Krakow. This Polish city is one of my favorites in Europe. It is stunningly beautiful, with magnificent old architecture, has a fascinating (albeit sometimes dark) history, and is wonderfully affordable.

There’s a lot of things you should know about Poland. On my most recent trip to Krakow, I put my finger on one of the things that I appreciate most about the city: it is the perfect gateway city between Western and Eastern Europe. Poland’s geographic location in the center of Europe means that it is well connected to the whole continent. But the city is more than that—I’ve decided that it’s a perfect introduction to traveling further East.

There is a good tourism infrastructure in place in Krakow. It’s easy to get around by public transportation (and as I said before, it’s very well connected within Europe), and I’ve generally felt quite safe there. Many people (especially in the tourist-heavy areas like the Market Square) will speak English, or at least enough to get by. There will be plenty of tourists and the tour activities to go with them, there are loads of hostels to choose from, and there are lots of standard tourist things to do to keep you busy. Poland is a member of the European Union, and is part of the Schengen zone (no passport control for the mutual borders of 26 countries!). It’s easy to visit as a tourist. These are all the things that make Krakow feel very Western to me.

But there are also things that make me feel like Krakow is definitely in Eastern Europe. The language can be so complicated it hurts, even though Polish uses the Latin alphabet. Poland is not on the Euro, and has kept their own currency, the Polish złoty (like many other countries in Central and Eastern Europe). It’s less traveled and touristy than Western European hotspots like France or Italy. The way people dress and their style is noticeably more Eastern European. You may get yelled at for not paying in exact change and you might be refused if you only have big bills. These things all make up a different experience than one you might have in Western Europe.

After my most recent trip, I’ve decided that Krakow is a great gateway city to prepare you for traveling to Eastern Europe. It’s busy and has the infrastructure in place, but has notable differences that will make it a different trip. For anyone transiting further east in Europe for the first time, like Ukraine or Russia, I highly recommend paying a visit to Krakow first!

There is so much to do and see in Krakow, that is if you’re not too hungover from the 4 złoty beer you drank too much of the night before. Here are the main sights you can’t miss in Krakow:

Main Square

The center of Krakow’s Old Town, you absolutely can’t miss a visit to the Main Square (Rynek Głowny). Unlike lots of Poland, Krakow survived more or less intact from World War II, and the Main Square dates back to medieval times (13th-century). There will always be something going on in the square, and there are loads of restaurants, bars, and shops in the surrounding area.

Don’t miss the Mały Rynek (“small market”) the next street over.

St. Mary’s Basilica

The beautiful church you see in all of the Krakow (Old Town) photos is this one: St. Mary’s Basilica. It is absolutely stunning inside, and is home to the largest Gothic altarpiece in the world! Every hour, a bugler plays a little trumpet tune from the top of the tower. This is great for the first few times, but not if you’re staying in a hostel on the Main Square since the bugler goes all night…

Cloth Hall

At the center of the Main Square is the beautiful Cloth Hall, built in the 14th-century. The former merchant trade center of the city, the Cloth Hall still has stalls where you can browse local goods to your heart’s content. There is also a museum upstairs, focusing on 19th-century Polish art (an extension of the Krakow National Museum).

Wawel Castle

Sitting on the top of a hill, you can’t miss Wawel Castle. Built in the mid-1300s for King Casimir III the Great, one of the very important Polish medieval kings, who reigned from 1333-1370. The castle complex is quite large, with several different attractions to visit, such as the Royal Apartments, the State Rooms, and various exhibitions. Tickets are sold separately for each attraction (and sometimes only on guided tours).

Wawel Cathedral

This beautiful cathedral on top of Wawel Hill (in the castle complex) is the coronation site of most Polish monarchs, many of whom are buried in the crypt. The present cathedral was built in the 14th-century and has several different chapels for other burials. Don’t miss the Sigismund Bell Tower (which has a beautiful view of Krakow’s Old Town!) and the Cathedral Museum, where you can see some of Pope John Paul II’s fabulous shoes.

Florian Gate

This tower was once part of the city’s fortifications to defend it from attack, and is another important monument in Krakow’s Old Town! Outside of the Old Town is a lovely circular park if you’re looking for some green spaces.

Kazimierz

This neighborhood is definitely one to check out while visiting Krakow. Originally, Kazimierz was a separate city from Krakow, but was connected with Krakow in the 19th-century. It has been a center for Jewish life in the area, and where you’ll find most of the Jewish-related sites and monuments today. There are several synagogues you can see, as well as the Old Jewish Cemetery. The area is also a great one for bars and nightlife if you get a chance!

