Last Updated on January 2, 2024

In the heart of Europe, Krakow, Poland, stands as a captivating testament to the country’s rich history and cultural heritage. This enchanting city, with its cobblestone streets and medieval architecture, beckons visitors to step back in time and explore a tapestry of tales woven through centuries.

As a retired naval officer who lived in Europe and an avid history buff, I totally appreciate all that Krakow offers visitors. Yes, there were those horrific days of its ghettos and extermination camps, but the character of Krakow lives on, offering a rich heritage coupled with modern marvels.

Home to one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval old towns, Krakow boasts a skyline dominated by the spires of historic churches and the imposing Wawel Castle. Beyond its architectural splendors, Krakow is a vibrant hub of artistic expression, hosting a myriad of museums, galleries and theaters showcasing Polish creativity.

Whether it’s wandering through the bustling Market Square, delving into the poignant history of Auschwitz-Birkenau, or savoring the flavors of traditional Polish cuisine, Krakow unfolds as a city where the past harmoniously intertwines with the present, inviting all who visit to immerse themselves in its timeless charm.

Here top things to do if you’re visiting this marvelous historic treasure.

Wawel Castle and Cathedral

Situated on Wawel Hill, this castle is a living testament to Poland’s complex past.

With a history dating back over 1,000 years, Wawel Castle was the residence of Polish kings and the center of political power for centuries. The castle reflects many architectural styles including Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque.

The Royal Cathedral features elaborately decorated staterooms that showcase period furniture, tapestries, and art. Visitors can explore the royal apartments, including the senatorium, where official functions and banquets were once held.

Located within the castle grounds, Wawel Cathedral is home to the Sigismund Bell, one of the largest in Europe. Cast in 1520, it weighs almost 13 tons and is named after King Sigismund I of Poland.

According to legend, Wawel Hill was once inhabited by a fierce dragon that terrorized the locals. A mythical statue of the Wawel Dragon now stands near the castle, and visitors can see periodic fire-breathing performances.

Old Town Square (Rynek Główny)

Rynek Główny is the beating heart of Krakow standing as one of the most picturesque and historically significant public spaces in Europe. Spanning nearly 10 acres, the expansive square dating back to the 13th century is surrounded by a stunning array of architectural treasures.

St. Mary’s Basilica is a Gothic masterpiece renowned for its intricate stained windows, wooden altarpiece, and the hourly trumpet call (Hejnał Mariacki) from one of its towers.

One popular way visitors can explore the charm of the square is by taking a leisurely horse-drawn carriage ride to absorb its fascinating ambiance. The square is home to charming cafes, restaurants and outdoor seating areas, and hosts various markets and festivals throughout the year, including an impressive Christmas market.

Auschwitz-Birkenau

Located near the town of Oświęcim in southern Poland, Auschwitz-Birkenau serves as a haunting reminder of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. The complex was an extermination camp operated by Nazi Germany during World War II. 

Yes, visiting this UNESCO World Heritage site that stands as a memorial to the millions of victims of the Holocaust is an extremely sobering experience, but it’s one that humans from all over the world need to see.

Living quarters were deplorable, with overcrowded barracks, inadequate sanitation, and harsh manual labor. Prisoners faced extreme brutality, starvation, and disease, leading to a significant number of deaths even before systemic extermination began. Mass murder was conducted in gas chambers disguised as showers.

On January 27, 1945, Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet Red Army. Today, Auschwitz-Birkenau preserves this poignant site as a place of remembrance and education. Visitors can explore the barracks, watchtowers, and remnants of the gas chambers, gaining insight into the Holocaust and the consequences of unchecked evil and hatred.

Schindler’s Factory Museum

This incredibly moving museum is a tribute to the remarkable story of Oskar Schindler and the many lives he saved during the Holocaust. The museum is situated in the former enamelware and ammunition factory owned by Schindler, who, at great personal risk, saved the lives of over a thousand Jewish workers during World War II utilizing the factory as a refuge for the laborers, saving them from deportation and extermination.

The museum features multimedia displays, personal testimonies, historical documents, and contemporary art chronicling the events of the Holocaust and the actions of Oskar Schindler (whose story was re-created in the blockbuster film “Schindler’s List”).

