According to the stories, Krakow was founded by defeating a dragon and today's city reflects something of that dramatic birth.
This is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and, largely undamaged in World War II, it has one of the best-preserved city centers. Indeed, the ancient architecture is one of the main attractions.
The Old Town features many soaring church spires and fascinating museums, along with the largest market square in Europe, Rynek Glowny. Kazimierz is the atmospheric Jewish Quarter, soaked in history and bustling with bars and restaurants.
The city also buzzes with bars and nightlife and the diversity of a university town. It's also an easily walkable city with plenty of charming backstreets and alleyways in which to get pleasantly lost.
Wawel Castle dominates the Old Town from its lofty position on the hill overlooking the River Vistula to the south. It is widely thought to be one of the most beautiful castles in Europe and dates from the 16th century. You can walk the grounds for free, but the five museums and exhibitions all require separate entry tickets.
Krakow's main square has been the center of city life for some 700 years. Surrounded by bars and restaurants, it is a wonderful place to eat, drink, and soak up the atmosphere. At the center of the square is the fabulous Cloth Hall, thought to be the oldest covered shopping mall in the world.
Rynek Glowny is impressive enough but by going underground you can get a completely different perspective on the square. Ancient tunnels and medieval market stalls are brought to life by holograms and audiovisual displays.
This fascinating museum covers the time of Nazi occupation of Krakow in World War II. It is sited in the enamel factory once owned by Oskar Schindler, whose story was told in the film Schindler's List.
Just 10 miles southeast of Krakow, the Wieliczka Salt Mine is a popular day trip. A vast labyrinth of tunnels and chambers has been carved from the salt, and it makes for a fascinating guided tour.
Krakow has four very distinct seasons, so you can choose the sort of weather that suits you. Summers are humid and hot, with temperatures reaching 85 degrees Fahrenheit or more. Winters are cold and snowy, with temperatures as low as 5 degrees Fahrenheit not uncommon. Spring and fall are mild and are perhaps best-suited to comfortable walking in the city.
Krakow Airport (KRK), also known as John Paul II International Airport, is the city's main airport and is located nine miles west of Krakow in Balice. Buses leave every 20 minutes from the airport to Krakow city center. The journey takes around 40 minutes and costs zł4. There is also a rail link into the city, which leaves every 30 minutes, takes 20 minutes, and costs zł8. Taxi ranks can be found in front of both Terminal 1 and 2, but the fare is around zł89.
The main train station in Krakow is Dworzec Glowny PKP, and it is located just beside the Old Town. There are good connections to other Polish cities including Warsaw. A ticket for the 2 hour 20 minutes journey bought on the day could cost zł120 but drops to zł49 if bought in advance. Overnight international sleeper services connect the city to Budapest, Prague, and Vienna. If you don't speak Polish, buy tickets at the international ticket counter.
The new A4 motorway has recently been completed, connecting Krakow to the German border and the Autobahn A4. This has greatly improved car travel west to Germany. The toll is zł18. The main route to Warsaw is the E77, which takes just under five hours.
Many companies operate international bus services to Krakow. Eurolines connects many Western European countries with the city, including France, Italy, the UK, and Scandinavia. Ecolines is the main operator serving connections to the Baltic States, Russia, and Central and Eastern Europe.
Most hotels in Krakow are situated in the Old Town , with others in neighboring Kazimierz. These areas are convenient for most of the city's sights and attractions, and make it easy to walk around the relatively compact city center. Aparthotel Stare Miasto offers luxury accommodation just a few steps from the main square, while the Senacki Hotel provides quality rooms on the Royal Way between the square and Wawel Castle.
The Old Town - this is by far the most popular area in Krakow. This is where you will find most of the city's best-known attractions, including Wawel Castle, Wawel Cathedral, and Rynek Glowny. It is full of beautiful streets and squares and you can walk the Royal Way from the ancient city walls at St. Florian's Gate all the way to Wawel Castle.
Kazimierz - the city's Jewish Quarter was once a separate city to the south of Krakow, founded in 1335. It has many interesting museums and galleries along with synagogues and cemeteries to visit. It also has lots of atmospheric bars and restaurants serving affordable Jewish cuisine.
The Western District - this is the city suburb nearest the center and actually surrounds the Old Town and much of Kazimierz. It is known as the greenest area of Krakow and includes the Las Wolski forest.
Krakow is well-served by public transport, with an extensive bus and tram network. Traffic can be slow in the rush hours between 7-9 am and 3-5 pm, so expect some delays at these times. There are lots of ticket machines at tram and bus stops and in nearby kiosks. These provide instructions in English. There are also ticket machines on some of the buses and trams themselves and these vehicles have an 'A' sign in the doorway. If you buy a ticket from the driver you will have to pay zł5 and give him the exact money. No change is provided. In all cases you need to validate your ticket by punching it in the machine as soon as you get on. Tickets range from zł2.80 for 20 minutes to zł15 for 24 hours.
Taxis in Krakow are generally fair and reliable. A typical daytime fare around the city will be around zł20. This is made up of an initial fee of zł5-7 and then zł1.25-1.8 per mile. Official taxis have a sign on the roof and a price list on the passenger door.
Driving a car in Krakow is not recommended. Traffic can be heavy and Polish driving customs can be a little challenging. Parking in the city center is expensive and hard to come by and 'driving zone' rules confuse even local residents. If you do hire a car, expect to pay upwards of zł100 per day, and Avis and Sixt outlets can be found in the city.
Most of the city's shopping is based in the Old Town, with many of the main stores around Rynek Glowny. You will find lots of antique stores, jewelry, and leather goods, and the Cloth Hall offers a fabulous shopping experience. Royal Way and Plac Nowy are also good locations.
There are two major shopping malls in the city center. Galeria Krakowska is next to the train station and Galeria Kazimierz is to the south and houses the upscale Alma supermarket. Everyday groceries can be bought from any number of local shops in the city center where a gallon of milk costs around zł10 and a loaf of bread zł2.20.
For cheap local food, look out for the Bar Mleczny milk bars. A meal here will cost around zł8. A meal in a mid-scale restaurant will cost around zł15-20 and a top restaurant like Wierzynek on the main square will cost upwards of zł30. U Babci Maliny is another quality restaurant, while Starka is a good choice for modern Polish food.