Krakow is not only Poland’s second largest city and one of the country’s oldest, dating back to the 7th century, it’s also been hailed as one of the most beautiful in Europe. The 15th and 16th centuries marked the city’s Golden Age, a time when art flourished and the Polish publishing industry originated. Today, having shed its Communist past, Krakow is steadily reclaiming its place in the global spotlight. Located in the southern part of Poland, near the Carpathian Mountains, the city sees its greatest influx of visitors in the summer, when temperatures average a mild 19C/65F, although spring blooms also draw crowds. Winters can be severe, with temperatures averaging below freezing.
With art playing a key role even in everyday Krakow society, locals pride themselves on their cultural upbringing, so much so that the term niekulturalny (“uncultured”) is a severe insult. Many stores are closed on Sunday, as religion is still a cornerstone of Krakow society, particularly among older generations, who still revere hometown hero Pope John Paul II, the first Polish pope. Local cuisine has become more upscale in recent years, moving beyond the traditional Polish staples of meats and pierogies to embrace more international styles. On the other side of the culinary coin are milk bars, affordable cafeterias that have origins dating back well before the Communist era, although many locals and visitors still conflate the two. Desserts are so plentiful—and decadent—that the city has become known as a ciasto-miasto, or “cake city,” so don’t leave without trying a piece of sernik, a type of Polish cheesecake. And, of course, a nip or two of Polish vodka is practically mandatory.
Much of the sightseeing centers on the city’s well-preserved architecture (highlights: St. Mary’s Church and the Wawel Royal Castle) and its numerous museums and galleries, but there are plenty of other only-in-Krakow experiences to be had. The city’s center, Old Town (Stare Miasto), was one of the first UNESCO World Heritage sites and features medieval buildings and several of the city’s main attractions, as well as the offbeat Rynek Underground, a subterranean archaeological site whose history is enhanced through multimedia. The Oskar Schindler factory details not only the story of the man made famous in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List but also the tragedies of the Jewish population while the city was under Nazi occupation. If time allows, a day trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial offers a glimpse into one of the city’s—and Europe’s—darkest hours.
Krakow’s nickname as “The Jewel of Poland” stems from the beauty of its architecture, and there are few neighborhoods that don’t live up to the moniker. The Old Town (Stare Miasto) features the largest medieval square in Europe and several popular sights, including the Sukiennice Museum, featuring 19th-century Polish art. Within Old Town is the historical district of Kazimierz, once a separate city and now the nexus of boho-cool. In Podgórze, site of the former Jewish ghetto, lies an ancient mound rumored to contain the remains of King Krak, for whom the city was named.