Travelling to Croatia is always an opportunity to see all the sights and attractions on its streets, from the Old Town to the Jewish Quarter, not forgetting Wawel Castle and the surrounding area.
However, it is always considered that winter is not the best time to visit the city. Certainly, the low temperatures do not help to feel comfortable in the streets and the reduced daylight hours make it necessary to plan every day very well. Nevertheless, Kraków takes on a special beauty at this time of year and offers its visitors activities that they will never forget.
1. Go ice skating
One of the most popular winter traditions among Kraków's inhabitants is to go skating on one of the ice rinks that have been set up in the city since the beginning of December. If you like this activity or just want to have fun, don't hesitate to rent some skates and join the children and adults.
The best known rinks are the ones set up in the shopping centres. The most central one is located in the Krakowska Gallery, next to the train and bus stations, which you will know if you have come from the airport by public transport or visited the salt mines on your own.
The opening hours are the same as those of the shopping gallery and next to the rink you will find an area where you can have a glass of wine or a warm beer and a bite to eat. In the same area there is a changing room and a place to rent skates.
Another place where a skating rink is usually open is in the Jewish quarter, specifically in the Kazimierz Gallery.
Finally, you can go to Park Ice in Błonia Meadow, where the rink is open from December to March.
The price for skating is very cheap, although you will need to rent equipment to enjoy the activity.
2. Feel like a kid at the Christmas Market
If there is one winter activity in Kraków you can't miss, it is the Christmas Market. Although you can find some smaller ones in various squares around the city, none can compare to the one on the Market Square, the Rynek Glówny.
The square, already impressive for its beauty and monuments, takes on a unique dimension when the Christmas market is set up at the end of November and lasts until it is dismantled at the end of December or beginning of January.
The main attraction of the market is the numerous huts where craftsmen sell all kinds of products, from Christmas decorations (such as the popular tree baubles) to wooden handicrafts.
On the other hand, the square is more than ever the meeting place for Kraków's citizens. Its food stalls, which are truly spectacular, fill up almost hourly and it becomes difficult to order from them. Even so, I advise you to forget about the cold and dare to have lunch or dinner there one day.
The market is also full of stalls selling the country's traditional hot drinks, both wine and beer.
3. The search for cribs in Krakow
The beauty and uniqueness of the city's nativity scenes have led UNESCO to designate them as Intangible Cultural Heritage. A fun activity while strolling around Krakow is to look for the places where they are set up, often next to monuments.
These nativity scenes, called szopka, are very different from the Spanish ones. Instead of representing a nativity scene, Kraków's nativity scenes are small buildings that reproduce elements of the city's architecture.
One that particularly caught my eye was the one in front of St Joseph's Catholic Church, next to the Jewish ghetto. If you are visiting the area, don't hesitate to go to the square where the church is located to see it.
Every year, a competition is also held to choose the best nativity scene in the city. On the first Thursday in December they are exhibited in the Market Square and then placed in their places around the city. Some are also taken to the Ethnographic Museum.
4. Bid farewell to the year as a Kraków resident
If you are in Kraków on 31 December, you can't miss out on celebrating the end of the year. There is a party in practically every pub and bar in the city, but the most traditional place to go is the Market Square.
Here, free concerts are organised by some of the country's most famous singers. When the bells of St Mary's Basilica ring in the New Year, a fabulous fireworks display begins. Afterwards, the party goes on all night long.
5. Visit Auschwitz in the dead of winter
About 90 kilometres from Kraków lies one of the most horrible places in Europe's history: the Auschwitz concentration camp (or, rather, concentration camps, as there are several in the area). If you go there in winter you can see how the prisoners' already appalling living conditions were made even worse by the cold and snow.
Although it is possible to get to Auschwitz from Krakow on your own, it is best to go with a guide. In winter, when the camp closes much earlier (as you'll see in this article on visiting hours), it's even more convenient to book a tour from Krakow.
As well as being able to see the ravages of winter at the concentration camp, if you go to Auschwitz in late January you can witness the events taking place for the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust.
Every year on 27 January (the anniversary of the liberation of the camp by Soviet troops in 1945) there is an event in which some of the survivors of Auschwitz take part. A wreath is laid and a prayer is said in memory of the victims.
6. Join (albeit carefully) the Tlusty Czwartek
Although celebrated all over Poland, Zapusty or Tłusty Czwartek (which could be translated as 'Fat Thursday') has a special following in Kraków. This festival, which takes place on the last Thursday before Lent, basically consists of eating as much as you can. I encourage you to join in, but without having to lie down afterwards to recover from your meal.
One of the most popular dishes on this day of gluttony is pączek, a kind of stuffed doughnut. If you are in Kraków, you may be surprised to see long queues in front of the pastry shops, which is due to this celebration.
The sweet, which may not appear on the best gastronomic tours, is really delicious and the most traditional ones are filled with jam. Nowadays, however, you will find some with other fillings.
The more restrained are content to eat just one, but it is not uncommon for some not to stop until they have eaten 4 or 5 of these sweets.
Another reason why you should join in the celebration is the legend that exists about this type of sweet. According to the legend, if you don't eat at least one on this day, you will live a whole year of bad luck.
7. Forget the cold with mulled wine and beer (not forgetting the chocolate)
Are you getting cold during your trip to Krakow? If the answer is yes, which is usually the case, there are a few drinks that can help. As soon as the temperatures start to drop, as early as the end of September, the city's bars start offering mulled wine and beer to their customers.
