Crowned with an impressive royal castle and dotted with church spires and world-class museums, Kraków combines the historic with the cosmopolitan.

The streets of former Jewish quarter Kazimierz and nearby Auschwitz are sobering reminders of 20th-century tragedy, while the crowds thronging Kraków’s main square and the restaurants lining photogenic Old Town lanes buzz with 21st-century joie de vivre. Alongside heavy-hitting attractions exist simpler local pleasures: strolling alongside the Vistula River, dining on hearty home-style cooking in a retro bar mleczny (cafeteria), catching a local band at a legendary dive bar, enjoying a coffee in hipster enclave Tytano. Here are the best things to do in Kraków.

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Wawel Cathedral in Krakow shot from below during summer day
Wawel Cathedral holds the tombs of many of Poland's kings and queens © iStockphoto / Getty Images

Visit Wawel Royal Castle and Wawel Cathedral

Overlooking Old Town from its Wawel Hill perch, the seat of Polish royalty for centuries is the city’s most impressive sight, not to mention the symbol of Poland and the source of local pride. Red-roofed, turreted, and ringed by a red-brick wall, this 16th-century Renaissance palace is merely the latest incarnation: royal residences on this very spot have come and gone (burned down, extended, vandalized by Swedish and Prussian armies…) since the 11th-century.

Highlights include the 16th-century tapestries and carved wooden heads in the grand State Rooms, the Royal Private Apartments that give you an intimate glimpse into the monarchs’ private lives, the Crown Jewels in the Treasury and the Szczerbiec (Jagged Sword) that’s played an essential role in Polish coronations from 1320 onwards – find it inside the vaulted Gothic armory. 

Give yourself plenty of time to visit the adjoining Wawel Cathedral, where many of Poland’s kings and queens are seeing out eternity in elaborate tombs, alongside the bones allegedly belonging to the legendary Wawel dragon. The grounds are free to visit, but it’s a really good idea to book tickets for exhibits you want to see at least two weeks ahead due to their enormous popularity.

Explore Główny Rynek above and below the ground

Surrounded by restaurants and overlooked by handsome centuries-old buildings, Główny Rynek (Main Market Square) is the focal point of Old Town, as well as Europe’s largest medieval town square. After you’re done browsing the wares inside the market building, go back to the Middle Ages by descending to the medieval-meets-the-21st-century museum beneath the square.

Clever multimedia displays, holograms and animated puppets show you medieval markets stalls and teach you about vampire prevention burials. Buy your timed ticket online in advance. Free entry on Tuesdays; closed second Monday of each month.

 The entrance of the notorious Auschwitz, a former Nazi extermination camp and now a museum. Above the gate are the words arbeit macht frei ('Work sets you free')
Visiting Auschwitz is a very moving experience © Getty Images

Pay your respects at Auschwitz-Birkenau

You don’t know what will touch you particularly deeply until you get there. For some, it’s the "Death Block" with its torture cells and its crematorium. For others, it’s the gas chambers and the endless rows of crematoria chimneys at Birkenau, where most of the mass killings occurred. For others still, it’s the mountains of eyeglasses and prosthetic limbs, the mass of human hair collected from victims to be used in textile production, and piles of battered suitcases with home addresses written on them by those for whom this Nazi extermination camp became their final destination. 

In any case, Auschwitz is unlikely to leave you unmoved. More than a million Jews, as well as numerous Poles and Roma, were systematically killed here between 1940 and 1945, and the death camps have been preserved as a brutal, essential history lesson.  

Auschwitz is reachable by bus, train and organized day tour from Kraków. While solo travelers can visit the site without a guide, it’s well worth joining a tour to get the most out of it, from the screening of the graphic 1945 documentary film by the Soviet liberators to the exhibitions in the barracks.

Take a stroll through Kazimierz

Southeast of Old Town, Kazimierz neighborhood had been Poland’s most important center of Jewish culture for 500 years, until mass deportation and extermination of Kraków’s Jews by the Nazis destroyed it. Largely rundown during the Communist era, Kazimierz has bounced back in recent years. 

A stroll through its streets is a wonderful way to get to know its historic sights, from the restored Old Synagogue and a 19th-century Jewish cemetery with surviving tombstones, to the Moorish-style Temple Synagogue and the sobering Galicia Jewish Museum that traces the history of Jews in Kraków. Browse the flea markets on Plac Nowy on the weekends, or attend a film screening or concert at Cheder during the Jewish Culture Festival.

Wooden stairways and pillars in a passageway in a salt mine
Visitors have been coming to Wieliczka Salt Mine for over 300 years © iStockphoto / Getty Images

Head underground into the Wieliczka Salt Mine

Another massively popular attraction that’s not actually in Kraków proper but is easily reachable from the city, this Unesco-certified subterranean labyrinth of passages and chambers has been drawing visitors since the 1720s. It’s not for the claustrophobic: as part of a "tourist" tour, first-timers descend at least 125m (410ft) below the ground and spend two hours in the depths of the former mine, while return visitors can opt for a more immersive miners’ tour. 

Highlights include an underground lake, chapels adorned with statues carved from the white stuff, and a salt cathedral with chandeliers. And yes, everything around you is carved from salt; we licked the wall so that you wouldn’t have to. Wieliczka is easily reached from Kraków by bus, train or tour. Pack a sweater.

Visit Schindler’s factory

You’re likely to have heard of Oscar Schindler, the German industrialist immortalized in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List. During WWII, Schindler saved more than a thousand Jewish inhabitants of the Podgorzé ghetto from deportation to the death camps by employing them at his enamel factory. This factory-turned-museum, which was part of the Schindler’s List film set, was given a major face lift in 2010 and became one of Kraków’s must-visit museums. Book your timed slot online at least three days in advance (it’s hugely popular!), and don’t miss the superb permanent exhibition Kraków During Nazi Occupation 1939-1945 that tells the story of everyday life, underground resistance, and anti-Semitic repressions in the city during WWII.  

