Kraków, Poland: Stare Miasto (Old Town)

[You can read my Kraków Guide here.]

Chosen for the inaugural UNESCO World Heritage List in 1978, Stare Miasto, Kraków’s Old Town, is the city’s historic center and one of the most beautiful sites in Central Europe.

View from our apartment.

A busy medieval center in the 10th century, the main square (Rynek Główny) is the largest medieval town square of any European city and includes a number of historical buildings and unique architecture. Old Town was encompassed by military defensive walls that extended all the way to Wawel Castle, but most of these fortifications were destroyed by the Austrians during occupation in the 1800s. The moat surrounding the walls was replaced with a green space–Planty–that is known as “the lungs of the city”.

Walking toward the Wawel Castel.

My recommendation is to wander the main square and Stare Miasto’s winding, cobblestone streets, finding all your new favorite literary cafes, pierogi spots, and stop for homemade vodka. If you prefer a more intentional wandering, I’m here to help! I’ve made a map of all my top sites.

Stare Miasto.

I recommend spending time in the square and walking around Planty before heading down to Wawel Castle.

There’s so much to see in Kraków’s historic center!

The Sites:

Main Market Square (Rynek Główny):

Old Town is known for its art, musicians, and crafts. Unfortunately (or fortunately? Still undecided) for us, the musician near our apartment only played Oasis’ “Wonderwall” and The Cranberries’ “Zombie”. Over and over.
Town Hall Tower (Wieża ratuszowa w Krakowie) is the only remaining part of the old Kraków Town Hall that was demolished in 1820.
Krakow Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) is one of the main attractions in the square.
Inside the Cloth Hall.
St. Mary’s Basilica was built in the 14th century. Every hour a trumpet plays Hejnał Mariacki, a five-note Polish anthem, from the highest tower.  The title Hejnał Mariacki comes from a Hungarian expression that translates to “Saint Mary’s Dawn” and the tune stops mid-stream in remembrance of the 13th-century trumpeter who was shot in the throat while warning the city of a Mongol attack.
St. Mary’s Basilica was nearly destroyed by the Mongols but was rebuilt on its old foundation in 1320.
The interior of St. Mary Basilica.
The Church of St. Adalbert (Kościół św. Wojciecha) was built in the 11th century.
The Church is named after Saint Adalbert; his body was purchased from Prussia for his total weight in gold.
Interior of St. Adalbert.

Wawel Castle:

While people have inhabited the area that is now Wawel Castle since the Paleolithic Age (WHAT), the first ruler of the Polish state chose this site as his home in 966. The castle itself was built by Casimir III the Great in 1333; it is one of the largest and oldest castles in Poland.
The castle and cathedral show nearly all forms of European architecture: medieval, baroque and renaissance.

The legend of the dragon that terrorized residents of pre-Kraków settlements is an interesting part of the city’s history:

From that day on there was no peace in the village. Daily, the dragon would appear to carry off a victim. Sometimes a sheep, or dreadfully, a child or even a grown man. The villagers called the hideous creature “Smok”. Men banded together to try and slay the dragon, but their primitive weapons were no match for the thick scales of the dragon. Many men died in the attempt to rid the village of this terrible curse.

In the same village lived a wise man named Krakus. Some thought him something of a magician, for he would mix herbs to heal the sick. The villagers came to Krakus to ask for his help. Krakus thought for a long time, studying his jars of herbs and things, and all the while murmuring to himself. Then he started to mix up a paste. He summoned the villagers to bring a sheep to him. He covered the poor sheep with the unpleasant mixture and carrying it up the hill, threw the sheep inside the cave.

After several suspenseful moments, there came the sound of the great dragon roaring and bellowing its way down to the Vistula River. The mixture that the sheep had been coated with caused a great burning inside the dragon. It drank and drank until it began to swell. Some say it drank half of the Vistula River that day. Still it drank to quell the relentless burning in its gut. Suddenly, there was a great explosion and the dragon burst!

The people rejoiced at the demise of the fearsome creature. They were so impressed with the wisdom of Krakus that they invited him to rule over them. They built a stronghold at the top of the hill and below it, the city prospered under his rule. The city was named Krakow in honor of Krakus. When Krakus died the people gave him a magnificent burial, and erected a mound over his tomb, bringing the dirt with their own hands. It has endured throughout the centuries as a lasting monument to their wise and brave King.