Kazimierz (Jewish Quarter)

Guests can immerse themselves in the bohemian atmosphere of Kazimierz, Krakow’s historic Jewish quarter renowned for its synagogues, charming streets, and colorful nightlife.

Kazimierz was established in 1335 as a separate city adjacent to Krakow. Over the centuries, it became the center of Jewish life and culture in the region, hosting a thriving ethnic community that contributed significantly to the city’s character.

Adjacent to the Remuh Synagogue, Remuh Cemetery is one of the oldest Jewish burial sites in Poland, dating back to the 16th century. It is the final resting place for many prominent Jewish figures.

Plac Nowy (New Square) is a lively public space at the heart of Kazimierz, known for its bustling market, vibrant atmosphere, and iconic food stalls serving traditional Polish snacks, especially the famous zapiekanka, an open-faced sandwich topped with a variety of ingredients and baked until the cheese is melted and bubbly.

Krakow Underground Museum

Also known as the Rynek Underground, this unique and immersive subterranean museum located beneath Market Square is a fascinating journey through time, providing insight into the city’s medieval history.

Exhibits within the Krakow Underground Museum showcase the artifacts and structures unearthed during many archaeological excavations. Here visitors can explore recreated market stalls, workshops, and other elements providing detailed insight into the daily life of Krakow’s medieval inhabitants.

The museum highlights the craftsmanship of medieval artisans, including blacksmiths, bakers, and potters along with a complete model of the Main Market Square as it appeared in the 16th century.

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Illuminated, Underground Saint Kinga Chapel in the Salt Mine in Wieliczka, Poland
Illuminated, Underground Saint Kinga Chapel in the Salt Mine in Wieliczka, Poland. Courtesy Deposit Photos.

Situated near the town of Wieliczka, just a short drive from Krakow, is one of the world’s oldest salt mines, and also a UNESCO World Heritage site. This remarkable underground complex has been in operation for over 700 years and is renowned for its historic significance, architectural marvels, and artistic treasures.

Dating back to the 13th century, the mine contains extensive salt deposits and historically was the major source of salt for the entire region. Visitors can explore labyrinthine tunnels and chambers carved out of rock salt by generations of miners.

One of the most notable features of the Wieliczka Salt Mine is the series of chapels and chambers carved entirely out of salt. These unique spaces include the Chapel of St. Kinga, the largest underground chapel in the world, and the Chapel of the Blessed Kinga, adorned with intricate salt sculptures and chandeliers.

The mine is also home to several underground lakes, including the stunning Lake Wessel. The subterranean bodies of water, along with salt stalactites and stalagmites, create a surreal and enchanting atmosphere of haunting beauty.

National Museum in Krakow

Krakow’s National Museum (Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie) is one of Poland’s most prominent and comprehensive art and cultural institutions. Established in 1879, it houses an extensive collection of artworks, historical artifacts, and exhibits. The museum’s holdings cover a wide range of periods and styles, providing a rich tapestry of Poland’s artistic and historical heritage.

The Museum’s main building houses a vast collection of Polish paintings, sculptures, decorative arts, and artifacts. It features works by renowned artists, including Jan Matejko, Stanisław Wyspiański and Jacek Malczewski.

In addition to Polish art, the museum’s collection includes European, Asian, and other international works along with temporary exhibitions providing a platform for contemporary artists while exploring various themes or periods in greater detail.

Vistula River Cruise

Where there is water, there is fun. My family and I love seeing a destination from the water, offering a whole different view and perspective of the city. Krakow certainly delivers.

A Vistula River cruise offers a delightful way to experience the scenic beauty of Krakow on a leisurely boat ride along the country’s longest river. The Vistula River, also known as the Wisła, meanders through the heart of Krakow, providing many picturesque views of the city’s historic landmarks and natural verdant landscapes.

River cruisers can also enjoy panoramas of Krakow’s skyline including iconic structures such as Wawel Castle, St. Mary’s Basilica, and the historic buildings that line the riverbanks while sailing beneath historic bridges. Whether you choose a larger sightseeing boat, a smaller private vessel or a traditional wooden gondola, you’ll enjoy a relaxing and peaceful journey on Krakow’s lovely and timeless river.

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