While many visitors to Poland head straight to its current capital, Warsaw—a fun and fascinating city in its own right—the former capital of Poland, Krakow, in the south, is one of the best destinations for medieval history and uniquely Polish traditions. Whether you want to party for days on end or discover the city’s many quirks and local legends, there’s no shortage of interesting things to do in Krakow.
1. Eat, Drink, and People Watch in Rynek Glowny
Rynek Glowny is the city’s largest market square and is located in the heart of Krakow’s Old Town. Dating back to the 13th century, it’s actually the largest medieval square in Europe with its preserved townhouses, churches, and the Renaissance-era Cloth Hall. The impressively well-kept piece of history has survived centuries of war and invasions, even as other parts of Poland (like Warsaw) were decimated.
After you wander through history and admire the architecture, make sure to stop at one of the many restaurants or cafes for lunch or dinner. Then, climb inside Eros’s Head and stick your head out of his eye to get the iconic Krakow photo rivaling that of the “holding up the leaning tower of Pisa” photo.
The Greek god of love’s decapitated head has lain here since 2003 when Igor Mitoraj, the artist who sculpted it, gifted it to the city and the city, not really sure what to do with it, left it where it had been placed in a temporary exhibition of Mitoraj’s work. It became an instant and unexpected tourist hit and since then, all discussion about moving it somewhere else has been dismissed.
2. Wander a Holographic Medieval Wonderland in Rynek Underground
After stuffing yourself with pierogis in the market square above, take a trip below ground to this multimedia museum housed in an actual archaeological site under Rynek Glowny. It’s a history museum, but it’s the cool goth kid in the back of class of history museums.
When archaeologists began subterranean excavations of Rynek Glowny back in 2005, they knew they would likely find some evidence of early life in Krakow, but they didn’t expect to dig up the treasure trove that they did.
They found the remnants of medieval merchant stalls with their wares, graves of suspected vampires (as identified by their decapitated heads and bound hands), long stretches of intact streets, and more. The site was such a rich and complete picture of 11th century Krakow that archaeologists elected to leave it intact rather than dig it out for study.
In 2010, they added smoke machines, holograms, and animatronic puppets to bring the archaeological site to life and transform it into an unforgettably peculiar interactive history museum.
Occupancy is capped at 300 and, as you can imagine, it’s a popular destination, so book tickets in advance for a set entry time to make sure you can get in.
3. See the Dragon in Wawel Castle
The Wawel Royal Castle is notable for its unusual mixture of Gothic, Renaissance, Rococo, and Romanesque architecture. The 15th-century castle was built by King Casimir III the Great and is arguably the most culturally significant heritage site in all of Poland. Since 1930, it has served as an art museum so visitors can wander through the centuries of Polish history while admiring Poland’s greatest artists.
When you’ve done all that, you can get up close and personal with one of Poland’s most enduring legends, that of the Wawel dragon. According to the legend, a fire-breathing dragon once lived in a cave in Wawel Hill, terrorizing the locals and eating a standard dragon diet of sheep and virgins.
Then, a heroic prince by the name of Krakus came to the rescue. In some versions, Krakus was actually a humble cobbler who rose to the status of prince and ultimately king after his heroic efforts. In others, he was already king when the dragon took up residence in Wawel Hill.
In all versions, Krakus defeated the dragon by stuffing a dead sheep full of sulfur and leaving it out as a tasty snack for the dragon. When the dragon took the bait, the sulfur ignited in his fire-engorged belly and the dragon exploded.
With the dragon slain, Krakus built the castle atop the hill and founded the city of Krakow. The dragon’s legendary den in the limestone caves beneath can still be visited. For centuries, the cave was home to a tavern and brothel. Today, it’s just a plain old brothel-free cave again, but there is cool fire-breathing bronze statue at the mouth of the cave.
Visitors can also check out the “real” bones of the Wawel dragon which are bound together in a jumble of chains mounted above the main doors of the Wawel Cathedral. Buzz-killing scientists have since determined that the bones are actually a mixture of fossilized blue whale, woolly mammoth, and rhinoceros bones—but let a little magic in your life and just agree that they’re dragon bones.
4. Witness a Pigeon Swap in Plac Nowy
Plac Nowy is another market square like Rynek Glowny. This one is located in the old Jewish Quarter. It’s a fun, slightly less touristy square to hang out in if you want to escape the crowds of Rynek Glowny. It’s also where Poland’s vibrant community of pigeon enthusiasts come together weekly to talk pigeon breeding and swap pigeons. Yes, you read that right.
Visit the square on a Friday at dawn to witness the weekly pigeon swap. Wander the market to check out the pigeons on offer and witness trades in progress. Then, stop for a coffee and breakfast at a nearby outdoor café so you can sit back and observe the bustle of pigeon swapping while you sip your morning coffee. Just make sure to get there early because they’re usually done by 9:00 a.m.
If you have time, head back here on a Sunday when the flea market is there. You’ll find old Soviet trinkets, vintage records, handmade jewelry, and clothing. It’s a great spot for picking up unique souvenirs.
5. Go on a Vodka-Fueled Pub Crawl
In addition to dragons and pigeons, Krakow is also famous for allegedly having the highest density of bars in the world. While no one has yet verified the claim, bar lovers will undoubtedly be satisfied with the literal hundreds of bars that can be found within city limits. Krakow bars come in different flavors. For a quintessentially Cracovian pub crawl, make sure to include a sampling of each.
