OBVIOUS, BUT OBLIGATORY
1) Circle the SquareThis seems obvious, but the best thing you can do on a beautiful day in Kraków - and the first thing you need to do, if you’re new in town - is wander around the Old Town, gravitating to the Market Square at its centre. Laid out in the 13th century, Kraków’s Market Square is the largest medieval square in Europe, measuring 40,000 square metres. Lined with restaurants, bars and cafes (find an outside table from which to take it all in!), the Market Square is loaded with outstanding architecture, historical monuments, museums, attractions and experiences, from the souvenir stalls of the Cloth Hall to St. Mary’s bugle call to street performers entertaining the crowds. The social and cultural nucleus of the city, there’s always something happening here to capture your attention, and plenty to discover by simply wandering around.
2) Traipse through the Old Town & Trace the Royal RouteIn addition to peeking into as many market square townhouses and courtyards as possible, also try to explore as many Old Town side streets as you can. Kraków’s Old Town has the distinction of having been added wholesale to the first-ever UNESCO World Heritage List, announced in 1978. That’s hardly an accident, as architecturally it’s one of the most well-preserved Old Towns in Europe, emerging from two world wars unscathed, retaining its medieval layout to this day, and generally possessing an olde world nostalgia and magical atmosphere that transports travellers to a past that has been all but lost elsewhere. Largely pedestrianised, it’s ideal for endless wanders, and wonders await around every turn.
3) Promenade around the PlantyMedieval Kraków was surrounded by over 3km of defensive walls, featuring an astounding 46 towers with seven city gates leading inside via drawbridge over a moat. Today, only three of these towers and one city gate remain (Floriańska Gate, part of the Royal Route), after the others were demolished during Austrian occupation in the 18th century and the moat was filled in. As unfortunate as that might sound at first, in place of this confining, claustrophobia-inducing skeeter swamp, today Kraków boasts one of its most unique and picturesque public parks, known as the ‘Planty’ Promenade - a beautiful green belt covering over 20 hectares encircling Kraków’s medieval Old Town from both sides of Wawel Castle. Full of large trees, landscaped garden plots, blooming flowers, fountains, monuments, benches and pathways, Kraków’s Planty is a wonderful place for a picnic, a pleasant stroll, or a snuggle and snog. Circling the entire park on foot takes almost an hour, but passing through at least part of it on your way to the centre is unavoidable, and offers a different perspective on many of the city’s historical monuments.
4) Wander Wawel Castle’s Courtyards & GardensLike the Planty itself, most explorations of the Old Town and Royal Route terminate at Wawel Castle - Kraków’s glorious former royal residence overlooking the Wisła River. This enormous complex is the pride of Poland and failing to visit Kraków’s castle would be akin to skipping the Eiffel Tower on a trip to Paris (except general entry to Wawel is free, doesn’t require a reservation, or include stupidly long lines). Like a Polish Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey rolled into one (need more lofty comparisons?), Wawel is composed of two basic parts: the Castle - the patriotic pride of Poland, full of crown jewels, priceless treasures and exquisite art and furnishings within the former royal chambers; and the Cathedral - the spiritual heart of the country, scene of every royal coronation, and resting place of kings and statesmen. While you’d be wise to plan ahead in order to visit any of the many available ticketed exhibits and tours, a simple walk through the interior courtyards and gardens of the complex admiring the jaw-dropping pastiche of Renaissance, Romanesque and Gothic architecture, taking photos and searching for the legendary chakra stone, is entirely free and practically obligatory. Why wouldn’t you?
RIVER RECREATION, BATHING & BEACHES
5) Stroll or Cycle the Wisła BoulevardsLike the Planty, the boulevards stretching along both sides of the Wisła River through the very centre of Kraków offer a wonderful place for a relaxing stroll or picnic. In addition to Wawel Castle, many beautiful sites and points of interest lie directly along the green riverside walkways of the Wisła, making these boulevards a lovely way to travel from the Old Town to Kazimierz, or over to the districts of Dębniki and Podgórze via one of the city’s many bridges. The Norbertine Monastery, Dragon Monument, Skałka Church, Hala Forum beer garden and Bernatek Footbridge are all wonderful destinations which lie directly on the riverbanks in the very centre of the city. Rent a bike and you can easily visit them all, or perhaps you just want to feel the freedom of the saddle by taking off on a longer ride to see just how far the cycling paths of the river boulevards can take you….
