At the stroke of every hour, a melodious trumpeting fills the air of Krakow’s atmospheric Old Town. But then abruptly, the sound falls away, as if the instrument was forcefully taken away from its player. I noticed this in the dead of night, when the city’s frenzied sounds had lulled. Later, I learned the tale behind this aberration: Seven centuries ago, a trumpet signal from the high towers of St. Mary’s Basilica was used to warn of Tartar attacks. Once however, an arrow pierced the bugle player’s neck, mid note. The tune ended off-key, and has continued that way ever since. Every hour of every day, this fragmented tune is played at St. Mary’s tower, marking a bit of history.
Tradition is important in Polish culture, but Krakow is a city that continuously looks forward. The former capital survived the atrocities of the Second World War, and was seen as a prize to be taken by Nazi German forces. No wonder it fiercely guards its legacy. But Krakow also embraces students, travellers, and new trends. It’s most storied neighbourhoods—the Old Town and Kazimierz—host trendy cafés and buzzing bars alongside centuries-old buildings.
From day to night, this picturesque city by the banks of Vistula River segues seamlessly from historic and religious to one full of revelry and curiosities.
Krakow is an eminently walkable city with all its major sights concentrated in an easily manageable area. The Old Town is arranged in a grid and neatly ringed in by a green plant belt called Planty Park, which serves as a handy point to stop and get your bearings. Taxis cost 2 zloty/₹35 per kilometre, so most rides within the city should cost around 15-30 zloty/₹263-526. From the airport, a taxi into the city centre costs around 60 zloty/₹1,052. Buses and trams are an easy, affordable way to get around the city.
Make Krakow’s Old Town your base. With its historical charm and buzzing cafés, it is the seat of all the action. Charming Hotel Pod Roza, situated between the main Market Square and Florianska Gate, is housed in a 17th-century Renaissance palace and really has the best possible location. Rooms are cosy, with sloping roofs and large windows that look out on to the red roofs and church spires of the Old Town (Florian’ska 1; podroza.hotel.com.pl; doubles from 650 zloty/₹11,387). At the fringes of the Old Town sits the quirkily designed hotel Puro Krakow, with trendy, pop-coloured furniture, free Wi-Fi, bicycles, coffee, and a roster of in-house events (Ogrodowa 10; purohotel.pl; doubles from 419 zloty/₹7,340). Family-friendly and modern, Hotel Kossak is situated close to the Jewish district of Kazimierz and has great views of Wawel Hill (Plac Kossaka 1; hotelkossak.com; doubles from 573 zloty/₹10,000).
Though Krakow is a European city, it is relatively easy to have a mid-budget holiday here. We’ve calculated costs based on staying at a mid-range hotel. Cheaper hotels are available, which can bring costs down considerably as currently 43% of the travel budget is consumed by the accommodation.
Dive deep into Krakow’s historic centre in Old Town. Make Rynek Główny, or the main square, your first port of call. Mornings are the best time in Europe’s largest medieval square. Overflowing buckets of flowers are hauled to the flower market while pushcarts briskly dispense fresh obwarzanek—a ring-like Polish bagel topped with salt—to office goers for 1.50 zloty/₹26. The square’s centrepiece is the opulent, Gothic-style, 14th-century St. Mary’s Basilica (open 11.30 a.m.-6 p.m.), that curiously, now stands next to a Hard Rock Café. It’s all stained glass windows and gilded gold and there’s a wonderful choir at the evening service, which has the crowd spilling out onto the square. Across the square, the 14th-century Cloth Hall is now a market with wooden stalls selling Polish crafts and curios. Trendy cafés full of lunching locals surround the square’s grand statues and period-era buildings. Step into Wesele for lunch. You can sit by the glass frontage and have a view of the bustling square while dining on Polish specialities like pork chops with sauerkraut and fried potatoes, and żurek—a tangy rye soup with sausages and a quail egg (Main Square 10; +48-12-422 74 60; weselerestauracja.pl; meal for two around 140 zloty/₹2,453).
The 11-kilometre-long Royal Route was the coronation path of Polish kings and is the main artery along which many Old Town masterpieces lie. Start at the foot of Wawel Hill and follow this route—useful maps are available on the street along the way—through lively Grodzka street. Pause at Saints Peter and Paul’s Church to examine the 12 apostles who adorn its grand frontage. Walk through leafy Jagiellonian University where Copernicus studied in the 15th century. The route then leads through the main square and St. Florian’s Gate, and ends at St. Florian’s Church (open Mon-Sat 10 a.m.-2.20 p.m.; entry 12 zloty/₹210).
As the day progresses Rynek Główny transforms into a melee of activity: street performers, horse-drawn carriages, diners, and groups of friends rush about. Soak it in before ending the night at Piano Rouge. The upscale basement restaurant is decked out in chandeliers and plush red carpets. Live Jazz transports you back to the ’40s while you order from the extensive wine list. The menu features everything from citrus-doused prawns, to mini meat-stuffed samusas, pork tenderloin, and Polish specialties like grilled sheep’s cheese (Main Square 46; www.thepianorouge.com; meal for two 280 zloty/₹4,905).
