With so much to see and do in Krakow in the winter, Jonathan and I fell very quickly in love with this city. It was one of those cities that, if it had a better climate and was closer to the ocean, we would have moved there in a heartbeat.
The city of Krakow offers beautiful architecture, incredible food, and fun to explore – everything we love. But, although we won’t be moving there or anywhere else any time soon, we both very much look forward to visiting other regions in Poland.
What Is There To See In Krakow In Winter
Old Town Main Square (Rynek Glowny)
Head to the Old Town Main Square and enjoy a leisurely stroll through the historic city centre. The Old Town of Krakow is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with cobbled streets, fairytale architecture, fun bars, and pretty cafes.
The Old Town Main Square is one of Europe’s largest medieval market squares and the perfect place to wander and people-watch the day away.
Krakow’s Christmas Market
We visited Krakow in December. I had always wanted to visit Poland’s renowned Christmas markets and sip mulled wine. We had given ourselves a whole week to explore Krakow, and during the week, it was fabulous to roam the stalls and sample the local foods. At the weekend, though, the market was seriously jampacked with tourists and Christmas shoppers.
Our advice – try and avoid visiting the Christmas markets on weekends!
The Christmas market takes place in Krakow’s Old Town Main Square. Here you will find many wooden stalls selling Christmas decorations, gifts, sweets, and other foods. Besides shopping, many stalls also offer delicious, hot, nutritious dishes, alfresco and, of course, mulled wine.
Although we love exploring markets whenever we travel, we don’t often buy anything – when you move countries as often as we do, less is best. But the Christmas decorations were so gorgeous, and well, you have to treat yourself occasionally, don’t you?
Admittedly Cloth Hall was not our favourite spot; a little bit too touristy and over-commercialised. But as Cloth Hall is basically the world’s oldest shopping mall, we had to visit. The Cloth Hall on Krakow’s Old Town Main Square has been a trading hall since at least the 1300s.
Having been given a 16th-century Renaissance facelift, the Cloth Hall now features dozens of stalls selling amber jewellery, cloth handicrafts, lacework, wood carvings, sheepskin rugs, and of course, all sorts of Polish souvenirs and trinkets.
St Mary’s Basilica ( Kościół Mariacki)
St Mary’s Basilica is an excellent example of Polish Gothic architecture. Located next to the Old Town Main Square, St Mary’s Basilica was built during the 14th century, although its foundations date back to the early 13th century.
Every hour on the hour, a trumpeter plays the ‘Hejnał mariacki,’ a traditional, five-note Polish anthem from the top of the taller of St Mary’s Basilica’s two towers. The mournful tune breaks off mid-stream to pay tribute to a famous 13th-century trumpeter who was shot in the throat while raising the alarm before a Mongol attack on Krakow.
Town Hall Tower
The Tower is all that’s left of the old Kraków Town Hall, which was demolished in 1820 as part of a plan to open up the Old Town Main Square. Its cellars once housed the city prison with a Medieval torture chamber.
The Head Of Krakow
The giant bronze head in the middle of Krakow’s main square is called Eros Bendato. It’s a popular meeting point for people living in Krakow because everybody knows “the head of Krakow.”
Despite initial protests from many locals and historians, the sculpture of the giant head located near the Town Hall Tower has become an unexpected tourist attraction.
It’s possible to climb inside the statue, and many people do.
St Peters and Paul Church
Built in the early 1600s, Kraków’s Jesuit Church was the first entirely Baroque-style church in Krakow.
Beautiful inside, but for us, the most striking feature was the statutes of the twelve disciples standing on the gates outside the church.
Evening Concerts at St Peter’s and Paul’s Church
For a little bit of musical culture, attend a classical music concert at St Peter’s and Paul’s Church.
The classical concerts are performed every evening at 8 pm by the Krakow Chamber Orchestra of St Maurice.
The current programme is as follows but subject to change. We went to the Best Classics on a Friday night, and it was a delightful way to start an evening.
‘Mondays, Thursdays: Organ & Orchestra (J.S. Bach, M. Surzyński, F. Chopin, L. Mozart, W.A. Mozart, A. Dvořák, P. Tchaikovsky, A. Vivaldi)
Tuesdays, Saturdays: The Four Seasons (A. Vivaldi The Four Seasons)
Wednesdays, Sundays: Golden Collection (E. Grieg, A. Vivaldi, F. Chopin, J.S. Bach, W.A. Mozart, G.F. Handel, P. Tchaikovsky, J. Rodrigo, A. Khachaturian)
Fridays: The Best Classics (G.F. Handel, F. Chopin, A. Vivaldi, W.A. Mozart, P. Tchaikovsky, C. Debussy)’
Tickets cost 60/40zł. Roughly $15 /€15
Performances last just over an hour.
