Cracow Tours

Tours and Activities in Cracow

Every hour on the hour, the notes of a lone bugler sound across Cracow's ancient rooftops. The brief tune, played to each point of the compass from the highest tower of St. Mary's Basilica, is the slow, sweet heartbeat of the city. Every Pole knows it, whether they have ever been to the jewel of the nation's south or not, and no foreigner who has visited this venerable royal capital forgets it. Dignified, unhurried and slightly melancholy, the melody is a constant thread in the city's historical tapestry. It is a cloth of extraordinary complexity, ragged and wounded in parts, bright and new in others. Getting to know Cracow is the work of a lifetime, visiting Cracow is the start of a seduction few can resist. Below are some of the best ways to initiate the affair.

#1 / Eataway

Dine with local cooks
Eataway Krakow local meal
What could be better than rounding off your day with a delicious home-cooked meal? Eataway is a fantastic alternative to tourist-trap restaurants, giving you the opportunity to eat with a local cook at their home. The emphasis is on simple, freshly-prepared food made from fresh local ingredients. Home cooks right across the city offer meals almost every day of the week, and it is a great opportunity to find out more about local life from the people who live here.

Meals are generally 3-course affairs, and most include drinks. Unlike a restaurant, you are welcome to have seconds. More importantly, you will have the chance to meet others - both locals and visitors often come to these meals - and make new friends.

Eataway started in Krakow, but is now expanding into other cities in Poland and beyond. Come and join the cooks who started it all !

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#2 / Wieliczka Salt Mine

An underground cathedral
Wieliczka Salt Mine

Every year, about a million people travel to gorgeous, lively Cracow, then voluntarily disappear down a deep, dark hole in the ground. Not the result of an agoraphobia epidemic, but the lure of one of Poland's most famed attractions - the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Poles hewed rock salt from this mine for 700 years which, as you can imagine, means an awful lot of hollowed out space hundreds of metres under the ground.

As impressive as a centuries old labyrinth extending for 287 kilometres under the Polish countryside may be, that's not why thousand flock here every day. Generations of miners also carved fantastic, baroque sculptures and entire chapels from the softly glowing walls of their subterranean workplace. The result is an underground world with cavernous spaces and winding passages you will not want to take alone - some intricately worked, some roughly hacked.

Visitors to the mine are taken around a 3.5 km route by nattily uniformed guides that takes in an underground lake and the best sculptures and chambers. Access to the mine is via an atmospheric, but long, staircase down to the deep. Getting out entails a brief but terrifyingly rapid accent in a caged miners' elevator.

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#3 / Communism Tour + Nowa Huta

Dip a toe in the Cold War
Communism Tour Krakow

There are not many places in the world that offer a tour of a defunct socioeconomic system, but Cracow is one of them. The idea of the Communism Tour is to show us soft moderns what life was really like under the totalitarian regime that ruled Poland, and a significant proportion of the rest of the globe, for several decades of the 20th century - it's a lot more fun than it sounds.

The basic idea is that a guy in a coughing, 1970s-vintage Trabant drives you around the Cracow district of Nowa Huta - built as an ideal socialist suburb in the 1950s and 60s. They show you typical apartments from the era, equipped with period furniture and knick-knacks, take you to a socialist-style workers' cafe for lunch, point out remnants of Communist monuments and generally make you feel like you've stumbled into a Cold War thriller. The whole thing is about local colour and amusing/terrifying anecdotes rather than a dry dialectic of history.

Usually overlooked by Cracow's millions of visitors (who voluntarily visits an industrial district on holiday?), Nowa Huta is actually a fascinating part of the city. Based around a steel mill of truly epic scale (which is still in operation), the area was supposed to show the world what central planning could do - instead it became one of the hot beds of opposition to the regime. It's denizens remain proud folk, standing a little apart from the cosy romanticism of the Old Town.

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#4 / Jewish Cracow + Kazimierz

700 years of peace, 4 years of terror
Kazimierz Krakow
It's both a curse and a kind of blessing that Cracow first became a hot spot on the modern tourism circuit because of its close association with the Holocaust. For many, largely peaceful centuries, the city was home to a large Jewish community. The catastrophe of the Nazi occupation put an end to that, and much of the rest of the world became aware of what happened in World War II Cracow when Spielberg filmed Schindler's List in and around the city in the early 1990s.

