The long weekend: Kraków

WT Writer
Sep 17, 2019
A combination of historic architecture underpinned by a rich culture and thriving food and retail scene means Poland’s second city won’t be under the radar for long

With its cobbled streets, horse-drawn carriages and Cinderella castles, Kraków’s fairy-tale credentials are obvious, but these old-world charms are just part of the city’s appeal. Vestiges of the different eras that have defined Kraków through the centuries offer visitors an opportunity to explore one of Eastern Europe’s most fascinating cities, from the mediaeval monuments of the old town and Renaissance palaces along Florianska Street, to the communist architecture of Nowa Huta and everything in-between. There’s a lively contemporary arts community that hosts a busy calendar of events and a diverse café culture and foodie scene that ranges from budget-friendly milk bars to high-end restaurants serving the finest Polish cuisine. Viewpoints abound from castle towers and church spires while, at street level, there are twisting alleyways and sprawling piazzas to take in. 

Entrance gate to the Royal Castle in Krakow by Getty Images

A BED FOR THE AGES

Characterful abodes abound in a city steeped in history

Kraków’s oldest hotel, the Pod Róza, is located just off the Market Square and features 57 beautifully appointed rooms renovated in keeping with their historic character. Antique furniture is balanced with modern comforts, from gleaming marble bathrooms to frescoed walls and polished-wood floors that set the Renaissance tone in this surprisingly budget-friendly option. Guests can dine on Tuscan food at Amarone downstairs or international and contemporary Polish cuisine in the hotel’s second restaurant. Not far from here, another mid-size hotel, the Unicus Palace, offers a five-star retreat complete with swimming pool and Jacuzzi to unwind after a day of sightseeing. Inside the old building, the décor is modern and minimalist, with large comfortable beds and a friendly front desk, where staff go out of their way to offer advice. The Grand Hotel in the Old Town was once a favourite among the city’s literati, described as the “most modern and luxurious hotel in town”, when it opened in 1887. Drink in the ambience at the hotel’s Vienna Café and browse the pictures of many former famous guests on the walls. The 29 rooms at Hotel Copernicus are a fabulous mid-range option in a beautiful building that dates back to the 1500s. Guests can also take an atmospheric dip in the hotel’s unique subterranean swimming pool, which was built under the arches in mediaeval cellars.  

CAFE CULTURE

When Kraków was under Austrian influence it became common to see Viennese-style coffee houses around the city. Today, Kraków has developed a distinctive café culture of its own, with spots like Bunkier, which adjoins the famous Bunkier Sztuki Gallery. This is a popular venue in its own right, partly due to the garden, where transparent walls are raised in the winter to allow guests to sip their coffee year-round. 

Wesola Café is a small, intimate space where the smell of crushed coffee beans drifts through the door upon opening. For somewhere to kick back with a good book in hand, Massolit Books and Café is the obvious choice. Cosy, comfy and complete with a well-stocked library of mainly-English books, it’s easy to while away a rainy afternoon in this charming retreat.

SHOP THE CITY

Take home a souvenir 

Pick up beautiful wood carvings, amber jewellery, hand-painted ceramics and other traditional items at Sukkience, also known as the Cloth Hall, a traditional trading area where travelling merchants used to congregate to ply their wares. A stroll along Florianska Street is another great way to browse local produce, including Polish culinary delicacies like mountain cheese and pickled cucumbers. Kacper Ryx Historical Shop in the Hipolit House Museum stocks a selection of local arts and crafts as well as vintage items.  

Shopping malls 

One of the largest malls in Kraków is Galerie Krakówska, which is located just off Main Market Square. There’s also Galeria Kazimierz, which has bookshops and cafés, as well as a cinema. 

Local boutiques

There is a growing independent fashion scene in Kraków, where edgy boutiques such as Pan Tu Nie Stal offer the latest in hipster wear. Pasaz 13 stocks high-end labels, while Boogie Flowear sells boho items at budget prices. On weekends, browse the flea stall stands at Hala Targowa market, which has all sorts for sale; from vintage postcards and second-hand books to clothes to furniture and the odd decent painting. 

