The medieval atmosphere that reigns in the Old City of Krakow – UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978 -, the Royal Wawel Castle on the top of a hill from which to enjoy an incredible spectacle (if you manage to get out of the Castle unscathed through the Dragon Grotto…), the Jewish district of Kazimierz and the Wieliczka Salt Mine with sculptures and chapels (consecrated and not) are just some of the points of interest that justify a visit to Krakow.
We arrived on Saturday evening and left on Tuesday afternoon, but the attractions to visit with a couple of days more would not be missed. Having little time we had to carefully select the places to see.
We started the tour from the Wawel Hill, easily accessible with public transportation. Trams and buses clearly indicate the names of the stops and are equipped with videos showing the images of the main attractions in the areas, thus helping the majority of tourists who do not speak Polish.
The Wawel Hill has had ups and downs: at first a center of temporal and ecclesiastical power, then the seat of the Polish sovereigns, it was then transformed into a Renaissance residence and subsequently destroyed and robbed several times. At the beginning of the twentieth century it was the subject of renovation to bring the site back to its former glory.
On the site www.wawel.krakow.pl you will find a lot of useful information, but don’t be scared if you can’t book your visit in advance because you can do it directly on site.
Equip yourself with an audio guide and start the tour from the Castle: don’t miss the State Rooms rich in tapestries, porcelains, silverware and antique furniture, the Hall of Deputies, characteristic for the coffered ceiling with 30 individually carved heads, the Royal Apartments (unfortunately the photos are not allowed, but you can always buy some postcard as a souvenir), the Treasure and the Royal Armory if you are fond of spears, halberds and swords and, among the latter, the one used for the royal coronations.
Leaving the Castle you can visit the Cathedral, the site of the coronation of Polish monarchs and burial place of famous people.
Inside the complex you will find numerous kiosks and cafeterias, where you can take advantage to enjoy a relaxing moment. When you decide to leave the complex, pass through the Dragon Grotto where, according to legend, lived an evil fire-breathing Dragon precisely. Smok – this is his name – raged against inhabitants and cattle and his favorite food were beautiful girls. Prince Krak, fearing for his daughter’s life, offered her hand to the one that managed to defeat the dragon … how does the story end? To you to find it out, but I tell you that we really saw the dragon spitting fire!!
As soon as you come out of the Dragon Grotto, a beautiful panoramic view of the Vistula will appear in front of you: if it is a beautiful sunny day take the opportunity to take a few minutes break on one of the numerous benches and the presence of local product sellers to taste some typical product. We have tried the Oscypek: to you to discover what it is, I can only tell you that it is very good.
The Old Town
From the Wawel hill you can walk to the old town and to the characteristic Rynek Glowny square, animated by street artists, street vendors and the typical local horse carriages that carry tourists around.
The main attractions of Krakow overlooks the square: start with a visit to the Basilica of Santa Maria, a jewel of Gothic art with its beautiful interiors and if it is a beautiful day climb the tower to enjoy the view. And if you hear a melody? It could be the trumpeter who plays the hejnat at the hour from the tower, a 5-note melody repeated 4 times, one for each cardinal point. To date there are 7 trumpeters alternating every hour during the day.
Then continue with the Fabrics Fondaco: in ancient times it was a textile market, while today it is a beautiful Renaissance building where on the upper floor you will find the Art Gallery dedicated to Polish art, while on the ground floor you can buy souvenirs and local handicrafts.
If you are not yet tired and, above all do not endure the narrow spaces, you can climb the Town Hall Tower: you can enjoy the view from a height of 70 meters, but know that there is only one common narrow staircase both for those who come down and for those who go up …
And if after so much walking the hunger comes, take advantage of a Polskie Smaki: they were born in the 1960s as small subsidized canteens to allow workers to have lunch near their place of work. Even today they have maintained low prices and a tasty traditional cuisine.
Enjoy some more glimpses of the city before going to sleep: the Rynek Glowny square with its light at night that illuminate the main attractions cannot fail to fascinate you.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Plan to spend a day on a trip out of town: starting from the bus station next to the town’s shopping arcade, you can easily reach the Wieliczka Salt Mine, a UNESCO heritage site for thirty years. Every hour, during periods of greatest influx of tourists, visits are organized with guides; you can buy the ticket online on the site. Face the descent of 380 steps and you will reach a depth of 135 meters! But don’t worry, you can easily go out using an elevator after having traversed a stretch on very comfortable and suggestive trains
During the visit, which lasts about 3 hours, you will see scenes of daily life of the miners, sculptures made exclusively with salt, and you will reach a real treasure at a depth of 101 meters: the Saint Cunegonde Chapel.
