A first impression tour of Krakow, Poland: colorful, historic and well preserved (updated 2023)
Sometimes, I love to visit a new city without doing too much research and just being surprised with any of the discoveries and authentic experiences one would have in a new destination. That’s what I decided to do visiting Krakow which was towards the end of a long tour of European capitals and cities. So let me just say that I after a frustrating arrival at the train station, I was pleasantly surprised at visiting the city and seeing some of the amazing landmarks, scenery and unique attractions to this amazing city.
Here is a first impression tour of Krakow, Poland
It was a little confusing arriving at the main train station at Krakow since we could not find the tourist office and there was no wifi available at the station. Prior to arrival, I did a quick map printout of my BnB called Tango House which was located one block to the old historic center. Thinking that the historic center would be easy to find (even with a simple map) I could not gage the distance to see if the walking or local transport is necessary Since all of the signage at the station was in Polish, it was very difficult to find the main street leading into the old historic center. My plan B of taking a taxi would normally be the next best option of getting to our hotel, but for some reason, the ATM was not recognizing my debit card even though I had registered the stay in Krakow with my bank, I could not take out any money and there was only one ATM at the station.
It’s always disorienting when you get to the railway station and nothing seems to be working well with the ATM, directions, or even finding the tourist office for information. We decide to walk to the old town with my simple map and asked a few younger locals to help point us to the right direction. It was frustrating, but the walk through the main mall next to the station and finally locating the main thoroughfare put us into the right direction and things started to fall into place quickly.
I consider Krakow and impressive historical city and one of the best cities in Poland to visit and experience the historic and culture of this amazing country.
Green belt surrounding the Krakow old town
Approaching the green belt area and parks surrounding the old town assured us that we were headed to the right direction. I find out later that the green belt originally was the old city walls surrounding the historic center and were taken down because of a variety of sanitary issues and the open area was then converted into a wonderful green oasis and park areas for locals to use (and it is a very popular gathering place). Walking through shaded trails in the park was a beautiful introduction into the old center and we quickly found the cross street leading directly to the main square of the old town and to our BnB.
After quickly finding our hotel and checking in, I could not wait to start exploring and enjoying the main square which was only a block away and before we knew it we were already there! Ah, what a nice first look at this huge square – I find out later that the main square at Krakow is proudly promoted as the largest intact medieval square in all of Europe. This historic center called Stare Miasto in Polish is one of the first Polish sites certified as a Unesco World Heritage in 1994. The square is quite expansive, containing many major monuments including: St. Mary’s basilica, Church of St. Adalbert, Kraków the Cloth Hall and the Town Hall tower.
Dining around the Stare Miasto
Lining the square at Stare Miasto are all these restaurants that spill out into the square with attractive seating, dining and people watching venues for visitors to chill and enjoy the square. There’s a plethora of cuisine choices, the popular being typical local dishes and simple street or local bar food that gets downed with the specialty beers of the area which include: hard ciders and mead, regional beers like Zywiec, Tyskie or Polish vodka.
I was hungry so first priority was finding good food and not just typical bar food served with some local beverage. The hard part definitely was choosing the right place in such a large square and not getting any recommendations ahead of time made it very difficult to choose. In the end, pure intuition and a nicer viewing spot made us secure a wonderful first choice of restaurants and I ordered a nice tall cold hard cider and (a typical comfort food of ground beef and rice wrapped in cabbage and baked) for my first Polish meal in Warsaw, and it was delicious!
Krakow, with its rich history and vibrant culinary scene, offers a delectable array of traditional Polish foods to savor. As you wander through this charming city, you’ll find yourself immersed in the delightful world of Polish cuisine.
These dumplings are a staple in Poland, and you simply can’t visit Krakow without trying them. Whether filled with potato and cheese, mushrooms, or savory meats, pierogi are a delightful comfort food.
Polish sausages come in various shapes and flavors. Smoked or grilled, they are a carnivore’s dream. Pair one with some mustard, and you’re in for a treat.
Known as “hunter’s stew,” bigos is a hearty dish made with sauerkraut, fresh cabbage, and a variety of meats, often including sausage and pork. It’s a taste of Poland’s traditional flavors.
This bright red beet soup is not only delicious but also a visual delight. Topped with sour cream, it’s a refreshing way to start your meal.
Think of it as Poland’s answer to schnitzel. Breaded and fried pork cutlets, these are typically served with mashed potatoes and a helping of red cabbage.
A sour rye soup with sausages and hard-boiled eggs, zurek has a unique tangy flavor that’s a must-try for the adventurous eater.
Similar to a pretzel, these twisted bread rings are a popular street food in Krakow. They’re crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, making for a perfect snack while you explore the city.
