Although Warsaw is the current political capital of Poland, Krakow has been the city that has held that status. It has also been the religious capital of the country, a feature that still characterizes it today. That is why this small but charming Polish town has so much to offer the visitor.
There are many artistic and historical charms that it treasures. It is not for nothing that it is a UNESCO World Heritage City. Seeing them in detail can take our time, although it is possible to do it in 5 days. In this article I propose a planning of the visit so you can enjoy all that Krakow has to offer. And not only Krakow: we will still have plenty of time to explore its surroundings. Let's go!
Day 1: Visit to the Old Town of Krakow
It is best to start with the heart of the city and the most famous. Once we have imbibed the atmosphere of the city, we can spend the following days exploring and getting to know more. Therefore, the first day we will take it easy: we will see the Cloth Market, St. Mary's Basilica, St. Florian's Gate and the Castle.
It is, as I said, a visit in the essentials. To do it more thoroughly, I advise you to get more information in this article on what to see and do in Krakow. And, of course, do not hesitate to hire one of the many tours that will take you into Krakow with all the information you need to get the most out of the city.
We start in the heart of the old town: the Cloth Market, where the Basilica of Santa Maria, another of the most significant monuments of the city, is also located. The Cloth Market was, as its name indicates, the commercial and economic center of the city for centuries.
Although it already existed in the 13th century, its current appearance is purely Renaissance and from the 16th century.
St. Mary's Basilica
The Basilica of Santa Maria is a beautiful Gothic temple that, throughout its history, was incorporating elements of other architectural styles. On the outside, it stands out for its almost fortress-like rotundity. But the best part is inside: its decoration and trousseau are simply impressive. Pay close attention to its Gothic ribbed vaults, because they are painted in blue, imitating a starry sky.
As a curiosity, you will see that every hour a trumpet sounds from the top of the basilica. This refers to the legend, according to which, it was a trumpeter at the top of a tower who warned the city of the approach of the Mongols. The musician, however, according to the legend, did not have time to play much, since an arrow shot by the Asian invaders pierced him.
Did you like it? Then continue exploring the cultural heritage of the city: for more details see this article on the best churches in Krakow.
Here's a tip: Poland is a very religious country, especially Krakow since it is the archiepiscopal see. Walking through churches when there is mass or not being polite can attract bad looks from the locals. Something that, if we come from Western countries, where these rules are somewhat more relaxed, may be uncomfortable and even incomprehensible. However, you should keep this in mind.
St. Florian's Gate
About 10 minutes from the Cloth Square is the St. Florian's Gate. An opportunity to see what the walled Krakow of the Middle Ages was like. This gate is one of the few things that has been preserved, but it is worth it: it is a monument of extraordinary beauty despite its defensive function. If you want to continue exploring this facet of Krakow's architecture, take a tour of the Barbican and the defensive walls.
After this walk, which can perfectly take 3 hours, it is time for a snack. Or, if you've started to visit everything after 10 o'clock, you may be a little hungry, so it's time for lunch. Then it's time to eat. Need some ideas? Here's more information on where to eat in Krakow.
After lunch: visit to the Castle
After lunch, let's go to the highlight of Krakow: its Castle and Cathedral. They are located on the hill of Wawel, at the southern end of the walled city and overlooking the Vistula River. It is a space that is a real sancta sanctórum of Polish history. There you can discover the luxury with which the kings of Poland lived, as well as their tombs in the Cathedral. These are the essential spaces:
- Sigismund Chapel (Cathedral);
- The Chapel of Santa Cruz (Cathedral);
- Tombs of the Counts and Kings of Poland (Cathedral);
- State Courtyards (Castle);
- Treasury and Armory (Castle);
- Statue of John Paul II (exterior).
To see the vast majority of these charms, you will have to access the interior of the monuments. See this article for more information on how to get to Krakow Castle, opening hours and entrance fees.
Day 2: Jewish Quarter and WWII Krakow
On the second day you can delve into the most historic city, especially the one that has felt the most the wound of the Second World War and the Holocaust, which was ruthless in Poland. There are many things to see in this regard, although I want to highlight three: the Jewish Quarter, the Krakow Ghetto and the Oskar Schindler Factory. All these places are in close proximity, on the banks of the Vistula River, although the Ghetto and the factory are on the other side of the river.
Also called Kazimierz, it was where the Jews of Krakow were located from the 16th century onwards. Over time, Kazimierz became one of the largest Jewish neighborhoods in Europe, as evidenced by its high concentration of synagogues, almost unique in the world. I advise you to wander through its streets, but also to visit some of the synagogues. The most important are the following:
- Old Synagogue
- Remuh Synagogue
- Tempel Synagogue
- Isaac Synagogue
Also, a good complement to the visit can be a closer look at the Jewish Museum of Galicia. Its name has nothing to do with the Spanish region, but with the name of an ancient kingdom. Although if you do not know enough, here you have more things to do in the Jewish Quarter of Krakow.
From the Jewish Quarter, just across the bridge, you will find yourself in an area where you can see the Krakow Ghetto. Or rather, what is left of it. These are the remains of the wall that isolated the ghetto, one of the largest of the Nazi occupation along with Warsaw. Here, for example, the famous filmmaker Roman Polanski was born. By the way, this will not be the only cinematographic reference you will find in this area.
Oskar Schindler Factory
Immortalized by Spielberg in Schindler's List, Oskar Schindler's factory was the place where this German businessman took in many Jewish workers in order to save them from deportation. If you are a lover of cinema, history or both, it is an inexcusable visit.
