Once you’ve meandered through Kraków’s Main Market Square and seen the Royal Castle and Kazimierz up close on your perfect weekend in the city, here’s a round-up of day trips – from the merely jaw-dropping to the truly life-changing – to take as you continue to explore.
Bear witness at Auschwitz-Birkenau
A trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum, the site of the some of the worst Nazi-led atrocities of WWII, won’t be suitable for all visitors, and is not recommended for children under 14. That said, perhaps no other place on earth better captures the horrors of the Holocaust or the depravities humankind is capable of inflicting. More than a million people, including Jews, Poles and Roma, were murdered here during the war, and a visit affords the chance both to bear witness to the tragedy and to affirm that nothing like it must ever be allowed to happen again. A tour of the grounds unfolds in two parts. The main camp, Auschwitz I, has exhibitions that help explain what happened; the larger camp at Birkenau (Auschwitz II) is where most of the killings took place.
Getting there: The Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial is located in Oświęcim, about 50km (31 miles) west of Kraków. Both buses and trains make the trip out and back, though buses tend to be more convenient as they drop you closer to the main entrance to the site.
Be amazed by the elaborate artistry of Wieliczka Salt Mine
Yes, we’re really recommending a trip to a salt mine – one that’s surely unlike any you might be picturing in your mind. The UNESCO-protected Wieliczka Salt Mine is an astounding example of underground artistry that needs to be seen to be believed. No wonder it’s one of Poland’s most popular attractions.
Over many, many years, miners fashioned elaborate chambers, chapels and altarpieces from the deposits of salt crystals – architectural creations that astonish both with their exquisite craftsmanship and sheer scale. The high point of the tour is a vast chamber (54m/177ft by 18m/59ft, and 12m/39ft high) housing the highly decorated Chapel of St Kinga. The work here took more than 30 years to complete, to dazzling result.
Getting there: Both trains and buses depart regularly from Kraków’s main train and bus stations to the suburb of Wieliczka, a trip of about 14km (9 miles) that takes around 30 minutes. Look for bus number 304, which departs Krakow near the Galeria Krakowska shopping mall, and disembark at the Wieliczka Kopalnia Soli stop. Both Zone I (Strefa I) and II Agglomeration (II Aglomeracja) tickets will get you to Wieliczka. If traveling by train, depart form the main rail station in Krakow (Dworzec Główny) to the Wieliczka Rynek Kopalnia train station. In addition, many travel companies and minibuses for hire offer tours to the mine; these fares normally include both transport and admission.
Enjoy the mountain air and architecture of Zakopane
Kraków lies just beyond the foothills of the mighty Tatra Mountains, and the highest peaks of the vast Carpathian chain. The main base for exploring the mountains from the Polish side, Zakopane is a rowdy, fun-loving resort that’s packed with hikers in summer and skiers in winter. If that weren’t enough, Zakopane is also famous for its many magnificent timber villas that date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the town became a haven for Poland’s avant-garde painters, writers, poets and composers. Ride a horse-drawn carriage up to the pretty alpine lake at Morskie Oko and later check out one of the impressive villas at the Museum of Zakopane Style.
Getting there: Bus is the best transport option for reaching Zakopane, though there are a few trains that still use Zakopane’s small train station. The train tends to take longer and cost a bit more, while buses depart from Kraków at least every half hour during the day, and the trip takes two hours.
Try Pope John Paul II’s favorite dessert in his hometown
Fans of former pope and cherished Polish hero John Paul II will want to make the pilgrimage to the pope’s birthplace in the town of Wadowice. The house where future pontiff Karol Wojtyła was born on 18 May 1920 has been restored to its former appearance and can be visited on a guided tour. Wadowice itself is a cute, cobblestoned town and fun for a short walk-about. Don’t leave without treating yourself to a slice of the pope’s favorite dessert: kremówka, a legendary, layered cream cake that’s sure to unite dessert lovers of all faiths. You’ll find it at cafes around town, though the Kawiarna Mieszczańska (in our opinion) might serve the best version.
Getting there: Wadowice is accessible from Kraków by bus or train, though buses tend to be faster, making the 52km (32-mile) trip in a little over an hour. The train takes just under two hours.
See castles and caves at Ojców National Park
Ojców National Park, Poland’s smallest national park, is big on both natural and man-made attractions. Though measuring just 21.5 sq km (8.3 sq miles), the park offers a couple of romantic, preserved castles as well as caves, unusual rock formations, and a diverse range of flora and fauna – all of which provide a nice contrast to Kraków’s crowded lanes and tram-choked streets. Don’t miss the 14th-century Pieskowa Skała Castle at the park’s northern end, about 8km (5 miles) north of Ojców village. Cavers will want to poke their noses in at the Wierzchowska Górna Cave, the area’s longest. Reward a hike or cave exploration with some rustic food at Ojcowianin, in the heart of Ojców village.
Getting there: A minibus links Kraków and Ojców. Buses depart from the north side of Kraków at a small stop near the corner of ul Lubelska and ul Prądnicka. Expect it to be around 40 minutes’ travel time.