History, architecture, gastronomy, culture? In three days in Krakow you will have time to enjoy all that and also to make one of the most popular (and also the hardest) excursions that are made from the Polish city: the visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Day 1: the old town
Krakow is a charming city and most of its attractions are located in the old town. On your first day, you can explore the Stare Miasto district, a medieval gem that you can easily explore on foot.
Start the day with a spectacular breakfast
Before touring Krakow, you need to recharge your batteries. To start the day with energy, I recommend Café Botanica. This bar is located at 9 Bracka Street and specializes in the first meal of the day. Another strong point is the atmosphere of the place: inside, the red brick walls and plants contribute to create a very relaxing atmosphere.
Other options to consider are Milkbar Tomasza (24 Sw. Tomasza St.) and Camelot (17 Sw. Tomasza St.). If you can't start your day without a steaming cup of coffee, head for Wesola Cafe (17 Rakowicka St.), a place run by enthusiasts of the precious dark liquid. Their espressos are made with twice as much ground coffee. Not bad, right?
Explore the Market Square
The Market Square (Rynek Glówny) is the vibrant heart of Krakow and the starting point of any weekend in the city. This huge space is dominated by the majestic Cloth Exchange (Sukiennice), a Renaissance-style building that housed merchants who traded in textiles. Strolling under its arches you can buy a few souvenirs at more than competitive prices.
Four meters below the square is the youngest museum in Krakow: Rynek Underground. Its touch screens and holograms take us back to the past, when the square had not even been laid out. Virtual reality is flanked by traditional archaeological finds (coins, clothing, etc.) and the remains of an 11th-century cemetery.
Due to its popularity and the fact that seating is limited to 300 people, it is preferable to purchase tickets in advance. For more information about this first stage, I advise you to read the post What to see and do in Krakow's market square.
Enter nearby St. Mary's Basilica
Before crossing the threshold, stop for a minute to see the exterior. As you can see, its two towers are of different heights. According to legend, under the reign of Duke Boleslaw the Modest, the decision was made to add two towers to the body of the church and two brothers were given the task.
When the younger one realized that his watchtower was lower, he killed his brother out of envy. However, remorse tormented him and on the day the church was to be consecrated, he committed suicide with the same knife.
Once inside, you can appreciate the main attractions of the Basilica of St. Mary, which are essentially three: the blue ceiling, the splendid stained glass windows and the wooden altarpiece by the German artist Veit Stoss depicting the Virgin Mary among the apostles. Generally, you can enter without paying a ticket but you will have to use a side entrance. If you are interested in religious tourism, you can check the article The 10 must-see churches in Krakow.
Climb Wawel Hill
Once you have finished visiting the basilica, you can take a short walk in a southerly direction. In just over ten minutes you will arrive at the foot of a limestone rock that rises above the Vistula. At its summit stand two symbols of the city: the castle and the cathedral.
In the 16th century, King Sigismund I the Old called to his court the best Polish and foreign artists who gradually carved the magnificent Renaissance castle that we can see today. The castle hosts some very interesting permanent exhibitions:
- The royal apartments, a collection of tapestries, portraits of kings and princesses, furniture and paintings by Italian and Dutch artists.
- The royal apartments
- The treasury and armory of the Crown, which gathers insignia, jewelry, weapons and armor.
- The exhibition of oriental art with Turkish and Persian banners, weapons and carpets and a few ceramic objects from China and Japan.
A few meters further on rises the Wawel Cathedral, the ancient coronation place of the Polish kings. After crossing the threshold, you can admire the mausoleum of St. Stanislaus, the patron saint of Poland who was killed by King Boleslaus himself. Thanks to this burial, the Wawel Cathedral is the most important place of worship in the whole country. For more info, you can check the post Visiting the Krakow Castle: opening hours, how to get there, guided tours and more.
Return to your hotel and get ready for dinner
After a first foray, it's time to return to your accommodation for some well-deserved rest. After a hot shower you will be ready to go out for dinner. One of the most appreciated restaurants in Krakow is Trzy Gęsi which revisits traditional recipes with a modern twist.
My recommendation is to choose a tasting menu to start a culinary journey with its experienced chefs. The establishment is located at 7 Kupa Street and is open from 17:00 to 23:00 (Tuesday - Saturday) and from 13:00 to 20:00 (Sunday). Reservations are recommended well in advance.
Conclude the first day at a bar with live music
Do you love jazz? If the answer is "yes", you absolutely must visit the Piano Rouge. Located in the heart of the city (46 Rynek Glowny Street), this jazz bar is characterized by a burlesque atmosphere with red lights, feather boas and velvet cushions.
Live music is played every night from 21:00 and while enjoying the show, you can have a cocktail or a glass of wine. The place has a lot of charm and is highly recommended if you visit Krakow with your partner.
On the other hand, if you feel like something more lively, head towards Kazimierz. The Jewish quarter is the most festive area of the city and in Estery Street 5 you will find a bar that has become a real institution: the Alchemia. This place owes its name to the alchemists' tools used as decoration and is famous for its musical offerings. In its lounge you can listen to jazz and rock by renowned local artists and bands.
Day 2: a chilling excursion
Thousands of tourists travel to Krakow to visit a place that everyone knows and that leaves no one indifferent: Auschwitz. Everyone should cross its entrance at least once in life to not forget this sad page of history.
Spend half a day at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp
A weekend in Krakow will give you the opportunity to visit an emblematic place of contemporary history: the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. This lager is a symbol of the terror and genocide perpetrated against Jews, gypsies and homosexuals and visiting it will leave you with a feeling of anguish. We are not going to deceive ourselves, it is not an easy excursion but sometimes you have to make an effort to see in first person the horrors of war and persecutions against minorities.
