Krakow is a great city for short breaks with so many places to visit including Royal Wawel Castle, Old town and Kazimierz district. Check also where to stay and where to eat in Krakow! Choose visit to Krakow and you will not be disappointed! So, why go to Krakow?
Why go to Krakow?
For me, seeing Krakow was important to understand the history of Poland as Krakow was the capital of the country from 1038 to 1596. It survived World War II quite well – historical buildings were not much damaged. As I like history and architecture, that played a huge part in my decision to come. In addition, I’ve heard good reviews from many people who have visited the city.
I say Krakow and you say Cracow but they say Kraków
The Krakow vs. Cracow debate has been going on for hundreds of years. The Polish name of the city is Kraków but the correct English spelling used to be Cracow with a C at least for several centuries, as the city found its way into English books while part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. However, within the second half of the 20th century, the spelling more similar to the Polish word began to take precedence. Even Encyclopaedia Britannica, Webster's and other dictionaries changed their entries to "Krakow". Google search brings up about 82 million hits for "Krakow" and somewhat 6 million hits for "Cracow". At the end of the day, either variant is technically correct, but when searching for the city's airport or train station, for example, make sure you use the "Krakow" spelling, as that’s the official name for both.
How to get to Krakow?
I did what I always do: took a plane to the closest destination possible and then used public transport to travel locally. I arrived at Warsaw Chopin Airport and bought a bus ticket to the railway station at the public transport information window. The bus number 175 stop was located just across the street. There was a list of the stops in the bus window and on an electronic display. All the 17 stops to the Central (Glawny) railway station were announced too, the railway station stop both in Polish and English. The ride took 20 minutes give or take.
The Glawny railway station is located next to one of the symbols of Warsaw, the Palace of Culture and Science, the tallest building in the capital. It’s 234.5 meters tall! I easily found the platform for my direct Intercity train to Krakow. It covers a distance of 293 kilometers in 2 hours and 20 minutes. I bought a ticket on the Internet two weeks in advance for a pocket-friendly price of 49 PLN (=11 euros). The train was comfortable, with free coffee, tea and water offered.
Where to stay?
One of the things I like about travel planning is researching and choosing good quality accommodation for the best possible price. In this case, the task seemed tricky because I could not understand the accommodation “system” of Krakow very well. The difference between this city and many others I have visited before was a big share of apartments in the accommodation market with no understandable quality indications. As for the hotels in the old town, I thought them a bit overpriced. That’s why after some research and consideration I chose the tried-and-tested value of a Holiday Inn hotel located close to the old town, a mere 10-minute walk away from the railway station. I was not disappointed.
I got up early enough to have time before a free old city walking tour by freewalkingtour.com. I had spotted a cafe for breakfast during my short walk the night before, so I went there to get a coffee, some salad, and a few slices of cheese and ham for 15 PLN, or 3.5 euros. Not bad, seeing that the breakfast price at my hotel was 68 PLN, or 16 euros. As I am not a big eater in the morning, that would have been money down the drain. I also wanted to take more pictures of white horse carriages I had noticed the previous evening. Alas, they were nowhere to be seen, and later I found out the service only starts at 10 a.m., at the time when I already had to turn up at the designated starting point of my walking tour – in front of St. Mary's Church.
To my surprise, I saw not one but many tourist groups gathering there! It took me a few minutes to understand I had to look for a British flag and the freewalkingtour.com logo. My group was quite large, more than 20 people all in all – not what you’d expect at the beginning of March.
Of course, it was a Sunday, but I still have fresh memories of being the only one to take a Lisbon walking tour a week after Easter and joining a group of 8 for a Salzburg walking tour on a summer afternoon. I thought Krakow a very busy and touristy place and felt happy to be traveling off-season.
Our guide seemed to be a professional young lady with a good command of English, so I could grasp some historical facts on Krakow. I especially liked the stories about a trumpeter in the Church tower and an Italian architect who had such a hard time getting inspired for designing the main market building, called the Cloth Hall, that he ended up decorating it with ugly faces of some drunk people he saw from his balcony late at night. Without the guide’s instruction, I wouldn’t even have noticed the carved masks on the attic of the building.
