A historic centre listed as a World Heritage Site, a Jewish quarter that stores centuries of history and an increasingly lively atmosphere are just some of the many reasons to visit Kraków. Two days is the minimum amount of time you should spend in the city to see most of its attractions.
The tour I've prepared includes the city's must-see sights, from its medieval historic centre to the notorious Jewish ghetto, via Kazimierz (the former Jewish quarter) and Wawel Hill.
Day 1: Get to know Stare Miasto, Kraków's medieval historic centre
The area of Kraków's medieval historic centre is undoubtedly the most visited by tourists. Inside the old walled city you will find many of the monuments, churches and buildings that are not to be missed, as well as a large number of shops and restaurants.
Its cobbled streets, lined with beautiful pastel-painted houses, are perfect for strolling through, and you'll be amazed at every turn.
You can book a guided tour or do it on your own. Both styles will allow you to get to know perfectly each of the interesting places found in this area of the city.
Enter the historical centre through the Florian Gate and discover the Barbican and the city walls
To enter the Stare Miasto you should go in front of Matejko Square, where an equestrian statue of Wladyslaw II, one of the kings of Poland, stands. The ensemble is known as the Grunwald Monument.
For centuries the old town was enclosed by walls, of which only a few hundred metres remain. The entrance to the town was the Florian Gate, built in the 13th century. Today, it is the only remaining gate and is the perfect place to start a visit to the historic centre.
This gate is a kind of tower about 35 metres high. It once marked the beginning of the Royal Way, a route taken by kings on their way to be crowned at Wawel Castle.
Just beyond the Florian Gate is the Barbican, a circular fortification dating from the late 15th century. Inside the Barbican there are often exhibitions on various themes which you can visit if you are interested at the time.
In the area, before going deeper into the medieval centre, you can also see the Cabinetmakers' Tower, the Carpenters' Tower and part of the old city wall.
Walk along Florianska Street
In order to continue the tour, you must enter Florianska Street, which leads from the Barbican to the heart of the medieval city.
This street is not only the best known in Kraków, but is also famous throughout Poland. In fact, statistics state that it is the third most expensive street in the country, behind only two in Warsaw.
It is safe to say that every metre of the street is full of charm. Although it is now lined with shops, cafés and restaurants, they are located in old buildings that are a delight to look at.
On this tour you should pay particular attention to the Matejko House, number 41 on the street. This house was the residence of a famous painter of the same name and today there is a museum with his works and some military objects and historical costumes that he collected himself.
Another interesting building is today's Jama Michalika café, a meeting place for the city's artists and journalists in the 19th century. Its interior is decorated in Art Nouveau style and is worth a look.
The Pod Hotel Roza, with a 16th-century Renaissance portal, and other historic houses lining the street are other points to look out for as you stroll along.
Market Square, the heart of the Old Town
At the end of Florianska Street is Kraków's Market Square, undoubtedly the most famous place in the whole of Kraków. The buildings on the square, both those you can visit and those you can't, are well worth a visit.
This square, which at Christmas in Krakow hosts a fabulous Christmas market and at Easter stalls selling handicrafts from various neighbouring countries, has a few attractions that are worth a closer look:
- St. Mary's Basilica: without a doubt, this temple is one of the most important churches in Krakow. It has two irregular towers, with different heights and different finishes. If you want, you can climb one of them to admire the views.
- Cloth Exchange: this old 13th century market is now full of stalls selling souvenirs to tourists. In addition, both the first floor and the underground floor house two different museums.
- Old Town Hall Tower: this tower is the last vestige of the building that housed the city's town hall. Built in the 16th century, you can climb up to the viewpoint it houses, although you must be prepared for narrow stairs of more than 100 steps.
Joaquín's Traveller Tip:
Every hour a small door opens in one of the towers of the Basilica of Santa María and a trumpeter comes out of it and plays a short melody. If you're in the area, it's a fun time to spend in the square.
Grab a bite to eat in the area
This can be a good time to recharge your batteries. So that you don't have to stray too far from your route, I suggest you eat at one of these restaurants located near the square:
Milkbar Tomasza: this place is a sort of a more modern version of the traditional Polish milk bars. The prices are very low and the service is very fast. Another advantage is that the menu is in English. It is located on Świętego Tomasza Street.
Chlopskie Jadlo: although the price is high by Polish standards (about €15 per person), this traditional restaurant is worth the money, especially as it is located in the city centre. You can order anything from typical pierogis to zurek soup. It is located at 9 Grodzka Street.
Joaquín's Traveller Tip:
the lunch time in Poland is earlier than in Spain. Normally, lunch is eaten around 13:00, although in most places you won't have any problems if you arrive an hour later.
