While there are lots of things to see in Krakow & its nearest locations, there are a few core places you can’t miss:
- Krakow itself – the main square, Wawel Castle, Jewish quarter and lots of small gems in between. Exploring this properly will take you 1 day.
- Wieliczka’s salt mine. This is an absolute must. There are 2 underground routes, which are vastly different (1 is for your viewing pleasure, while on the 2nd one you dress as a miner, gear up & go on an adventure). To explore both routes, you need 1 full day. You can also visit only 1 route and have the rest of the day off to see Krakow, but you’ll miss out, trust me.
- Auschwitz concentration camp – only if you’re sure you want to see how hell looks like. You can’t unsee this. A trip there will take you 1 day.
- The “Morskie Oko” lake in the Tatra mountains, to which there’s an asphalt paved road. You will be amazed at the view. The countryside there is also vastly different from Krakow’s. You need a full day for this.
Considering the above as the main points of interest, you need to spend 2-4 days in Krakow to explore the most important sites.
Read on to learn what you should focus on, where you can and where you can’t cut corners.
How to spend 1 day or half a day in Krakow
You should start your visit in the main train / bus station. From there, take a short walk to the Florianska Street – the most popular one in Krakow.
You will see the old city walls, Barbakan – a fortified outpost right next to the main Florianska Gate. At the end of this street lies the St. Mary’s Church and the Main Square itself. It’s all within 1 km (0,5 miles) from the main station.
Then, venture along the Grodzka Street to reach the Wawel Castle after a 15 minute walk. Entrance to the courtyard is free. You can view the Vistula river just below the castle.
All that, with entering tourist attractions and eating, should take you about half of your day. If you have an extra day for the Wieliczka Salt Mine, you can now go to he Jewish Quarter, called Kazimierz by the locals. If you don’t have an extra day, I’d skip it and head back to the main station to get a 20 minute train to Wieliczka to see the Salt Mine.
Continue on walking by the river to the South-East. I recommend taking a left turn when you get to the 4th bridge (the next one after a pedestrian-only bridge; don’t cross any bridges – you’re on the right side of the river). You will be on the Starowislna Street. Soon you will come upon an intersection, on the left of which there’s the Wawrzynca Street (with rails for the tram), which you should turn to – this is a major street of the Jewish Quarter.
Feel free to wander around, but be sure to get to get to the Plac Nowy square, at the center of which you will find a round building with delicious local snack / meal called Zapiekanka – I highly recommend trying it.
From there, you can go to the Szeroka street, which has an old Synagogue at one end and lots of restaurants on the other.
You can spend your evening in the Jewish Quarter, but I’d recommend going back the Main Square, as there are a lot of street performers after 19:00.
How to spend 1 day or half a day in the Wieliczka Salt Mine
Wieliczka is a medium-sized town near Krakow, just a 20 minutes ride by train away. While it has a main Tourist Route, which starts at the Danilowicza Shaft and takes 3 hours to complete, since 2012 there’s another option to explore – the Miner’s Route. Not many people know about it, but it’s a totally different experience from the Main Tourist Route.
The Miner’s Route requires you to change clothes, get a miner’s gear (including headlights) and go down dark tunnels with water dripping from the ceiling. It’s safe (made for tourists), but at the same time it’s a totally awesome experience.
The Main Tourist Route, on the other hand, lets you see about 20 different chambers, salt sculptures, salt chandeliers, underground lakes etc. – it’s for your viewing pleasure (the 1st picture above is an example).
Here’s a sample of how the Miner’s Route looks like:
If you have 1 full day to visit Wieliczka, you can visit both routes, as each takes 3 hours to complete. You can use the spare time to get to the Main Square in Wieliczka, which is very close to the salt mine entrances – there’s a huge salt mine painting on half of the square. On the back of the Danilowicza Shaft, there’s a nice park with a Graduation Tower with water sprinkling on its walls. Also, be sure to visit “Cafe Pistacja” next to the Regis Shaft, where you’ll find delicious local ice cream – salt & caramel flavored!
If you only have half a day in Wieliczka, feel free to decide if you’re up for an adventure (take the Miner’s Route from the Regis Shaft) or would like to see what most people visit the Salt Mine for (take the Tourist Route from the Danilowicza Shaft). If you’re really torn, stick to the Main Tourist Route.
Remember: the salt mine has a stable temperature of about 15 o C (59 o F), so bring a jacket even if it’s the middle of the summer. It’s quite windy as well.
Visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp
Auschwitz is a concentration camp, which was built by Germany in the II World War. It consists of 3 camps, of which you usually visit 2 (vastly different). Auschwitz is mostly known as a place where anywhere from 1 million up to 5 million people were killed, mostly in gas chambers. If you read the Wikipedia article on Auschwitz, you might come to the conclusion – as I did -, that dying was not the worst that happened to people there. A lot of them were used for unimaginable experiments. What was done there is beyond any understanding. It was hell on Earth.
This part of you trip will not be fun. It will be dreadful and will totally bum you out. If you’re sure you can handle it, go there as your first day of stay in Krakow, to have some time to cheer up afterwards.
If you’re not sure you’re mentally strong enough to handle it, don’t go. Have I known more about this place before, I wouldn’t have visited it, even though I live in Krakow. That said, the atrocities of concentration camps can never be forgotten – we can’t let this happen again. You might also want to look into reports of using concentration camps in North Korea at the current day, but I’m not educated enough on this topic.
Auschwitz is located close to the town called Oswiecim, which is a 1 hour drive from Krakow. I recommend taking a guided tour from Krakow, as you will be driven to the proper spots and educated well, in your language. The tour costs around 130 – 150 zł (PLN) per person. I recommend NOT taking a joint Wieliczka Salt Mines & Auschwitz tour – it’s far too much to do in one day.
Important tip: don’t say “Polish concentration camps”. A lot of people take this very seriously. They were German concentration camps, only placed on Polish soil. There’s a big difference.
Unique trip to Krakow – Zakopane & a lake in the Tatra Mountains
To change the mood, I recommend going to the Tatra Mountains, which are only a 2-hour drive from Krakow. There’s a very easy path there, paved with asphalt all the way (so you can even go with a small baby in the summer). The walk is 8 km long (so it should take you about 2 hours to get up & another 2 to get down), in a beautiful environment. At the end, you see the Morskie Oko (translation: eye of the sea) lake, surrounded by one of the most amazing and highest mountains in the Tatra chain.
There’s also a shelter right at the lake, which you can sleep at (just to be sure, call & reserve a spot), eat, drink etc…
If you still have some time & energy, you can go up to the “Czarny Staw pod Rysami” (translation: black lake under the Rysy mountain) lake, which will take you another 45 minutes (one way). From there you will see the Morskie Oko lake in all its glory.
In the evening, go to the local town of Zakopane to experience a totally different vibe of mountaineers. You should visit the main Krupowki Street and taste a local goat cheese called Oscypek. There are white (not smoked) and yellowish (smoked) ones – try both!
So, how long should you stay in Krakow?
If you want to see all the landmarks, reserve 4 days or more. If you’re on a time or money budget, you’ll get by even with 2 full days. Think about which of the above propositions suit you best and make a choice.
If you have any questions, ask them in the comments section below or contact me.