Kraków is one of my favorite cities in Europe. Thankfully, I’ve had the opportunity to visit Poland’s second largest city a number of times and love to discover new places in this beautiful town.
Being of Polish descent, I dreamed of visiting Poland since we first traveled to Germany in 2014. The combination of gorgeous architecture, historical significance, unique shops, and oh, yeah home to one of my favorite foods–pierogi–makes Kraków one of my favorite cities.
The second largest city in Poland, Kraków is also one of the oldest, dating back to the 7th century. Located on the Vistula River, the city’s name is derived from the Proto-Slavic word “krak”, which translates to “staff” or “oak”. The city was first founded by Krakus, the prince who led the Lechitians, a Polish tribe. Legend states that Krakus famously slayed the dragon of Wawel Hill (more on that later).
Like many of the cities in Eastern Europe, WWII drastically changed the culture and population of Kraków. During the German occupation, Kraków became the capital of the General Government following the invasion of Poland by the Germans in 1939. Unlike other cities significantly impacted by WWII, Kraków’s architecture remained largely intact. The goal of the Germans was to Germanize the city by removing all aspects of Polish language, culture, and the people who lived there.
As a result, academics were to Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps, while the city’s large Jewish population (over 65,000 people) were first forced out of the their district (Kazimierz) and into the Kraków Ghetto, located in Podgórze. From there, they were deported to a number of concentration camps, with the final order on March 13th, 1943 to fully liquidate those remaining in the Ghetto to Płaszów, a forced labor camp in the district; those that remained behind were either murdered or sent to nearby Auschwitz.
Poland suffered heavy losses of human life during WWII (16-17% of its population).
One of the most important aspects of visiting Kraków is the ability to visit these immensely important sites of historical significance. For a country geographically located between two military powers–Germany and the Soviet Union–visitors have the ability to see the effects of war in not only the physical landscape of the city, but also in the very intentional way these sites have been preserved.
Today, Kraków is one of the centers of academic and culture for Polish life; in 2013 the city was named a UNESCO City of Literature (I’ve listed a few of my favorite bookstores in the posts).
Stare Miasto (Old Town): One of the most famous districts in Poland and was included on the first UNESCO World Heritage List (1978).
Kazimierz (former Jewish Quarter): One of my favorite districts in all of Central Europe, Kazimierz is an eclectic mix of shops, art, and historical sites.
Podgórze: Across from the River Vistula, this neighborhood is home to many WWII historical sites including the remnants of the Jewish Ghetto and Schindler’s Factory Museum.
I’ve created a map of sites, restaurants, and shops. My advice is to be intentional in your wandering of Kraków; there are so many places to see and discover in this beautiful city. You can also download and save this map to Google Maps for easy access when you travel.
I hope you enjoy these posts! 🤍
Listening: The New Abnormal (The Strokes)
Watching: The Plot Against America (HBO)