Another amusing story was the one about the visit of the first and only Polish pope to Krakow in the communist times. The event gathered millions of people determined to be there no matter what. Standing on a chair, the Pope addressed a student audience from the balcony of his residence in Krakow, and the only unhappy person was the man who had to hold the chair all the time!
The tour ended on the Wawel Hill, an old witness to the history of the Polish state and kings. The Wawel Cathedral has been the main burial site for Polish monarchs since the 14th century, significantly extended and altered over time as individual rulers added multiple burial chapels. 16 Polish kings found their final resting place there.
During the tour, our guide informed us that Leonardo da Vinci’s „Lady with an Ermine” was temporarily exhibited in the Palace. Much as I wanted to see it, the ticket office lady only pointed to the notice that said tickets for that day were not available anymore. Then I asked about tomorrow, and she said on Mondays the castle was closed. I was rather upset with the news, and I guess the lady saw that, as she asked how many people wanted to go in. Learning it was only me, she gave me a ticket free of charge, and it was one of the cases when I felt really happy to be traveling solo. The painting was extraordinary, and I had the pleasure of being one of the few people admiring it in the showroom.
Having enjoyed a burger at the bottom of the Wawel Hill, I decided to have a look inside the Church of Saint Bernardino nearby. The poster claimed it had a most beautiful interior, after all.
Having verified the information (the verdict: it’s true), I headed on foot to the Kazimierz district of Krakow, known for conveying a sense of pre-war Jewish culture.
In the communist era, it became one of Kraków’s dodgiest districts. Rediscovered worldwide in the 1990s after Steven Spielberg’s „Schindler's List”, Kazimierz has since been on the rebound and today is a bustling, bohemian neighborhood packed with historical sites, atmospheric cafes and art galleries, numerous synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. I had a walk around the district and visited the Izaak Synagogue.
Its restored interiors now house a permanent exhibition titled „In Memory of Polish Jews”. Kazimierz is not exclusively Jewish, however, with several Catholic churches in the district. I visited the Corpus Christi Church of the 14th century. It takes up two entire blocks in Kazimierz, making it one of the city's largest holy sites.
After the walk, I returned to the hotel.
A hotel receptionist booked me a table at the Marmolada restaurant. The information about it caught my eye on the train when I was reading the „Krakow in Your Pocket” city guide, downloaded to my tablet for the occasion. When I set out, it was already dark, still I easily found my way to the restaurant as it was a five minute walk from the hotel. It was really a good choice with its old style atmosphere, a mouthwatering menu, and great service. I also enjoyed the live violin music.
I’ve never been to Poland before, so I wanted to try at least one local specialty but ended up with my entire meal being somehow Polish cuisine related. I had beef tartar as a starter, then tomato soup, then pear pancakes for dessert. When the waitress brought the tartar, I noticed that the serving looked a bit different from the tartar I had tried in other countries. She asked me if I had ever had tartar in Poland. As it was my first visit to the country, the answer was obviously ‘no’. She then advised me to mix all the ingredients on the plate before eating. It tasted great!
I don’t believe the tomato soup was specifically Polish, but the pancakes probably were. In any case, they were not common pancakes as I know them, but more like pear turnovers. I was satisfied with both my meal and the service. Together with a shot of calvados and a fruit tea, my bill came up to 85 PLN, or about 20 euros.
A free walking tour around Krakow lasts about 2 and a half hours. Tips are expected at the end. There is a 7 PLN (1.6 euros) fee for entering the Izaak Synagogue, other churches I visited free of charge. Public transport tickets were freely available from ticket machines on the stops or on the way. Ticket prices depend on the duration of your ride: the cheapest cost 2.80 PLN (=0.65 euros) for 20 minutes, the next price level is 4.40 PLN (=1 euro) for 75 minutes on the road.
What would I do differently next time?
If I had two days, I would take another walking tour around the Kazimierz district on the second one, and spend more time there.
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