Kraków: Poland’s Royal City

Living in Europe, we are taking full advantage of weekend travels to explore new places.  Poland has always interested us for a number of reasons: the history, the food, and from a more personal perspective, a chance to explore a part of Katryna’s family background (she’s half Polish and grew up with many of the Polish traditions and holiday celebrations). We were excited to visit Poland for the first time for a long weekend with Katryna’s parents while they were visiting us in Europe. With many interesting cities to choose from, we decided on Krakow for our first trip given its rich history and historic city center.

WHAT TO SEE:

Wawel Castle

Wawel Castle is the crown jewel of Kraków—a site rich with Polish history, standing proudly over the city from its perch on Wawel Hill. Located in the southern part of Old Town, the castle has a number of different sites you can visit on the grounds. Tickets are sold separately for each of the sites from a central ticket office in the Visitor Center. The tickets are timed and limited in number, so we went to the ticket office on the morning of our visit a few minutes before they opened to get in line and ensure our top selection for attractions and timing. We chose the State Rooms, and made a last minute decision to visit the Royal Private Apartments as well. We were not initially excited about the prospect of a guided tour in the Royal Private Apartments, but that ended up being one of the best parts of the visit—the guide provided great commentary and we learned a lot more then if we wandered around on our own. In the State Rooms we didn’t always have the full context of what we were viewing and the experience wasn’t as rich for us as the Royal Private Apartments. With more time, we would certainly like to see more of the Castle attractions; the Lost Wawel exhibition, showing furnishings and art that were found at the site, sounded especially interesting. You could easily spend a full day here to see everything.

We also opted to visit the Wawel Cathedral (official name The Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus). Entry to the main cathedral is free, but tickets are available at a separate office across from the Cathedral entrance which allow you to climb the bell tower and visit the crypt containing many of Poland’s kings. We found the climb to the bell tower well worth it—great views across the city and a peek at the massive 27,778 lb Royal Sigismund Bell. There’s also a nice Cathedral Museum in a separate building which was fairly quiet (providing a nice respite from the crowds on Wawel Hill) and had a rich collection of Polish religious artifacts, including a lot items connected to Pope John Paul II.

We also recommend just walking the grounds at Wawel Hill. Entry to the grounds are free and early in the morning before the ticket office is open you can have the place to yourself!

Kraków’s Old Town (Stare Miasto)

Wandering the scenic streets of Kraków’s well-preserved medieval center is a highlight of this beautiful city. One of the first sites to be included in the UNESCO World Heritage List, it is full of beautiful sites and historic architecture. The heart of the Old Town is the Main Square or Rynek Glowny, the largest medieval town square in Europe. Filled with throngs of tourists, flower vendors, and horse-drawn carriages, the square seems full of life both day and night. The impressive 14th century Basilica of St. Mary dominates the square with its tall Gothic towers. Next door, the much smaller Church of St. Barbara has an impressive Baroque interior. The historic Cloth Hall in the center of the square is another beautiful building, which today primarily houses souvenir stalls. Shops, cafes, and restaurants fill the surrounding buildings.

A few blocks north, some of the Old Town’s fortifications remain intact, including the 14th century St. Florian’s gate tower and a section of the defensive wall. Just beyond that, the Krakow Barbican is a 15th century fortified gate that is now part of the city’s History Museum.

Oskar Schindler’s Factory (Fabryka Emalia Oskara Schindlera)

Kraków has a complex history, especially as it relates to WWII, and we wanted to learn more about the Nazi occupation and WWII history of the city. Oskar Schindler, of the eponymous Steven Spielberg movie, lived in Kraków during the war and his enamelware factory has been turned into a museum of the occupation. The museum is incredibly thorough and you could spend hours there if you wanted to read through everything in every room. Arranged chronologically, you start with a very informative 30 minute movie about Schindler and the factory, and then proceed through the years of the occupation. We found the old photos of Krakow interesting (especially recognizing many of the sites we had just seen in the present day), and learned a lot about that difficult era in the city. For anyone interested in that time period, a visit to the museum is worthwhile.

We recommend buying tickets in advance to allow you to skip the line at the entrance; they also have a free coat and bag check on site. We purchased timed entrance tickets from the visitor center in the Cloth Hall in Rynek Glowny (the main market square) and took a taxi to the factory (make sure you get a taxi that will run a meter as to not get overcharged).

