Of course, Kraków's offerings are not limited to its shops and restaurants. The capital of the Lesser Poland Voivodeship will surprise you with its gems, including the splendid Market Square and the amazing salt mine just a few kilometres from the Old Town.
1. Take a break from traditional coffee shops
Visiting Northern Europe in winter is a great way to get an insight into local customs and traditions. In Poland, for example, people like to spend their evenings in cafés drinking hot chocolate or a cup of tea, perhaps with a slice of cake on the side.
In Kraków, the café culture dates back to the 19th century when the city was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Viennese-style establishments were frequented by the intellectual elite. This custom survived communism and is still alive today. If you are interested in gastronomy, I recommend you to read the post about the best restaurants in Krakow.
In Krakow there are dozens of bars where you can warm up after a stroll through the centre. Read on, we have prepared a short list of the best options available:
Opened in 1910, Café Noworolski has witnessed Kraków's most important historical landmarks. The young Lenin used to read newspapers in its art nouveau salons and during the Second World War it was used as headquarters by German troops. If you close your eyes you can imagine a picture of the Polish city during the Belle Époque.
- Address: ul. Rynek Glowny 1 Sukiennice,
- Recommended for a slice of cake with a view of the Main Square and St. Mary's Basilica.
A favourite haunt of poets and composers. It's worth a stop at Nowa Prowincja for its thick hot chocolate. You can also opt for a glass of spiced wine.
- Address: Bracka 3, do 5
- Recommended for dessert lovers. Besides chocolate, Nowa Prowincja is known for its lemon meringue pie, szarlotka (apple pie) and cheesecake.
Kraków's oldest café. The Jama Michalika was founded in 1895, its café still offers a traditional menu covering all meals of the day, from breakfast to dinner. Although frequented by many tourists, it remains a must-visit stop.
- Address: ul. Florianska 45, Krakow
- Recommended for lovers of Art Nouveau. Młoda Polska, Poland's Art Nouveau movement, was born in this very establishment. Leading artists of the time placed their creations on the walls.
2. Celebrate the New Year on the Market Square
New Year's Eve is one of the most important festive nights in Krakow. On this date, the heart of the celebrations is the Market Square (Rynek Glowny) which for the occasion hosts a laser screen and a free music festival with both national and international artists. The concert usually starts at 20:30 and ends at midnight.
If you don't want to get cold, you can wait for the New Year in a restaurant. Most establishments have a New Year's Eve menu that ends at midnight with a glass of champagne. Among the highlights are the Wierzyneky Restaurant (which serves dishes prepared by the Polish royal court) and the elegant Miod Malina.
If you feel like letting off steam on the slopes, there's nothing to worry about - Kraków's centre is packed with nightlife! Some of the most sought-after options are the Cuban Theatre, the Alchemia and the Propaganda Pub. Please note that most bars and clubs operate on a reservation basis. On New Year's Eve you'll need to book in advance. Tickets usually go on sale in early November.
3. Explore the depths of the earth in the Wieliczka Mine
About 14 km southeast of Kraków is the Wieliczka Salt Mine, one of the country's most popular attractions. It is an underground labyrinth of tunnels and chambers on nine levels that has been attracting tourists since the mid-19th century. Nicolaus Copernicus, Fryderyk Chopin and Goethe succumbed to its charms, but they were not the only ones.
According to a recent survey, the inhabitants of Kraków indicated that their favourite attraction is the Wieliczka salt mine itself. In the belly of the earth, the temperature is almost always constant, so a visit in January is a good idea.
In the belly of the earth you will see landscapes that cannot be found on the surface: salt lakes and beautiful underground chambers, including the unique St. Kinga's Chapel. The world's largest church built underground is 101 metres deep and is made exclusively of rock salt.
This place of worship is dedicated to St. Kinga, the patron saint of miners. Tomasz Markowski sculpted the main altar, whose panels depict the figures of St Joseph, St Clement and St Kinga. The Polish artist also sculpted the side altars depicting Herod's decree, the massacre of the Innocents and a statue of the Virgin of Lourdes.
The site is located about 20 minutes from Kraków and can be easily reached by bus or train. However, if you want to explore the Wieliczka mine , it is best to book an organised tour. This way, an expert guide will accompany you all the way, explaining the most important historical anecdotes. For more information, see the article How to get to the Wieliczka Salt Mines from Kraków.
4. Head to Krzysztofory Palace and enjoy the szopki
One of the most typical Christmas traditions in Kraków is the creation of szopki, unique Christmas cribs. Instead of depicting a typical picture of a grotto, ox, donkey and the family of Jesus, these constructions are inspired by local palaces and churches and often contain the figures of important Polish personalities. The szopki are usually made of wood or plywood, while the smaller parts are usually made of cardboard.
The szopki first appeared in the 13th century and initially served as portable decorations for the jaselka, a medieval puppet theatre. Over time, these plays began to be used for political satire to such an extent that they were banned in the 18th century. Fortunately, after a century they were brought out of oblivion.
Today, Cracovians compete with each other to create the most beautiful szopki. If you want to see their creations, the Krzysztofory Palace hosts the best of them. The exhibition starts at the beginning of December and ends at the end of February.
5. Admire Krakow from a different perspective
When the temperatures drop, there is a good alternative to see the city's monuments in the cold. Naturally, we are talking about a boat trip that will give you the opportunity to see the Kraków skyline from comfortable seats. The cruises depart from the river port of bulwar Czerwieński and after an hour on the waters of the Vistula, they return to the starting point. On the way you can see the following attractions:
- Skalka, a Baroque church in the vicinity of the Kazimierz district.
- Wawel Hill with its castle and cathedral.
