Krakow, located in the south of Poland, is the second largest city in the country and also one of the oldest. Its central position in Europe makes it a perfect stop on an Interrail trip, due to its proximity to other popular cities like Berlin, Prague, Vienna or Budapest. Although Poland is in the EU, they don’t use the euro but the złoty, so you’ll have to exchange some currency. The conversion rate is roughly 1 Euro = 4.3 Złoty.
If you read my previous post about Berlin, you’ll know by now that my friends and I missed our night train to Krakow because our previous train arrived late. This made us lose half a day in the city, but we still had plenty of time to visit its most important attractions. If you have the chance to join a free tour I highly recommend doing it on your first day. It will give you a grasp of what the city has to offer and its history.
What to visit?
Krakow is full of interesting things to do and see, but, in my opinion, these are the ones you must check during your stay in this beautiful lively city:
1) Main Market Square
Dating back to the 13th century and said to be the largest medieval square in Europe, it is surrounded by beautiful colourful townhouses and restaurants. Choose one of the latter and try some delicious pierogi (Polish filled dumplings) while doing some people watching, or order a cocktail and wind down after a long day visiting around.
In the centre of the square you will find the Cloth Hall, where many crafts and souvenirs are sold. For a better view of the square from the heights, head to the Town Hall Tower. If you need a public toilet, they are located underground, near the fountain.
2) St. Mary’s Basilica
This stunning brick church has become the emblem of Krakow, dominating the market square. The interior is gorgeous, so take your time to admire every detail. Both towers (Bell Tower and Bugle Tower) can be climbed, in case you’re looking for a panoramic view of the city or want to have a close look at the bell. Tickets can’t be bought online and are limited.
3) Rynek Underground
As its name says, this popular attraction is underground, beneath the market square. It’s a route through the medieval market stalls and the archeological layers of this site. Well worth a visit if you are into history and want to learn more about the city. You can buy online tickets here.
4) Wawel Royal Castle
In my opinion, one of the most beautiful parts of the city. It comprises five different sections: State Rooms, Royal Private Apartments, Crown Treasury and Armoury, Lost Wawel, and Oriental Art. From these five sections, the first two are the most exquisite.
Tickets are sold individually for each section and can’t be booked online. There is a limited number of daily tickets available, so plan your visit for the morning. The opening hours vary depending on the season, but everything is open until at least 5pm.
If you are running out of time or don’t manage to get tickets, remember that access to Wawel Hill and the Arcaded Courtyard is free and possible until dusk.
On your way back to the city centre, go down the hill the opposite side to enjoy a walk along the river and see the dragon! There are also stands selling souvenirs.
5) Wawel Cathedral
Located next to the castle, it was the centre of worship of St. Stanislaus, a Krakow bishop canonised in 1253. His grave became a pilgrimage destination after it, since his veneration was associated with the idea of a unified Polish kingdom. Because of this, decades after his canonisation Wawel Cathedral became the site where the coronation of Polish rulers took place.
Admission to the cathedral is free. To see the Sigismund Bell, the Royal Tombs and the Cathedral Museum you’ll need to buy a ticket.
6) Collegium Maius
The place to go if you want to see where Nicolaus Copernicus studied. It is part of Jagiellonian University and the oldest university building in Poland. The arcaded courtyard can be visited free of charge, and there are also English guided tours daily at 1pm which need to be booked in advance.
7) Chopin Concert Hall
Visit this beautiful 15th century building and enjoy a one-hour piano recital of Chopin’s best pieces performed on a Yamaha grand piano. Tickets are 65 PLN (around €15) and include a glass of wine. Book yours now here.
8) Kazimierz Jewish Quarter
You might have heard this name before, since it’s the place where Steven Spielberg shot “Schindler’s List”. This part of Krakow feels different and has become a popular area to visit, so let yourself wander around its streets and learn as much as possible about the history of Polish Jews.
How to go from Krakow to Wieliczka Salt Mine?
Wieliczka Salt Mine is a must-visit if you’re staying in Krakow. More than a million tourists from all over the world visit it every year, and it features on the UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage list since 1978. I had never heard of it before, but a Polish colleague told me about it when I mentioned I was visiting Krakow, and after checking it online I was 100% sure it had to be on my to-visit list.
There are different ways of getting there, but I recommend getting a train from Krakow main station (Kraków Główny) to Wieliczka Rynek Kopalnia train station. There are many trains doing this route during the day, and depending on the time it could just take you 26 minutes to get to the mine. From Wieliczka station to the mine it’s a 4-minute walk almost in a straight line. And guess what! The train ticket costs less than €1 each way (cheaper than the bus!). You can check the timetable and buy your tickets here.
You can also buy your admission tickets to the mine online.
Remember to wear comfortable shoes and warm clothes, there are MANY steps going down to the mine, and it can get quite cool inside (around 15ºC).
How to go from Krakow to Auschwitz?
Auschwitz concentration camp might be a place you feel reluctant to visit at first thought, but I strongly advise you to go if you have a chance. Horrible things took place in it not so long ago, yet some people either never heard of it or have but don’t think it’s important. Or worse, they deny it ever happened.
I won’t go into detail with how I felt during this visit, since each person will feel it differently. Try to learn as much as possible from the atrocities of the past so they don’t happen again, and please be respectful while on the grounds. More than a million people died in horrible conditions here.
Although the entry to the premises of the Auschwitz Memorial is free, I highly recommend paying for a guided tour. They last approximately four hours, and the guides are experts with a vast knowledge of history, so you won’t regret paying for it at all. Tickets costs 60 zloty (around €14), and the price includes a tour of the former Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau camps with a guide, rental of a headset and bus ride from one camp to the other. You can book them online here.
As for getting there, the train is the most reliable and cheapest option. Get on in Krakow main station (Kraków Główny) and get off in Oświęcim. The journey takes around 1h40 each way, and you can buy your tickets at the station or book them online.
If you book them online, you will see that you have two prices to choose from: “Taryfa Małopolska” and “Taryfa podstawowa” or basic fare. It can be confusing, as the basic fare is more expensive than the other option (PLN 15.60 vs PLN 9). However, do go for the cheaper option. It is an offer for this route, since most people go to Auschwitz by bus and Poland wants to promote its trains too.
€2 for a 1h40 train ride doesn’t sound bad at all! Plus, our outbound train was really modern and comfortable (A/C and toilet included). The inbound train was, let’s say…different. It was like having travelled back in time a few decades and landed in a vintage train with velvet curtains on the windows. My friends and I really liked it though.
Once you get off in Oświęcim, you have three options to get to the Museum: walk for 20-25 minutes, get a bus, or grab a taxi. We ended up getting a taxi with other tourists and we didn’t pay more than €1 each.
Try to be there at least 30 minutes before your tour starts. There is a luggage room on the left of the building where you queue for your tour if you need to store anything. And last but not least, read the Museum regulations to avoid any problems.
And this is it! I hope you enjoy Krakow as much as I did. It is definitely one of my favourite cities now! After Krakow, it was time to get on a night train and head to our next destination: Prague, in Czech Republic.