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Top 10 Things to Do in Krakow on a First Visit, Poland

Situated in southern Poland, Krakow is one of Europe’s most intriguing travel destinations and a trove of memorable experiences. Tick off these ten top things to do on your first trip.
27 Sep, 2023
Ten top things to do in Krakow
Ten top things to do in Krakow: Rynek Glowny and St Mary’s Basilica

A curious and bubbling potion of intellectualism, folklore, history, and culture, Krakow has an intoxicating effect on most visitors.

An understated elegance permeates the charming cobblestoned streets of the medieval old town, intermingling with the vibrancy and youthfulness of the Jewish Quarter; a near-perfect combination of old meets new. Even as the former royal capital of Poland (and the country’s second largest city), Krakow is by no means flashy. However, it is one of those destinations that somehow manages to surreptitiously steal your heart, even before you’ve finished yelling wódka!

Here are ten top things to do in Krakow on a first visit.

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1. Step back in time on Wawel Hill

According to legend, Krakow’s origins involved the slaying of a dragon by local hero Krakus — who fed the mythical beast a dead sheep full of sulphur. The fable lives on through a display of what are said to be the dragon’s bones hanging outside Wawel Cathedral on Wawel Hill. This limestone bluff and important archaeological site is situated just a short walk south of the old centre. Tourists can also enter a limestone cave beneath the hill, known as the ‘Dragon’s Den’. Above sits popular Wawel Royal Castle — the home of Polish royalty for centuries. Today it’s a museum packed with art and military artefacts.

Ten top things to do in Krakow
Ten top things to do in Krakow: Royal Wawel Castle

2. Learn about Jewish persecution during WWII

Poland was invaded by the Nazis at the beginning of World War II in 1939 and occupied until 1944. The Jewish population in Krakow (approximately 65,000) were persecuted and moved into a walled ghetto in the Podgórze district, where they were subsequently sent to work in the Płaszów labour camp or deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp to their deaths. Schindler’s Factory, immortalised in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, is now a museum focusing on this harrowing period. Visitors are guided through daily life under Nazi occupation. Pre-purchase your ticket online and jump the inevitable queue.

Ten top things to do in Krakow
Ten top things to do in Krakow: Schindler’s Factory museum

3. Pay your respects at Auschwitz

You may also want to visit Auschwitz itself — where according to UNESCO, 1.5 million people — a great number of them Jews — were starved, tortured, and murdered between 1940 and 1945. The camp is located an hour’s drive west of Krakow. You can book on an organised tour from the city; alternatively, there are bus and train connections.

Ten top things to do in Krakow
Ten top things to do in Krakow: Auschwitz. Image: Bigstock

The camp is actually separated into two sites — Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau — and you’ll see the prisoner buildings, ruins of the gas chambers, and crematorium. Be prepared for a solemn day and to struggle with the depths to which humanity can sink. It’s a harrowing experience, but an important and necessary one.

4. Explore Krakow’s old centre

Rynek Glowny is one of Europe’s largest medieval squares and acts as a logical starting point for exploring Krakow and its main cultural sights. The Gothic St Mary’s Basilica, the Cloth Hall (a predecessor to the modern shopping mall) and St Florian’s Gate all within walking distance. Remember to look up to catch a glimpse of the trumpeter playing the Krakow anthem from the window of the highest tower of St Mary’s Basilica. It happens every hour, on the hour.

Ten top things to do in Krakow
Ten top things to do in Krakow: St Mary’s Basilica trumpeter

5. View the wonders of the Wieliczka Salt Mine

Krakow’s 700-year-old, UNESCO World Heritage-listed Wieliczka Salt Mine harbours many treasures. Book a tour and follow your expert guide through the mine’s tunnels and chambers. You’ll see glittering saline lakes, a variety of chapels (including that of St Kinga), sculptures carved from salt, and much more. It’s quite the eye opener.

Ten top things to do in Krakow
Ten top things to do in Krakow: Wieliczka Salt Mine

6. Follow in the footsteps of Pope John Paul II

Krakow’s most famous export is perhaps the former Pope John Paul II (18 May 1920 to 2 April 2005) — the first non-Italian pope in more than 400 years — and there is still plenty of lingering papal pride and reverence. Walk past the house at ul Kanonicza 19 where John Paul II lived when he was the Archbishop of Krakow. It now houses the Archdiocesan Museum.

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7. Do a tour of Kazimierz

Dedicate some time to explore Kazimierz — once the centre of Jewish life in Krakow; today a lively bohemian neighbourhood crammed with unique bars, contemporary boutiques, and galleries, striking street art and a pulsating nightlife. The district is still home to a number of synagogues, including the Old Synagogue — the oldest in Poland (which also serves as the Jewish Museum), the Remuh Synagogue — the only fully active synagogue in Krakow, and the Tempel Synagogue — famous for its ornate Moorish-style interior. A guided walking tour will ensure you get the most from your visit to the precinct.

Ten top things to do in Krakow
Ten top things to do in Krakow: Remuh Synagogue. Image: Bigstock

8. Dine at a milk bar

Poland was also occupied by the Soviet Union in WWII, and Krakow’s milk bars (bar mleczny) are a remnant of Communist rule. Essentially no-frills cafeterias selling hearty Polish food at super competitive prices, this is where you’ll find the ‘real Krakow’. Don’t expect a fine dining experience, but rather an insight into how local people live. Try Mleczny Bar Górnik at ul Czysta 1 and order a żurek (sour rye soup). There is no guarantee that English will be spoken, and it may be a little intimidating at first. But you won’t regret it!

Ten top things to do in Krakow
Ten top things to do in Krakow: Dine on traditional Polish fare at a Soviet-era Milk Bar.

9. Sample the local drop

You can’t come all the way to Poland without trying the local tipple of choice. Once regarded as the country’s national drink, and with some types continuously produced for more than five centuries, wódka (vodka) remains popular with many Poles. Swing by Krakow’s pint-sized Wódka Cafe Bar, which serves shots of quality vodka for just a couple of zlotys (around $2 AUD). Pace yourself!

10. Bath in thermally heated waters

Let your holiday cares drift away with a soak in the thermal waters at the Chocholow Thermal Baths. The complex is located about 1.5 hours’ drive south of Krakow, so a tour with included transfers is a good way to go. Surrounded by the peaks of the Tatra Mountains, it’s a really stunning location.

Ten top things to do in Krakow
Image: Chocholow Thermal Baths

Take your pick from more than thirty pools that draw nutrient rich, thermally heated water from deep underground. The complex also houses a spa, gym, restaurant and even accommodation for those that just can’t tear themselves away. If you intend to use the sauna, note that it’s regulation to enter completely naked (you can use a towel).

For more inspiration, visit www.poland.travel.

Browse our range of Krakow tours and experiences here.

Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of top things to do in Krakow on a first visit? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.

Additional images: Bigstock

Camha Pham

About the writer

Camha Pham is a freelance writer and editor who has recently swapped the cosmopolitan laneways of Melbourne for the sunny beaches of Perth. Struck with the wanderlust bug from an early age, she has travelled extensively through Asia, Europe, and parts of North America. When she isn’t travelling, Camha is planning her next adventure and loves nothing more than the thrill of exploring new destinations and learning about other cultures. Travel highlights to date include chasing waterfalls in enchanting Iceland, hot-air ballooning over the lunar-like landscape of Cappadocia, and accepting a surprise marriage proposal at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto!

 

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