There are really two parts to the Jewish Cracow story - the first much longer and more joyful than the second. First is the traditional Jewish district of Kazimierz, which was the community's home for 700 years, and second is the area on the other side of the Vistula River where the Nazis confined that community in a ghetto for two years. Kazimierz is now one of Cracow's most visited and desirable areas - home to the most Bohemian of bars and laid-back of cafes and restaurants - but it is also seeing a revival of Jewish culture that would have seemed impossible even 20 years ago.

The energetic and busy Jewish Community Centre, opened in Kazimeirz in 2008 and intended as a support for the tiny surviving community in the area, has blossomed into a multi-cultural centre that both educates modern Poles about the past and, increasingly, guides many young Poles toward rediscovering their Jewish heritage. Any tour of Kazimierz takes in the area's many, ancient Synagogues and prayer houses, some of which now see regular gatherings and observances thanks to this revival. Visiting the sites associated with Jewish Cracow on the other side of the river, itself now an up-and-coming district, is a more sobering, but worthwhile, expedition.

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#5 / Zakopane + The Tatras

Up there in the mountain air
Poles like to claim that their country is a land of seaside, lakes and mountains. It's true that there are some big peaks in Poland, the Tatra Mountains, but they are crammed into a strip of land in the extreme south, forming the border with Slovakia. Fortunately, if you're visiting Cracow, it's the one Polish city that genuinely is close to the mountains.

By far the most popular and well-appointed jumping off point for a look at the Tatras is the mountain town of Zakopane, about 100 km south of Cracow, or two hours on a coach. It's hugely popular with Poles, for winter sports and for hiking in the summer, but the rest of the world is catching on fast to this pocket-sized alpine paradise. Part resort and part cultural theme park dedicated to the unique, thigh-slapping and hat-wearing culture of Poland's Southern Highlanders (Górale), Zakopane is a bustling (occasionally heaving) place almost entirely dedicated to making sure its many visitors go away satiated in both stomach and desire for uplifting panoramas.

Skiing, and ski jumping, are the obvious attraction during the snowy months, though the town's many bars host just as many armchair sportsmen as willowy, black-run types. Summer brings on a sudden desire to be a rugged mountain man in many Poles, and they swarm along the dozens of trails leading up peaks and along breathtaking valleys. For those determined to remain seated, there's a spectacular cable car, rafts to ferry you along rivers, and dozens of horse-drawn carriages that will trot you off to the beautiful nearby lakes.

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#6 / City Walks

Cracow at a human pace
Krakow city walk
The highlights of historical Cracow are within an easily walkable area, but there's an awful lot crammed into that area. Having someone who knows their way around the intricacy can save a ton of traipsing backward and forward to look at bits you missed the first time. Guide books are all well and good, but nothing beats strolling in the company of a knowledgable and amiable human being - and that's precisely the idea of City Walk's tours.

The standard tour takes three hours to snake through the three major parts of Cracow - the Old Town, the Royal Castle on Wawel Hill, and the traditionally Jewish district of Kazimierz. As well as hitting all the major sites along the way (St Mary's Church, the Barbican, the Market Square etc.), City Walk's mantra is that detours are part of the tour. Got a particular hankering to see a 13-tonne bell? They'll take you up the tower in Wawel Cathedral. Always wondered what a 17th-century brothel looked like? They know where to find one.

Intended to be flexible, starting times, routes and group sizes are all acceptable variables for City Walk tours - all they ask is that you bring footwear, and a desire to work up a bit of a thirst.

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#7 / Bicycle Tour

Touring on two wheels
Bike tour Krakow
A veteran pro-cycling campaigner in Cracow has a great story to tell about the state of two-wheeled transport in the city twenty years ago. Cycling around town one wintery day (veteran campaigners cycle in any weather), he noticed some bike tyre tracks in the snow. So few were the number of people who cycled in those days, he knew everyone's cycle tracks by sight - but this was a new one. Mystified by these Man Friday tracks, he followed them through the city, until he discovered a recently arrived student from Cuba who was completely mystified why he apparently the only person in the city on a bike.

Things have changed a lot since then. In fact, cycling has become so popular that a plan to massively improve the city's cycling infrastructure got a striking 85 percent 'yes' vote in a city-wide referendum in 2014. The planned work is mostly for areas outside the historic Old Town, since that is already very pedestrian and cycle friendly. There are also quite a few longer distance, dedicated cycle routes allowing you to get to outlying parts of the city quickly and safely on two wheels.