Rent a kayak and set course along the mighty Wisła, or duck off down the Wilga tributary for a more intimate side trip. Increasingly popular SUP boards can be rented from the Forum Hotel, which just so happens to also be the city’s best riverside hang-out spot once you’re done showing off on the water.
7) Bathe at a Lakeside BeachAlthough Kraków doesn’t have its riverside beach game on par with Warsaw’s (not even close), the city boasts several artificial reservoirs where sand, sun and swimming are plentiful. The most centrally located of these (and thus very popular) is Bagry Lagoon, a picturesque urban lake that’s big enough for two sailing schools, still has rather pristine water, and plenty of wild areas where you can escape the masses. The beach and bathing area has been attractively developed in recent years, with playgrounds, plenty of food trucks and water equipment rentals (kayaks, SUP boards, sailboats), all that’s missing are proper restrooms (coming soon!).
Even more developed as a sun, sand and swimming attraction is Kryspinów Lagoon, 12km from Kraków and well-connected by bus. With 64 hectares of water, half of the shore around which has been cultivated for recreation, Kryspinów offers clean water, four sandy beaches, equipment rental and water sports (wake boarding, fly boarding, wind surfing, kayaking, sailing), a ropes course, tennis, basketball and volleyball courts, drinking and dining options, plus more. Despite all that, it’s first and foremost a place to relax, beat the heat, take a dip, escape the pressure of sightseeing and feel like you’re truly on vacation.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH
Building massive earthwork mounds (‘kopce’) to honour heroes is a tradition unique to Kraków that dates all the way back to King Krak, his daughter Wanda, and legends of the city’s origin. With two prehistoric earthworks already existing in the outskirts of Kraków, the city chose to rekindle this ancient local custom in the early 19th century upon the passing of the nation’s great freedom fighter, Tadeusz Kościuszko. If you don’t know the man’s story, read up. His most famous moment came when, having already fought with distinction in the American War of Independence, Kościuszko returned to occupied Poland, declared an insurrection against foreign rule on Kraków’s market square, and led an army of peasants armed with farm tools to victory against the superior forces of Tsarist Russia in nearby Racławice in 1794.
After his passing, several years were spent building this artificial mound upon Bronisława Hill, overlooking Kraków. Completed in 1823, today the peak stands 34 metres high, 326 metres above sea level, and though getting to the top is tiring work, the fantastic panoramic views are absolutely worth it. As is honouring this great man, about whom you can learn more by visiting some of the historical exhibits within the brick fortress surrounding the mound, included in your ticket price. Truly a remarkable place, befitting an inspiring man.
9) Go Hiking in Wolski Forest
Further west from Kościuszko Mound, and just 8km west from the market square, Wolski Forest is an amazing 422 hectares of protected woodlands atop several hills in Zwierzyniec, overlooking the centre of Kraków and easily accessible by bus, car or bicycle. Inside this picturesque natural area are 35km of hiking trails, as well as recreation paths for cyclists, cross-country skiers and horseback riders, making it a perfect escape from urban life for anyone who wants to pretend they’ve left the city, without actually taking a trip. At the same time, Wolski Forest harbours several intriguing attractions that make it a draw for tourists, families, couples and even pilgrims. Take a bus directly to Kraków’s Zoo and then hike your way to Piłsudski Mound - another man-made earthwork with great views, Przegorzały Castle - a hillside mansion with amazing terraces, or the Camaldolese Monastery - a mysterious Baroque hermitage. A great place to clear your head, be in nature and do some sightseeing all at the same time.
