Prior to Sigismund III moving the capital to Warsaw in 1596, Krakow was Poland’s capital city for more than 550 years, acting as the political and cultural hub of the country and the home to kings, queens and many notable historical figures. Despite no longer being the capital, Krakow is arguably still Poland’s cultural heart and perhaps the most popular destination among international visitors.
With a majestic old town that miraculously survived World War II and a burgeoning food and drink scene that boasts the highest density of bars in the whole of Europe, there are plenty of reasons to visit Krakow. But, perhaps the most important reason of all, is to learn about the city’s tragic recent history. The former Jewish Ghetto, Oskar Schindler’s Factory Museum and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial all provide valuable lessons on the terrors experienced by Krakow’s Jews. Learn all about the history and discover how to make the most of your time in the city with this comprehensive guide to the best things to do in Krakow.
The best things to do in Krakow contents:
- Kazimierz, Krakow’s Jewish District
- Podgórze, Krakow’s Jewish Ghetto
- Oskar Schindler’s Factory Museum
- Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial
- St. Joseph’s Church
- Krakow’s old town
- St. Mary’s Basilica
- Wawel Castle Grounds
- Krakow Pinball Museum
- Krakow’s best Polish restaurants
- Polish street food in Kazimierz
- Krakow’s best bars
Get lost in Kazimierz, Krakow’s Jewish District
The neighbourhood of Kazimierz – commonly known as Krakow’s Jewish District or Jewish Quarter – is one of the most characterful districts in Krakow, and a wander through the area provides a fantastic introduction to the city.
For centuries before World War II and the German occupation of Poland, Kazimierz was the heart of Jewish life in the city and to this day many synagogues and Jewish institutions can still be found within the neighbourhood. In fact, despite the Nazi’s attempt to systematically destroy Jewish life and culture, Kazimierz is one of Europe’s best examples of pre-war Jewish culture and many Jews have today begun to return, creating the beginnings of a lively hub of contemporary Jewish life. The Old Synagogue, Remuh Synagogue and the Galicia Jewish Museum are just three notable Jewish sites in Kazimierz.
While Kazimierz has long been associated with Jewish culture, a more recent introduction to the neighbourhood has been its distinct bohemian character. Following the 1993 release of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning Schindler’s List, Kazimierz garnered worldwide attention, and with many of the film’s scenes set within the neighbourhood, it benefited from increased global interest and local investment. As a result, it soon began to transform from a neglected, post-Communist district to a lively neighbourhood brimming with bohemian character and hipster hangouts. Schindler’s List Passage on Józefa Street is perhaps the most famous of all the filming locations while some of the neighbourhood’s best bars, including Singer and Eszeweria, can also be found nearby.
Take a walking tour of Podgórze, Krakow’s Jewish Ghetto
South of the river from Kazimierz is the neighbourhood of Podgórze, where Krakow’s Jewish Ghetto was located. In March 1941, two years after the German occupation of Poland, around 16,000 Jews were forcibly relocated from Kazimierz to the Ghetto and made to live in unbearably overcrowded, unsanitary conditions. In the two years that followed, some of the most tragic moments in Krakow’s history unfolded with thousands of Jews being deported to the nearby labour and death camps and many hundreds murdered within the Ghetto itself.
Today, many traces of the neighbourhood’s tragic past can still be seen, and a walking tour is one of the best ways to learn all about the history of the Jewish Ghetto. A number of local companies and operators offer walking tours of the Ghetto and these can be booked through websites such as Get Your Guide. If, however, you’re on a budget or would prefer to do the tour at your own pace, then a self-guided walking tour is a good option.
For a brief history on Krakow’s Jewish Ghetto and a comprehensive route and map, check out this free self-guided walking tour. The tour includes notable sites such as remnants of the original Ghetto walls as well as manholes that were used as a means of escape and hospitals where people would seek refuge from deportation.
Visit Oskar Schindler’s Factory Museum
Located on the former site of Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory, Oskar Schindler’s Factory Museum is one of the most important sites in Krakow and a must-see when visiting the city. The museum houses a comprehensive permanent display that tells the story of how Oskar Schindler – an industrialist and member of the Nazi party – set up a business in Krakow during World War II and through doing so eventually saved the lives of around 1,200 Jews. Original artefacts, large-scale installations – including a replica of the Jewish Ghetto walls – and a 30-minute movie are used to recount the tales of former factory workers as well as detail the horrors of the war and the nearby Jewish Ghetto.