A dish by Amaryllis in Krakow

DINE OUT

Milkbar Tomasza 

Bar mleczny, or milk bars, are a Polish tradition dating back to 1896 when workers in socialist post-war Poland relied on these government-subsidised cafés for affordable hot meals. The revamped interior at Milkbar Tomasza
has made it tourist-friendly for local dishes at great prices.

Starka 

Cosy with candlelight, this is home-cooked Polish food at its best. It’s open until late and gets busy on weekends.

Amaryllis

Recommended in the 2017 Michelin guide, Amaryllis continues to attract discerning diners with food that combines Polish culinary traditions with the latest trends and techniques to create dishes like the pear and fennel infused Baltic salmon.

ITINERARY ADD-ONS

High on a hilltop overlooking the city, Wawel Royal Castle was the royal seat for centuries in Poland and is now one of the country’s premier museums. Many tourists in Kraków pay a visit to Oskar Schindler’s factory, which featured in the movie Schindler’s List and is now a museum where visitors can explore life in Kraków during WWII. Lastly, leafy, peaceful and picturesque Planty Park is where the locals go to wander. The park comprises eight separate gardens that merge to create a circular walking route dotted with cafés serving aromatic coffee.

KRAKOW ON FOOT

Choose from a wide selection of walking tours exploring different aspects of the city

Wieliczka Salt Mine Tour Follow an experienced guide through the tunnels and chambers of Kraków’s most famous salt mine and see hidden chapels carved by miners many centuries ago, underwater lakes and other extraordinary sites hundreds of metres below ground. kraków-tours.com

Kraków by night Meet in front of St. Mary’s Church in Main Market Square to discover the city after dark with Cracow Free Tours. The Secrets of Kraków by Night tour delves into the dark corners and turbulent tales behind some of the city’s oldest sites, including mediaeval torture chambers. cracowfreetours.com

Create Your Own Urban Adventures can tailor a tour to create a truly personalised experience of Kraków. In the past the company has designed behind-the-scenes tours — including organising wheelchair access — in areas not usually open to the public, and arranged culinary adventures with local chefs.  urbanadventures.com

INSIDER TIPS

Agata Kulis, a guide at ToursByLocals, shares expert insights into making the most of your time in Kraków

Kraków is definitely a city of culture — we celebrate music, art, literature and cuisine. As a musician, my favourite annual event is the Film Music Festival in May. For some of the best views of the city, climb St. Mary’s Tower or walk around the City Defence Walls and peer down into the charming streets and piazzas of Kraków’s Old Town. If you fancy getting out of the city, drive the two hours to the Pieniny National Park and take a dip in the Dunajec River, then stay overnight at the castle in Niedzica on Lake Czorsztyn for a really special experience. Another highlight in this city is the street food and Kraków Grill in Kazimierz is a great place to try it. Mrs Bozenka will serve you traditional delicacies like kielbasa (sausages) and Oscypek (mountain sheep cheese with cranberry sauce) as part of a Polish meal. 

ARCHITECTURAL FEAST

As the sun sets, head to the heart of Main Market Square and watch the colours of the historic townhouses fade as the silhouettes of some of Kraków’s most famous buildings emerge, from the gothic towers of St. Mary’s Basilica to the Renaissance-style Cloth Hall, which features a magnificent Polish parapet adorned with carved masks. Take in the 10th-century Church of St. Adalbert and the elegant Town Hall Tower before diving deeper into the Old Town. The entire area is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site with around 6,000 historic sites encompassing Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic styles. Highlights include the crumbling city walls on cobbled Florianska Street, which is lined with mediaeval façades. At one end is the imposing St. Florian’s Gate, arguably one of the most impressive Middle Age fortifications in Eastern Europe. Take a turn down Grodzka, one of the city’s oldest streets, to see the grand façades of the old merchant guilds that once lined this former trading route. 

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