Krakow or Warsaw: which is better?

Are you planning a trip to Poland soon but don't know which of these two important cities to visit? In this article I present the main characteristics and differences so you can choose between them.

Katherine Betances

Katherine Betances

8 min read

Krakow or Warsaw: which is better?

Wawel Cathedral, Kraków | ©Robert Stokoe

It's no secret that these are the two most important cities in Poland, so when planning a new adventure, many travellers wonder if it's better to visit Krakow or if they should focus on Warsaw instead.

If you ask me, the answer would be to visit both cities, although taking into consideration how easy it is to get from Krakow to Warsaw. However, I understand that, many times, neither time nor budget will allow us to make the trip of our dreams. Therefore, in the hope of making your decision easier, here is a comparison of the most important aspects: attractions, architecture, gastronomic offer and budget. Let's get started!

Choose according to your tastes and preferences

Warsaw's Royal Castle Square| ©Vinicius Pinheiro
Warsaw's Royal Castle Square| ©Vinicius Pinheiro

Both Warsaw and Krakow offer many interesting things to see and do. So that you can choose the most suitable travel destination according to your tastes and interests, here is a summary of the highlights of each of these cities:

  • If you want to take good photos: Krakow.
  • If you prefer to explore an old historic centre: Krakow.
  • If you prefer to explore the only renovated historic centre: Warsaw.
  • If you want to enjoy a traditional nightlife: Krakow.
  • If you are interested in university life and young atmosphere: Krakow.
  • If you want to enjoy a cosmopolitan nightlife: Warsaw.
  • If you want to learn about the hardships of the Jewish people in World War II: Krakow.
  • If you are more interested in the perspective of the Polish people during World War II: Warsaw.
  • If you are short on time: Krakow. I recommend you read the guide to see Krakow in two days or see Krakow in three days.
  • If you're on a budget: Krakow is slightly cheaper, especially if you visit the city in the off-peak months of February in Krakow, November in Krakow or December in Krakow.
  • Krakow
  • Former capital of Poland
  • Old historic centre
  • University life
  • Most economical
  • Warsaw
  • Current capital of Poland
  • Renovated historic centre
  • Cosmopolitan atmosphere
  • Slightly more expensive

Main sights of Krakow vs. Warsaw

Krakow Market Square| ©Francisco Anzola
Krakow Market Square| ©Francisco Anzola

Both Warsaw and Krakow offer a wide range of attractions and sightseeing, but with very different approaches, for example...

Krakow is a much smaller city so the atmosphere is generally more welcoming, and almost all roads lead to the beautiful Krakow Market Square with the interesting attractions you will find there. Warsaw, on the other hand, is a larger city with a historic city centre but also with many modern buildings.

Since Krakow was not affected by the bombings of World War II, the buildings are authentic historic buildings, while in Warsaw you'll find renovated architecture done with an impressive level of fidelity to the original design.

When it comes to museums and art galleries, nothing beats Warsaw and its abundant alternatives. However, when it comes to out-of-town attractions and getaways, Kraków has a more varied offer, including historical museums, nature reserves and medieval palaces.

Must-see sights and excursions during your visit to Kraków

There is plenty to see and do in Kraków and the surrounding area. Take note of the most important places so you don't miss anything:

  • Krakow's Jewish Quarter: Kazimierz, Krakow's Jewish quarter, is one of the most popular districts in Krakow and hides synagogues, palaces, majestic houses, churches, bridges, stories and legends - not to be missed!
  • Schindler's Factory: Oskar Schindler was a hero of the Second World War and in his factory-museum you can relive his story through photographs, old documents and other artefacts.
  • Wieliczka Salt Mine: an 800-year-old underground world of 20 underground chambers more than 3 kilometres long and 135 metres below ground - a unique experience not to be missed!
  • Auschwitz Concentration Camp: located only 50 km from Krakow, this concentration camp is the site of the history of terror experienced by the Jewish people during the Second World War.
  • Zakopane and the Tatra Mountains: discover Poland's most popular mountain resort, where you can travel by cable car and discover the wonders of the Tatra Mountains.
  • Wawel Castle: both the hill and Wawel Castle are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. A visit is a must if you want to see one of the wonders of Poland.

Main sights to see in Warsaw

If you visit the Polish capital, be sure to explore the following monuments and museums:

  • Warsaw Ghetto: discover all the secrets about the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest in Europe, and visit the remains of the only synagogue that survived the Holocaust.
  • Warsaw Royal Castle: one of the city's most important monuments, with fascinating stories of Polish royalty hidden inside.
  • Polish Vodka Museum: if you want to know how vodka is made and the history of this drink, while sipping a drink, you cannot miss this visit.
  • Chopin Concert: enjoy the best works of one of Poland's most famous composers in the old part of the city.
  • Treblinka concentration camp: in this concentration camp you can remember the atrocities of the Second World War and also honour the victims at the memorials inside the camp.
  • Krakow
  • Jewish Quarter of Krakow
  • Wawel Castle
  • Wieliczka Salt Mines
  • Zakopane and Tatra Mountains
  • Auschwitz Concentration Camp
  • Warsaw
  • Warsaw Ghetto
  • Warsaw Royal Castle
  • Polish Vodka Museum
  • Chopin Concert
  • Treblinka Concentration Camp

Book a guided tour of Warsaw

What are the historic centres of Krakow and Warsaw like?

