The picturesque Wawel Castle is a major draw for Cracow's visitors

Poland's cultural capital Cracow doesn’t receive nearly enough credit for its stunning architecture and fascinating social and political history. This picturesque city however gets a chance to enjoy the limelight as the base for the England squad during the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship starting on 8 June. Here's how to make the most of your time in Cracow.


Rynek GlownyThe enchanting Rynek Głowny is the oldest medieval square in Europe
iStockphoto / Thinkstock

If you rise early and are up and about, then the first thing to do is take a walk around the beautiful square in the Old Town. The Rynek Głowny (Main Market Square) in Cracow is the oldest medieval square in Europe, and a gorgeous one at that. It can get pretty crowded but being there early in the morning means you get to see it in a completely different light, literally and figuratively.

The sweet smell of summer bloom as the florists set up their stalls, the sound of horse-drawn carriages trotting down the cobbled streets and the whiff of coffee as cafés prepare for the busy day ahead all make for an unforgettable sensory experience. There’s a beautiful balance between the early morning calm and a slowly escalating air of activity. And if you needed things to get a little more perfect, look up at the awe-inspiring gothic towers of St Mary’s Basilica.


Having built up an appetite with all that walking, it’s time to get the belly warmed up. There are several cafés around Rynek Głowny offering traditional Polish breakfast. This normally includes a lot of side dishes, and can be quite a spread that’s typically served with chleb (bread), ser (cheese), ogórki (pickles), kielbasa (traditional Polish sausage), powidła (a special kind of Polish jam or preserve), tomatoes and eggs amongst other things.

Topping the recommendation list is Camera Café, tucked away in tiny Wisłna Street not too far from the main square. It’s a quirky and interesting little place where they project films silently and unobtrusively on the walls. The breakfast is extensive and there are many different options available, such as a typical Polish breakfast or a fitness breakfast for the health nuts. You may wish however to wander around the little alleyways and streets around the square and discover your own hidden gem.


The Dragon of Wawel Hill The Dragon of Wawel Hill is a popular sight for children in particular
Hemera / Thinkstock

About a 20-minute walk or a short bus ride away from the Rynek Głowny is the magnificent Gothic Zamek Krolewski na Wawelu (Wawel Castle to you and me). Located by the picturesque Wisła River on the Wawel Hill, if there is one sight you need to see before you leave Cracow then this is it. On display are the Polish Crown Jewels, impressive State Rooms and interesting exhibitions such as ‘The Lost Wawel’ and ‘Oriental Art’. You need to pay for each exhibition individually so it might be worth your time to read up on reviews and make a decision beforehand. Also, due to conservation reasons, only a certain number of visitors per day is allowed. During peak season it’s advisable to get there as early as possible to guarantee yourself a ticket.

Once within the realms of the castle, if you see the northwest corner of the courtyard barricaded, then here’s the reason why. According to Hindu tradition there are seven chakras (focus points of energy) around the world and one of them happens to be in the castle. Lots of spiritually inclined travellers were found here performing rather odd dances, chanting or simply leaning on the wall in an array of poses. This began to lead to the deterioration of that one particular spot of the castle and the authorities began to get worried. Apologies to the charka seekers out there but the area had been cordoned off last time we checked.

After you’re done exploring, head for a short walk along the Vistula River. On your way down, keep an eye out for the dragon sculpture that is based outside the Wawel Cave below the castle. Known as the Dragon of Wawel Hill it is a famous villain from Polish Folklore, and a sculpture from 1970 serves as a reminder of all the fabled stories. The dragon has six legs, and to the amusement of children (and most adults) breathes fire noisily every five minutes.


Jewish Quarter CracowWalking around Cracow's storied Jewish quarter is a haunting cultural experience
iStockphoto / Thinkstock

After a leisurely stroll along the river, make your way towards Kazimierz, the Jewish district of Cracow which is another 20-minute walk away from the castle. The first thing to do is to head to Plac Nowy (New Square) to grab the best zapiekanka in town. Zapiekanka is a popular Polish snack and is basically a halved baguette or bread topped with cheese and mushrooms and anything else you’d like. They’re also extremely easy on the wallet. The round building standing in the middle of Plac Nowy dishes out delicious zapiekankas with a wide variety of toppings available.

There is a lot to see and do in Kazimierz and walking is the best way to discover the area. Stumble into the synagogues which document the horrors of a recent past, and explore Oscar Schindler’s renowned factory. There is also a Ghetto Heroes square with an interesting installation. Walking around what was once a Jewish ghetto under the Nazi occupation is a particularly somber experience. The vibe is as solemn as the architecture. Parts of it even appear run down, a stark contrast to the Cracow you would’ve experienced earlier in the day.


Slowacki TheatreThe majestic Slowacki Theatre is a great place to witness the arts
iStockphoto / Thinkstock

Come evening, if you’re still in Kazimierz head to the legendary Alchemia, located just across the Plac Nowy. Very popular with Poland's arty crowd, Alchemia is the boho centre of the nightlife scene in Cracow. Made up of several rooms, one of which involves walking through giant wardrobe doors and natural candles burning all around, Alchemia is definitely the one off pub/bar/café you need to hit before you head home.

An alternative for those who prefer something less crowded, quieter or more cultural is to make their way to one of the city’s many theatres. The Cracow Operetta, The National Old Theatre, The Ludowy Theatre and The Groteska Theatre of Puppetry are just some of the several well-known theatres here.

Throughout the year there are also a host of festivals and events taking place in the city, which means there is always something happening in Cracow, whatever the time of year.

Visa and passport information is updated regularly and is correct at the time of publishing. You should verify critical travel information independently with the relevant embassy before you travel.