Grotto’s Travel Guide to Kraków
As a daughter of an immigrant family, I hold a dual loyalty to the nations that cultivated me. One is the country of my birth, the United States of America, and one is the country of all my ancestors who preceded me: Poland.
Although I was raised in the Twin Cities, I grew up in a bilingual home, attended Polish Saturday school for 13 years, and danced in a Polish folk dance ensemble. One of the most prominent and formative parts of my upbringing, however, was that I was privileged to spend most of my summers in Poland, living with my godmother and her daughter and traveling the country with friends and family.
My most recent trip to our ojczyzna (“Fatherland”) was this past October when we spent 10 days in the south of Poland. We flew across the Atlantic to what I realized was potentially the least-visited yet beautiful place in all of Europe.
I often hear travelers complain about how touristy Paris, Rome, or London have become. If you’re one of them and are looking for a much more authentic European experience, come with me as I take you past the popular attractions, through the forests, and into the city of regal Kraków. You will find that it’s different from anything you’ve visited before, and maybe even challenge yourself to experience a trip that is a little less Western, a little less familiar, and a lot more than you expected.
If you’re flying to the south of Poland, your destination airport will be Kraków John Paul II International Airport. Just by reading the name of the travel hub, you know you’re heading for land that is historic, proud, and deeply connected to the roots of Karol Wojtyła, who would later become archbishop of Kraków and the first Polish pope. Keep this in mind as you continue your discovery of Poland!
The easiest way to commute after flying into Poland is using public transportation. A bus system connecting the airport to the city center of Kraków is at your disposal and easy to navigate, so long as you look into route maps ahead of time and know where you want to go.
Where to stay in Kraków
Whether this is your first time or tenth time in Kraków, I recommend staying close to the city center, which is marked by the Rynek Główny (“Main Square”). This expansive area is also known as Stare Miasto (“Old Town”) and is marked by the tall towers of St. Mary’s Basilica as well as the energetic marketplace called Sukiennice.
The closer you stay to the Main Square, the more walkable access you will have to important historical attractions. An AirBnB will give you a genuine living experience as you’ll live in a converted apartment (we stayed at the Sodispar Luxury Old Town Apartments on Szpitalna Road), but commercial international hotels are available if you’re looking for something a little more familiar.
What to visit
St. Mary’s Basilica: As a landmark of Kraków, this intricately designed 14th century Gothic church houses the altar of the famous artist Wit Stwosz. Take a stroll around the outside of the basilica, or anywhere along the Main Square, and you’ll hear the hourly hejnał mariacki (“trumpet signal”). Guided tours available, tickets onsite.
Wawel Castle: Built around the same time as St. Mary’s Basilica at the request of King Casimir III, the castle stands as the most important cultural site in Kraków. It contains some of the most precious national treasures in its chambers: the Zygmunt bell, various works of art, and even a statue of the legend of its dragon. Some of the most famous Polish leaders are also buried in its crypts, including former president Lech Kaczyński and World War II General Władysław Sikorski. Guided tours available, tickets onsite.
Sukiennice: If you’re looking for Polish souvenirs to bring home, walk through the marketplace and you’ll find anything from clothing to paintings to woodwork to shot glasses. Vendors from all over the south of Poland come to sell their products here.
Planty Park: In need of a quiet afternoon stroll? Head to Planty, the city’s urban park, where you can escape the bubbling energy of the city.
National Museum of Kraków: This museum has all the paintings, sculptures, and artifacts for an art enthusiast to enjoy. The museum is separated into various galleries throughout the city, which display different exhibitions, including the family home of artist Jan Matejko and the Palace of the Princess Czartoryski Museum, which now boasts Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine.
Kazimierz: Known as the up-and-coming boho sector of Kraków, this historically Jewish province is now home to some of the most eccentric shops, restaurants, and people of the city. Think of it as the hipster district off the beaten Polish path.
Where to eat
Food in southern Poland is largely characterized by satisfying smoked meats and many homemade potato-based dishes. If you’ve overloaded on those, however, there are other nontraditional options available to you as well. Here are my favorite restaurants to check out for every meal of the day.
Breakfast: Bistro Bene by Tomasz Leśniak — for a casual, urban, delicious breakfast, visit this contemporary gastrocafé. They offer vegan options here, too.
Lunch: Dobra Nasza Kasza offers a foundational, organic Polish food as the basic ingredient for what they serve: buckwheat! You can order this highly nutritious native Polish kasza prepared any way you can imagine and eat a filling bowl of it while sitting right on the Rynek Główny, taking in the sights and sounds of the city.
Afternoon snack: Adjacent to the Rynek Główny lies Rynek Mały (“Small Square”), which exhibits dozens of booths of food vendors, open to the public. If you’re looking for a small bite to eat during the warmer months of the year, pass through this square, grab a kiełbasa with fresh bread, and sit on the wooden benches to enjoy some live Polish music.
Dinner: If you can’t make it to the mountains in Poland after visiting Kraków, you should still experience the food of the górale (“mountain people”). The thematic restaurant Morskie Oko, named after a panoramic point in the city of Zakopane, offers the best traditional Polish food in Kraków. Get your pierogi, hearty soups, and a plethora of authentic beverages here!
Dessert: Similar to Italy, Poland loves its ice cream and vendors selling their dairy product can be found on almost every street! Pick up a cone of your favorite flavor on the go, and continue walking the cobblestone streets of Kraków.
Drinks: The Polish word for vodka comes from the word woda (“water”), and is the foundation of the nation’s food and drink culture. Try some traditional distillations from Polish brands like Chopin or Belvedere, or look for some interesting infused variations (think: elderberry, fig, wild rose) on the drink menus at the restaurants you visit. If you’re looking for something a bit more casual, you’ll find all the classic Polish beers in any restaurant you step into: Żywiec, Tyskie, Okocim, Lech, and Leżajsk are all brews you may not have tried at home, but are household names in Poland!
Day trip options
If you’ve exhausted the sites there are to see in Kraków, consider hopping on a bus to some of these nearby destinations. None of these are more than two hours away from the city center, and they are all more than worth the trip!
- Wieliczka Salt Mine
- Wadowice: Quaint hometown of Pope John Paul II
- Częstochowa: Marian Sanctuary which houses the iconic Our Lady of Częstochowa painting
- Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum
- Zakopane: The largest mountain city in Poland, full of scenic views and hiking trails (if you can overnight here, I recommend it!)
Poland is a majestic, alluring country and its oldest parts, like those of Kraków, are still among its most beautiful. The city is less explored than more standard European destinations, yet it offers so many rich historical and cultural gifts. And maybe you’ve found that for your next adventure, you’re looking for something off the beaten path. If you’re willing to explore these eastern extremities of Europe, you’ll be stepping into some stunning, culturally authentic sites.