These drinks, which you won't be able to try in summer, are extremely popular among Kraków's inhabitants. If you see a sign reading grzane wino, it's a sign that they have wine, while if the sign reads grzane piwo, it's beer that's the star of the recipe.
The preparation is quite similar in both cases. All you have to do is add ingredients such as sugar, orange peel, cloves and cinnamon to the drink and then heat it on the fire without boiling.
Although these varieties may seem strange in Spain, I assure you that just by holding the glass in your hands you start to feel a pleasant warmth and the result is delicious.
If you prefer something more common to warm you up, you should try Krakow hot chocolate. Like the previous drinks, this one is easy to find in any bar, café or flea market. One of the best places for a good hot chocolate is the Wawel café inside the Wawel Castle. If you are visiting the complex, I recommend that you make a short stop to order one.
8. Start Lent with the Herring Night or Śledzik
Another winter celebration related to gastronomy is the Śledzik or Herring Night. If your stay coincides with the beginning of Lent (usually at the beginning of March) and the end of the winter holidays, you can't miss this festival.
According to the Catholic mandate, the period of Lent should be marked by abstinence from alcohol and certain foods. For this reason, in Krakow they have decided to enjoy all these foods just the day before the prohibition begins.
Although the meals on that day are all copious, there is one ingredient that cannot be missed and which gives the celebration its name: herring.
If you want to follow the tradition to the letter, you must have a slice of herring accompanied by a glass of vodka. Curiously, the most popular place to follow the custom is not in restaurants, but in the large number of pubs in the city.
9. Say goodbye to winter with the Marzanna Drowning
It is curious that in a country where the Catholic Church retains a strong influence, the ritual of bidding farewell to winter and welcoming spring is eminently pagan. In any case, if you are lucky enough to be in Kraków in the third week of March, you must take part in this tradition.
To bid farewell to winter, the inhabitants of Kraków carry a female figure, the Marzanna, down to the river. She is a representation of the goddess of winter and her fate is to be thrown into the water after being burnt.
The reason for the ritual is none other than to leave behind the evils of the cold season and to allow spring and good weather to return.
Normally, it is the youngsters and schoolchildren who enjoy this celebration the most. They are usually joined by local folklore groups and, finally, by all those who wish to take part in the festival.
The procession goes through the streets on its way to the river while the participants sing traditional songs. The colour and joy of welcoming spring make this one of the liveliest celebrations of the season.
10. Visit Zakopane, the winter capital of Poland
Just a couple of hours from Krakow (depending on traffic) is Zakopane, a small town nicknamed the "winter capital of Poland". This excursion is perfect for winter sports enthusiasts, especially skiing, but it is also worthwhile for those who want to see a smaller town surrounded by big mountains.
Zakopane lies at the foot of the Tatra Mountain s in the Tatra National Park, which Poland shares with Slovakia.
The town is a regular visit for many Kraków residents. In winter they go to enjoy the ski slopes of the nearby Zakopane ski resort, while in summer they come here for some interesting nature trails.
In addition to the ski slopes, the town offers a number of other attractions that make it really interesting. In winter, for example, there is a huge labyrinth made of solid ice.
On the other hand, the main street always has a great atmosphere, with people strolling around, eating in the restaurants or shopping in the shops. For those who prefer something more cultural, the town is home to an interesting wooden church, houses with sloping roofs built in the so-called "Zakopane style" and a beautiful cemetery worth visiting.
How to get to Zakopane from Krakow
There are basically two options for getting to Zakopane: by public transport or on an organised tour. Which one you choose will depend on the type of visit you want to make.
If you plan to spend a night in this mountain village, the most practical way to get there is by public transport. There are many bus lines leaving from the Krakow bus station to this destination, starting at around 6:30 in the morning. You can also travel by train, although the frequency is less frequent.
On the other hand, if you only want to take a day trip, organised excursions are the most appropriate option. You won't have to worry about transport timetables and the guide will take you directly to the most interesting places.
Weather in Krakow in winter
The quick summary is very simple: winter in Kraków is characterised by cold weather, both day and night. The differences between the months are not noticeable, as the highs in December and February are the same, around 3°C, while the lows are -4°C and -5°C respectively.
January is not much of a change either, with average highs of 1°C and -6°C when it comes to minimums.
However, these are not overly rainy months, which is a welcome sight when visiting a city. However, precipitation often comes in the form of snow.
What you should be aware of are the daylight hours. Throughout the winter it gets dark very early, so much so that by the end of December darkness begins to fall before 4pm.
What to pack for Krakow in winter
Winter weather in Kraków makes it necessary to bring a few essentials to avoid being uncomfortable and to withstand any possible snowfall:
- Footwear: look for good boots with soles that won't slip in the event of snowfall. Bear in mind that the danger arises when ice patches form on the ground. Don't forget to wear thick wool socks.
- Underwear: the best option is to buy some thermal clothing to insulate you as much as possible from the cold. Don't just wear T-shirts, but also leggings for your legs.
- Coat: opt for a good fleece if you can. It's worth looking for a good quality one, as it can make all the difference.
- Trousers: Personally, I managed to get by in the Kraków winter with jeans, but many people find them unsuitable. It might be more effective to get a pair of winter hiking trousers to be on the safe side.
- Gloves, hat and scarf: don't forget to buy these items to complete your luggage either.