Kraków (Cracow) is not only a historical and visual gem, it’s Poland‘s second largest city and covers both banks of the Wisla (or Vistula) river. At the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, the metropolitan area has more than 1.4 million inhabitants if you include the surrounding communities.
Although Kraków is officially divided into eighteen dzielnica or boroughs, each with a considerable degree of autonomy within the municipal government, this division is relatively recent and prior to March 1991, the city had been divided into just the four quarters of Podgórze, Nowa Huta, Krowodrza and the ancient town centre of Kraków itself.
(The historic Old City is now officially situated in District (I), Stare Miasto. Even though the words Stare Miasto mean ‘old town’, it should not be confused with the historic old town of Krakow itself, as the medieval old town is only a small central part of District I Stare Miasto).
Some of the communities around the edge of Kraków can show you real Polish life away from the tourist-focused economy of the centre.
Old Town — Consists of the historic Kraków Old Town, as well as the Wawel castle hill, Nowe Miasto (“New Town”), Nowy Świat (“New World”), Kleparz, Okół, which previously was situated between the Wawel hill and the Old Town but soon became part of the latter, Piasek, Stradom and Warszawskie (partly in Prądnik Czerwony). Kraków’s historic centre, covering the Old Town and Wawel was entered on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1978. These are the most popular tourist destinations, and if your time is limited, you would be best sticking to these.
Kazimierz – Area located really close to the Old Town, independent city in medieval times with a Christian quarter in the West and a former largely Jewish quarter in the East.
- Zwierzyniec — The greenest area in Krakow; includes Błonia, Las Wolski forest and the Kosciuszko Mound.
- Prądnik Czerwony
- Prądnik Biały
- Podgórze — The area on the southern bank of the river Vistula, where the Jewish ghetto was located during the Nazi occupation.
- Dębniki — Green area to the South West of Old Town, which includes the Tyniec Monastery.
- Łagiewniki-Borek Fałęcki
- Podgórze Duchackie
- Nowa Huta — “The New Steel Mill” area built in the communist era.
- Wzgórza Krzesławickie
Kraków is the capital city of Lesser Poland Voivodeship (Polish: Małopolskie) in the southern region of Poland and had a population of 756,000 in 2007 (1.4 million after including surrounding communities).
Kraków is also known as Cracow, or Krakow (without the diacritic) and dates back to at least the 7th century. It was the capital of Poland from 1038 to 1569 and then of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth from 1569 to 1596 (1609 by some accounts) and this long history has made it one of the leading hubs of Polish academic, cultural, and economic life.
Kraków is one of the oldest cities in Poland, with evidence showing settlements there since 20,000BC. Legend has it that it was built on the cave of a dragon whom the mythical King Krak had slain. However, the first official mention of the name was in 966 by a Jewish merchant from Spain, who described it as an important centre of trade in Slavonic Europe.
Krakow is the most popular tourist destination in Poland and this supports a lot of the local economy. However, the University and numerous local colleges mean education is an important employer as well.
The service and technology industry is strong and growing, with many off-shore divisions of banks, financial and technology companies like Google, IBM, Motorola, State Street, Shell, UBS, HSBC being located here. There is a large manufacturing sector as well, especially in steel (owned by Mittal), pharmaceuticals and tobacco, mainly as a legacy of the Communist era.
Unemployment is lower than average (5%) for the rest of the country (9%) and it is considered an attractive investment opportunity, especially for those buying real estate. A new financial and business district is planned along with a new sporting complex in the Nowa Huta borough on the Vistula river. This is for the regeneration of the Nowa Huta area, the poorest district of Krakow.
Kraków Airport (also known as John Paul II International Airport Kraków – Balice) is the main airport, located in Balice, about 12km to the west of the centre. It is the second biggest airport in Poland.
Depending on your level of fitness, you can see the whole of the city centre without needing any transport. There are some beautiful walking routes, try the Royal Way or the Planty park that surrounds the old city all the way from Florian’s Gate to Wawel castle. It is very relaxing. There is also a well-cared for river bank next to the castle to stroll around.
However, be aware that in winter snow is sometimes not removed from the sidewalks, resulting in a mixture of snow and mud. Be sure to bring waterproof shoes if you plan to travel by foot in the winter.
What to see. Best top attractions in Krakow
Kraków’s historic centre, which includes the Old Town, Kazimierz and the Wawel Castle, was included as the first of its kind on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1978.
The district of Kazimierz with its Jewish heritage is very interesting. The synagogue of Remuh, for example, was built in 1557. Although it’s not so well-conserved and the entrance costs PLN5, it has a great atmosphere with its old walls and its ancient vestments. Adjacent is its cemetery created in 1511 and recently restored. The atmosphere is very melancholic there and deserves a visit.