- The Monastery of the Norbertine Sisters, the largest religious complex in Krakow. If you are interested in religious architecture, I recommend the post about 10 must-see churches in Krakow.
- The Cricoteka Museum, an art documentation centre founded by Tadeusz Kantor in 1980.
- Dębniki, a peaceful neighbourhood on the banks of the Vistula.
- The futuristic Manggha Museum which houses an immense collection of Japanese art.
- Kosciuszko Mound, an artificial hill commemorating the national hero Tadeusz Koszciuszko.
6. Test yourself on the slopes of Zakopane
In recent years, Poland has become a popular destination for skiing enthusiasts. Resorts and slopes are much improved and the price of a day pass is less than half of what you'd pay in Austria or France. Forget the long Alpine and Pyrenean slopes - they tend to be shorter here, but this weakness can be a strength, especially if you're learning to ski.
If you're staying in Kraków, the nearest destination is Zakopane, a village in the foothills of the Tatra Mountains. The first travellers began arriving in the late 18th century and the construction of a railway in 1898 accelerated the conversion of this small mountain town into a renowned tourist destination.
Today, Zakopane is the winter capital of Poland and has three ski areas: Kasprowy Wierch (high alpine skiing 3 km from the centre), Nosal (with a special slalom and giant slalom slope) and Gubalowka Hill. After a day in the snow, you can go shopping on Krupowki Street or try a typical grzaniec, mulled wine with spices and honey.
Zakopane is about 85 km from Krakow, so it is possible to arrive in the morning and return in the afternoon. If you want to spend a day in the mountains, it is best to choose an organised tour. For more details, I advise you to read the article The best tours and excursions from Krakow.
7. Treat yourself to a night at the theatre
The Juliusz Słowacki Theatre was opened in 1893 and is located in the central Świętego Ducha Square. Designed by Jan Zawiejski, it is one of the most valuable examples of theatre architecture in Europe. Outside, you can appreciate its eclectic style that fuses neo-Renaissance and neo-Baroque elements, while the interiors are decorated with frescoes by the Viennese artist Anton Tuch. It is not for nothing that it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978.
Tours of the interior only take place in the summer months, but if you travel to the Polish city in January, you can discover it by buying a ticket for the building site. The programme is very varied and ranges from traditional to avant-garde performances. If you are interested, you can find all the performances on the official website. I recommend you buy your tickets well in advance. Spending a night at the theatre is the ideal way to take shelter from the January cold.
8. Mingle with the locals at the ice rinks
Kraków's ice rinks open in mid-December and close at the end of February. The main one is erected each year in Blonia Park, a vast 48-hectare meadow between the Old Town and the Park dedicated to the Polish philanthropist Henryk Jordan. Kraków's best ice rink has a 1,200-metre long rink, a 360-metre long ice path and a space for children to learn how to skate.
Outside the centre, you can opt for the skating rink located right in front of the Nowa Huta Cultural Centre. It has an area of 23 x 35 metres and is open from 1 December until the end of February. At both rinks, you can rent skates and helmets on site. There are also bars and food trucks with food and hot drinks.
9. Enjoy a carriage ride
When snow covers trees and meadows, nature takes on a magical touch. Around Kraków, the forests turn white every winter and a good way to enjoy this scenery is with a ride in a horse-drawn carriage. An interesting option is the Ojców National Park, the smallest natural area in the country and yet one of the best.
This area is characterised by steep slopes, rock formations and, above all, 400 caves. The horseback riding tours start from a farmhouse and take in the most beautiful spots in the National Park, such as the ruins of Kazimierz Castle. At the end of the ride, most experiences end with a bonfire where kielbasa, Polish sausages flavoured with garlic, juniper and marjoram, are roasted.
The walks last about an hour and prices depend on the number of people in the group. These tours are very popular with tourists and locals, so the organisers speak English and, in some cases, other languages as well. Some tours also organise transfers between Krakow and Ojców National Park.
These tours are also available in other seasons - just change the skates on the carriage for wheels! If you are interested in excursions in the warmer months, I advise you to read the post 10 things to do in Krakow in summer.
10. Warm up like a real lumberjack
Are you familiar with axe throwing? Axe throwing is a sport in which the competitor throws an axe at a target. The discipline was born across the pond and was first cemented by the Canadians. Today, the sport has crossed the ocean and Poland is one of the European countries with the longest tradition.
In Krakow, the axe-throwing venue is called Axe Nation and was born out of the intuition of three enthusiasts: Kacper Jurasz, Karolina Pach and Tomek Pietraszko. The establishment is located at 46 Grodzka Street, a five-minute walk from the central Market Square.
Axe Nation was born in 2016 and since then hosts a league that follows the original Canadian rules. The establishment is housed in a 13th-century basement and has three halls and five courts. Upon entering, a coach will explain the basic rules of the sport and give you helpful tips on how to throw the weapons correctly.
What to pack for Kraków in January
January is usually the coldest month of the year. During the day, the temperature is around freezing, while at night it can easily reach -7º/-10º. So what should you pack? First of all, it's best to dress in layers. Since you'll have to do some walking, take a warm jumper, a heavy jacket and a winter hat. Bear in mind that it might snow, so it is advisable to wear waterproof clothing. For more info, I recommend reading the post 10 things to do in Krakow in winter.
Alternative plans to keep out the cold in January
Visiting a museum is always a recommended option. If you like planes, the Museum of Polish Aviation (Al. Jana Pawła II 39) on the outskirts of Kraków is a must for any aviation enthusiast. Closer to the centre, another recommended option is MOCAK, Kraków's museum of contemporary art. Founded in 2011 in the post-industrial district of Zablocie, it has become the city's main centre of contemporary culture and is visited by more than 120,000 people every year.