5 great day trips from Kraków
Poland’s former royal capital, Kraków, is packed with plenty of things to see and do, but it’s also an awesome jumping off spot for a variety of day trips that run the gamut from the merely jaw-dropping to the truly life-changing. Once you’ve meandered through Kraków’s Main Market Square and seen the Royal Castle and Kazimierz up close, here’s a round-up of day trips to take from the city.
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 can 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 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 camp.
Wander the chambers of Wieliczka Salt Mine
Yes, we’re really recommending a trip to a salt mine. But put away any misconceptions you might have of any old, musty mine tour. The UNESCO-protected Wieliczka Salt Mine is an astounding example of underground artistry that defies belief, and it's one of the country’s most popular attractions. Over many, many years, the miners fashioned elaborate chambers, chapels and altarpieces, all from salt, that dazzle both with their exquisite craftsmanship and sheer scale. The high point of the tour is a vast chamber (54m by 18m, and 12m high) housing the highly decorated Chapel of St Kinga. That work took more than 30 years to complete.
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 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 Alpine 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. Zakopane, the main base for exploring the mountains, is a rowdy, fun-loving resort, filled with hikers in summer and skiers in winter. If that weren’t enough, Zakopane is also famous for the many magnificent timber villas here 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 those 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.
Eat cream cake in the home town of Pope John Paul II
Fans of the former pope and cherished Polish hero, John Paul II, will want to make the pilgrimage to the pope’s birthplace at 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 viewed by 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 favourite 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, for our money, serves the real deal.
Getting there: Wadowice is accessible from Kraków by bus or train, though buses tend to be faster, making the 52km 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, the park offers a couple of romantic, preserved castles as well as caves, unusual rock formations, and a diverse range of flora and fauna. It’s any easy antidote 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 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 spelunk 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.
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