The Saint Cunegonde Chapel is consecrated, so it could be a suggestive place to celebrate a non-ordinary wedding. Not to be overlooked, it is also possible to access a ballroom where to organize a beautiful reception. If you are already thinking about the comfort of your guests you should know that you can directly access it through an elevator thus avoiding the descent, which is certainly more suggestive, of the 380 steps!
Kazimierz jewish district
Don’t miss, even if you have little time, the district of Kazimierz: it will fascinate you not only for cafes and nightclubs, but also for original shops, art galleries and real works of modern art in the open.
Walking around the neighborhood we saw graffitis dedicated to Karol Knaus, an architect-artist originally from Kazimierz who was the creator of many buildings in Krakow, who lived at the end of the nineteenth century and to Helena Rubinstein, defined as an “empress of beauty”, who began her career in the family shop, before moving permanently to the United States and founding the cosmetics company known throughout the world and known for the motto “There are no ugly women, only lazy women”.
In Kazimierz there is a really exciting atmosphere also because it represents the Jewish quarter: here was set the film “Schindler’s List” by S. Spielberg, which tells the dramatic story of Oscar Schindler, a German industrialist who managed to save thousands of Jews persecuted by the nazis during the Holocaust.
We visited the Old Synagogue, inside which there is the prayer hall that offers a reconstruction of the binah, the platform at the center of which is read the Torah, the foundation of Jewish religious tradition because it contains all the teachings given by God to Moses. Some Torah scrolls are preserved and visible in a niche next to them.
Continuing through the neighborhood, we visited the Synagogue of Remuh, a small jewel still used today for the celebration of religious services. Immediately behind the Synagogue, it is possible to access the cemetery: after the damages suffered during the Second World War due to the Nazi occupations, Renaissance tombstones dating back to 4 centuries ago have been brought to light thanks to the works carried out in the post-war period.
Although Kazimierz is the Jewish district par excellence, there are also beautiful churches to visit: among these is the Church of Santa Caterina, dating back to the 14th century and characterized by the white interiors that make the imposing baroque altar completely gilded stand out even more.
We took advantage of the visit of the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz to taste the Kosher cuisine at the Ariel restaurant, which stands on a very characteristic square and in Krakow is a real institution.
The Kosher kitchen must respect the dictates of the Jewish religion on nutrition: Kosher, in fact, means ‘suitable’, and must respect the 7 dietary rules established by the Torah. Among these it is foreseen that the animals must be slaughtered by a qualified rabbi, the meat and dairy products must not be consumed together and that the same utensils used for the meat must be separated from those used for cheese and dairy products in the kitchen .
Visiting Krakow in 3 days is an experience that I highly recommend. And if you have more time available, better!
Take the opportunity to visit the Podgorze district where you can see the Oskar Schindler factory and the Mocak contemporary art museum, go as far as the Nowa Huta district, a perfectly preserved example of popular communist architecture typical of the 1960s, or take the time to visit the Auschwitz memorial site.
The sparkling atmosphere of Krakow cannot fail to impress you: in addition to the architectural charm and the historical and human value of its sites, you will be struck by the order, cleanliness and organization of the city that make it extremely accessible to any tourist.
And then this year there is one more reason to visit Krakow: the European Academy of Gastronomy, a reference institution for the world of gastronomy and part of the network of the prestigious International Academy of Gastronomy, has awarded it the title of European Capital of 2019 Gastronomic Culture!
Among the various points of the program, the congress on food and wine that will take place in October, the Slow Food Masterclasses with the best chefs and festivals dedicated to local delicacies, such as the obwarzanek (the Krakow pretzel), the pierogis, the bread or wine, the format of the “virtual kitchen”, where at the same time various dishes of the culinary tradition of Krakow will be prepared in different restaurants scattered all over the world and the whole initiative will be transmitted in streaming.
All the info on the website of the Polish tourism authority.