Follow in the footsteps of Copernicus in the Collegium Maius
Still within the historic centre is the Collegium Maius. The building, which has been renovated several times, was built in the 15th century and has seen such important figures as Nicolaus Copernicus pass through its halls.
The visit inside, which can only be guided, is really interesting. In its rooms you will be able to see a large number of objects related to almost all areas of knowledge: physics, chemistry, meteorology, cartography and, of course, astronomy.
You will also find some curious items such as the Oscar won by the Polish film director Andrzej Wajda and a photograph of the Earth taken from the moon donated and signed by Neil Armstrong.
The building's courtyard, with its fountain, is another must-see area. On one side of the courtyard is an antique clock that opens every two hours to reveal a parade of wooden figurines while music plays.
Forget about time at Wawel Castle
The next point on the tour is on top of a small hill. It is the so-called Wawel Castle, a fortification that is more than 1000 years old. Among other things, the complex housed the former seat of Polish royalty until the 17th century.
According to legend, this hill was home to a dragon, the Smok Wawelski or Wawel Dragon. Here is the story adapted for if you go to Krakow with children and you want to show them the sculpture (next to the river, at the base of the hill) that represents the beast and that expels fire every few minutes.
Inside the Royal Palace you will be able to visit several rooms, with different entrances for each of them. It is best to choose the ones you are most interested in before buying your ticket:
- Lost Wawel: an exhibition on the history of the hill located in the basement of the palace.
- State Rooms: several rooms with furniture, paintings, tapestries and other original objects from the palace.
- Royal Apartments: the rooms where the royal family resided.
- Treasury and Armoury: as the name suggests, here you can see jewellery, weapons and armour.
In addition to these interior visits, the castle also has an exterior garden which is well worth a leisurely stroll. Admission is free.
Don't miss the Wawel Cathedral
Still within the castle complex is the impressive cathedral dedicated to St. Stanislaus, which you can enter for free.
In the old days, this was the place where kings were crowned, so it played a very important role in the history of the country.
Inside you can see the Sigismund Chapel, which does have an entrance fee, built in a beautiful Renaissance style and with a beautiful dome. You should also take a look at the Mausoleum of St. Stanislaus and the crypt in which several of the country's kings are buried.
If you wish, it is also interesting to climb the Sigismund Tower and see the impressive 16th century bell that was installed in the defensive towers of the complex.
Walk along Grodzka Street until you reach the Market Square again.
Descending from the hill, look for the beginning of Grodzka Street, one of the busiest streets in the centre. In addition to shops and beautiful buildings, this street is home to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, one of the most beautiful in the whole country, especially for its exterior decoration.
My advice is to walk down this street at your own pace and sometimes take a detour to its parallel street, Kanonicza Street. On both you will enjoy the view of some Renaissance houses and other churches.
At the end of the day's tour you return to the Market Square. Stay there to see the night illumination and look for a place to have dinner nearby or, if you prefer, on your way back to the hotel.
Day 2: Kraków's Jewish heritage, from synagogues to ghetto
Many tourists choose the morning of their second day to take a trip to Auschwitz or the Wieliczka salt mines. However, in my opinion there is still a lot to see in Krakow, especially if you want to get to know the city in depth.
If you decide to do the tour, you can read my itinerary on what to see in Krakow in 1 day and add some more for the time you have left over in the afternoon after returning from the tour.
In case you decide to finish seeing the city, I've booked the Jewish Quarter and the remains of the city's notorious ghetto for the second day.
Explore Kazimierz, the thriving Jewish Quarter
After a leisurely breakfast, the tour will start in this beautiful neighbourhood south of Wawel Castle. The area is within easy walking distance from the centre, but if your hotel is too far away or you simply don't feel like walking, you can always take a tram to the entrance of Kazimierz, Kraków's Jewish quarter.
Kazimierz was founded as an independent town in the 14th century, but was incorporated into Kraków as early as the 19th century. From its foundation until the Second World War, it was home to the Jewish community, which made it one of the worst affected areas after the Nazi invasion. Many of its inhabitants ended up in the ghetto or in a concentration camp.
Today, the neighbourhood is home to the second largest collection of Jewish monuments on the continent, second only to Prague. Its most important street is called Szeroka and is a great place to start your itinerary.
To get to know the area well, you can hire a guided tour (there are several that cover the neighbourhood) or just wander around at your own pace, discovering its beautiful nooks and crannies. If you go on Sunday, don't miss the antiques market in Nowy square.
