During our last 24 hours in Krakow, we had a blast exploring the hidden communist city of Nowa Huta. We also learned about the sad history of Krakow during World War II. But the main reason everyone comes to visit Krakow is to see its stunning Stare Miasto, which is Polish for Old Town.
Unlike the Stare Miasto in Warsaw, Krakow’s Old Town was left largely intact during World War II. (We’ll get into the reasons for this later.) You simply can’t spend 24 hours in Krakow without visiting this most beautiful part of arguably the most beautiful Polish city. Plus, there will be shoe shopping! And beer! I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like either shoes or beer!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in Krakow.
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24 Hours in Krakow
Where to Stay?
As a solo female traveler, I have a few very specific priorities when it comes to hotels. I want to stay in a place that has a staff available in case there’s an emergency. Next, I want to stay in a safe, convenient location. I didn’t travel all this way to spend all my time commuting! And I want the hotel to be clean and comfy, but affordable. I’m not on my honeymoon, so I won’t be spending all my time in the room. The Hotel Kossak fit the bill in every respect! I highly recommend it!
24 Hours in Krakow
Morning: Explore Stare Miasto
If I haven’t made this clear enough already, let me state it explicitly. Spending 24 hours in Krakow without visiting Stare Miasto is just sick and wrong. This may be the only chance you have to see a historic Polish city! It has a damn dragon! What’s not to love?
Of course everyone and their mother is also going to want to explore the Stare Miasto with you. So you need to choose your best way to make your way around it. One option is to take one of those “free” walking tours. I don’t love these because their labor practices can be exploitative, and the groups are so large that it can really make you feel like a sheep being herded around the city. I tend to only recommend free walking tours if there are no other options. But the guides are usually funny and enthusiastic, so if you want to try one, go for it.
I recommend trying to explore Stare Miasto on your own! It’s the best way to just relax and find adorable hidden gems. But I’ll point you to some of the coolest things in Stare Miasto with…
approximately top 5: stare miasto
1) The barbican
The best place to start your time in Stare Miasto is on the outside. That way you can fully appreciate the remnants of the medieval gates that still outline the Old Town. You should start at the Barbican. This is the best medieval fortified outpost in all of Europe. It dates back to the 15th century.
If you don’t know what a medieval fortified outpost is, I gather it’s the sort of spot where random extras playing soldiers would hang out in an episode of Game of Thrones, complaining that nothing interesting was going on until the White Walkers show up out of nowhere and eat them.
The Barbican is also famous because of a guy named Marcin Oracewicz who shot and killed a Russian general here during a battle in the 18th century. Marcin Oracewicz ran out of bullets, so he used a button from his coat in his rifle instead. I feel like people would take better care of their coat buttons if they knew they could be deadly weapons.
2) st florian’s gate
In Polish, this is known as Florianska Gate. (I’ve heard it both ways.) One reason St. Florian’s Gate is famous is because it is where the Royal Road starts. Krakow used to be the capital of Poland before it was moved to Warsaw in the 1600s. So when special guests would come to visit Wawel Castle in Stare Miasto, they would begin their procession at St. Florian’s Gate and take it all the way to see the royals.
I tried pretending that I was a medieval princess on my way to visit King Casimir at Wawel Castle, so I made my way down the Royal Road waving my hand from side to side slowly because I’ve heard that’s what royals do. But people just gave me funny looks and didn’t bow to me even once.
St. Florian is a very useful saint to have in your city, especially if you are living in medieval times. He is the patron saint of firefighters! And medieval cities had a tendency to burn down because of all the wood and witch burning and whatnot. So I think St. Florian has done a good job protecting his gate because it’s the only one in Krakow that has stayed intact since the Middle Ages.
3) the main square
If you keep walking around the Stare Miasto from St. Florian’s Gate, you’ll end up at the Main Square. This is also sometimes known as the Market Square because markets have been located here since the 13th century.