The concentration camp is located in Oświęcim, a town 60 km from Krakow. To get there, you can opt for bus, train or car. However, to understand the historical significance of the place and learn the stories of its prisoners, it is preferable to choose a guided tour by booking your ticket in advance, especially if you travel to Poland during the high season (April to October).
In the article Excursions to Auschwitz from Krakow you will find all the information to choose a tour. In the list below, on the other hand, I provide you with some useful information for the visit:
- Auschwitz was a place of suffering and death. Always maintain decorum during the visit.
- You may take pictures in many areas, but you may not use the flash inside the buildings. In some areas (the living room with the victims' hair and the cellars of Block 11) it is not possible to take photographs.
- Before leaving the hotel, check the weather forecast. Much of the complex is outdoors. Depending on the season, bring a raincoat and umbrella or a hat and sunscreen.
- Bring a backpack or small bag. If your luggage measures more than 30x20x10 cm, you will not be able to bring it inside.
- Due to the harshness of the visit, if you are traveling with children under 14 years of age, it is preferable to avoid it. In this case, you can opt for the Wieliczka site. The article Visiting the Wieliczka salt mines with children explains everything you need to know.
Try zapiekanka in Plac Nowy
On your way back to Krakow, you can taste a typical Polish meal: zapiekanka, a half baguette with mushrooms, ham, cheese and vegetables. It is the Polish equivalent of pizza and its name derives from the local term for baking. If it was once cheap for students and workers, today there are more refined versions that meet the taste of the most exquisite palates.
In the city, Endzior is the most coveted bar. The establishment is located in the heart of the Kazimierz district (Plac Nowy 4) and is known for its quality/price ratio and generous portions. As usual, you will have to queue a bit to get your baguette.
Finish the day at a spa
After a day that has been both physically and emotionally challenging, you can realign your soul in a downtown spa. In Krakow there is a unique place that unites two highly appreciated elements: relaxing treatments and beer. The establishment is called Beernarium Piwne Spa and is located at 13 Floriańska Street, just two minutes away from the Market Square. Here you can literally bathe in beer whose ingredients rejuvenate your skin. As a plus, this original experience takes place inside a wooden tub. At the end of the treatment you can taste a local beer.
Day 3: Discover the communist side of Krakow
In Poland, as in the other countries on the other side of the Iron Curtain, communism had a great impact on the lives of the citizens. In Krakow, the Soviet legacy is particularly evident in Nowa Huta, a neighborhood a few kilometers from the Old Town.
Relive the Soviet past of Krakow
Nowa Huta was an ideal city conceived by Stalin. In his intentions, the town was a gift for the Polish socialists and a real showcase to show the progress of communism. Its main features are the large avenues that start from a central square and form a star.
Other points of interest are the nuclear bunkers and the Church of Our Lady Queen of Poland. Also known as Arka Pana, this place of worship triggered a struggle between the inhabitants of Nowa Huta and the communist authorities who did not want religious buildings in their ideal neighborhood.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the streets were renamed: the former Lenin Street is now Solidarity Avenue while the square dedicated to Stalin has become Ronald Raegan Square. Curious, isn't it? However, the appearance of the city remains the same and with an organized tour you will discover some interesting anecdotes. However, if you feel like touring Nowa Huta at your own pace, you can take a streetcar (lines 4 and 70) from the Slowackiego Theater stop. If you prefer another day trip, you can read the post about the best tours and excursions from Krakow.
Explore the Kazimierz district
Once back in Krakow, you can take a walk through a more traditional district. In the southern part of the old town is the youngest and liveliest district of the city: Kazimierz! Today, it is a favorite haunt of hipsters who frequent its stylish cafes and art galleries. However, it was not always like this.
In the fourteenth century and until the early nineteenth century, in these streets lived exclusively Jews who, despite the restriction of having to reside in this place, enjoyed some privileges: they governed themselves and only the king could exercise his authority over them.
Everything changed during the Second World War. With the arrival of the Germans, the neighborhood suffered numerous devastations. Unfortunately, the situation remained the same during the communist era and it was only in the 1990s that things changed. A great help was given by the movie Schindler's List which was shot in some parts of the neighborhood.
During your tour you can visit the Temple Synagogue (24 Miodowa Street), the Galicia Jewish Museum (18 Dajwór Street) and the Skałka Churches (Skałeczna Street). This last place hides a macabre anecdote, in the 11th century, Bishop Stanisław of Szczepanów was murdered and then dismembered by King Bolesław the Bold over a territorial dispute. If you want to deepen your knowledge about this area of the city, I recommend the post What to see and do in the Jewish quarter of Krakow.
Finish off your long weekend with a special dinner
To say goodbye to Krakow, there is nothing better than a nice dinner in a warm and cozy restaurant. The Morskie Oko restaurant answers the identikit and I'm sure you won't be disappointed. The establishment is located on the first floor of an art nouveau building at number 8 Szczepański Square.
The restaurant stands out for its rustic charm, the wooden beams and the fireplace that spreads a pleasant smell of wood throughout the rooms. It is the ideal place to sample regional Polish cuisine, especially if you visit Krakow during the winter. The establishment owes its name to the lake of the same name in the Tatra Mountains.
Its name means "the eye of the sea" because in the past it was believed that a subway tunnel connected to the Baltic. If you are interested in local gastronomy, I advise you to read the post about the 10 best restaurants in Krakow.