Spend the better part of the day exploring the Wieliczka Salt Mine, a wondrous subterranean UNESCO World Heritage site around 10km/30 minutes from the city centre. The 13th-century mine extends from about 64 metres to 327 metres underground, a labyrinth of nine levels, 3,000 chambers, galleries, sculptures, and stairways, all painstakingly hewn by salt miners out of black rock salt. A rattling metal miner’s lift hurtles down to level one at 64 metres to ancient chambers and galleries. Solid, grey-black, and misshapen, the walls are much like the rocky interiors of a cave, but in reality it’s all solid black salt. If it’s hard to believe, run your finger along the surface and give it a lick. Just remember that millions of people who’ve passed through these paths have probably done the same thing. Descend deeper underground on rock-hewn stairs, past a life-size statue of Copernicus in the Copernicus Chamber, and intricate depictions of the miner’s way of life. The highlight is the grand St. Kinga’s Chapel. It took three miners 70 years (1896-1963) to complete the 31 x 15 x 11 metre chapel, which lies at a depth of 101 metres. The walls are carved with Biblical scenes, including the Last Supper. Grand salt chandeliers hang from the ceiling, crystals of the purest salt in place of glass (Apr-Oct 7.30 a.m.-7.30 p.m., Nov-March 8 a.m.-5 p.m., 79 zloty/₹1,384 per person).
Visitors can choose to dine 125 metres underground at the Miners’ Tavern in the Budryk Chamber. Polish specialties such as cabbage soup and pierogi—dumplings stuffed with meat or cheese and potatoes—are on the menu. Everything is seasoned with Wieliczka salt (meal for two around 80 zloty/₹1,400).
Head back toward the city centre and spend what’s left of the day shopping at the Galeria Krakowska (galeriakrakowska.pl). The shopping mall above the busy train station has major international as well as local Polish brands and eateries. Try CCC for pocket-friendly, stylish shoes, Reserved for fashionable garments, and Wedel—a century-old chocolatier for hard-to-resist desserts and hot chocolate (wedelpijalnie.pl; about 40 zloty/₹700 for two). Polish amber and ceramics are world-renowned. You’ll find delicate jewellery and decorative items at galleries such as World of Amber (Grodzka 38; worldofamber.pl). For popular blue-and-white patterned Bolesławiec ceramics, Mila (Sławkowska 14; mila.shop.pl) and Kobalt (Grodzka 62; top-poland.pl/kobalt/) are good bets.
At the southern edge of the Old Town, the Royal Castle and Wawel Cathedral sit grandly on Wawel Hill. It’s worth stopping atop the hill to take in the view of the Vistula River before exploring the castle. Polish monarchs took up residence on Wawel Hill in the 11th century. Since then, the castle has been built and rebuilt in Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance styles, featuring gilded walls, grand murals, and expansive courtyards. Spend a few hours exploring the ornate state rooms, intricate tapestries, and art collections of the centuries-old castle (wawel.krakow.pl; separate entry ticket for exhibition; State Rooms: Tue-Sun 9.30 a.m.-5 p.m.; entry 18 zloty/₹315).
South of the plant belt, 20 minutes from the main square, lies the hip, historic Jewish district of Kazimierz. Pre-World War II, the area was a buzzing centre of Jewish life, with nearly 65,000 Jewish residents, six synagogues, and kosher markets. After the Nazi occupation of Poland, Kazimierz, sadly, bore the aura of a ghost town for many years. Today, the district has been reinvented as one of Krakow’s trendiest enclaves, full of bohemian cafés, hipster-populated bars and clubs that go on all night. This is due in part to Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, which was filmed extensively here, turning the spotlight on this vital aspect of Krakow’s history. The district maintains a large part of its Jewish heritage even today. Oskar Schindler’s factory is now a museum devoted to Jewish experiences under Nazi occupation.
Along Szeroka Street stand synagogues and 17th-century buildings, art galleries, and cafés. The early 16th-century Old Synagogue, the city’s oldest, is no longer functional, but hosts exhibits on Jewish culture and tradition (9 a.m.-5 p.m.; entry 9 zloty/₹158). The Jewish Memorial in the main square honours the 65,000 Cracovian Jews murdered here in 1942. Kupa Synagogue is still functional for religious services and visitors can stop by on any day other than the Shabbat on Saturday (entry 5 zloty/₹88). For a kosher meal, step into the 17th-century Baroque-style Isaac Synagogue, which runs a kosher kitchen called Szalom Falafel (entry 7 zloty/₹123) Nowy Square or Plac Nowy was an open-air marketplace with wooden stalls selling produce and kosher meat.
Kazimierz wears an entirely different look after hours. Grab dinner at Alchemia in Nowy Square, a cosy restaurant that serves burgers, and hummus platters (Estery 5; alchemia.com.pl; dinner for two 150 zloty/₹2,628). Step into one of the many bars in the area for a local Polish brew. Omerta is a curious little Godfather-themed pub—dark, frequented mostly by locals, featuring plaques with quotes from the film and Marlon Brando’s visage. With a whopping selection of Polish and international craft beers and in-house ales, all priced under 10 zloty/₹175, it really is an offer you can’t refuse (Kupa 3; omerta.com.pl; 10 zloty/₹180 for a beer). To rub shoulders with the glamorous Polish party crowd, Le Scandale is a sleek cocktail bar with a handful of tables and room for dancing (Nowy 9; lescandale.pl; 12 zloty/₹210 for a beer).
Appeared in the June issue as “Modern Medieval Krakow”.
This handy guise has been designed as a mid-level holiday with a range of activities and a mix of dining options. On the basis of this itinerary, the cost for a three-day holiday in Krakow for two adults is ₹60,000 without airfare. Since the guide includes prices for everything, you can plan and modify your trip depending on your budget. Make the right choices based on your budget, and enjoy an affordable European holiday in this dynamic city.
Malavika Bhattacharya is a freelance journalist who writes about travel, culture, and food. She travels for the outdoors: to dive deep in the Indian Ocean, crawl through caves in Meghalaya, and hike through the Norwegian fjords.