December 9-11, 2022
I spontaneously set a goal of visiting 10 new countries by the end of the year during a random team meeting in January where everyone had to share their New Year’s resolution and despite being a completely arbitrary goal that no one was holding me accountable for, I decided to stick with it. In hindsight, having a specific goal helped speed up the decision-making process for planning our 2022 travels, and it also led to us visiting a few places that probably wouldn’t have been as high on my list. This commitment combined with my love of European Christmas markets is how we ended up in Kraków during the second weekend in December.
Kraków is the second-largest city in Poland and has been one of the leading centers of Polish academic, cultural, and economic life since the city was founded in the seventh century. It was Poland’s official capital until 1596 and its history as the traditional home of Polish royalty was certainly reflected in its intimidating fortifications and elegant buildings, which are excellently preserved because Kraków was spared from major bombing during World War II — even though it was the capital of the Nazi regime in Poland and the closest city to the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Płaszów. The entire medieval district known as Stare Miasto was among the first 12 sites chosen for the original UNESCO World Heritage List, and it was truly one of the most beautifully preserved old towns I’ve ever visited.
We stayed at Hotel Pod Różą, located in a Renaissance palace on Floriańska Street and the oldest hotel in Kraków. Our room was almost absurdly affordable (~$130/night), which made our fantastic experience at this 5-star hotel in the heart of Stare Miasto even better. The central location made it easy for us to walk everywhere as we explored the main sights, including the lovely Christmas market set up in the main square and the impressive Wawel Royal Castle complex overlooking the Vistula River. It snowed most of the weekend, making the city even more beautiful and charming as we enjoyed Kraków’s surprisingly excellent food scene that went above and beyond Poland’s meat-and-potatoes reputation and converted Andy into a mushroom lover. Andy and I both agreed that Polish cuisine has been our favorite out of all the eastern European countries we’ve visited.
If you’re planning a trip to Kraków, click here to access and download my Google Maps list of saved locations.
Food & Drink
- Pod Różą: I wasn’t aware that our hotel’s main restaurant was in the Michelin Guide when I booked our stay, so it was a pleasant surprise when we decided to forego trekking out into the cold rain and just eat at the hotel after we landed on Friday evening. The restaurant was located in the glass-covered atrium and served modern variations of traditional Polish dishes that were simply outstanding, including a wild chanterelle soup that was honestly one of the best dishes we had on the entire trip. It was also extremely inexpensive — our entire meal (including several glasses of Champagne) was somehow <$100.
- Café Camelot: We had a lovely breakfast at this charming, quirky café tucked away on a cobblestoned street just around the corner from our hotel and were quite amused by its unique architecture, décor, and history. The building was home to a brothel in the early 20th century and still had a sultry, provocative Jazz Age type of vibe with low ceilings, crooked floors, and somewhat bizarre artwork. Most importantly, the food and coffee were excellent, with lots of options for both healthy and decadent dishes.
- Restauracja Polska: We stumbled upon this tiny, cozy restaurant in Kazimierz to escape the rain after getting fed up with trying to find another place I had saved. I had pretty low expectations for a place that is literally named “Polish Restaurant”, but we were pleasantly surprised with our experience. We both ordered the house specialty, a traditional Polish soup made with sausage and lots of vegetables and served in a gigantic bread bowl, which was truly the perfect antidote to the blustery weather. We also had fantastic pierogi and some of the homemade vodka that our waitress insisted we sample — both were equally fantastic.
- Singer Café: Originally a Singer factory, this dark, moody café in Kazimierz has really committed to the theme by mixing in antique sewing machines and machinery with velvet banquettes and heavy wooden tables. We stopped for a few drinks and sat at one of the sewing machine tables, which was perfect for people-watching among the trendy and eclectic crowd.
- Kogel Mogel: On Saturday night, we had dinner at this extremely busy and trendy restaurant located just beyond the main square. The menu was mainly focused on modern interpretations of traditional Polish dishes (including an excellent medley of pierogi), but the wine list was much more extensive and had plenty of options from around the world.
- Wódka Café Bar: In a country known for its vodka, the ultimate way to enjoy it is with a flight of uniquely flavored Polish vodkas in this teeny tiny bar just off of the main square. We weren’t able to get a table, but the bartender was extremely friendly and was more than happy to offer recommendations for the different vodkas on the menu.
Activities & Attractions
- Droga Królewska (Royal Road): The historic route used for the coronation of Polish kings begins outside the city walls at Kościół św. Floriana (St. Florian’s Church), the 12th-century church containing the relics of St. Florian, the patron saint of Poland. Processions would then make their way to the Barbakan Krakowski (Kraków Barbican), which was built at the end of the 15th century and is the best preserved of the three such fortified outposts still remaining in Europe, before entering the city at Brama Floriańska (St. Florian’s Gate). The route continues along Ulica Floriańska (St. Florian’s Street), one of the most beautiful shopping avenues in the modern-day city, and through the Rynek Główny (Main Square) before winding up Ulica Grodzka (Castle Street) to the Wawel Hill.