Pay your respects at Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial
Located just outside of Krakow, Auschwitz-Birkenau provides a harrowing, painful reminder of the tragic fate of Jews during World War II and a visit to the museum offers an essential education on the horrors that took place there. The camp was the largest of the German Nazi concentration camps and extermination centres with around 1.1 million Jews sent to their death at the camp. As a result, Auschwitz-Birkenau has become a global symbol of genocide and the Holocaust.
The site is made up of Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp, and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the largest of all the Auschwitz sub-camps. Auschwitz I now houses a museum that provides a sobering insight into what took place on the site. Several original prison cells are still in place while emotional displays include the thousands of shoes and suitcases that were left behind, many of which have been marked with the owners’ names and personal details, providing a painful reminder that they expected to soon be reunited with them. A display of black and white photos taken during the camp’s operation and hundreds of prisoner profile shots offer more devastating reminders of Auschwitz’s history and its victims.
A short drive from Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau is much larger and remains largely untouched since the war. Here you will see the original train tracks and replica cattle carts that were used to transport over a million people to their death as well as the original barracks and restored barbed-wire fences.
Admire the architecture at St. Joseph’s Church
Located in Podgórze’s pretty Rynek Podgórski square – once the neighbourhood’s main market square – the imposing St. Joseph’s Church provides a snapshot of Krakow prior to World War II. Dating back to 1905, the majestic church was designed by Polish architect Jan Sas-Zubrzycki and features a striking neo-Gothic design that stands in stark contrast to the bleak former Jewish Ghetto that sits nearby. A soaring 80-metre clock tower provides a dramatic focal point while two detailed turrets and an intricate array of sculptures and arches decorate the dramatic red brick facade.
Stroll through the historic old town
Unlike Warsaw, Poznań and Białystok, Krakow was one of the few Polish cities that managed to survive World War II relatively unscathed, meaning today’s visitors can marvel at the original architecture of a historic old town that dates back as far as the 13th century.
Having once been protected by Medieval walls and defensive fortifications, Krakow’s old town is now encircled by the quaint Planty Park. Well-manicured green spaces, a wide boulevard and beautiful water fountains line the entire circumference of the historic centre. Take a stroll around the park to the northern part of the old town and you’ll come to the 15th century Barbican and 14th century Floriańska Gate – the only two ancient defence structures to survive demolition. Topped with a 17th century Baroque crown, Floriańska Gate stands tall over the bustling Floriańska Street and marks the original entryway to the old town. Next to the gate, a small section of the medieval walls remain and visitors can walk along them to enjoy wonderful views down over Floriańska Street.
If you continue along the Royal Route you will soon come to Rynek Główny, the old town’s main market square. The vast 40,000 square metre square is Europe’s largest medieval market area and is home to several of Krakow’s most famous sights, the most notable of which is arguably St. Mary’s Basilica – see below for more details on the basilica. At the centre of the square is the Renaissance Cloth Hall, which acted as a bustling marketplace in medieval times but today acts as the home to several souvenir stalls. To see the inside of the Cloth Hall at its best, pay a visit early in the morning before the stalls open and the crowds descend or, alternatively, stroll through the peaceful arcaded galleries that run the length of the exterior. Beneath the Cloth Hall is the Rynek Underground Museum where visitors can walk the streets of ancient Krakow. Following a major excavation of the market square that began in 2005, the museum opened in 2010 to display the archaeological treasures that were uncovered. Everything from ancient market stalls that pre-date the Cloth Hall that stands today to remnants from the city’s very first settlers can be seen in the museum.
Close to the main market square is the more peaceful Mały Rynek, which translates to small square. Despite being much smaller in scale than its more famous sibling, the square is equally charming in its own right with a colourful array of buildings lining its perimeter.