There are many notable monuments in the Main Square, but let me draw your attention to two. Above, you see the statue of Adam Mickiewicz. Mickiewicz was a highly decorated Polish poet, even though he was born in a part of Lithuania that is now part of Belarus. Eastern European history is very complicated. To make matters worse, Mickiewicz never even went to Krakow during his life, though he was buried there in Wawel Cathedral. So who knows how he would feel about having a statue here.
Probably he would like having a statue anywhere though. I’ve never met a writer who didn’t need constant praise and attention.
And because I can never resist a wacky statue, enjoy this poor fellow, also located in the Main Square in Stare Miasto. His official name is Eros Bendato, and it is the work of recently deceased Polish artist Igor Mitoraj. Some locals and tourists call this guy “The Head”, but you can also call him “Heady Lamarr” or “The Headful Horseman”. He doesn’t mind. He can’t hear you, no matter what you call him.
4) st mary’s basilica
Just adjacent to the Main Square, we have one of the most important churches in Stare Miasto, St. Mary’s Basilica. (There will be more churches on this tour of Stare Miasto. After all Miss, this is Poland.) We’re not going to go inside today because you have to pay an entry fee if you are a tourist, so I’m going to let you save your zloty. But do try to time your visit so you can be outside St. Mary’s Basilica on the hour.
That’s because every hour on the hour, a bugle call is sounded from the tower of St. Mary’s. This is done to commemorate a brave bugle player who saved Krakow in the 13th century. The Tartars were invading, and the bugle player needed to warn the city. So he climbed to a great height and started playing his bugle. The city was warned, but the bugle player lost his life in the process. (He got shot in the neck, which really seems like a terrible way to go.)
Is this story real? Did the bugle player actually exists? No one knows. But when the truth becomes legend, print the legend, as my grandmother always used to say.
5) st francis’ basilica
I promised there’d be more churches, didn’t I, Internet Stranger? If you were bummed about not getting to go into St. Mary’s, head for St. Francis’ Basilica. Entrance is free, and you’ll get to see some of the most glorious stained glass in the Stare Miasto. (As you can see, stained glass is hard to photograph, so my pictures don’t do it justice.) The stained glass was designed by Krakovian artist Stanislaw Wyspiański. (Why doesn’t he get a statue in the Main Square?)
This basilica also has significance for the Polish people because it is located right next to the Bishop’s Palace where the Polish Pope, John Paul II, stayed during his visits to Krakow. So when you walk through St. Francis’ Basilica, you are literally walking in the steps of the Pope.
6) saints peter and paul church
Oh good! Another church we can go inside! Saints Peter and Paul Church is one of the more famous churches in Stare Miasto for many reasons. One of those reasons is the statues of all twelve apostles outside of the church. I think the church should give you a prize if you can identify the statues of the apostles without cheating, but apparently the church thinks that idea is “probably sacrilegious”.
You can tell it’s “Modern” for a church in Krakow because it is built in the Baroque style and not the Gothic style. If you have trouble telling the difference between a Gothic and a Baroque church, ask yourself, “Would it make sense to have a gargoyle on this church?” If the answer is yes, it’s Gothic. If it would make more sense to have a lot of gold leaf and paintings of pink angels on fluffy clouds, it’s Baroque. (And if it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it! Second Beauty and the Beast reference of this blog post!)
7) wawel Royal castle complex
And now we come to the end of the Royal Road, the Wawel Castle complex, including Wawel Cathedral. It is located on Wawel Hill, so make sure your shoes and legs are ready for a bit of an uphill walk. Wawel Hill was the political center for the people living in the Krakow area since the 9th century, before Wawel Castle was built. I guess that’s because in Olde Tyme battles, it was always better to be located on a hill.
Wawel Castle itself was sort of begun in the 11th century. The remains of that old stone building are still visible on Wawel Hill. But the castle in its current incarnation dates to the 13th and 14th centuries. But just as important is nearby Wawel Cathedral, which is where Polish kings were historically crowned. (They will not crown you in Wawel Cathedral today, no matter how many times you try to convince them you are the Princess of Poland. Believe me.)
