Opening hours: from 8:00 to 18:00 from Monday to Friday. Saturday and Sunday 09:00 - 16:00
7. Get lost in Kazimierz and visit its synagogues
After lunch it is a 10-minute walk to the next point on the tour: Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of the city.
This area underwent a revitalisation after the filming of Schindler's List and is considered one of the most interesting places to see in the whole city, as it is full of synagogues and interesting corners.
In my opinion, it is one of the most attractive parts of the city, both for its streets and buildings and for the atmosphere. You only have to read the article What to see and do in Krakow's Jewish Quarter to get an idea of what you can do during your trip.
The most important street in Kazimierz is called Szeroka. Here you will find several synagogues, Jewish bookshops and restaurants serving kosher food. Here you will also find the Martyrdom Monument, which pays homage to the 65,000 inhabitants of the neighbourhood who were murdered by the Nazis.
It is difficult to find time to visit all the synagogues in the area. The best thing to do, therefore, is to choose a couple of them to visit and see the rest from the outside as you stroll around the neighbourhood.
I recommend two of them for entry:
- Old Synagogue: the most important synagogue in the whole neighbourhood. Although the current synagogue dates from the 16th century, it is known that there was another synagogue on the same site a century earlier. Built in Renaissance style, it now houses an interesting museum that explains how the once large Jewish community lived.
- Remuh Synagogue: this is the only synagogue in the entire Jewish quarter that continues to offer worship. It dates back to the 16th century and hides a cemetery at the back. There is an entrance fee, but it is an essential visit, although it is much more pleasant in autumn when the presence of tourists diminishes and the fallen leaves form a beautiful carpet in the cemetery.
- Opening hours: These synagogues (and the rest of the synagogues in Kazimierz) open at 09:00 in the morning and close at 16:00 in the afternoon, although in summer the closing time is delayed until 18:00. They are closed on Saturdays and Jewish holidays.
- Admission: The entrance fee is around PLN 10 (about €2.5). Some groups can buy a reduced ticket for half that price.
8. Relax with a drink at 2 Okna Cafe
A good walk through the streets of the quarter and a visit to the synagogues is worth a reward. One of my favourite places to do this in Kazimierz is the 2 Okna Cafe on Józefa Street.
The café, which also serves sweets, has a couple of tables outside. However, if the weather is nice, I recommend going into the inner courtyard.
In addition to coffee and tea, from the end of September onwards, the café offers a wonderful mulled wine. If you are feeling a little more daring, you can also try the hot beer or even the hot cider or vodka with spices.
9. A film set: the stairs from Schindler's List
An interesting place related to Oskar Schindler, in this case to the film, are the stairs located in an inner courtyard between Jozefa and Meiselas Streets. If you have seen the film, you will recognise the scene of one of its most dramatic scenes, the one reflecting the eviction of the ghetto by Nazi troops.
10. Plac Nowy, an atmospheric square to dine in.
There are few better places to end a visit to Kraków than Plac Nowy (New Square), also known by the nickname of Jews' Square. At its centre is a circular building (the Okraglak) which was built in 1900 to serve as a poultry butcher's shop.
Today, numerous stalls have been set up, both in the building and in various areas of the square. They sell a variety of food, from grilled meat to sausages and Poland's most popular fast food dish, the zapiekanka.
The zapiekanka, despite its simplicity, is a dish capable of satisfying anyone's appetite and palate. It consists of half a loaf of bread spread with oil and butter and topped with various ingredients, such as ham, tomatoes or mushrooms. It is then covered with grated cheese and heated in the oven.
The square fills up with young (and not so young) people to get something to eat, to the point that it is difficult to sit down on one of the few chairs in the place. However, you can also order your own food and look for a free bench.
If you're in the mood, the streets around the square are full of cafés and pubs. The city's student atmosphere can be felt in these places, whose presence has given the neighbourhood a festive and somewhat bohemian atmosphere.
How to get from the airport to the city to save time
If you prefer public transport, you don't have to worry too much about how long it will take you to reach the city. There are several bus lines (208, 252 and 902) with a high frequency of departures that will get you to the city centre in about 45 minutes.
Finally, the fastest means of transport is the train. A train leaves the airport approximately every 30 minutes and arrives in the city in just 18 minutes. The stop in Kraków is at the central station**(Kraków Główny**), just a few minutes from the entrance to the historic centre.
Where to change from euros to zlotys?
A good place to change money is the big shopping centre next to the central railway station. On the first floor there are a couple of bureaux de change with a good rate.
In the city centre you will also find more money exchange offices, with a much better rate than you can find at the airport. One of the best tips for visiting Krakow is to never change money on arrival, but to compare two or three to get an idea of the most favourable exchange rate.
On the other hand, you'll be able to pay by card in many shops and restaurants, especially if they're in the more touristy areas. If you prefer to withdraw money from an ATM, I recommend you check the possible commissions that your bank will charge you for withdrawing cash abroad.