The district of Nowa Huta was built during the Communist Era, and was made for the people working in the huge steelworks (5 times larger than the Old Town of Krakow) there. The architecture of the district is typical socialist; huge buildings surround green parks. The district now is poor, and you can touch the real uneasiness of those times there. Main station is Plac Centralny which can be reached by trams 4, 10, 16, 21, 22 and 64.
Travellers who come to Krakow often visit Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. Not many know that in Krakow there was also a Nazi concentration camp located in Podgórze district. You can visit Schindler’s Factory there.
What to do in Krakow
What to buy
The Old Town district offers excellent shopping, especially for clothes, jewelry, and art. You can wander all around the Old Town and Kazimierz, where antique stores abound. The center of this all is the Rynek Główny (“Rynek” also means “market”), where you will find some of the city’s top stores.
In the middle of the Rynek Główny stands Sukiennice (Cloth Hall), a center of trade in Krakow for hundreds of years. The entire ground floor is a market, where local artists sell their wares. Look for amber jewelry and sheep skin rugs. It is a great place to check out if you want to bring an authentic piece of Krakow back home.
If you’re addicted to shopping, be sure to check out the Royal Way (Floriańska – Rynek Główny – Grodzka) and the streets surrounding Plac Nowy in the Kazimierz district.
Luckily you can still get basic food supplies in the centre in independent and chain grocery stores but they start to give way to luxury hotels and bank agencies. Alcohol can be easily found in groceries and common 24/7 shops.
There are two shopping malls in the central area, which include vast array of clothes shopping and eateries.
Galeria Krakowska, immediately next to the Main Train Station and a 5-minute walk from the Main Square.
Galeria Kazimierz (ul. Podgórska 34) located at the southern tip of Kazimierz, on the Vistula River bank offers 36,000m2 of stores and an Alma gourmet supermarket.
Plenty of other international chains (Carrefour, Real, Tesco, Lidl) are located in the outskirts/suburbs Krakow, i.e: Bonarka (ul. Kamienskiego 11) the biggest but quite far from centre.
Krakow Plaza (al. Pokoju 44).
What to eat
In Poland one typically eats pretty large breakfast, large dinner (at around 3-4 pm) and a light supper (at around 7-8 pm). Many people do eat “lunches” etc but these are not native.
Kraków’s cuisine has been influenced by the cultures that have inhabited central Europe, as well as the Austro-Hungarian empire.
The most important dish from Kraków is obwarzanek (bagel). You can buy it in many stall on the streets. Another local specialité is oscypek – cheese from Tatra Mountains.
If you want to try Polish cuisine for outstandingly good-value prices (a big lunch for one person for about 8PLN) then find a ‘Bar Mleczny’ (a milk bar – a kind of cafeteria very prevalent in Communist times so called because it serves no alcohol). You can find one on the right side of Ul. Grodzka (if you are going from Rynek Glowny). They offer classic Polish food such as ‘kroketka’. An English-Polish dictionary is recommended when ordering. Quality of service is very basic, though sufficient. The low price is the goal, so the interior may be old, and very busy with all sorts of people including university and high-school students, unemployed, homeless.
Slightly more expensive are restauratns such as “U babci maliny”, there for PLN12-20 one can try various options for a big lunches.
For people with fat wallets there is a restaurant “Wierzynek” on the Main Square. They also serve Polish dishes.
There are many restaurants which serve French meals – mainly in large hotels such as Restaurant Percheron or Restaurant Anromeda. They are freely accessible also to non-guests (of course only the access is free, the dinner is not). Dinner in this option costs as much as in Wierzynek Restaurant.
Żurek is a soup based on fermented rye – it’s sour and creamy and often has slices of kielbasa sausage or a hard-boiled egg added.
Barszcz is a soup made with beetroot — very savory.
Chłodnik is another beetroot soup, served cold as a refreshing summer dish. It makes use of the beetroot greens as well as the roots, and is flavoured with gherkins, dill and sour cream.
Pierogi are polish dumplings (a bit like ravioli)that come with a variety of fillings. Most popular are “ruskie” (Ruthenian), filled with curd cheese and potato, others are filled with meat, cabbage and mushroom, and the sweet pierogi come with blueberries, apples, strawberries, cherries. The fruit pierogi are usually served with sour cream and sugar. Every year, in September, Krakow hosts the “Pierogi Festival”, where you can try many more varieties of this dish.
You won’t see this in most guides, but one of the true joys of a trip to Krakow is a visit to the kiełbasa van. Basically, it’s these two gruff Polish men who, every night from 8PM-3AM, set up a fire grill outside of their van (parked in front of the market east of the Old Town near the train bridge) and grill kielbasa. For 8 PLN, you get your sausage, roll and a squirt of mustard, stand at the perch nearby and chow down with the locals in-the-know. It is delicious, especially after a night of exploring Krakow’s bars. A fun experience free of the usual tourist crush and off the main path (ul. Grzegórzecka, opposite ul. Blich).