Day 3: Visit to Auschwitz
Auschwitz is located in the outskirts of Krakow. A place of terrible historical significance because of what happened there, but if you like history, it is a must visit. We will dedicate a day to it for several reasons. Firstly, because it is an extensive visit: there are two camps that are included in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex; secondly, we will have to take the bus to go there and back. You have two ways to go:
- On your own: There are several ways to go. Here more information on how to go to Auschwitz from Krakow.
- With an organized tour: choose the one that best suits you among the different options of excursions to Auschwitz from Krakow.
First Auschwitz camp
Auschwitz is actually two camps. One, smaller, which was a Polish military barracks until the German occupation and another, gigantic, which is the one you know from the photos. The latter is the famous Auschwitz Birkenau, which I will deal with in more detail later. When you arrive at Auschwitz you will first be introduced to this camp. I will tell you what you will see there; although it is a list of horrors, whether you are passionate about history or not, it will shock you and make you think:
- The famous "welcome" to the camp forged on the gate: Arbeit macht frei.
- The brick barracks
- The firing squad wall
- The cell of St. Maximilian Kolbe
- The only surviving gas chamber
- The crematoria
- Mountains of belongings (glasses, shoes...) belonging to the prisoners
In addition, during this tour you can learn more about what happened there through the very didactic exhibitions that are located inside some of the barracks. Once you have completed the visit, you will have to get on a bus that in less than 15 minutes will leave you at the gate of Birkenau.
This is the most impressive camp, both for its size and for having been the place where most Jews and political prisoners were killed of all the Nazi extermination camps. It is a huge extension of which only the barbed wire fences, large wooden barracks and the entrance to the gas chambers (these chambers, as such, were destroyed by the Nazis in their escape) are preserved. Basically this is what you will be able to do there:
Walk through the barracks and see how the inmates lived;
Visit the Holocaust memorial;
See the entrances to the gas chambers.
After the visit you will be returned to the first camp, from where you can start your return to Krakow.
Some tips for visiting Auschwitz
Auschwitz is, no doubt, a visit not suitable for everyone. What you will see there is very strong. In fact, visitors often leave there totally dejected, so if you are sensitive, I advise you to think carefully about going. And if you are traveling with children, I also suggest you think about it. Especially because there are many things to see in Krakow with children.
Another thing to know is that the rules of respect inside are strict. It is not allowed to talk out loud or take pictures of the mountains of prisoners' belongings. Also, with the recent controversies of visitors taking selfies, this issue is more closely monitored.
If, in spite of everything, you have decided to visit these extermination camps, here is all the information you will need:
- Auschwitz opening hours
- Ticket prices and guided tours to Auschwitz
- How to buy tickets to Auschwitz
- Duration of the visit and tours in Auschwitz
After such an impressive visit, the best thing to do is to end the day strolling or relaxing in a place where you can relax. A good place to relax is the boulevards of the Vistula River.
Day 4: Wieliczka Salt Mines
The Wieliczka Salt Mine is one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Poland. Not for nothing does it receive 1 million tourists a year. And it is worth it given its proximity (30 minutes by car) to Krakow. On this matter, check here all the options on how to get to the Wieliczka Salt Mines from Krakow.
This is a unique site, salt mines dug at unusual depths of between 60 and 130 meters. Moreover, it is not only composed of passages but also of sumptuous chapels. Find out more about what to see and do in the Wieliczka Salt Mines here. To whet your appetite, I show you some of the most significant places:
- Copernicus Chamber
- St. Barbara's Chapel
- Chapel of St. Kinga
- Well of Cunegunda
The visit will take you about 3 to 4 hours. The good news is that there are places to buy food and drink in the mines themselves, and even restaurants outside. Now I show you articles where to expand all the practical questions that may arise:
- Duration of tours in the Wieliczka Salt Mines.
- How much does it cost to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mines?
- Tips for visiting Wieliczka Salt Mines
- How to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine on your own
- Wieliczka Salt Mine opening hours
Day 5: A short break
We've already seen the essentials of Krakow and its surroundings, so how about reserving the last day for a getaway to another charming town? The great thing about Poland is that it's full of beautiful places, so you won't be short of options. Let's take a look at the different cities you can travel to for your last day. For more details, I recommend you to check this article on what to see and do around Krakow.
Surrounding towns and villages
Of the cities near Krakow, I would highlight some small towns or picturesque towns full of charm. Especially prioritizing that it does not take a long time to reach them. They are the following:
- Tarnów: about 1 hour and 10 minutes by car.
- Lanckorona: about 39 minutes away by car
- Niepolomice: 35 minutes away by car
- Zakopane: about 50 minutes away by car
In Polish Wroklaw, in English we know it better by its old, more Germanized name: Wroclaw. It is one of the most important Polish cities (and one of the most beautiful). It is a city with a very Germanic look, something not surprising given the influence that this community exerted historically until the end of World War II.
It is located 3 hours and a half from Krakow. A distance already somewhat less manageable, although it may be a great idea that your return flight is from this location, so you can see both cities comfortably! Anyway, here is some practical information on how to get to Wroclaw from Krakow.
The capital of the country. A very beautiful city, whose historic center is declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Although, yes, it is almost completely rebuilt since the city was razed to the ground after World War II.
The distance is 3 hours and 45 minutes. A less than optimal distance if you plan to return to Krakow. However, I recommend that you consider booking your return flight in Warsaw itself. To optimize your transfer time, find out the details on how to get to Warsaw from Krakow.
Whichever place you choose, I assure you that it will be a unique highlight of your trip to Krakow.