The Barbikan is the only remaining gatehouse of the medieval fortifications that once encircled the whole of Krakow. Today there are occasional theatre productions and art shows hosted inside, but alas, not when we were there.
St Florian’s Gate
St Florian’s Gate, a Polish Gothic Tower, marks the start of the Royal Route. It was built around the 14th century as part of the city’s fortifications against attack from the Turks.
With a gorgeous mix of Gothic, Romanesque, and Renaissance, the Wawel Castle has been a significant landmark of Krakow since the 14th century.
It’s now a museum with five different permanent exhibitions, and each one needs a separate ticket to enter. The permanent exhibitions are the State Rooms, Royal Private Apartments, Crown Treasury and Armoury, Lost Wawel, and the Exhibition of Oriental Art.
Even though we were in Krakow for a week, we would have been too rushed to explore the castle’s interior (we travel very slow!). Instead, we enjoyed wandering the castle grounds under the blue winter sky, clutching hot chocolate for warmth.
The gardens are open from 6 am to dusk and have great views of Krakow, the river, and the infamous Wawel Dragon Statue.
Exhibition opening hours and ticket prices for Wawel Castle vary seasonally. If you are interested in visiting Wawel Castle, check here for the latest information. And please, don’t forget to let us know what it’s like inside.
Wawel Dragon Statue (SMOK WAWELSKI)
The bronze Wawel Dragon Statue stands on Wawel Hill next to the Vistula River in front of the legendary Wawel Dragon’s den. You can see it from the grounds of Wawel Castle, but to experience its fiery breath, you need to follow the path down from Wawel Castle to the river.
The dragon statue is six metres (20 ft) tall and breathes real fire at five-minute intervals. And if five minutes is too long for you to wait, just send the word SMOK via SMS to 7168 to request an immediate dose of fiery breath!
Legend of the Wawel Dragon
So you’ve seen the Wawel Dragon Statue, and you’ve seen dragons for sale in all of Krakow’s souvenir shops; why? What’s the story of the dragon?
Are you sitting comfortably? Once upon a time, when King Krakus was the king of Krakow, and Wawel Castle was his home, the people of Krakow led peaceful happy lives. But one day people heard weird noises coming from beneath the castle and lo and behold discovered a dragon living there!
The dragon was ravenous and demanded food from the people. If they didn’t give them food, then the dragon would eat them. Needless to say, the whole city was terrified and begged the king for help.
So, King Krakus declared that whoever defeats and kills the dragon can marry his daughter, Princess Wanda, and win the crown.
Many brave men tried, but none of them succeeded. Until along came Skuba, a poor shoemaker with a cunning plan. He took a sheep’s skin and filled it with hay and sulphur, and fed it to the dragon.
The sulphur made the dragon so thirsty that it ran down to the Vistula river. The dragon drank and drank until it exploded!
King Krakus kept his promise, and Skuba married Princess Wanda. And as in all good stories, everyone lived happily ever after.
Planty Park circles Krakow’s historic Old Town, where up until the early 19th century, the medieval city walls used to be. It’s a pleasant place to walk and enjoy a spot of nature in the heart of the city. It’s filled with life in the summer and a charming winter wonderland during the colder months.
Kazimierz – Krakow’s Jewish Quarter
Kazimierz is located just south of Krakow’s old town. It takes about twenty minutes to walk there from the Old Town Main Square.
For over 500 years, Kazimierz was the centre of Jewish life in Kraków before being destroyed during the Second World War. During the communist era in Poland, Kazimierz was one of Kraków’s dodgiest districts.
However, following Stephen Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List – a film about Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi party and a German industrialist who, after seeing the persecution of Jews in Poland, tries to save his Jewish employees, Kazimierz has made a comeback. Today, Kazimierz is a bustling, bohemian, cool neighbourhood packed with historical sites, atmospheric cafes, art galleries, and trendy boutique hotels.
As we wandered the streets of Kazimierz, we were approached by a Tuk Tuk driver offering us a short tour from the Jewish Quarter over to Jewish Ghetto. Typically, we decline such offers, but the driver wasn’t pushy; we were tired from walking, and with four of us, it only worked out to around €10 each or was it €20 each? Hmm, can’t actually remember, told you we were tired.