A vodka bar offers a dizzying selection of vodka and other liquor, mostly in shot form. They’ll usually also have beer on offer, but what they’re known for is dirt-cheap shots. Where Americans will pregame at home to save money, Cracovians start their night with a platter of 4.50-zloty (about $1) shots at a vodka bar—and sometimes top up at other vodka bars throughout the night while barhopping. BaniaLuka and Pijalnia are two of the more popular examples of Krakow’s vodka bars.
Clubs in Krakow are the same basic concept as clubs in the United States, although you’re less likely to deal with dress codes, overpriced drinks, or astronomical cover charges in a Krakow club. There will still be a cover charge but even on a Friday night, it’s rare to see a cover charge above 20 zloty (about $5).
In terms of atmosphere, it varies. From live jazz bands in a medieval cellar at Piec Art Jazz Club to Polish sea shanties at Stary Port to thumping techno in the labyrinthian Prozak 2.0, there’s a club for every taste.
While Poland is definitely most famous for its vodka, vineyards have dotted the hills of the Polish countryside since at least the 10th century, especially in the Southern region. In fact, if you’re an oenophile (or just a fan of day drinking in the countryside), you can tour the Malopolska Wine Trail to explore the vineyards around Krakow.
The wine bars of Krakow usually have a much more relaxed and quieter atmosphere compared to clubs and vodka bars. They’re better for those evenings when you just want to unwind after a long day of sightseeing.
Bar a Wino is a welcoming, cozy spot in the Jewish Quarter where every carafe of wine comes with a cheese platter and the friendly staff will patiently help you navigate their dizzying selection of about 500 wines, including a good selection of local Polish wines. KrakoSlow Wines is another good pick that focuses more exclusively on Polish and Eastern European wines, but also offers beer, coffee, and other options for any non-wine drinkers in your group.
If you want a place where you can chat with friends without shouting over club music or a live band, stop at one of Krakow’s many more chilled, cozy bars. Relaxed doesn’t mean boring, though. Alchemia, for example, is a candlelit bar with alchemist tools mounted to the walls and ceilings. The Forum is housed in the basement of an abandoned communist-era hotel where guests can lounge on bean bags while drinking Polish craft beer.
Some Tips for a Good Crawl
- Tip the bar staff. Poland is a tipping country like the United States and tipping the bar staff will ensure that they’ll keep an eye on you if you’ve had a few too many 4.50-zloty shots.
- Specify the liquor brand. In the U.S., if you don’t specify a brand, bartenders usually default to their cheaper well shots. In Krakow, the opposite is often true. If you don’t specify, you’ll likely end up with a top-shelf brand. If you don’t want to pay those prices, specify the cheaper brand to be safe. If you don’t know brands, you can just ask for “the cheapest” one they have.
- Bring cash in small denominations. Bars are going to be low on change and a big bill will either make the problem worse or be impossible to change. Come prepared with lots of small bills (or coins). Save larger bills for restaurants and shopping.
6. Take In the Panoramic City Views Atop Kosciuszko Mound
This striking hill is a man-made mound erected in the early 17th century. It was built to honor Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who led the Poles in their 16th-century struggle for independence from Russia—and even sailed west in 1776 to help the Americans in our Revolutionary War.
When the staunch supporter of independence died in 1817, he was buried in the Royal Crypt, but the Polish public wanted a more public memorial to preserve and celebrate his memory. So, the people pooled their money together to fund the construction of this mound, representing an ancient Polish tradition of honoring their heroes via the manual construction of a hill (including the Mound of Krakus, built to honor the heroic dragon slayer).
Poles from all over trekked to Krakow, carrying wagonloads of soil to add to the mound, and helping to shape it and carve a path which wound up the hill and ended at a large boulder placed at the top.
Over the centuries, war, weather, and erosion have battered the hill. But each time it has been damaged, the Polish people have repaired it, preserving it as a key symbol of Polish independence.
Today, visitors can make their way to the top on the well-kept path and enjoy a panoramic view of Krakow’s winding streets and many market squares.
7. Follow Skarbnik’s Ghost Into the Wieliczka Salt Mine
Legend has it that Wieliczka salt mine, a short drive outside Krakow, is home to Skarbnik, the spirit of the mines. The salt mine he either guards or haunts, depending on which version of the legend you hear, is an expansive underground labyrinth of old mining tunnels, hidden saltwater lakes, glistening crystal-filled grottos, and a massive underground cathedral, complete with saints carved out of salt.
It is absolutely worth the short drive outside the city to pose with salt statues, wander through a cathedral made of salt, and channel your witchy energy in one of the crystal grottos.
8. Take a Moment for Reflection at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial
The remains of the largest concentration camp built by the Third Reich are just a one-hour drive outside Krakow and definitely worth a visit, even though the experience of walking through such a dark and painful period of history will weigh on you.
Between 1941 and 1945, some 6 million Jewish people, 1.8 million Poles, 1.6 million Soviet civilians, 220,000 Roma, and tens of thousands of German “deviants” including political opponents, gay men, and Germans of African descent were systematically killed by the Nazi regime in one of the largest and most brutal genocides in history.
Approximately 1.1 million of those people died in the concentration camp in Auschwitz.
Visitors today can walk through both camps—Auschwitz was the first and Birkenau was the extension built to accommodate the growing numbers of people the regime was rounding up and condemning to death inside the concentration camp. You’ll be taken on a guided tour so that you can hear the in-depth history of the camp and understand the significance of the places you’re walking through.
It’s a potent opportunity for confronting this history, but I do recommend taking it easy for the rest of the day. It can be hard to get in the mood for a pub crawl or jam-packed day of activities after the experience.