Schindler’s Factory Museum

Visiting the museum at Oskar Schindler’s Factory is a must if you visit Krakow—if you only go to one museum, it should be this one. Dramatized in the movie Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler was a German who ran a factory and employed Jews, saving over 1000 of them from extermination in the concentration camps. The museum takes you through pre-war Jewish life in Krakow, all the way through Nazi occupation and Jewish life in the ghetto, to the end of World War II and the new Soviet era. One of the remaining original parts of the factory is Oskar Schindler’s office, with a list of the names of the people he saved. The site is located across the river from the Kazimerz neighborhood.

Graffiti in Kazimierz // Krakow, Poland

Galicia Jewish Museum

This museum in Kazimierz is definitely worth a visit if you’re interested in the Jewish history of the area. The main exhibition features amazing photographs, some quite haunting, of Jewish culture and life in western Galicia (today southeastern Poland). There are temporary exhibits on as well.

Empty Chairs Memorial

This monument (also known as Ghetto Heroes Square) is located at the deportation site and center of the former Krakow ghetto, established by Nazi Germany to segregate Jews. Each of the 33 steel chairs represents 1000 victims, and symbolizes the tragedy of the Polish Jews who were killed during the Holocaust. It’s located close by the Schindler Factory, and you may even walk past it on your way there.

Remains of the Ghetto Wall

Located near the Schindler Factory and the Empty Chairs Memorial, you can see some of the last remnants of the wall of the Jewish ghetto in Krakow. Of everything relating to the Holocaust that I’ve seen in Krakow, nothing hits me quite as hard as seeing this. This is mainly because it’s located right next to a kid’s playground, and the juxtaposition of children playing happily where so many people lost their lives is a tough one. It’s near the intersection of Jozefinska and Lwowska streets, southeast of the Ghetto Heroes Square.

 

Milk Bars

I talked about this in my post on Warsaw, but milk bars are very popular in Poland—leftover from the Soviet era, the greasy diners serve hearty traditional Polish food for cheap prices. I’ve somehow managed to miss this despite two separate week-long trips to Poland, but it’s on my list for next time!

Daytrips

If you have more time and want to get out of the city, the two most popular daytrips from Krakow are to the site of the Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the Wieliczka Salt Mines. Both are well worth a visit, although for very different reasons.

Auschwitz-Birkenau

This death camp is one of the most infamous of the Nazi regime and was one of the main centers of killing during the Holocaust. It is not an easy visit: I still could feel the death and evil at this place when I visited. I spent nearly the whole day crying. It’s hard. But I also think it is incredibly important to visit, at least once in your life, to understand and see this horrible history firsthand. In terms of practical information, the easiest way to visit is on a day tour from Krakow. You can get there by public transportation, but depending on the season of your visit, you will need to visit the camp on a guided tour anyway. You should visit both Auschwitz I (with the infamous “work sets you free” gate) and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the main camp for extermination, and being on a tour makes getting between these two sites a lot easier. It’s not fun, but I think it’s a very important place to visit.

Wieliczka Salt Mines

On a much brighter note, another daytrip you can’t miss in Krakow is the Wieliczka Salt Mines, one of the largest tourist attractions in Poland, and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site! It’s an easy bus ride on bus #304 to the mines, where it’s a bit of a walk to the attraction entrance. The mines are absolutely amazing! They are only accessible by guided tour (the Tourist Route is the most popular tour route), so you may have to wait for a time slot during peak season. Tours are in a variety of languages (including English), and take you through many different chambers, corridors, past lakes, and (the most magnificent part of the tour) the underground chapel! Everything is made from salt, including some truly spectacular carvings. If you want to see something truly unique outside of the city center of Krakow, don’t miss the mines!

The Basics: Poland is a member of the European Union and is part of the Schengen Zone. The currency is the Polish złoty (PLN), and the national language is Polish (which is one of the most difficult languages to learn in the world!). The population of Krakow is about 760,000, and Poland has a population of about 38.5 million people. Krakow used to be the capital of Poland during medieval times, from 1038 to 1596, when the capital was moved to Warsaw.

Getting Around: Krakow has a good public transportation system of trams and buses to get you around the city. Make sure to validate your ticket once on board. However, almost everything within the Old Town is walkable. Krakow has great connections with the rest of Poland, and is easily reached by other cities in both Western and Eastern Europe.

Where I Stayed: On my most recent trip to Krakow, I stayed with a friend so I can’t offer much suggestions besides find yourself Polish friends and invite yourself over for New Year’s Eve, and then eat all the pierogi their grandma makes. I stayed at Cracow Hostel on my first trip in April 2014, which I would recommend. It had nice dorms, eggs as part of the free breakfast, and an unbeatable location right on the Main Square in the Old Town. However, this also meant that the bugler from St. Mary’s Basilica was within earshot at all hours of the night—so something to consider.

Krakow really is an amazing city, with so much to do and see. It is a perfect gateway city for traveling further east in Europe, and definitely should not be missed on a trip to Poland!

Have you been to Krakow before? Or have you ever visited a nice “gateway” destination? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!