With a beautiful old centre and more than enough sights to fill a weekend, the Polish city of Krakow makes a charming short-break destination. Better yet, it's great value too
Many former Eastern Bloc cities in recent years have been touted as 'the new Prague’. There may be nothing wrong with the old one, but the Polish city of Krakow may have the strongest claims of all to replicate the Czech capital’s tourist success, with its stunning medieval centre, elegant cobbled streets and swathes of culture and history.
On arrival, any anachronistic images of communist-era privations are quickly brushed aside by a buzzing cosmopolitan city that brims with shops, cafes, restaurants and bars. The focus is firmly around the medieval Market Square, or Rynek Glowny, one of Europe’s great public spaces. Add in the former Jewish quarter (immortalised by Schindler’s List) and the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Wawel castle complex, and Krakow has plenty to fill up a weekend or even longer trip.
Rynek Glowny is the hub of Krakow life, so take a ringside seat in one of the myriad pavement cafes and watch the designer-clad locals, whishing cyclists, horses towing tourists on carts and street entertainers in medieval garb. The horse and carts are a great way to get around the city if you have never been before, as they amble at a leisurely pace across the old cobbles, taking in the main sights as they go. At night the experience is even more romantic, as you lie back and savour the floodlit spires of Krakow.
At the centre of Rynek Glowny, one of the largest medieval squares in Europe, is the elegant, pastel-yellow Cloth Hall. For centuries, this was the bustling hub of local commerce and today it still throngs, nowadays with tourists looking to snap up some souvenirs, ranging from carved pieces of Baltic amber through to intricately-carved woodwork. Look out also for the old world café that is part of the Cloth Hall. It does a great range of coffees and cakes, including the ‘Pope Cake’, a delicious cream cake said to have been a favourite of the late Pope John Paul II, a native of the city who is still very much revered in Krakow today.
Shopping is one of Krakow’s real highlights. Long gone are the days of communist-era deprivations. Today Krakow offers everything from souvenir stalls through to boutique fashion stores and huge shopping malls. A section of the original stone city wall at the end of Florianska boasts an outdoor art gallery where you can buy original oil paintings that depict various scenes of the city and different times of year.
After exploring the huge square you can head off along the ‘Royal Way’ on Grodzka to Wawel, taking in the range of magical architecture that graces the street on both flanks as you go, typical of one of the best preserved historic city centres in Europe. A tour is the best way to get around the seminal site at Wawel, with its voluminous cathedral, Royal Chambers, Treasury and various exhibitions. For centuries, Polish kings were crowned here and the local luminary Nicolai Copernicus once wandered the halls musing on the great mysteries of mankind. Wawel exudes a deep sense of history and breadth of culture and it takes at least a whole day to even really scratch the surface.
After a hard day of sightseeing and shopping, the myriad cafes and restaurants of the old town await. Polish cuisine often leans too heavily towards stodgy meat dishes and lashings of cream, but Wierzynek (Rynek Glowny 15; 012-424 9600) takes things up a notch on the old town square and has attracted a whole host of celebrity diners. For something more familiar to British visitors, U Szkota (Mikolajska 4; 012-422 1570) is the only place in the city that offers haggis amongst an array of more traditional Polish cuisine.
Krakow is a good base for exploring the surrounding region. Highlights include the mountain resort of Zakopane (with skiing in winter and hiking trails in summer) and the UNESCO World Heritage-listed salt mine at Wieliczka. The former is a fully-equipped resort with all the trimmings. In winter there are plenty of ski runs to suit all levels, from complete beginners on nursery slopes right through to experienced skiers looking to take on Olympic-standard black runs. There is snowboarding, too, as well as cross-country skiing. In summer (or year-round for those with experience and the right gear) the rugged peaks and thickly forested slopes of the Tatra mountains tempt with many marked trails and mountain huts (some serving traditional ‘Highlander cuisine’) to help you on your way.
The Wieliczka salt mine well deserves its place on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Once it accounted for around a third of total Polish GDP and these days around two million tourists flock to see the wonders that lie below the surface. Visitors are taken around on two-hour guided tours that visit the stunning array of sculptures the dedicated miners skillfully crafted during their spare time. There are numerous chapels, as you would expect in this deeply religious country, as well as heroic communist-era statues of the manly miners and myriad biblical scenes, all of them remarkably crafted out of salt. The highlight is the Kinga Chapel, which you can take in before visiting the museum and then catching an express lift back to the surface.
Back in the city centre the many delights of the old town await. Reclining in one of the bountiful pavement cafes after enjoying an expertly brewed coffee and savouring some of the excellent local food, you can congratulate yourself on discovering one of Europe’s most charming medieval cities. Whether Krakow is 'the new Prague’ or not is something of a moot point; what it does offer is an ideal and excellent value city break only a two-hour flight from the UK that makes it for me the ultimate city break.
Where to stay
Perhaps the chicest hotel in Krakow is this centrally located boutique hotel with its smart rooms, a basement swimming pool and a roof terrace.
Nearby, the three-star Wawel has recently been upgraded and is one of the best mid-price options in Krakow. Rooms are comfortable rather than luxurious, but the hotel does have a Jacuzzi and a steam room.