Recent history in Wawel Castle has been more on the tragic side. During WWII, it was the headquarters of Hans Frank, who was the Nazi Governor-General of occupied Poland. (Frank was later executed for war crimes at the Nuremberg trials.) This is why Krakow escaped the bombings that devastated Warsaw. I imagine the Nazis weren’t going to bomb themselves. Nowadays, Wawel Castle is a prestigious art museum, which I suggest you visit on another 24 hours in Krakow.
8) wawel dragon statue
But you’re not interested in dry dates, are you Internet Stranger? You read this blog for weird facts! So don’t miss the statue of the Wawel Dragon near the Wawel Castle complex. Legend has it that the Wawel Dragon used to live at the bottom of Wawel Hill, and he liked to eat young maidens.
The king had no idea what to do, until one day a young shoemaker named Skuba showed up with a plan. He filled a lambskin with sulfur and put it outside the dragon’s cave. I guess the dragon was hangry or something because he gulped that lambskin down without even wondering why it was just lying outside his cave. Then the sulfur made him sick, so he ran down to the lake and drank water until he exploded. I really don’t understand why Skuba was the first person to figure out how to stop that dragon because he seems not that smart.
Do take a picture of the statue of the Wawel Dragon, but don’t bother trying to wait until there are no children posing with the dragon. There are always children posing with the dragon. I think the city of Krakow might hire these children just to mess with tourists.
24 Hours in Krakow
Afternoon: Made in Krakow Tour
We’ve spend the morning doing all this hard work walking and thinking for ourselves. Now it’s time to let someone else do the work! I’m a big believer in budgeting properly. One of the ways that I stick to a budget is that I almost never do any shopping at home. (Except for the basics, like toothpaste and underwear.) I buy as many things as possible, including clothes, when I travel. That way my souvenirs are all useful and relevant to my life.
But when you’re spending only a few days in a city, it’s hard to know the best stores. That’s why I like the Urban Adventures “Made In…” tours. You can go with a local to the best shops and talk to local artists and craftspeople. Some of these people don’t necessarily speak English, so it’s great to have a translator with you. And this way you know you’re not buying anything mass-produced and generic.
Our tour began with a yummy and surprisingly healthy two-course lunch of beet soup and fish with potatoes. Then it was time to get our shopping on! I’ll take you along with…
three fun facts: made in krakow
1) I love clothes! Where can I buy some?
Great question! I also love clothes! There were two fantastic clothing stores on the tour, a fair-trade clothing store called KOKO World, and a magical shoe store called Kacper.
KOKO World has one of those backstories that just make you want to support a business. Agata was a woman with a miserable corporate job and a passion for travel. (That story should resonate with some of my Internet Strangers out there!) So she decided to use that passion for travel and start a business that would use ethical practices.
All the clothes sold at KOKO World are made by a artist who is fairly compensated for their labor. (These artists come from all over the world, from Krakow to Senegal to Indonesia.) The clothes aren’t cheap, but they’re much less expensive than they would be in my hometown of New York City. Plus you get a discount if you go on the tour! I get compliments on my “Africa” dress all the time, but I always tell people it’s from Poland!
Buying shoes at Kacper was even more of an adventure because there was an interactive component. They make the shoes at Kacper with natural leather, and at least some of them are made by hand. So they wanted to show me how hard it is to make a shoe by hand. That meant if I wanted a discount on my shoes, I had to stitch together a little leather shoe keychain by myself. (I did it, I got the discount, and I got to keep my hideous lumpy keychain because I don’t know how to sew. I’m not posing a photo of my sad failure of a keychain. I have some pride.)
I will, however, post a photo of the shoes that I bought because they are insanely comfy, and I use them to walk all over the world. People sometimes stop me and ask me where I bought them, and I always say, “In Poland…Probably you can’t buy them…” and then stare mysteriously into space. This is why you should only buy clothes when you travel.
2) grrr! I hate clothes! What about me?