10) Explore Lasota Hill, Liban & Krakus Mound
It doesn’t take much effort to get off the beaten path in Kraków, and this walk takes you quickly from the riverside to the mysterious and untamed hills of Podgórze. Translating to ‘Foothills,’ the historical centre of the district of Podgórze lies between the natural boundaries of the Wisła River and limestone cliffs and hills extending south. It’s this unique geography that appealed to the Nazis when they were looking for real estate to turn into the Jewish Ghetto during WWII, but that’s another story.
Make a left onto ul. Rękawka at the absolutely stunning Church of St. Joseph on the Podgórze Town Square and within two blocks you’ll have an opportunity to wander uphill into the woods along a dirt trail. This short trek leads you up above the historical centre, depositing you in the picturesque meadow of Lasota Hill, where you’ll discover the small, pagan-squashing St. Benedict's Church and an abandoned 19th century Austrian fortress. It was also here that the most poignant scene of Schindler’s List was filmed, in which Schindler and his wife observe the ‘girl in the red coat’ in the ghetto below from this very vantage point. Turning round south you’ll also see Krakus Mound (Kopiec Krakusa) - the city’s most ancient structure and (according to legend) a burial mound for its first ruler - in the distance. The mound is closer than it looks and a pleasant walk thanks to a handy footbridge just beyond the meadow which takes you over the road below.
From atop Krakus Mound - arguably the most beautiful vantage point in town - you not only have fantastic sunset views over the city centre, but also views into the creepy Liban Quarry directly adjacent to it. Gone wild and now something of a nature preserve, Liban Quarry is still haunted by the ghosts of its history as a WWII penal camp and leftover bits from its use as a film set for Schindler’s List. Enter at your own risk via a trail from the south rim, for that distinct thrill of going someplace you feel like maybe you shouldn’t.
11) Hike Around Zakrzówek & Search for Twardowski’s Cave
If you’re into quarries and views, well, that’s our kind of audience, and Kraków is your kind of city, because here’s an even better one. Just southwest of the centre you’ll find more limestone cliffs and the glimmering deep greenish-blue glass eye of Zakrzówek Quarry. Dangerously deep, but oh-so alluring, Zakrzówek is technically off-limits for swimmers at the moment, but the city is in the process of safely developing the area for recreation. That shouldn’t deter you however; the rim is a great place for picnicking and grilling, and offers simply amazing views of Wawel Castle. Popular with rock climbers, hike around the woods and you might also find creepy Austrian bunkers carved into the cliffs, or even a wacky temple to Elvis Presley.
This is also the fabled domain of Polish sorcerer ‘Pan Twardowski’, who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for magical powers. The legendary occultist used one of the caves in this area as his alchemy workshop, and it’s not difficult to find, or enter...if you dare.
Kraków’s Best Urban Parks & Gardens
Kraków is home to many wonderful urban parks - over 50 as a matter of fact - and we would be remiss not to mention the best of them. If you’re in town with the family, there’s obviously the Zoo, but the centrally-located Jordan Park is home to numerous attractions for kids, while Krakowski Park nearby boasts arguably the best playground. Park Lotników, meanwhile, is home to Arena Garden - a large picnic area featuring food trucks, playgrounds and more attractions for children, while right next door is the Stanisław Lem Science Garden - a ticketed outdoor museum where kids can engage with over 100 interactive science installations.
If you’re looking for a green space that’s a bit more intimate and untamed, head to Podgórze’s Bednarski Park (currently closed for renovation works) inside a former limestone quarry and stretching along the hills of Krzemionki. If you want a quiet respite in immaculate surroundings away from the crowds, look no further than Jagiellonian University’s Botanical Garden.
Out-of-Town Outdoor Attractions
Kraków is also surrounded by many wonderful places where you can completely escape the city and spend the day outdoors within a short distance. Małopolska itself is home to six national parks, plus castle ruins, primeval forests, wooden churches and places of interest galore. Follow the links for more information on outdoor destinations further outside of town, like the Jura Upland, Ojców National Park, the Tatra Mountains, Niepołomice Forest, Ogrodzieniec Castle and more.