Bicycle Tours takes advantage of Cracow's increasing bike friendliness to offer perhaps the most laid back, but efficient way of seeing Cracow. Their city tour takes in the major sights on both sides of the river in a leisurely four and a half hours, with plenty of opportunities to stop and stare. If you've seen all that, their countryside tour follows the hugely popular riverside cycle track the 11 km (thankfully, all flat) to glorious Tyniec Abbey, then winds back through leafy lanes.

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#8 / Schindler's List Tour

The book, the film, the real places
Schindler's List Krakow
History lies very close to the surface in Cracow. In a city more than a thousand years old, some of that history is bound to have been unpleasant. For Cracow, the events of World War II that led to the almost total extermination of its large Jewish population is its most recent and painful scar. During the many years when Poland languished under Soviet domination, much of the rest of the world forgot the beauties and culture of its cities, including Cracow. Strangely enough, it was a Hollywood film that began to reverse that lapse in the early 1990s - Steven Spielburg's Schindler's List.

Famously recounting the story of German businessman, Oskar Schindler, who saved the lives of more than 1,000 Polish-Jewish refugees by employing them at his enamelware factory in Cracow, the film is a landmark both in the history of cinema, and the history of the rest of the world's perception of Cracow. The majority of the film was shot in and around Cracow, since many of the locations remain almost unchanged since the 1940s. For the same reason, the Schindler's List Tour is an evocative way to see the city today, from the perspective of events just now slipping from living memory.

Sights on the tour include Oscar Schindler's original factory, now a major museum detailing life in Cracow during World War II, his apartment on a leafy boulevard near the ancient Royal Castle and the now dilapidated house on the fringes of the Plaszow Concentration Camp where the sadistic Kommandant Amon Goeth lived. It takes in both the traditional Jewish quarter, where much of the filming took place, as well as the area on the far side of the river where the actual World War II ghetto was situated (including the few remaining fragments of the ghetto wall).

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#9 / Krakow Valley Tour

Where the locals go for R&R
Krakow Valley
Lucky old Cracow, not just a beautiful city, but in a beautiful part of Poland. Cracow natives have two directions of escape for weekend getaways, the big mountains two hours to the south, or the gentler delights of Ojców National Park just a few kilometres north of the city limits.

Centred around a long and winding wooded valley cut into the limestone landscape, Ojców is Poland's smallest National Park, but it's plenty big enough for a restorative weekend stroll. The centrepiece is the ruthlessly preserved village of Ojców itself, where every second building is a bucolic cafe with guest rooms in the ramshackle eaves.

All along the ravine, startlingly white rock formations poke out from the forested slopes, many with traditional names like the Cudgel of Hercules or the Gates of Krakow. There are also dozens of caves and a string of castles, some ruined, some in fine fettle, known as the Eagles' Nests. The Krakow Valley Tour takes in all these sights, or as many of them as your legs feel up to, then finishes off with the obligatory beer and barbecued Polish sausage.

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#10 / Auschwitz Tour

A profound Experience
Auschwitz Poland

Cracow will never be quite like Europe's other beautiful, ancient cities, because only Cracow sits next to one of the most notorious sites of the Holocaust - the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. There is something about having such a sobering monument so close that means Cracow will never have the simple, carefree atmosphere of other popular destinations - it lends both a poignancy and a sense of raw, recent history that adds something profound to the atmosphere.

There are many ways to get to Auschwitz from Cracow, a journey of about 75 km, but by far the best and most efficient is with a private Auschwitz Tour. A driver picks you and your party up from right outside your accommodation in the city, takes you to the camp complex, where one of the site's excellent guides will be waiting to show you around, takes you to the nearby Auschwitz II Birkenau site for another tour, then drives you home again. No buses, no waiting, no crowds.

Many people struggle with the question of whether it is right to visit Auschwitz, perhaps worried that a day-trip is somehow making light of the terrible suffering the place saw. The clearest answer to that is to remember that many of those who survived the camps, or saw their loved ones perish there, were determined that the place should be persevered as a memorial, and a reminder, for all to see. Nobody comes away from an Auschwitz Tour unaffected, but very few regret having done it.

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