According to legend, Poland’s historic capital was founded upon the defeat of a dragon, and, especially in winter, a mythical atmosphere permeates its attractive streets and squares.
Oskar Schindler’s Factory
This impressive museum covers the Nazi occupation of Kraków in WWII. It’s housed in the former enamel factory of Oskar Schindler, the industrialist who famously saved the lives of members of his Jewish labour force during the Holocaust. Interactive exhibits tell the city’s moving story.
Museum of Pharmacy
The Jagiellonian University Medical School’s Museum of Pharmacy is one of the largest museums of its kind in Europe and arguably the best. Accommodated in a beautiful historic townhouse worth the visit alone, it features a 22,000-piece collection, including old lab equipment, rare medical instruments and recreations of vintage pharmacy interiors.
From the northern end of the Cloth Hall you can enter this fascinating attraction beneath Kraków’s central market square: an underground route through medieval stalls and other long-forgotten chambers. The whole experience is enhanced by holograms and audiovisual wizardry. It’s worth pre-booking an entry time at a local tourist office.
As Poland’s political and cultural heart in the 16th century, Wawel Castle is a national symbol. Within the Italian-inspired palace are the impressive State Rooms and Royal Private Apartments. There’s also a display of Leonardo da Vinci’s captivating painting, Lady with an Ermine.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Some nine miles southeast of Kraków, the town of Wieliczka (vyeh-leech-kah) is famous for its deep salt mine. It’s an eerie world of pits and chambers, and much within its depths has been carved by hand from salt blocks, including chapels with chandeliers, altarpieces and figures; the complex even contains underground lakes.
The oldest-surviving university building in Poland is one of the best examples of 15th-century Gothic architecture in the city, with a magnificent arcaded courtyard. Visit is by guided tour only (every 20 minutes). You’ll see astronomical instruments used by Copernicus and a fascinating alchemy room.
EATING AND DRINKING
Head fort his below-ground microbrewery with its cavernous drinking hall and restaurant serving meaty dishes. The amber fluid is brewed on the spot to an old Austro-Hungarian recipe, then poured straight from the tanks into patrons’ glasses. Beware the CK Dunkel brew, which is 7% alcohol.
For coffee and cake, try this genteel haven hidden around a bend in a street just north of the Old Town’s main square. Its cosy rooms are cluttered with lace-covered candle-lit tables, and a quirky collection of wooden figurines featuring spiritual or folkloric scenes. It’s also a great choice for breakfasts and brunches.
A favourite haunt of writers and artists back in the day, this is the eaterie that time forgot, with its elaborate old-fashioned décor, featuring chandeliers, lace tablecloths, age-worn carpets and sepia portraits. The menu includes a range of Polish dishes, including a very good zurek staropolski – sour barley soup with white sausage.
BA, easyJet, Jet2 and Ryanair fly to Kraków from UK airports including Belfast, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Heathrow, Manchester and Stansted. Kraków’s John Paul II International Airport is located eight miles west of the centre. A regular train service runs to Kraków Głowny station. A taxi to the city centre should cost about £14. Most attractions are in the Old Town or within easy walking distance from there, so you may not need the efficient network of buses or trams very often. The Kraków Card offers free use of public transport as well as entry to many museums.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Alef is an affordable place within the shadow of Wawel Hill. It offers 35 charming rooms, furnished with antiques and paintings, plus there’s a rustic restaurant.
White and cream seem to be the colours of choice at U Pana Cogito, a friendly 14-room hotel in a lovely mansion and annexe, across the river southwest of the centre.
Elegance, and, well, grandeur, are all embodied in the 19th-century Grand Hotel. The 64 rooms and suites feature high ceilings and shiny hardwood floors, and many have antique furnishings and fine artwork and tapestries.
The King of Pretzels
Start the winter’s morning with the hefty local take on pretzels or bagels:
Obwarzanek (ob-va-zhan-ek) is a street snack that is made by entwining two strands of dough before baking, ending up somewhat larger and denser than the average German pretzel.
Traditionally encrusted with poppy seeds, sesame seeds or salt, obwarzanki may have been baked as far back as the 14th century. Cracovians still happily purchase them in large numbers as a quick bite on the way to work or study – in fact 150,000 are baked everyday.
Note that they’re better in the morning than the afternoon, a promising sign perhaps that they contain little in the way of artificial preservatives. Kraków-style obwarzanki won EU protected product status in 2010.