Kraków boasts the largest medieval square in all of Europe, an old town that shines with historic majesty and a nightlife that pumps into the wee hours.
Spared from the destruction of World War II, you may notice the authentic old world feel. A visit to the city is incomplete without a walk around the infamous Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, once home to 65,000 Jewish residents and now less than 200. Get a taste for Polish cuisine with borsch (soup made from beets) and pierogis (like raviolis) - those with a cholesterol conscience beware!
Kraków’s location in the southern part of the country makes it an easy stopover between Prague and Budapest on the Eastern European wiggle path. Auschwitz is a day trip and although gut wrenching, it is not to be missed!
The Polish airline LOT offers domestic flights from Warsaw, as well as a few other cities in Europe, although the rail network is quite good. The train from Warsaw is 4 hours. For international travel, overnight trains from Budapest, Prague, and Berlin are convenient. Pay close attention to your belongings and heed the safety warnings of other travelers without being overly concerned. Know that it is also possible to travel these routes by day, even if there is no direct service. All buses, trains, and minibuses arrive and depart from stations near each other at the northern end of the city.
There are trams, but the city is compact and the old town and Kazimierz are best traveled on foot. If upon arrival you want to take the tram to your accommodation, ask at tourist information at the train station.
Things to See & Do
For 500 years this was the home of the king. Even after central power moved to Warsaw, it still remained the symbol of Poland. A whole morning can be spent exploring the castle, cathedral and exhibits, but a short walk around the grounds is sufficient if you lack the time, interest or funds. The view is free and provides a nice look along the Vistula River. The attractions get crowded, so come early for tickets to the sites.
An independent town until the 1800s, Kazimierz once housed a large Jewish community. It became world famous when Steven Spielberg filmed parts of Schindler’s List here and depicted the harrowing plight of Poland’s Jewish population. The Old Synagogue and its Jewish Museum is just one of the stops possible on a self-guided or organized walking tour. At night there is an emergent energy radiating from the trendy bars and cafés.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Described as cheesy and tacky by some and fascinating and mind blowing by others, judge for yourself with a visit. The two-hour guided tour is obligatory and will take you underground to view the carvings, statues and rooms, all scratched from salt. Ancient and modern mining techniques are also explained. There are minibuses that depart regularly from the bus station for the 15 minute ride. (64 PL tour fee).
Auschwitz and Birkenau
The most notorious of all the concentration camps and perhaps the very symbol for genocide in the 20th century, both sites can be seen in a day. Admission is free. A 15-minute documentary film from the liberation is a good start to the visit, after which you can explore the grounds. There is an excellent 3.5 hour tour, if you go unguided, the pamphlet “Auschwitz Birkenau Guide Book” is recommended. Birkenau is 3km from Auschwitz and is even more devastating in its vastness and incomprehensible capacity for human extermination. Minibuses depart from a fenced in area near the bus station and take two hours. It is suggested that you eat a big breakfast as it will probably be your only meal of the day.