The Insider Guide to Kraków
The old city centre of Kraków was placed on the first-ever Unesco World Heritage Site list in 1978, so it’s guaranteed you’ll find the former Polish capital a historical marvel. However, as stunning as the medieval architecture is, you’ll miss out if you overlook the lively clubs and chattering markets.
Zaczynamy! The main attractions
At almost every cobblestoned corner in this Unesco World Heritage city, you’ll find a captivating vignette of local history. Make your first stop the Main Square; at 200sqm (40,000sqft), it’s Europe's largest medieval market square. The shopping scene there is dominated by the grand Sukiennice, or Cloth Hall: a Renaissance-era trade centre where vendors still sell authentic souvenirs and handicrafts. At every hour, cast your eyes to the towering church of St Mary's Basilica. Hear the famous “hejnał” trumpet bugle call; it dates back to the Middle Ages, when it was played to warn the city of any invaders. The tune may end abruptly, mid-melody, but that’s by design. It’s a nod to the legend that, during Tartar raids in the 13th century, the bugler raised the alarm only to be pierced through the throat by an arrow. If you're keen on learning more about the medieval defences, head north to the Barbican, a grand bastion built to safeguard the city from Turk and Tartar attacks. Take a 15-minute stroll south of the Main Square to find Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter that’s home to the hippest bars and jazz clubs around. Immerse yourself in the Jewish history of the city in the Old Synagogue and Galicia Museum. From here, cross the Vistula River and head to Schindler's Factory. Now a museum, it was formerly an enamel factory run by Oskar Schindler during the Nazis’ ascendancy; by employing Jews as workers there, he saved more than 1,000 lives. It’s steeped in history, but Kraków today is also exuberant. It’s a student city, with almost a dozen higher-level institutions welcoming a total of 200,000 arrivals each year. Founded in 1364, the Jagiellonian University is the most famous teaching establishment; Collegium Maius, the oldest surviving faculty building, is a fine example of 15th-century gothic architecture. No trip to Kraków would be complete without a visit to Wawel Castle. It’s a spectacular Renaissance palace, where Polish kings once ruled while overlooking the city. Part of the grand complex is Wawel Cathedral, where numerous monarchs and poets are buried. Make sure you have time for day trips in your Kraków itinerary. For a deeper understanding of World War II, head 70km (40mi) west. There you’ll find Auschwitz-Birkenau: the most notorious concentration camp in the world. Despite now being a tourist attraction, it remains a harrowing reminder of Nazi atrocities and is not for the faint of heart. More jovially, the Wieliczka salt mine is a must-see only 15km (9mi) away; the labyrinthine passageways and 327m-deep (1,000ft) chambers there feel like Moria from The Lord of the Rings.