Armed with a list of insider top tips from my friend Matt, who lived in Poland for over 4 years, Sylvie and I took to the magnificent streets of Krakow and soon discovered that it really is one of the most elegant and culturally-rich cities in all of Europe. Whether you’re flying in for a quick weekend break or staying for a couple of weeks, here are my essential top tips on the best things to do in Krakow!
Krakow in a Nutshell
An incredibly beautiful and culturally-rich city that somehow managed to survive WWII, Krakow epitomises the beauty of Central Europe. The vodka is great too! Polish people are refreshingly humble and polite, there’s no huffing and puffing when you speak English to them, they welcome tourists with warmth and open arms. Their food is hearty and natural and unbelievably cheap – I’m talking three-courses, beers and desserts for less than €5 per person! It makes it very easy to have fun and really indulge in the things that you might normally reserve for special occasions.
1. Indulge in a Traditional Polish Breakfast at Krakow’s Main Square
The Rynek Glowny (Main Square) is the heart of Old Town Krakow. At a whopping 10-acres squared, it’s officially Europe’s biggest market square. Surrounded by gorgeous pastel yellow and peach buildings, including the 13th-century Gothic Town Hall Tower. I’d have to say it’s one of the most beautiful European squares I have ever seen.
For an authentic Polish breakfast, order a plate of kielbasa sausages, sliced ham and creamy soft cheese. Everything in Krakow seems to be sprinkled with dill, providing that classic Eastern/Central European aroma. For something a little bit more hearty, do as I did and order the scrambled egg with kielbasa sausage – also sprinkled with dill, naturally!
There are a few places off the main square offering typical Polish breakfast, but I’d definitely recommend Loza Cafe. It’s owned by a famous Polish celebrity (I think) and decorated so that you feel as if you are on an ’80s cruise liner. It’s a great place to sit and relax and watch the scenes of daily life in Krakow unfold.
2. Ride Like a King Through the Cobbled Streets with a Guided Horse and Cart Ride
This is exactly the kind of thing I would normally advise against, but in Krakow, it’s so insanely cheap that it’s easy to adopt a new mindset. For about €20, you can take a horse and cart ride through the city streets up to the Wawel Royal Castle. Your guide will talk you through all of the important buildings along the way and it really is a fantastic way to familiarise yourself with the city. Plus you’ll feel like Royalty!
3. Get Under the Skin of Krakow with a Free Walking Tour
I loved how passionate the Polish people were about preserving their culture, and how willing they were to share the stories of their arduous past. It’s one of those places that you leave feeling like a better, more rounded person.
Krakow’s free walking tour starts in the Main Square and tells the heart-wrenching story of how the Jews were forced to move around the city. Following in their footsteps, you learn how they came to establish the Jewish Quarter, which is now the city’s capital of cool, and how they helped shape the city for good.
The tour ends on a somber note as you learn how the Jews were carted off to “work at farms outside of the city,” only to end up at the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. If you really want to get under the skin of Krakow, I cannot express how strongly I would recommend this two-hour tour.
4. Snack on Poland’s Famous Cheese Cake (Sernik Babci)
It’s one of the classic dishes of Poland: a simple, rustic affair that goes down well with a strong coffee, especially when you’ve been walking in the cold for a few hours! Wander through the narrow back streets off the Main Square and it won’t take you long to find a little bakery. It’s much drier than the cheesecakes you may be used to and there’s certainly a lot less sugar involved. But, still, it’s a symbol of Poland’s wholesome country cooking – a simple Krakow must-have!
5. Take in the Views from Wawel Royal Castle
Krakow’s castle sits at the top of Wawel hill and is visible from almost everywhere in the city. It is to Krakow as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris: an impressive and truly worthy icon. It’s an easy walk up to the castle, where the dramatic spires and elegant fairy tale windows encourage your mind to disconnect from modern day life. But make sure to keep your eyes peeled for the dragon, which is said to live in a cave at the foot of the hill.
6. Eat Authentic Polish Food at a Traditional Bar Mleczny (Milk Bar)
For authentic home-cooked Polish cuisine, you absolutely must visit a bar mleczny (milk bar). Originally set up as a kind of affordable canteen for Polish workers (meals are subsidised by the state), the format flourished after WWII when communism and the well fare state ruled Poland.
