It was Poland’s accession to the European Union back in 2004 that marked a pivotal moment in the history of Krakow and the first step in its development into a major hub for tourism. Inevitably, the influx has not gone down well with all locals, but for the service and hospitality industries it has been a lucrative boom, with cosy cafes, hip bars and fancy restaurants now dotted across the city.
Nevertheless, Krakow has retained strong links with its often tumultuous past, evidenced in the huge array of historical landmarks and places of interest to be found here. Than anything, the city is somewhere that slowly reveals itself, with much of what makes it so special to be found under the surface. We’ve picked out 12 of the most unique things to see and do when visiting.
1. Wieliczka Salt Mine
You’ll be in good company if you choose to visit this hugely important site during your stay in Krakow – it attracts more than one million tourists each year, hailing from across the globe. A veritable underground metropolis, it tells the story of the many hundreds of years during which salt mining was integral to Poland’s self-sustainability, featuring a number of UNESCO-protected monuments throughout. The venue also hosts regular underground concerts, exhibitions and theatre shows, as well as being a popular site for film shoots.
2. Planty Park
This picturesque expanse of greenery encircling the centre of Krakow’s Old Town is one of the city’s most charming features, ideal for picnics, ball games with kids, or just a leisurely stroll with a loved one. It is home to some three kilometres of public parks and gardens filled with trees, flowers, benches and historic monuments, while street musicians and entertainers often pitch up here to add character and ambience to the scenic setting.
3. Wawel Castle
Perched on top of a scenic hill south of Krakow’s Old Town, Wawel Castle is without question one of the city’s must-see attractions. A beguiling hotchpotch of architectural styles including Medieval, Romanesque, Renaissance, Gothic and Baroque, the castle features an inner courtyard dotted with delightful colonnades, while the treasures contained within do much to contribute to Krakow’s status as a truly world-class city.
4. Polish Aviation Museum
Considered home to one of Europe’s finest collections of aircrafts, artefacts and exhibits related to world aviation, this museum is well worth a visit. In recent times the venue has been furnished with a range of high-tech features, including a cinema and an interactive space for children, although the numerous original hangars and out-buildings packed with old photographs, engines, uniforms and more help keep the imagination rootedd firmly in the past.
5. Rynek Underground Permanent Exhibition
This highly unusual state-of-the-art museum rests four metres under the surface of Krakow’s market square where medieval merchant stall holders once plied their trade. Now the excavated site, which limits visitor numbers to just 300 at a time, takes you on a journey back in time through high-tech features such as touch-screens and hologram exhibits. There are also plenty of conventional real life artefacts including coins, clothing and other earthly remains.
Still going strong after more than two centuries of serving up fine food, if you’re looking for an extravagant gastronomic experience in Krakow, you won’t find much better than Wentzl. Situated in a 15th century building on the city’s main market square, this regal restaurant boasts one of the best views in Krakow, superb cuisine, and a level of impeccable service befitting the venue’s distinguished past.
7. Rakowicki Cemetery
Traipsing around a cemetery may not sound like the most joyful of endeavours, but an exception should certainly be made for this grand resting place. Founded in 1803, many of the gravestones are Gothic in style, while mature chestnuts and elms tower above. Echoes of Poland’s history can also be found in the inscriptions on tombs and gravestones dotted throughout the cemetery.
If it’s nocturnal fun you’re after, Kotarola is one of Krakow’s most unique entertainment spots and has something for every taste. Housed in a huge medieval cellar, the labyrinth-like venue hosts a diverse range of live gigs, exhibitions and all kinds of subterranean events throughout the year.
9. Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory
In a city awash with landmarks of historical importance, this is one of the most resonant. The famous tale of Oskar Schindler is widely known, and it is here that his factory, and the fate of its Jewish workforce, played out in dramatic and heart-rending fashion. Today the factory has been transformed into a museum devoted to the wartime experiences in Krakow under the Nazi occupation, featuring a wide range of exhibits that tell one of the most powerful and enduring stories of that tumultuous period in history.
10. Ulica Kanonicza
There’s a good reason why most postcards you can buy in Krakow souvenir shops feature Ulica Kanonicza as their centrepiece – the cobbled alley offers the most picturesque view in the city. Flanked with impressive examples of Renaissance and Baroque architecture, along with colourful murals and tranquil courtyards, a walk through this area is an absolute delight.
11. Juliusz Słowacki Theatre
Modelled on the grand Paris Opera, this magnificent theatre has existed in the city in its current form since the turn of the 20th century, when it staged important productions by some of the world’s foremost playwrights of the era. The theatre hosts a packed annual programme of performances, so be sure to check local schedules if you’re here as there’s bound to be something on. As well as theatre shows, the venue also doubles as Krakow’s official opera house as well as being used for occasional conferences.
12. Kraków Zoo
Home to over 1,500 animals and around 260 different species, Krakow Zoo offers a great day out for families and indeed anyone with a passion for wildlife. The zoo is nestled amid a vast 500-hectare forest, making it a delightful place to just wander around and enjoy the lush vegetation. Be sure to check out the Reptile House featuring dwarf caimans, lizards, turtles, snakes, amphibians, invertebrates and exotic fish.