Back in February, I had the most amazing trip to the UNESCO World Heritage sites in and near Kraków in Poland. The collision of the grandeur of the city’s historical past with the brutality of recent times unleashes a wave of emotions. I’ll start by saying if you intend to visit Auschwitz and the Wieliczka Salt Mine when you come then 72 hours in Kraków is just not enough time to do this city justice.
As the former capital of the country, Kraków is overflowing with sites to see from churches and synagogues to museums and the great Wawel castle. Make sure you spend time getting lost in the narrow, windy streets before stopping to rest your tired feet and have a well-earned cup of coffee and a doughnut.
February can be a bleak and grey month with average temperatures near to or below freezing. Winter has been strange this year though and I enjoyed a couple of days with temperatures in double figures. The snow was gone and the sun came out, although the wind was still sharp enough to cut through like a hot knife in butter.
Getting into Kraków from the airport should be quick and simple with a train running every half hour, taking just 20 minutes and only costing 16 złoty (approx £3.20, US$4.20) for a return. The bus is cheaper but often slower. However a few things I would say about the train. Signposting from inside the airport needs improving; I didn’t see a sign at all. Secondly, unless you want to cross the road outside the front of the airport it is easier to use the enclosed walkway over the road from the 1st floor. And finally, at the moment, the train is only running once an hour weekdays due to engineering works. The other departure is replaced by a bus, but again poorly signposted for where it leaves from.
The old market square in the centre of Old Town is a great place to start. Kośiół Mariaki (St. Mary’s Basilica) dominates the square although the Cloth Hall and Town Hall Tower are by no means insubstantial themselves. This imposing gothic church is impressive from the outside but the inside is also spectacular. Regardless of faith I always enjoy visiting religious buildings to see the effort that has gone into producing these places of worship, especially when you consider the housing the general population lived in at the time. The basilica doesn’t disappoint, with the Veit Stoss altarpiece being a stunning example of Gothic artwork created in the late
There is so much more to see and do in the square as well. You can shop for trinkets in the Cloth Hall, sometimes called the “World’s Oldest Shopping Mall”, climb the Town Hall Tower, catch a horse drawn carriage, visit the underground museum or just sit and watch the world go by.
Kazimierz is the old Jewish quarter of Kraków. 60,000 Jews from the city were murdered during the Holocaust and the numbers never recovered with many of the few thousand left emigrating to Israel. Now they number in their hundreds. The Old Synagogue is now a museum that looks at the culture and history of Judaism in Kraków and is an amazing way to find out more about Judaism in general. I thought I knew a bit already but this really opened my eyes to the rituals you often hear about.
Not far from here is the Remah or the old Jewish cemetery. The gravestones were torn down by the Nazis and used as paving slabs. Some even ended up in the death camps. Where possible these have been restored to the cemetery. The cemetery is no longer used and is quite overgrown in places. With broken slabs and overgrown graves, I felt it retained an air of sadness. A little outside Kazimierz you can also find Schindler’s factory, the man whose life and work during the war, saving the Jews, was made famous in Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List.
If it’s castles you want then midway between the old town and Kazimierz you can’t fail but notice Wawel Royal Castle perched on top of Wawel Hill. The castle complex includes not just the castle but also includes, amongst other things, the city’s cathedral, the royal crypts and even a dragon.
Much of the castle was closed when I visited although externally it remains an imposing structure. The cathedral though is well worth a look. Entry is free but you need a ticket to climb the bell tower and see the 500-year-old 13 tonne Sigismund Bell and to enter the Royal Crypts. Personally, I think it’s money well spent. The cathedral is as opulently decorated as you would expect from a Catholic cathedral but as an added extra has some bones said to be those of the Kraków dragon hanging outside.
The bell tower contains 5 impressive bells. You’ll pass 2 on the way up to the main attraction and 2 more on the descent. It’s a well organised one-way system and the view of the bells and the surrounding city make it a worthwhile climb. The crypts meanwhile offer an interesting look back through history at some notable royal and non-royal tombs.
Free Walking Tour
Walkative! offer a range of free walking tours. No need to book, just turn up at the meeting point. I felt like something slightly different to the usual daytime tour and so I took the Macabre Kraków tour instead. The guide was excellent, recounting many a tale of the city’s spooky past in an entertaining way despite the chilly evening. There were tales of ancient ghosts and modern day serial killers, so something for everyone. The distance covered isn’t too much either for those worried about a long walk on a cold, dark night.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Once a working salt mine the UNESCO World Heritage site Wieliczka Salt Mine is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in Poland. You can book a tour from Kraków but it is really easy to get to by train. The train from the airport to the city centre carries on to Wieliczka and the salt mine is just up the hill. Guided tours drop off by the train station so just follow the crowds.
You have to take a 2-hour guided tour of the mine; they really don’t want to lose anyone down there. Once you’ve descended the 350 steps to get into the mine you’ll walk through the tunnels and get to see some amazing caverns, lakes, statues and chandeliers carved by the miners. Altogether there are over 170 miles of tunnels but you’ll only get to walk through about 1% of these. The guide provides a steady commentary of what you are seeing with an excellent history of the mine that has been in existence since the 13th century. Don’t wander too far from your guide though as the signal on the guide’s transmitter isn’t very strong.
The deepest part of the mine visited is 135m underground but the good news is you take the lift back to the surface. And if shopping is your thing there are plenty of salt-related products in the gift shop, as usual extravagantly priced.
Another UNESCO World Heritage site is found in the town of Oświęcim. It lies about 31 miles (50km) from Kraków and I have to say, it is a must for any visitor. Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camps are here, where over 1,000,000 Jews and others were gassed and incinerate; it is a monument to the barbarity of mankind. I will never be surprised by how appallingly humans have and will continue to treat each other but a visit to the death camps brings home the savageness experienced by so many in World War 2.
Entry to the memorial is free, with a limited number of passes available for individuals. However, I believe the best way to tour the camps is with a guide on an organised tour. You will be provided with a pair of headphones through which a guide provides commentary as you visit the different parts of the memorial and discover so much more about the history. Some of the guides and their families were personally affected by what happened in the camps.
Auschwitz I is the original camp, formerly a Polish army barracks, and the better maintained of the two. Most of the buildings are still intact and house exhibits from the war including hair collected from the victims, their suitcases, shoes and glasses. You’ll also
Auschwitz II – Birkenau was the main extermination camp. It is on a staggering scale compared to Auschwitz I, housing over 125,000 people with a train line straight into the camp and 4 giant gas chambers. Many of the prisoners sent here were never even registered and simply went straight to their deaths.
I feel the whole complex is a fitting memorial to what happened here and at other camps in Poland but even the seeing it fails to bring home the enormity of what occurred here. If you want to know more about Auschwitz then see the separate article here.
Great Food in Kraków
To finish on a happier note – food and drink. Old Town Kraków is full of places to eat, offering a wide variety of foods in a wide variety of settings. From cosy cafes through subterranean bars to outdoor tables in the market square there is something for everyone. I always like to try local food when I’m away and wasn’t disappointed with the opportunities here. If you like dumplings you will be very well served.
Morskie Oko in Szczepanski Square and Piwnica pod Kominkiem on Bracka Street both offer traditional Polish food but in very different settings. Morskie Oko indulges in a highland theme with servers in traditional Polish dress whilst Piwnica pod Kominkiem is found in the catacombs with bare brick and stone walls. I tried the pork knuckle in both and it was exquisite. The price tag at under £10 (€12, $13) is also great value for money. In fact, eating and drinking in Kraków is ridiculously cheap.