Wieliczka Salt Mine

The Wieliczka Salt Mine is a must-see site for many people touring Kraków, and we were intrigued by the history of the place and its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Wieliczka was opened as a salt mine in the 13th century, and continuously produced table salt up until 2007. The labyrinth of tunnels covers a mind-boggling 287 kilometers and we saw only about 3 kilometers on our visit. We opted for the Tourist Route (versus the more physically intensive Miners’ Route option), and purchased tickets from the website in advance. Tours are offered in a variety of languages at specific times of day, and you can also purchase tickets in person at the mine (if not sold out) or in their office in Kraków.

We took the train from Kraków Główny (the main train station) to Dworzec PKP Wieliczka-Rynek Station (about 20 minutes). From Wieliczka-Rynek station the entrance to the mine’s Tourist Route is about a five-minute walk (not well marked from the station; having a map is helpful). We exchanged our online tickets for paper tickets at the mine, and were given a headset with which to hear our guide. Once we descended into the mine (350 steps down), we switched on the headset to hear his commentary. One disappointing part of the visit was that one headset for our party of four had a dead battery as soon as we descended into the mine. The guide had no solution but to “stay close” which was a challenge in our large group, especially given his very quiet speech. We also got the impression that the quality and depth of the tour experience could vary greatly depending on your guide. Our guide seemed to stick to a very tight script, but other groups we crisscrossed with in the mine seemed to be having more in depth conversations. The pace of the tour was also not what we expected. The guide moved us very quickly from room to room in the mine without much time to linger.  It felt rushed and wasn’t nearly as leisurely as we had expected.

The website says the Tourist Route experience will take about three hours. After an hour and a half we reached a break in the guided tour and were dropped at a gift shop and café (yes, underground!). The guide then gave us the options of going to the Saltworks Museum, lingering at the shop or restaurant, or heading back to the surface. We had hoped to go to the Saltworks Museum and move through it at our own pace, but we were told we couldn’t go without the guide. We opted out, and returned to the surface. All in all the experience wasn’t what we were expecting. Yes—the mine is very interesting and has an incredibly rich history. Yes—there are some beautiful carvings and spaces underground. But overall, we were a little underwhelmed with the entire experience. We would still recommend the salt mine to other travelers, tempered with an understanding of some of the disappointments we had on our tour.

WHERE TO STAY

Since there were four of us, we decided it would be nice to rent an apartment in the Old City.  We found a gem of an apartment on Airbnb, and thought the location (on ul. Dominikański) was perfect.  Just around the corner from Rynek Glowny and a short walk to Wawel Castle, we were able to walk everywhere in the city we wanted to go (except Oskar Schindler’s Factory which was a bit further). We were also walking distance to the train station which proved useful for airport connections and the trip to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. One thing to keep in mind: being right across the street from a tram stop on the weekend made for a fair bit of noise. There are definitely quieter streets in the Old City, and this location seemed particularly noisy on Saturday night. Regardless, we would look to rent again when we go back to Krakow, either in the Old City or in the Kazimierz neighborhood.

WHERE TO SHOP

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We wanted to bring home some of the traditional blue and white Polish pottery to add to our home. Looking for good quality pieces without getting price-gouged in a tourist location, we sought out the Asortyment Shop (Bożego Ciała 22) in the Kazimierz neighborhood. The small shop had a great selection, and the prices were very reasonable compared to other pottery outlets in the city. The shop is a little hard to spot from the street, but we were glad we found it. We ended up buying some beautiful mugs in two sizes which we are excited to use!

WHERE TO EAT

We loved exploring the Polish milk bars (bar mleczny) during our visit. Read more about our recommendations here!

GETTING THERE & AWAY

We flew into the mid-sized Saint John Paul II International Airport Kraków–Balice, located just west of the city center. There is a fairly new train station at the airport (connected by a bridge to the terminal) with a trains direct to Kraków Główny (the main train station); a journey of about 17 minutes. (Conveniently the same train continues on to the Wieliczka Salt Mine for people who want to go directly there). Train tickets can be purchased from a machine in the terminal, in the station, or on board the train (from a machine or the conductor).

Additionally, for travel around Kraków, this website was a helpful resource for train and bus options.  Not only can you search for itineraries, but you can purchase bus tickets through the site (we still had to buy train tickets at the station).

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