Enter the Old Synagogue to learn about Jewish culture in Krakow
A visit to the Old Synagogue on Szeroka Street, the oldest Hebrew temple in the country, is a must on your tour of the Jewish Quarter.
As well as looking at the exterior, it is also well worth going inside to see the Museum of Jewish Culture. Once you have paid the entrance fee, you will be able to witness the history of the Jewish community in Kraków thanks to the objects on display. You will learn about their culture, their way of dressing, their celebrations and, perhaps most shockingly, the persecution to which they were subjected by the Nazis.
Apart from the objects and photographs in the museum, the highlight of the interior of the temple is the prayer room, with an altar where the Torah was read and a niche in which the sacred texts were kept.
Discover the Remuh Synagogue Cemetery
Another synagogue in Kazimierz that you must visit is the Remuh Synagogue (also for a fee), built in the 16th century. Although it is the smallest synagogue in the district, it is the only one that still retains its religious function.
Behind the main building is a very interesting cemetery. Unfortunately, some of the oldest graves were destroyed by the Germans and their remains used as paving stones for the streets.
Stroll through the quarter and see the Isaac's Synagogue and the Tempel Synagogue
As you stroll through the streets of the quarter, you can't miss two other synagogues. Although you can enter both, it may be enough to see them from the outside.
The first is Isaac's Synagogue, at number 18 Kupa Street. The building, of rather simple architecture, was built in the 17th century on behalf of a Jewish banker and merchant.
The other synagogue you should visit is the Tempel Synagogue, the last one built in Kazimierz at the end of the 19th century. The highlight of the temple is its stained glass windows.
Eating in the Jewish Quarter
There is no doubt that while strolling through the quarter you will have noticed the large number of restaurants in its streets. The ones next to the Old Synagogue are a bit more expensive, but they have a good range of kosher dishes, which you will know if you have taken a gastronomic tour of Kraków.
If you prefer something less touristy, you will not be short of options in the neighbourhood, such as the simple Polakowski Restauracja (on Miodowa Street) or the Kuchnia Domowa Sąsiedzi (on the same street).
A visit to the Oscar Schindler's factory
To reach the next point on the itinerary, leave the Jewish Quarter and cross the Vistula River over the Powstańców Śląskich Bridge. Then look for Lipowa Street, where you will find what is known as Schindler's Factory.
Both the factory itself and its namesake, Oskar Schindler, became internationally famous after the release of Spielberg's film 'Schindler's List', which was partly filmed in Kraków.
Schindler was a German businessman who managed to save the lives of more than 1000 Jews by using his kitchen equipment factory.
Today, the factory is the site of the permanent exhibition "Kraków under Nazi occupation". Here you can see the history of the city during the Second World War, as well as some objects used in the filming of the movie.
Remnants of horror in Podgórze, the Jewish ghetto
Surrounding Schindler's Factory is what remains of one of the most horrific places that existed in Kraków during World War II: the Jewish ghetto. The Nazis sent more than 15,000 people there to, in their words, 'cleanse the city of Jews'. To isolate them, they built a wall around the 30 streets where the deportees lived in overcrowded conditions.
Podgórze, the name of the neighbourhood that housed the ghetto, has its centre in Bohaterów Square. A monument of 60 chairs has been erected there to commemorate the Jews who were moved to the area.
On Lwowska Street and Limanowskiego Street you can see the few remnants of the wall that once surrounded the Jewish ghetto.
Enter a hero's shop: the Eagle's Pharmacy
On a corner of Bohaterów Square stands the Eagle's Pharmacy (Apteka pod Orlem), known for its owner's resistance to leaving when the ghetto was built.
Unlike other shopkeepers in the area, the pharmacist preferred to remain there and it is believed that he helped to save several of the Jews who were moved there. Inside you can now see an exhibition on the atrocities committed by the Nazis.
Don't miss the façade of St. Joseph's Catholic Church
Continuing along the bank of the river, I recommend that you walk along the streets leading from the old ghetto until you find the Catholic church of St. Joseph. Although its interior is rather simple, you should not miss the opportunity to admire its splendid façade.
From here you should continue walking towards the river until you cross it again, this time over the Marshal Józef Piłsudski Bridge.
Dinner in Plac Nowy
To finish the itinerary, walk back into Kazimierz until you reach the New Square, Plac Nowy in Polish. There you will see a circular building in the centre which was built to house a slaughterhouse. Today it is full of small kiosks selling food, especially zapiekanka, a kind of baguette with mushrooms and other ingredients.
Around the square there are also other stalls offering everything from grilled meats to homemade sausages. There is no better place to dine than here, either on one of the few chairs in the area or on one of the benches in the square.