By far one of the most popular street foods in Krakow is the zapiekanka which is a large open-faced baguette with baked toppings (traditionally cheese, mushrooms, and a lot of condiments like ketchup or garlic sauce). The best, and most popular, location for zapiekanki is on the Plac Nowy market in Kazimierz. It is busiest at night on the weekends where you can purchase them until the early hours of the morning.
In Krakow, like other Polish cities, there is a fair number of “Chinese-Vietnamese” restaurants. Many have Polish employees who have never heard of Pho, none SERVE Pho, and ALMOST none serve even remotely decent Chinese and/or Vietnamese food. I know it’s tempting, but you’d do far better to look for decent Polish food. It is true, these so-called “Chinski” or Orientalny Bars have often awful food.
If you are not into Polish food, Krakow has a number of really good Italian restaurants, with pizzas, pastas, and the usual Italian cuisine. There are many other restaurants which serve Indian, French, Greek, Argentinian, Mexican, even Georgian cuisine, so you definitely won’t be stuck for something to eat while sightseeing.
If everything else fails, McDonalds and KFC are aplenty.
What to drink
Bars, pubs, and cafes in Krakow are one of its biggest attractions. Not just their number or quality, but close proximity. It has been said that there are more than 300 eating and drinking establishments in the Old Town alone.
Do not be tempted to drink in public places such as parks or you could be fined 100z
A tatanka is a unique (and delicious) Polish beverage made with apple juice and a special kind of vodka called żubrówka, which is flavored with bison grass. It is also often referred to as a Szarlotka, or apple cake. Tatanka is a Native American term for bison.
Wódka miodowa is a honey vodka, often served chilled in shots. Some of the better Polish-themed restaurants will have house brands.
Śliwowica, a plum brandy, is worth watching out for. There are two main variants: an 80-proof (40%) yellow tinged one and a 140-proof (70%) clear variety. While the 80-proof variety is often smooth and flavorful, some have compared the 140-proof to drinking gasoline. A good way to drink it is to deal with it like with an absinth. Take a small spoon with sugar, put some Sliwowica on it and fire it. Let the sugar melt down for a while (10-30 seconds). Then, mix the flaming sugar with the rest of the drink. Let it burn for 5-10 seconds, then blow it and drink it. Watch out and don’t burn your lips! You can also let it burn longer, but then use a straw to drink it to avoid burning your fingers or lips.
Grzaniec, a sort of heated wine with cloves and other spices, very popular around Christmas when sold on Market Square.
Thanks to their proximity to each other, Krakow’s watering holes are ideal for bar hopping. Many locals and tourists have spent nights partying from the Old Town all the way to Vistula River at the end of Kazimierz. Walk down ul. Szeroka or head over to plac Nowy for streets full of bars.
As most bars are hidden underground visitors often opt to join a pub crawl, travelling in groups between a number of bars with a guide ensuring they don’t fall victim to a scam bar.
In the warmer months, Kraków’s nightlife moves outdoors into hundreds of sidewalk cafes and beer gardens. When winter comes around, it moves underground into cellars all around the city.
Krakow is not only full of cozy cafes, but is also said to be the place of the first cafe founded in Europe. Most cafes offer good espresso and something to nibble at a very reasonable price. As a rule, international-looking places are much more expensive.
It is common to have free Wi-Fi in bars and hostels.
PolishWiFi rents pocket WiFi routers which allow travellers to stay connected in Poland. Clients can book online and their hotspot can be delivered everywhere in Poland in 24 hours. Standard delivery in Poland to a post box is 3 €, to a private address, hotel or B&B is 4 €.
The 3G and 4G hotspots can be shared by up to 10 devices and battery lasts for 6 hours.
Like the rest of Poland, Krakow is generally a very safe city with a strong police presence.
Violent behavior is very rare and if it occurs it is most likely alcohol-related. While pubs and clubs are safe, the nearby streets may be scenes of brawls, especially late at night. Try to avoid confrontations. Women and girls are generally less likely to be confronted or harassed since the Polish code of conduct strictly prohibits any type of violence (physical or verbal) against women.
Follow standard city travel rules: don’t leave valuables in the car in plain sight; don’t display money or expensive things needlessly; know where you’re going; be suspicious of strangers asking for money or trying to sell you something. Pickpockets operate, pay attention to your belongings in crowds, at stations, in crowded trains/buses (especially to/from the airport), and clubs. In any case, do not be afraid to seek help or advice from the Police (Policja) or the Municipal Guards (Straz Miejska). They are generally helpful, polite and in most cases speak at least Basic English.
Official tourism websites of Krakow
For more information please visit the official government website: