Krakow is amazing. Like, I want to go back now, amazing. The food is delicious, the beer is tasty (or so I'm told), the people are some of the friendliest we've met, and the town is positively oozing with old world charm. After a long weekend there, we realized that there is a lot more to this city than we expected, and really, you could spend a week with Krakow as your base exploring stuff nearby. Thanks to the abundance of tour companies operating there, you can do it all with minimal planning on your part, unless you enjoying figuring out the local systems (which, in reality, aren't all that hard). So, here is a list of 8 things to do in (and near) Krakow!
1. Go on a walking tour of the city
I've said it before and I'll say it again, walking tours of a city are a fantastic way to get introduced to them. The tours are often conducted by young locals, usually college students, and many of them are free (but it's always appreciated when you tip nicely at the end). We chose the Old Town Tour through this group and really enjoyed it. The meeting point is right in the main square, and hard to miss.
2. Visit Wawel Castle
While we didn't have quite enough time to visit the entire castle, the walking tour conveniently ends here. This means that it would be easy to do the walking tour, and then plan on visiting the castle. Set up on a hill overlooking the town and the Wisla river, the castle has an impressive 700 year history and was built on to by each family that lived there. In the 1930s, it underwent an impressive restoration and is open today for visitors. Admission to the grounds is free, but there are exhibits and buildings that require you to purchase a ticket. Check out your options here.
3. Go on a Tour of the 800 year old Salt Mine in Wieliczka
As the second salt mine tour, and umpteenth mine tour in general, that we have done, we thought this one was pretty interesting. It's is a little over done, but the history of this mine is still pretty cool, not to mention all the salt statues sprinkled throughout the mine. And the most impressive part is St. Kinga's cathedral - an entire cathedral made completely out of salt - the alter, the wall reliefs and ''paintings,'' the statues, even the chandeliers. All of it is rock salt, and it was all carved by three men AFTER they had finished their days work. Talk about dedication....
4. Eat Pierogi and Paczki
These are arguable the best two Polish foods, ever. If you're from south eastern Michigan, or have Polish ancestry, you probably know them. For those of you that don't, pierogi are Polish dumplings. Rounds of dough are stuffed with filling, folded in half, and either boiled or fried. They are typically served with sauteed onions or sour cream. Filling range from sauerkraut to potato cheese (my personal favorite), spinach, or even fruit. Two of the best places we found for Pierogi were Pierogarnia Krakowiacy and Pierogowy Raj, both of which are only a couple of blocks from the main square.
Paczki are, essentially, filled donuts. There is only one place in the old town we found that makes them, but they are delicious, artery-clogging, and finger-licking good. They are sold out of a walk-up window from a place called Gorace Paczki. I've eaten my fair share of Paczki (they are a staple on Fat Tuesday in Michigan), and the German equivalent, Berliners, in my lifetime, but these, hands down, beat them all. Imagine a Krispy Kreme filled with fruit jelly or pudding. Sound delicious? Yup, they totally are. And, now I want one. Oh, and plan to get your own, and not sharing, unless you want to try two different flavors :)
5. Take a Tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau
It's an hour outside of the city, and it might seem a little morbid, but you will be humbled and forever changed after visiting. We were for sure. I feel as if it is our duty to remember all those who lost their lives at the hands of the Nazis, many of whom have no one else to remember them. And most importantly, remember their suffering so that it may never happen again.
There are lots of tour companies that run shuttles and guided tours, but you can also go by yourself. For ease, we opted for a tour company that picked us up at our hotel, drove us out, arranged the tour, drove us to Birkenau, and then back to Krakow and our hotel.
6. Peak Inside St. Mary's Basilica
Completely unlike any other European cathedral we have ever been in, this place is beautiful. Every single inch of the interior is painted and decorated in bright colors - the ceiling, walls, alter, side chapels, everything. You can also climb the tower for a small fee, but make sure you check opening times because they are limited.
Outside the Catheral, each hour you will here a trumpet being played from the top of the taller tower. Accoridng to legend, when Krakow was being invaded by the Mongols in 1241, there was a lookout stationed in the tower. When the approaching Mongols were spotted, he sounded the alarm. Unfortunately, before he could complete the tune, he was shot and killed. Today, the tune is played 4 time each hour, once in each of the 4 cardinal directions. There are 3 buglers and they play around the clock, even through the night.
7. Day Trip to Czestochowa
Only a couple of hours from Krakow is the cute Polish town of Czestochowa, and there are even tour companies that run day trips to the village (meaning no driving for you - only relaxing and enjoying the Polish country side!). We had wanted to make a trip out there, mostly to see the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, an icon that Aaron's grandfather has painted and has a pretty fascinating history, but we simply did not have enough time. Next time though, we will definitely make time to see it.
8. Shop for Polish Pottery
Polish pottery is traditional stone wear that is decorated by hand painted intricate patterns. There are, quite literally, hundreds of designs and the best part is that no two are identical. Each on has it's own character. We found a fantastic selection at reasonable prices at a small shop not far off the main square called Dekor Art. We picked up a couple of serving pieces, a mug, some small bowls and an ornament all for a fraction of what it would have cost in the US. All the pieces she stocks come from Boleslawiec, a town on the western side of Poland, that is home of hand painted Polish pottery. As an extra bonus, she wrapped each piece in tons of bubble wrap to protect it on the way home. I am happy to say that not a single item broke!
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So there you have, 8 things to do in and around Krakow! If you have any more suggestion, share them in the comments. And now for some logistics:
Flights are available directly into John Paul II International Airport. It's currently in the process of being completely rebuilt and refurbished. Transfers between the airport and the city center are cheap (80 PLZ, about 20 euro) and convenient (our hotel offered to arrange it for us).
Where to Stay:
We stayed at the Tango House B&B, right near the city center. The rooms are reasonably priced, spotlessly clean with recently refurbished bathrooms, and the beds are really comfortable. Breakfast is available for 5 euro per person each morning. They can also help to arrange tours and transfers. As an added bonus, their staff all speaks excellent English!