Jewish Quarter of Krakow| ©Francisco Javier Toledo
Jewish Quarter of Krakow| ©Francisco Javier Toledo

Warsaw was completely destroyed in World War II. Few places remained intact, so after the end of the conflict, a process of complete reconstruction began. If you are interested in the architecture of Soviet realism, you must visit Warsaw and admire the fantastic work that the architects and designers of modernity did here.

Warsaw is a much bigger city, a European metropolis with a more modern look. You'll find impressive skyscrapers, wide boulevards, luxury boutiques and alternative restaurants. Its modern buildings have made it the centre of financial and business activity in the country.

Kraków, on the other hand, did not suffer the ravages of war to the same extent, so if you're motivated by beautiful historic buildings, medieval squares, Gothic buildings and cobbled streets, then Kraków is the place for you. By comparison, Kraków is much smaller and almost all of its architectural appeal is centred on its Old Town: its famous Market Square is the largest medieval square in Europe and its monuments date back centuries before the Second World War, so Krakowers pride themselves on their authentic historical appeal and fairy-tale charm.

Book a tour of Kraków's Old Town

What is the gastronomic offer in Krakow vs. Warsaw?

Bigos, traditional Polish food| ©Caterine Romero
Bigos, traditional Polish food| ©Caterine Romero

In both destinations you will find an interesting gastronomic offer, although with marked differences.

  • Krakow: In general,Krakow offers a wider selection of traditional Polish food; the best restaurants in Krakow have managed to translate the most significant aspects of Polish cuisine into their dishes. Around the Market Square and throughout the Old Town you will find a large number of restaurants, cafés and bars in all price ranges.
  • Warsaw: Warsaw is a cosmopolitan city whose gastronomic offer is based on the diversity of alternatives. It is a place to find many highly sophisticated food options capable of satisfying discerning palates. You'll find plenty of traditional Polish food options but also many international restaurants in case you fancy some sushi or a simple pizza.

Book a gastronomic tour of Warsaw

What is the nightlife like in Krakow vs. Warsaw?

La Playa Music Bar, Warsaw| ©Piotr Wysocki
La Playa Music Bar, Warsaw| ©Piotr Wysocki

Both Krakow and Warsaw are cities with a seductive nightlife; both destinations are full of traditional Polish bars, but with certain peculiarities.

Popular Polish taverns in old cellars filled with cigarette smoke are everywhere in Kraków, not to mention the charming nightclubs of the Jewish Quarter. It could be said that Kraków's nightlife is distinguished by a traditional touch. Some alternative bars and clubs in Krakow are:

Warsaw's nightlife is characterised by its diversity. However, in the Polish capital, as in Krakow, you can find traditional Polish bars serving drinks for around €1. Some alternative bars and clubs in Warsaw include:

Book tickets for a folklore show in Krakow

Is Krakow or Warsaw more expensive?

Warsaw Rising Museum| ©Halibutt
Warsaw Rising Museum| ©Halibutt

If your concern is budget, it's good to know that both cities are in a similar price range for accommodation, attractions and restaurants. However, bear in mind that Warsaw is the financial and economic centre of the country, so a slight price increase in most services, including transport and food, is entirely logical and expected.

Although Krakow is generally a cheaper city to visit, prices for the most important services are slightly increased during peak tourist seasons such as summer. Keep this in mind if you want to save money on your next trip. Rates in Warsaw are more or less stable all year round.

Book an excursion from Krakow

Tourist traffic: Krakow vs. Warsaw

Tourists at the Wieliczka Salt Mines| ©Aleksandr Zykov
Tourists at the Wieliczka Salt Mines| ©Aleksandr Zykov

In terms of tourist inflow, Poland in general is a destination that has experienced a remarkable growth in the flow of tourists not only from the European continent but also from distant destinations such as Asia, the Middle East and the United States. This is mainly due to the improvement in the quality of the infrastructure connecting its cities, as well as to the increase in accommodation and activities focused on the tourism sector.

The latest statistical figures show that Warsaw as a city has received up to 23 million visitors in a year, while its sister city Krakow stands at the honourable figure of up to 14 million. Both destinations are expected to see significant growth in the future.

Transport and mobility in Krakow vs. in Warsaw

Warsaw bus| ©Chido-Fajny
Warsaw bus| ©Chido-Fajny

Mobility will not be a problem in either city. Both locations have an excellent public transport system including trams and buses. On the outskirts of both cities you will find international airports where flights land and take off from all corners of the European continent.

It is important to note, however, that when it comes to the train system, Warsaw is much more functional. The city of Warsaw is much better interconnected both with other major cities within Poland and with other major cities in the rest of Europe. This means that, depending on the destination from which you travel to Poland, it may be easier to reach Warsaw than Krakow, at least using this means of transport.

Book a bike tour in Warsaw

Historical context: Rivalry between Krakow and Warsaw

Entrance to Auschwitz concentration camp in Kraków| ©Rafael Wagner
Entrance to Auschwitz concentration camp in Kraków| ©Rafael Wagner

A common dynamic in nations around the world is to have rival cities that generally correspond to cities with high political and economic power within a country. In Poland it is no different, and this historical rivalry is between Kraków and Warsaw.

For centuries the official capital of the country was located in Kraków; however, King Sigismund III decided to move the capital to Warsaw after accidentally burning Wawel Castle. Much later, the rivalry was to be reinforced by the Nazi invasion of Poland; while Warsaw was almost completely destroyed, Kraków retained all of its historic buildings and medieval charm.

Although Warsaw's inhabitants admit the particular beauty and charm of its rival Krakow, they retain the honour of being the nation's capital while Krakow remains the second most important city.

Book a tour of Krakow's Old Town