- Brama Floriańska (St. Florian’s Gate): The gate within the 14th-century Gothic watchtower served as the original entrance to the city and is the only one remaining of eight city gates built during the Middle Ages. A section of the massive medieval city walls is preserved around the gate, connecting it to the three Gothic towers still standing in Kraków today.
- Rynek Główny (Main Square): The charming main square at the heart of Stare Miasto is spread out across 9.4 acres, making it the largest medieval town square of any city in Europe in addition to being one of the best preserved. The square has been the economic, political, and cultural center of Kraków since its construction in the 13th century and is surrounded by beautiful palaces, picturesque row houses called kamienice, and many historically important churches, buildings, and monuments, including:
- Sukiennice (Cloth Hall): One of the city’s most recognizable icons is the 16th-century cloth hall dominating the main square with its towering parapet adorned with decorative frieze and gargoyle masks. The Sukiennice was a major center of international trade during the Renaissance era, offering exotic imports like spices, silk, and leather in addition to Kraków’s primary exports: textiles, lead, and salt from the nearby Wieliczka Salt Mine. Today, the Sukiennice is still filled with dozens of vendor stalls selling some of the best souvenirs in the city, as well as the Galeria Sztuki Polskiej XIX wieku w Sukiennicach (Gallery of 19th-Century Polish Art at Sukiennice), a division of the National Museum in Kraków containing the largest permanent exhibit of 19th-century Polish painting and sculpture.
- Wieża Ratuszowa (Town Hall Tower): A 70-meter-tall brick tower is the only remnant of the 14th-century Kraków Ratusz (Kraków Town Hall) that was demolished in the 19th century to create more space in the main square. The tower is one of the focal points of Rynek Główny and visitors can climb to the top for what is supposed to be one of the best views of the city; however, we decided to skip the climb given the freezing wind and snow.
- Kościół Mariacki (St. Mary’s Basilica): The stately brick Gothic church at the edge of the square was built during the 14th century and is particularly renowned for its huge, intricately carved wooden altarpiece and the trumpet signal played from the top of the taller of its two towers every hour on the hour. The Hejnał mariacki (St. Mary’s Trumpet Call) abruptly ends mid-stream to commemorate a legendary trumpeter who was allegedly shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before a Mongol invasion in the 13th century that also resulted in the destruction of the original church.
- Kościół św. Wojciecha (Church of St. Adalbert): The compact little church at the intersection of the square and Ulica Grodzka (Castle Street) is one of the oldest stone churches in the country. According to Polish legend, St. Adalbert consecrated the original wooden church in 997 before traveling to Prussia, where he was killed in martyrdom. The existing stone church was built almost 1,000 years ago and preceded the development of the main square by nearly a century.
- Zamek Królewski na Wawelu (Wawel Royal Castle): The fortified castle complex overlooking the Vistula River is comprised of a sprawling network of gardens and buildings of significant cultural and historical importance, including the Wawel Cathedral where Polish monarchs were crowned and buried, the fire-breathing metal statue of the mythical Wawel dragon, and Wawel Castle, which served as the primary residence of Poland’s royal family and the symbol of Polish sovereignty for centuries and today contains one of the country’s premier art museums. Although some of the buildings date back to the 10th century, most were first constructed in the 13th and 14th centuries and have been added to over the years, creating a delightful hodgepodge of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Early Baroque architectural styles. The complex was gigantic and we could have probably spent all afternoon exploring it, but we focused our time on the State Rooms, Royal Private Apartments, and Crown Treasury (including Szczerbiec, the sword used in almost all coronations of Polish kings from 1320-1764). We had to individually reserve tickets in advance for each exhibition, which was pretty annoying and tedious, but the incredible collections were well worth the effort.
- Muzeum Książąt Czartoryskich (Princes Czartoryski Museum): This pretty little art museum in Old Town is home to one of the oldest public collections of art in Poland and includes one of Leonardo da Vinci’s most-celebrated masterpieces, Lady with an Ermine. The museum was extremely well-curated and easy to navigate, which made it the perfect way to take a break from the snowy weather.
- Kazimierz: The vibrant neighborhood located across the river and to the south of Stare Miasto served as the center of Kraków’s Jewish social and religious life from the 13th century until its near-total destruction by Nazi troops during World War II. Although it is no longer home to a large Jewish population, there are many memorials and landmarks to commemorate Jewish life (and death) in Kazimierz, and efforts have been made over the past few decades to re-introduce Jewish culture to the area. Interestingly, the neighborhood is also one of the trendier areas of the modern-day city and it’s now just as well known for its many restaurants, bars, and shops.
- Fabryka Emalia Oskara Schindlera (Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory): Part of the building that comprised Oskar Schindler’s infamous Deutsche Emailwarenfabrik (DEF) factory is now home to an extremely popular museum detailing the city’s occupation by Nazi forces between 1939-1945. I was SO excited to visit the factory and learn more about the heroic efforts of the man who was made famous in Schindler’s List, but I somehow completely mixed up the timeslots and they were completely sold out of walk-up tickets by the time we arrived. Although I was disappointed that we couldn’t visit the museum, the fact that so many people were lining up in the snow to learn about such an important piece of history was a major consolation.