Chefs cooking and serving traditional Polish hot food at a market in Krakow
Try some signature Polish sausage © Getty Images

Chow down on street food

Many cities have signature street food. Paris has its croissants, Hanoi has its banh mi, Vienna has its käsekrainer, and Kraków has its obwarzanek. Chewy, moreish, and topped either with poppy seeds or sesame seeds, Kraków’s bagels are found at stalls on every corner in Old Town, and locals will tell you which stall is likely to have the fresher lot. 

But there’s more to Kraków’s street dining than bagels. For the best kielbasa (signature Polish sausage) in town, head for the Kiełbaski z Niebieskiej Nyski van in front of the Hala Targowa market on ul. Grzegorzecka. Then there’s zapiekanka – half a baguette topped with melted cheese, mushrooms, and a squirt of ketchup. Poland’s answer to pizza was invented in the 1970s, when basic ingredients were all you could get, but now versions with fancier toppings are ubiquitous at fast food stands. For numerous zapiekanka sellers under one roof, try the Okrąglak food court at Plac Nowy in Kazimierz.

Go Communist in Nowa Huta

If you want to see how steel workers lived in the 1950s, catch a tram #4 or #10 from central Kraków to this masterpiece of socialist-realist urban planning and Communist architecture in the east of the city. If wandering around the uniformly grey, identical blocks of flats isn't enough of a draw, take a tour of Nowa Huta in a vintage, Communist-era Trabant with Crazy Guides, who’ll take you down into the old nuclear-fallout shelters and ply you with vodka.

Rock out with Kraków's best nightlife at Klub Awaria 

Klub Awaria is the kind of dingy dive bar that your mother warned you about: a sticky-floored, vaulted-ceilinged saloon where the carpe-diem clientele will gladly press a drink into a sober stranger’s hand to help them participate in the mildly anarchic nightly revelry. Up-and-coming local blues and rock bands perform on the little stage most nights and after the band is done, there’s occasional dancing on the tables and on the bar itself by regulars to Tina Turner classics.

Walk or cruise along the Vistula

The slow-flowing Vistula River bisects the city. Join locals during their morning runs along the footpaths that run alongside the river banks for several kilometers from near Wawel Royal Castle to the city’s eastern suburbs, skirting Kazimierz on the way. Alternatively, if you have local friends, you might be invited aboard a party boat with a full bar and music system; these are available for hire by groups and are essentially floating nightclubs. More easily accessible are hour-long cruises that depart below Wawel Castle Hill, that show off the city’s important landmarks, such as the Dębnicki Bridge, the Norbertine Monastery, the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology, and the Piłsudski Bridge.

People relax around the edges of a lagoon with some swimmers in it
Zakrzowek is a former quarry turned swim spot © Getty Images

Go for a swim in Zakrzowek

Tall limestone cliffs and dense pine forest surround this lagoon with its clear, turquoise waters that feels a million miles away from urban life, even though it’s only a short tram ride (#1; #4) to Kapelanka, southwest of Old Town. The lagoon began its life as a limestone quarry but it was deliberately flooded in 1990 after falling into disuse. It then became a popular swimming and picnicking spot for locals. It's currently undergoing renovations that won't be complete until 2023, so you can't swim or dive here at the moment, but it's perfect for a scenic picnic and some really lovely out-of-town hiking.

Dine out at a bar mleczny

Cheap, cheerful, and with seriously retro decor, a bar mleczny is a time-warp step behind the Iron Curtain into 1980s Poland – in a good way. Dotted around the city, bar melczny are dirt-cheap cafeteria, where you’ll be rubbing shoulders with locals while you load up your tray with soup, pierogi (filled dumplings), placki ziemniaczane (potato pancakes), and other hearty, belly-warming staples – all without dropping more than 10zl (around US$2). There’s a branch at Grodzka 43 in Old Town and another at Starowiślna 29 in Kazimierz.

Summit Kopiec Kościuszki 

When you’re standing on Wawel Hill, you may notice lump-like green hills surrounding Kraków. The origins of Kraków Mounds are lost in the mists of time, but it’s believed that the oldest – Kopiec Krakusa and Wandy – were built by pagan tribes several millennia ago as part of some solar calendar: during the summer solstice, the sun rises at Wandy and sets at Krakusa. Kopiec Kościuszki is a newer mound, completed in 1823 to commemorate a fallen Polish general. Catch bus #100 to the mound for fantastic views of Wawel Castle, St Mary’s Basilica, and Główny Rynek.

Spend your night out finding a “lost bar”

Other cities have speakeasies, while Kraków has its “lost bars”. It’s the same idea, even though Kraków’s hidden drinking dens are a recent development. Head to the Smakolyki restaurant on Floriana Straszewskiego, find your way to the cloakroom and pass through to a hidden courtyard from which you enter Mercy Brown. It’s 1920s Kraków – all velvet couches, mood lighting, chandeliers, and cocktails from a bygone era (gin with jasmine tea cordial, anyone?). Entertainment includes burlesque shows.

Mingle with local hipsters in Tytano

Just west of Old Town, a decrepit former tobacco factory has been transformed into a pocket of hipsterdom, complete with art studios, exhibitions spaces, beer gardens, and brunch cafes that attract Kraków’s young and cool contingent. Check out the latest photography exhibition or fashion event, then grab a coffee from Kraków’s speciality roasters at Bonjour Cava.

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