Wawel Castle holds the Polish Crown Jewels and is a UNESCO Wold Heritage site.
The Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus on the Wawel Hill (królewska bazylika archikatedralna śś. Stanisława i Wacława na Wawelu) is over 900 years old and is considered a Polish national sanctuary.
The Cathedral (katedra wawelska) is also the coronation site for Polish monarchs.
The Cathedral is also the main burial site for Polish monarchs.
View of the Vistula River from the castle. Legend holds that Krakus’s daughter Wanda drowned herself in the Vistula rather than marry a German knight.
You can tour the Dragon’s Den located under the castle (please excuse my horrible picture), a cave in the side of Wawel Hill that formed 25 million years ago. During medieval times, these rooms served as both a tavern and brothel.
The Castle also includes a homage to the dragon, a statue that breathes fire every few minutes, terrifying the unsuspecting children (okay, I was caught off guard too) walking nearby.

Planty City Garden:

During the Austrian occupation, the walls of the city were destroyed and a green space was built in the former moat that surrounded Old Town. Planty encircles the oldest part of the city and is a beautiful walk that includes gardens and historic monuments.
Collegium Witkowski (Witkowski College) was built in 1908 and stands next to the park.
While I visited, the Krakow Artistic Meetings 2019–DIALOGUES was taking place in the city. A number of pieces were placed in the park, including this sculpture by James Sierżęga entitled “Babel”.

Restaurants & Pubs:

Coffee Kiosk:

Boasting “f+cking good coffee”, Coffee Kiosk is an adorable cafe near Stare Miasto. The shop also sells a number of locally made crafts in addition to their awesome bean selection.

Pod Noseum:

We stopped at Pod Noseum on our way to Wawel Castle. The first floor of an executive hotel, it was definitely the most upscale of the restaurants we visited. Their special that day was mushroom pierogi, so you know that my obvious choice. They were amazing.

Chtopskie Jadto:

My first pierogi in Poland! Chtopski Jadto is a cute little restaurant with a ton of different pierogi options. I prefer a crispier potato pancake, but the pierogi were great. In Poland, you choose whether you want your pierogi fried, in addition to boiled, so make sure to ask! You could also order 30 pierogi to go!

Da Pietro:

We had dinner at Da Pietro our second night day in Kraków. It was such a beautiful day and after a long afternoon of sightseeing, we wanted to grab food near our apartment. Thankfully they have a good menu with a ton of options and great drinks, along with outdoor seating so you can see the sites in the square.
Spinach, gorgonzola, pears, and walnuts on a pizza.

Tiffany Ice Cream:

Recommended by a friend, Tiffany Ice Cream is the absolute best ice cream I’ve had in Europe. Please note Monica (on the right) with her four scoops like a freaking badass.

Taste of India:

We loved this tiny Indian restaurant at the edge of these districts.

Massolit Bakery & Cafe:

I adore Massolit Books and their bookshop is one of my favorites in Europe. Massolit Bakery & Cafe, their vegan and vegetarian cafe, offers so many delicious snacks and sweets! I love that they have locations in all three districts in the city.
(Image via In Your Pocket)
I had to order a chocolate croissant for our road trip to Zakopane.


De Revolutionibus Books & Cafe:

“One of the few places in the galaxy where a good book meets good coffee”, De Revolutionibus Books & Cafe is a bookstore right off the main square. Established in 2013 as a part of the Copernicus Centre Foundation, De Revolutionibus specializes in philosophy and academic works, but carefully selected fiction books are also available in both English and Polish. The shop also includes a beautiful card selection, showcasing work by local artists.
Photo via Facebook.

Massolit Books & Cafe:

A short fifteen minute walk from the Main Square, Massolit Books & Cafe is a large English bookstore featuring a huge selection of new and used books, along with an awesome cafe. They specialize in coffee and treats, even opening a second cafe nearby. Visitors can grab a coffee, bagel, or vegan treat while perusing the hundreds of shelves. A perfect way to spend the afternoon and an absolute mus- visit while in town.
Visit during Covid times.

Sklep Szambelan:

Located right off the main square, Sklep Szambelan is a specialty vodka shop with over forty types available to purchase. Unique bottles and flavors are stacked from the floor to the ceiling and include both sweet and sour vodkas hand-made by the owners. When I visited, I was lucky enough to meet the amazing shop-owner herself, who encouraged tastings before purchasing. Customers can choose their own bottle from the shop or bring their own. Have to love that zero waste specialty vodka life!
Photo via My Guide.

❤ ❤

Reading: Everywhere You Don’t Belong (Gabriel Bump)
Watching: Chef’s Table (Netflix)

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