Marvel at the landmark St. Mary’s Basilica
With its two asymmetrical towers, the landmark St. Mary’s Basilica is a sight to behold and the starred blue ceiling, intricate stained glass windows and Veit Stoss-designed altarpiece – the largest Gothic altarpiece in Europe – make a visit to the basilica one of the best things to do in Krakow. Both the Bugle Tower and Bell Tower at the basilica are open to the public, with the former offering one of the best views in the city. Standing at 82 metres, the 239-step tower overlooks the vast market square and offers a wonderful perspective of the neighbouring Cloth Hall.
If you climb the tower at the right time, you’ll also be treated to a front-row view of the bugler playing his legendary hejnał. This is a tradition that dates back for hundreds of years and it is said that during a 13th century Mongol invasion, the bugler spotted the army and sounded the bugle in order to warn the city’s residents about the forthcoming danger. The gates were closed in time and the city was saved, but the bugler was hit by an arrow that killed him and stopped the hejnał midway through. Today, the hejnał is stopped at the exact same point as a mark of respect to this moment in Krakow’s history.
Wander the grounds of Wawel Castle
Perched on top of a hill on the south end of the old town, the Wawel Castle Grounds place an eclectic blend of Romanesque, Renaissance and Gothic architecture among beautiful Renaissance gardens and grand collonaded courtyards. The grounds are home to some of Krakow’s most important buildings with Wawel Cathedral and Wawel Royal Castle among the highlights.
For centuries, the castle was Krakow’s epicentre of politics and culture with more than 30 royal rulers residing there, each adding their own architectural influences. However, following the move of Poland’s capital from Krakow to Warsaw in 1596, the castle fell into disrepair and went on to change hands many times, becoming everything from an Austrian military hospital to the headquarters of the Nazi Governor General, Hans Franks. Today, the castle houses a museum with State rooms, Private Royal Apartments and an exhibition to explore. Wawel Cathedral, meanwhile, is perhaps Poland’s most important building with nearly every Polish king and queen having been crowned there and many notable people in Poland’s history – including the former Bishop of Krakow, St. Stanisław, and former president, Lech Kaczyński – being buried there.
The Wawel Castle grounds are free to enter and you can wander through the gardens, walkways and inner courtyards for free but if you wish to enter any of the sights then it’s advised that you book your tickets well in advance.
Play retro arcade games at the Krakow Pinball Museum
While it may be called a ‘museum’, the Krakow Pinball Museum is much more fun than your typical museum experience. Located underground in an atmospheric, exposed-brick cellar, the museum is more like a stylish arcade thanks to its impressive range of vintage pinball museums and retro video games, all of which can be played for an unlimited amount of time. Visitors simply need to pay the 40zł entry fee and then they are free to stay as long as they want and play on as many games as they wish. What’s more, there’s an on-site bar selling cheap draught beer and you’re allowed to roam the museum and play on the games even while you drink. See here for more information on visiting the Krakow Pinball Museum.
Eat local cuisine at Krakow’s best Polish restaurants
Beef goulash, potato pancakes and pierogi are just some of the hearty plates that make up Poland’s menu of national dishes, and Krakow is a wonderful city for feasting on them all. Having been named the European Capital of Gastronomic Culture 2019, the city has recently garnered a strong foodie reputation and there are plenty of establishments serving flavoursome takes on the country’s signature dishes. Whether you’re looking for a budget-friendly lunch or a fancy dinner for a special occasion, discover the best Polish restaurants in Krakow here.
Feast on contemporary Polish street food in Kazimierz
As well as Poland’s signature national dishes, Krakow is also the country’s number one street food destination and many of Kazimierz’s squares, courtyards and public spaces are filled with street food vendors and vans. Zapiekanki (an open-face pizza-like sandwich) is one of the most popular street food dishes available in the city while a modern take on maczanka, Krakow’s signature pulled pork sandwich, is another delicious treat. Read all about where to find the best street food in Krakow here.
Drink cheap booze in Krakow’s best bars
Allegedly, Krakow has a higher density of bars than any other city in Europe and visitors can expect an eclectic line-up of live jazz clubs, bohemian drinking dens and al fresco hot spots. Kazimierz, the city’s quirky Jewish district, has become synonymous with hipster hotspots while a 200,000-strong student population – 20% of the city’s entire populace – ensures there’s always a party happening somewhere. What’s more, the drinks are exceptionally cheap with the average price of a beer just 10zł. Find where to drink in Krakow with this guide to the city’s best bars.