The drive took us by Schindler’s House and Factory. The factory is now a museum and looked fascinating, but you need to book tickets in advance, and unfortunately, time was running against us—a good excuse for a return trip to Krakow. Schindler’s house itself looked very unassuming.
During World War II, the Jewish community was forced to live in a ghetto, separated from the rest of Krakow by a wall. There’s still a 12-metre stretch of the original ghetto wall with a commemorative plaque that reads, “Here they lived, suffered and died at the hands of the German torturers. From here, they began their final journey to the death camps.”
Ghetto Heroes Square (Plac Bohaterów Getta)
This public square has had a somewhat turbulent history. During the time of the Krakow Ghetto, this was the ghetto’s largest open space and a place for the Jewish people to socialize and escape the overcrowding of the tenements.
The square was also the site of beatings, families being torn apart, mass deportations to the death camps, and executions.
After years of neglect, the public square was renovated in 2005. The square is now a strange but iconic memorial to those that lived in the Krakow Ghetto. The 70 large metal chairs are meant to symbolise departure and subsequent absence.
Market Hall Unitarg (Hala Targowa)
Unitarg is Krakow’s best outdoor market. It’s open every day, selling everything from fruit, flowers, and produce to cheap wristwatches and pirated DVDs.
Sunday is the best and busiest day to visit. On Sundays, it turns into a bona fide Polish flea market. Ramshackle stalls piled high with everything from Soviet trinkets to age-stained metal tankards. Be sure to haggle for everything and make sure you arrive early for the best deals.
Eating in Krakow
The food was terrific in Krakow, with so many fabulous restaurants to choose from. Of course, we enjoyed the Polish pierogis (dumplings) several times, but it’s not all pierogis; Polish cuisine is rich in meats, sausages, bread, and sauerkraut.
Not sure if it was just the restaurants we visited, but vegetarian options did seem somewhat limited.
Tipping in Poland
Service charge is not usually included in the bill, and even though Poland is not a ‘tipping’ culture, restaurant servers do expect a little something for good service. The safest calculation is 10% of the total amount.
Dinner Reservations in Krakow
I don’t think Jonathan and I have ever come across so many highly-rated restaurants in one town. Wow, what a choice! We followed locals’ recommendations and also chose a few from Trip Advisor. The food was a highlight in Krakow and very well-priced. Think around 20 euros a head for a Michelin star meal – not bad, eh?
With so many great restaurants and so many tourists, it’s a good idea to make reservations in advance to avoid disappointment.
Worried your Polish is not up to scratch to make that call, don’t worry; everyone we met spoke amazingly good English.
Day trips From Krakow.
Dark, emotional, and moving, there’s really nowhere quite like Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Auschwitz Memorial and museum are around an hour from Krakow city centre. The memorial offers an informative and sensitive insight into the horrors of the Holocaust and life under the Nazis.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Wieliczka Salt Mine is not too far from Krakow. Inside the salt mine, you’ll see shafts and labyrinthine passageways, displays of historic salt-mining technology, four chapels, an underground lake, and numerous statues carved out of the rock salt by miners.
Many tours departing Krakow combine a visit to both Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and the Wieliczka Salt Mine in one day. To be honest, I think that’s too much for one day unless your time is limited in Krakow.
For more details on visiting Wieliczka Salt Mine on a tour, click here.
How To Get To Krakow
By plane – Kraków John Paul II International Airport is the second largest airport in Poland. It’s located near Kraków, in the village of Balice, just eleven kilometres west of the city centre.
How to Get From Krakow Airport To Krakow City Centre
Prebook a private transfer from Krakow airport to Krakow city centre -The journey time from Krakow airport to the city centre takes around 20-30 minutes.
By bus – The bus costing just 4,60 PLN (about $1) takes around 40 minutes from Krakow airport to the city centre.
By train – the train takes around 20 minutes from Krakow airport to the city centre and costs 9 PLN (just over $2)
Arriving In Krakow From Other Cities
By train – To Krakow from Warsaw & other destinations in Poland.
There are regular trains from all over Poland that will take you to the central station in Krakow. Trains are cheap, clean and very comfortable. We travelled from Oswiecim (closest station to Auschwitz) to Krakow for €4.
Have you visited Krakow or any other Polish destinations? Tell us about it in the comments below. We love to hear your stories.
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