Satisfy your sweet tooth with this poppy seed cake, a traditional Polish dessert. It’s often enjoyed during special occasions.
A Polish cheesecake that’s lighter and less sweet than its American counterpart. It’s a delightful way to end your meal.
In your culinary adventures in Krakow, you’ll discover not only the flavors of Poland but also the warmth of its people. The city’s traditional foods are a reflection of its history and culture, and trying them is an essential part of your journey through this charming destination.
Visiting the historic St. Mary’s Basilica
After a nice leisurely lunch, it was time to explore more of the landmarks on the main square and our first stop was the large church called St. Mary’s Basilica. One of the iconic symbols of Krakow is the façade of St. Mary’s Basilica on the main square of the old town. The 14th century church is quite elaborate with detailed designs, starry blue ceilings, and intricately painted walls. The church has the largest wooden carved altarpiece in the world made with over 200 carved and painted medieval figures. Another highlight happens in the tallest tower with a lone trumpeter on the hour, playing a strange melodic tune that cuts off abruptly towards the end to commemorate the trumpeter who was killed with an arrow while trying to warn of an impending attack from barbarian Tartars.
Interior details of the basilica
Dazzling painted interior details of St. Mary’s Basilica
After visiting the basilica, it was hard not to miss the massive building in the middle of the square called the Cotton house which was the major commercial center of the old town with the lower level reflecting the past with all the stalls of souvenir stands in the main central walkway. In the past, the cotton house was an international trade center with traveling merchants meeting to sell or barter goods imported from around the world including silk, spices, specialty fabric and leather. During the 15th century at the height of the cloth hall’s golden age, the hall hosting famous dignitaries and monarchs from around the world and large balls and important events were held in the hall.
More inside tips to visiting Krakow, Poland
Krakow has so much more to offer beyond its main attractions. Here are some inside tips to make your visit even more memorable:
Venture beyond the Old Town to the Kazimierz district, which was the historical center of Jewish life in Krakow. Stroll through its charming streets, visit synagogues, and explore its vibrant art scene. Don’t miss the annual Jewish Culture Festival if your visit coincides with it.
This is a perfect place to experience a slice of communist-era Poland. Take a guided tour through this planned socialist realist city. The architecture, museums, and the vibe here are a stark contrast to the historic city center.
Oskar Schindler’s Factory
While not as famous as Auschwitz, a visit to this museum is a profound experience. It provides insight into the World War II history and Oskar Schindler’s role in saving hundreds of lives.
Krakow’s Street Art
Keep an eye out for colorful street art around the city, especially in the district of Podgórze. Local and international artists have contributed to making the city streets come alive with creativity.
Wander off the beaten path and explore the hidden courtyards that hide behind the facades of many buildings in the Old Town. You might stumble upon cozy cafes, art galleries, and quirky shops.
Visit local food markets, such as Stary Kleparz or Hala Targowa. These are great places to taste traditional Polish dishes, fresh produce, and local treats while interacting with locals.
Biking Along the Vistula River
Krakow has a network of biking trails along the Vistula River. Rent a bike and take a leisurely ride to enjoy the city’s green spaces and riverbanks.
Take a tram ride through the city. It’s an excellent way to see the city from a different perspective and interact with locals.
Krakow in Winter
If you visit during the winter months, don’t miss the magical Christmas markets. The city’s streets are beautifully decorated, and the festive atmosphere is enchanting.
Find tranquility in the city’s parks. Planty Park surrounds the Old Town and is perfect for a peaceful stroll. Meanwhile, Jordan Park is a hidden gem with a beautiful lake.
These insider tips will allow you to experience Krakow like a local and discover the city’s hidden gems. Beyond the famous landmarks, it’s the off-the-beaten-path experiences that truly make your visit to Krakow memorable.
Accommodations in Krakow
After a busy afternoon touring the main square, it was nice to just walk a short block back to our BnB, the Tango house – which the owners affectionately named because of their love of the dance and all the dance motifs that permeate all the rooms and public spaces (The owner is a famous Tango instructor in Krakow). We find an interesting detail that the inn was originally the first bath house that was built in Krakow when public baths were the norm.
Fortunately, we had our own private bath in a huge bedroom suite on the top floor and decorated with Tango posters and other memorabilia. I loved the convenience of the BnB just off the main square but still very quiet with spacious accommodations. If you would like more information, photos and details for the BnB, you can check out their website here.
Travel arrangements were secured by JayWayTravel, all opinions and thoughts are my own and Krakow is an amazing city worth visiting if you do get a chance to travel to Poland. If your planning on visiting Auschwitz,check out this guide for more details.
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