I have always heard great things about the Poles. A friend of mine from the Army served with Polish troops and spent time in Poland as a military attache. He loved it and highly recommended we go. Other friends had spent time in Europe and loved Poland. So, I was really excited to go to Krakow.
And Krakow lived up to the hype!
Seriously, we had a great time and learned so much in this city. And, to top it off, it was easily one of the cheapest cities we visited in Eastern Europe.
Note from Bonnie and Grant: This is an edited version of what we originally wrote for family and friends way back in 2015. We condensed and edited it so it would be more user-friendly for our readers. We hope you will be forgiving of some of our earliest work.
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Updated October 2018
Get your walking shoes ready, because there is a ton to see and you can easily walk to most of it.
We took the night train from Prague, so we arrived in Krakow early in the morning (more on that below) and, after dropping off our luggage, headed out to see the city.
We explored the Wawel Castle, the largest castle in Poland. This royal castle is an architecture fan’s dream, with elements from every major movement included in the structure. It is also home to a major collection of art of various styles.
Schindler’s Factory and the Jewish Quarter
Even if you have never seen the magnificent movie, Schindler’s List, this is a must see. The museum goes in depth into the pain and suffering of the Jews during World War II. The museum is incredibly informative and easy to follow.
Krakow’s Jewish Quarter was ravaged by the Nazis during World War II and completely neglected by the Communist governments. Recent years has brought a resurgence of Jewish culture in Krakow. It makes for a great walk after visiting Schindler’s Factory.
The Planty and Main Square
One of our favorite parts of Krakow is the wonderful beltway park circling the old town called the Planty.
This park follows where the old city walls were and offers plenty of places to sit and rest, enjoy the shade, get a refreshment or just enjoy a walk.
We spent several hours during our visit relaxing in the Planty and walking around.
Krakow’s main square has to be one of my favorite city squares I have ever visited. While the square is busy, with plenty of folks milling about, it was not insanely crowded like you find in most Italian town squares.
At night, it was full of local folks out for a stroll and had plenty of restaurants with outdoor seating so you could enjoy the comfortable nights and the people watching. We ate dinner on the square both nights and while neither meal jumps out at me as fabulous, it was hearty, tasty and quite reasonably priced!
We thoroughly enjoyed sitting out in the cool of the evening, having a drink, and watching the heart of Krakow beat.
Underneath the main square is the Rynek Underground museum. This museum tells the story of medieval Krakow through the remains of stalls, etc. which were unearthed when doing renovations above. The museum is pretty cool and definitely a good way to spend time during the heat of the day.
Unless you have simply ignored history, you have heard of the concentration camp at Auschwitz. It is one thing to hear, read, or even watch a movie about concentration camps. It is quite another to actually be there.
To walk on the roads that led folks to their death; to walk through the barracks that housed the “lucky” ones that were allowed to live a little longer than others; to see the shoes, eyeglasses, clothes, and even hair that was taken from people as they entered. To see the remains of the gas chambers that were disguised as showers. There really are no words to adequately describe the feeling.
Some ask, “Why visit?” The answer: to understand history and be reminded of why we can’t let it happen again.
For Bonnie, this was her second visit to a concentration camp. It was my first. I can tell you how I felt: angry. Really angry. Of course, I knew what Auschwitz was, but I couldn’t begin to truly understand it until I saw it… felt it.
There is nothing I can say to prepare you for the fact they used the hair from these prisoners to make uniforms for German troops. There is nothing I can do to prepare you for the chill of walking into one of the barracks rooms. You have to feel it for yourself.
Never again. Even that phrase loses its meaning and becomes trite. One of the things that was made clear to me: before the Germans invaded the Netherlands, the Dutch thought, “It will never happen here.”
More than a million Jews, political prisoners, academics, gypsies, Russian POWs and more were killed because… Well, because the Nazis were evil. I’m not one to stand in judgment of other folks but this was evil, pure and simple.
If I ever seem a bit ardent about things like protection from the government, the police, gun rights, etc., you know why. Because it can and will happen again if we let it.
Our visit to Auschwitz coincided with the US Independence Day (July 4). The timing of our visit, as the US celebrated its independence, only intensified the reminder of just how blessed we are and how easily we can lose it.
The good news about visiting Auschwitz: is it is an easy train ride, less than two hours from Krakow, and the Polish countryside is beautiful.
Pro tip: the Auschwitz Museum is actually two sites, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. There is a bus that runs between them, I highly recommend taking the bus. The walk was not fun.
The Night Train
We rode the night train from Prague to Krakow and from Krakow to Budapest. In both instances, we were in four-person sleeper cars.
On the trip up to Krakow, the bunks, which were just the seats of the train, were quite uncomfortable, but the air did work and we were able to keep the cabin door closed.
On the way to Budapest, the bunks were better, but the air conditioning didn’t work, requiring the windows to be open. That made for a loud and warm ride. This train also had no electrical outlets, so no charging our phones.
In both instances, the train had one bathroom for the car (probably five or six cabins, maybe more) which wasn’t great.
On the plus side, the night train is not any more expensive than taking a train and staying in a hotel, it just saves time by allowing you a semi-comfortable place to sleep while you travel. This is valuable if you have limited time on your trip.
The downsides to the night train are you end up at your destination wearing the same clothes as the day before and unable to check in to your hotel for several hours. You also miss seeing the scenery along the way.
If you do decide to take a night train, some train stations have showers, so be sure to pack a travel towel.
Where to Stay
We loved our apartment in Krakow, the Krowoderska Apartments. It was easily one of the nicest places we stayed in Eastern Europe and the location was great. We were located on a quiet street about a 10-minute walk from the main square.
The apartment was very well furnished and quite comfortable.
We would certainly stay here again.
Krakow really is a great city to visit. There is a ton to see and do and we felt like our few days there were more than worth it, aside from visiting Auschwitz, which I consider a must for anyone.
There is also the Wieliczka Salt Mine outside of town we would have really liked to visit, but we missed the last English-speaking tour of the day and after touring the silver mine in Kutna Hora on a non-English tour, we decided to skip it for this trip. That said, we have heard it is amazing and really look forward to seeing it next time.
We would gladly return to Krakow just to enjoy a relaxing dinner on the main square again. That’s how much we enjoyed just being in this city.