How do you feel about beautiful, hand-painted pottery? Poland is famous for its Bolesławiec pottery, which is sometimes just called Polish pottery. You want to make sure you buy the authentic version, and not some mass-produced knockoff. Fortunately my guide, who was not named Joanna, took me to a store that was guaranteed to have the goods.
I’m sadly not an expert on Bolesławiec pottery, but I do know that it usually features blue designs on a white background. Other colors like green and yellow can be used as well. The name comes from the town Bolesławiec, where the pottery is produced.
They make just about everything that could possibly be made out of pottery, but I chose this adorable sugar bowl. I already had a little rabbit milk jug that I got in the Hudson Valley and a teapot from Morocco, so now my tea set was complete. (Again, not joking about doing all my shopping on the road!)
3) grr! I only like drinking! What about me?
Boy are you in luck! Our last stop of the tour was at a local brewery that was putting the craft back in Krakow. This pub, Ursa Maior, serves beers made in the Bieszczady Mountains in eastern Poland. Nothing says, “Hi, I’m a mountain man!” like drinking beers made in the mountains and named after a bear. But even a shoe-loving girlie-girl like me wants to feel like a mountain man every once in a while.
As you can see from my photo, I got to sample all SIX beers they had on draft, which is really what I call getting my money’s worth. All of them were ales, so lager lovers can just take that action back to Prague. There was every type of ale from a summer ale to a sour IPA.
All the beers were delicious, but my favorite was a smoked brown ale. It really took me to an imaginary cabin in the Polish mountains where I am snuggled up before the fire with a good book or a good man. (Possibly both. It’s my beer fantasy, after all.)
24 Hours in Krakow
Evening: Dinner at Amarilys
I’m a big believer in mixing it up, dining-wise, when you travel. If you go casual one night, go for broke the next. On our previous 24 hours in Krakow, we went for local, inexpensive classics like soup and pierogi. So tonight we’re doing it up with dinner at Amarilys.
This restaurant is located in the Queen Hotel, where I am definitely staying once I convince Wawel Cathedral to crown me Princess of Poland. But Amarilys made me feel like a princess by serving me a tasting menu with all the best Fancy Foods a girl can ask for. We started with some amuse bouche, including an upscale version of the famous obwarzanek street food. (AKA the bagel/pretzel of Warsaw.) I’m a sucker for expensive versions of cheap things.
Then we had the two Fancy Foods every tasting menu needs to put in its appetizers. First there was foie gras with cherries and pistachios.
This was followed by a gorgeous scallop with beetroot, yogurt, and cucumber. After foie gras and scallops in the same meal, I was halfway to feeling like a princess already.
Every tasting menu needs a fish course, and mine was bull trout with citrus, carrot, and celery. Once more, I was impressed by the flawless colors in the dish. I was not familiar with bull trout because it’s an endangered species in North America, so you won’t see it on restaurant menus. But apparently you can find some in north-eastern Poland, which makes sense as it is near Russia and I hear they have cold winters there.
What’s the fanciest possible choice for a poultry course? Duck, of course! Unless it’s ortolan, which is a type of French bird it’s illegal to eat. And what’s better than a crispy duck skin with tender duck meat served with dates and apple? This dish tasted like Christmas to me even though I was eating it in the summer.
Just like duck is clearly the fanciest poultry, veal is obviously the fanciest choice for a main course. This veal was served with smoked potatoes and broad beans. It was scrumptious, but I couldn’t help but wish that I had my smoked brown ale to drink with the smoked potatoes. It would have been a good way to combine my Fancy Lady side with my Mountain Man side.
After all that rich food, I was grateful for a light dessert of strawberry sorbet with white chocolate and basil. Once again Amarilys nails it with the beautiful colors. And I even liked the white chocolate, though I usually think “WHY-te would anyone eat white chocolate when you could have regular chocolate?”
That’s a Perfect 24 Hours with the Stare Miasto!
What would you do in the Stare Miasto? Are you going to do all your shopping while you travel now? And when will Wawel Cathedral accept that I am the Princess of Poland? Please leave your thoughts below!