8 Things to Do in Krakow
8 Things to Do in Krakow
Krakow ranks right up there among Europe’s most charming and compelling cities. In fact, its historic Old Town made it onto UNESCO’s very first World Heritage List.
When you add in its rich cultural heritage and its highly complex history, it’s clear why Krakow has become such a global favorite. In this post, I’ll suggest a few ways to find some of its most intriguing spots.
With its large car-free zone and many green spaces, Krakow is a walker’s delight.
When you arrive, you’ll quickly find your way to the Rynek Glowny (pronounced “ree-neck GWUV-nee”), the city’s historic main market square. In fact, it’s Europe’s largest medieval square (200m by 200m) and makes up the heart of the Old Town.
Human-scale buildings, many from the Middle Ages, ring the Rynek Glowny. As you walk around, you’re bound to see great architecture.
Of special note, the Rynek Glowny has Krakow’s largest collection of outdoor cafes, with more than 20 scattered around the square. I highly recommend spending some time there sitting at an outdoor cafe. It’s a great spot for coffee and a snack, lunch or dinner, or just people watching.
St. Mary’s Basilica
If you enjoy art, architecture, history, or music, it’s well worth visiting a few Old World churches in Krakow. Since there are literally dozens to choose from, here are two of my favorites.
On the edge of the Rynek Glowny, St. Mary’s Basilica houses one of Krakow’s most stunning works of art. Inside the main sanctuary, you’ll find a magnificent wooden altarpiece by 15th century German artist Veit Stoss (aka Wit Stwosz).
St. Mary’s Hand-Carved Wooden Altar
Finished in 1489, the wooden altar is a larger-than-life masterpiece. When fully open, it’s more than 40 feet tall and over 30 feet wide.
The church is about to begin a conservation project on the altar lasting until sometime in 2020. While it’ll stay open during normal church hours, you may want to check ahead for exact times to see it.
Also, note that the St. Mary’s Basilica will be closed temporarily in September and October 2018. But once repairs on the altar begin, you’ll still be able to visit the church.
The Bugler at the Top of St. Mary’s
For unmatched city views, you can pay a small fee and climb up 240 feet inside one of St. Mary’s two towers. Once at the top, you’ll see why this once served as the local watchtower.
You’ll also see a classic scene play out here. Every hour on the hour, a bugler plays the Hejnal (pronounced “HEY-now”), a tune from the Middle Ages. By tradition, the bugler abruptly stops playing midway through the song.
This daily ritual recalls a bugler who (per legend) was shot by an arrow as he warned the city of nearby Tartar invaders. In commemoration of this event, the bugler now breaks off his song suddenly.
This Main Square tradition is one of the most iconic features of Krakow, and my favorite. Don’t miss it!
The Basilica of St. Francis
For very different reasons, another impressive church is the Basilica of St. Francis. There, you can see some amazing Art Nouveau stained glass by the famed Polish artist Stanislaw Wyspianski. The contrast between his work and the 13th century building — Krakow’s first brick church — is stunning.
Kazimierz: Revived and Trendy
Few neighborhoods in Krakow evoke so much emotion as Kazimierz (pronounced “KAAH-zhee-meerzh”). Just south of the Old Town, Kazimierz was the center of Jewish life in Krakow for over 500 years, before it was destroyed during World War II.
In recent years, Kazimierz has gone through a rebirth as a cultural and culinary hub. In 1989, Polish Jews were able to reclaim confiscated property from World War II. As a result, new activity drew investors to the area who opened new bars and restaurants. Then, young people flocked to the area. Now, Kazimierz is the hippest part of Krakow.
Even so, as you walk past old synagogues, it’s hard to avoid thinking about the once-vibrant Jewish community there.
Galicia Jewish Museum
The Galicia Jewish Museum commemorates Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Here, you can view “Traces of Memory,” engaging photographs showing modern-day remnants of southeastern Poland’s once-thriving Jewish community.
To get the full story, you might take a walking tour of the Jewish sites of Kazimierz organized by the museum. Or, you might hire a private guide.
For our visit, the Galicia Jewish Museum put us in touch with a PhD student for a private tour. Luckily, we spent half a day with Bartosz Wencel, who was enrolled in a Jewish Studies program at a university in Krakow. Today, he continues to speak and write extensively about Jewish life in Poland.
Oskar Schindler’s Factory Museum
Stephen Spielberg’s film, “Schindler’s List,” was shot on the streets of Kazimierz in 1993. In fact, the success of the movie played a big part in making Kazimierz a popular tourist destination.
Today, at Oskar Schindler’s former enamel factory nearby, now a museum, you’ll get an in-depth look at Krakow during World War II. In addition to hearing about the horrors of daily life in wartime, you’ll learn about Schindler’s complex schemes to protect Krakow’s Jews from the Nazis.
Pomorska Street Museum
If you want to immerse yourself in Polish history and culture, here are two more museums which offer both.
For a unique historical perspective of Krakow, visit the Pomorska Street Museum. Here, you enter the small, cramped space of a former Gestapo interrogation station. Once inside, you’ll witness the stories of people who were victims of the Nazis (or later, the Communists).
Through vintage photos, letters, and clothing, as well as special media effects, the displays honor the lives of real people. Aptly, the main exhibit is called, “People of Krakow in Times of Terror 1939-1945-1956.”
For art lovers, visit the National Museum to see some of the best historic works of art in Krakow. The collection includes decorative art from the early Middle Ages, stunning Art Nouveau pieces, and over 400 works of fine art, many by Polish artists.
One such artist is Józef Czapski, who was also one of the founders of Kultura Monthly, a highly influential Polish cultural journal. As a painter, Czapski forged his own style with bright, vivid colors.
Another Polish artist whose work is featured in the museum is Józef Mehoffer. He’s well-known for his portraits and his stained glass windows.
Also, it’s worth noting that you can visit the Jozef Mehoffer House museum where he lived and worked in Krakow. The house museum has original furnishings, artwork, and stained glass windows. In the warmer months, you can enjoy refreshments in the garden cafe behind the house.
Kolanko No. 6 for Lunch
For a little funk and a little fun, have lunch at Kolanko No. 6 in Kazimierz. Here, you’ll find a very relaxed place serving some inventive salads, crepes, and coffees. It has has several “rooms”, each with its own eclectic mix of furnishings. There’s also a small eating area in a lovely outdoor courtyard. With lots of music from the 40s and 50s (Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin), you’ll feel right at home.
Where to Stay – Hotel Grodek
A big reason to like this boutique hotel is its Old World feeling and convenient location. It’s next to the Planty, one of the oldest public parks in Krakow that surrounds the Rynek Glowny. At the Grodek, you’ll be close to many restaurants and attractions, but out of the hubbub. Also, Kazimierz is an easy 15-minute walk away.
Plus, the Hotel Grodek has easy access to roads leading out of Krakow. For instance, it’s less than a two-hour drive from there to the spa town of Szczawnica.