I love how they are so unpretentious and, apparently, obsessed with rock music of the late ’90s. I heard such classics as, It’s the final count down and Eye of the tiger played multiple times, as well as a number of hits from the legendary Bonny Tyler.
The informal service style is very similar to that of a school or workplace canteen: you order and pay at the till and wait for your meal to be handed to you over the counter. They traditionally serve a simple, hearty selection of dairy-based dishes, but now offer a more varied menu. Many of the milk bars don’t serve alcohol, though, so it’s worth thinking about if you enjoy a beer or a glass of wine with your meal.
Classic milk bar dishes I thought were particularly delicious include:
- Pierogi (dumplings) – A sort of pasta shell stuffed with meat, spices and vegetables.
- Kotlet schabowy – A tenderised pork shnitzel dipped in egg and flour and coated in breadcrumbs. Served with – you guessed it – dill and scoops of creamy mashed potato.
- Barszcz - Beetroot soup thickened with sour cream and served with hunks of bread
- Kielbasa – Honky sausages served with fried onions and……DILL!
Placki ziemniaczane – Potato pancakes served with a rich beef goulash
My recommended bar mleczny (milk bars) in Krakow
- Polakowsi - Miodowa 39, Krakow, (Kazimierz)
A really simple, down-to-earth canteen in the Jewish Quarter, where you can get authentic Polish cuisine at unbeatable prices.
- U Babci Maliny - 17 Ulica Slawkowska, Krakow
My friend Matt told me about this magical little place. It’s totally hidden away in a grand old building and you would never know it was there. You’ll probably think you’re in the wrong building at first, but keep going through the corridors of this strange building (it’s a bit like an old hospital) until you see the little sign and steps down to the restaurant. Once inside, it’s fitted out to look like a country log cabin. We met some of the locals inside, who said that the food here is about as authentic as it gets – it’s cheap as hell, too!
8. Gain Some Perspective with a Trip to Auschwitz Concentration Camp
We spent our last day in Poland wandering around Auschwitz in disbelief that such atrocities could have ever happened. As well as putting the Holocaust fully into perspective, it also sheds light on WWII as a whole. A visit to Auschwitz will force you to consider how lucky we all are to live in the modern world, that we are free. It’s a significant and life-affirming experience.
Top Top: Save a small fortune by taking the bus and skipping the “Aushcwitz guided tour” – there are tons of really informative signs around so you don’t really need a tour guide. And if you do, you can just tag along with one of the other groups for free.
See the bus timetable here. Return tickets cost about €6.
9. Drink Vodka at a Proper Polish Wodka Bar
It’s surprisingly difficult to find a vodka bar in Krakow. Eventually, however, we noticed a tiny little wodka bar called, well, Wódka. Inside we found groups of smiley people and a rather worn out looking barman.
Squeeze yourself in and ask him to recommend you a variety of his favourites. He will create a sort of vodka smorgasbord for you, which is a great way to try different flavours – and it’ll warm you up, too!
Top Wodka Tip: Make sure to try a Zubrowska bison grass vodka with apple juice – a very refreshing Polish classic!
10. Eat and Drink with the Local Hipsters in the Jewish Quarter
Krakow’s coolest bars and restaurants are in Kazimierz (the Jewish Quarter). It’s vibrant and dynamic, perfect for drinks and/or a romantic meal.
For high-end Polish cuisine in an elegant setting, check out Trezo Restaurant. They serve traditional Polish cuisine with a modern twist. The service is impeccable, they have live music on most nights and the prices are still jaw-droppingly low. This was one of my favourite dining experiences in Krakow and I thoroughly recommend it.
Where to Stay in Krakow, Poland
As with most of Europe’s iconic cities, I would thoroughly recommend renting your own apartment in Krakow. There’s nothing better than having your very own “home” in the city, where you can spread out all of your things and keep a fridge stocked with tasty essentials. It’s also a great way to save money, especially if you are travelling in a group.
Our modern, three-bedroom apartment cost us less than €80 per night. Split between the four of us – Sylvie’s mum and her partner came too – we each paid only €20 a night! You couldn’t even stay at a flea-ridden hostel for that amount!
Our apartment was set in the heart of the ultra hip Jewish Quarter, right next to the restaurants and milk bars mentioned in this post. There were supermarkets, bakeries and pharmacies on the same street, which was incredibly handy – and, again, saved us a lot of money!
Please like my Facebook page to ask me your questions about Krakow – I’m always happy to help! And do let me know how your trip goes!