Kraków is not only an historic and visual gem, it’s Poland’s second largest city. At the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, Kraków is the capital city of Lesser Poland Voivodship in the southern region of Poland and has a population of around 760,000 and 250,000 are students (1.4 million in the metropolitan area).
Kraków is one of the oldest cities in Poland, with evidence showing settlements there since 20,000 BC. Legend has it that it was built on the cave of a dragon that the mythical King Krak had slain. However, the first official mention of the name was in 966 by a Jewish merchant from Spain, who described it as an important centre of trade in Slavonic Europe.
In 1241, the city was almost entirely destroyed by Tatars. It was rebuilt to a design that remains largely unchanged to the present day. However, after more successful attacks by the Mongols in the late 13th century, Kazimierz the Great set about defending the city. Walls, fortifications, and the original Wawel Castle were added. The University was also established. King Kazimierz established the district of Kazimierz for Jews to live in free from persecution. This area remained mainly Jewish for centuries until the Nazi occupation.
The 16th century was Krakow’s golden age. Under the influence of the joint Polish-Lithuanian Jagiellonian dynasty, Krakow became a centre of science and the arts. In 1569, Poland was officially united with Lithuania and as a result government activity started to move to Warsaw. King Zygmunt III officially moved the capital in 1609.
However, the 17th century was a return to troubled times for Krakow and Poland. After being invaded by Russians, Prussians, Austrians, Transylvanians, Swedes, and the French, it went through a phase of various forms of political control. These included being part of the Duchy of Warsaw, established by Napoleon, and becoming an „independent city”. However, it mostly fell under the sphere of influence of the Austrian Habsburg Empire, in the province of Galicia.
In the First World War, Józef Piłsudski set out to liberate Poland and the Treaty of Versailles (1919) established an independent sovereign Polish state for the first time in more than 100 years. This lasted until the Second World War, when Germany and the USSR partitioned the country, with German forces entering Krakow in September 1939. Many academics were killed and historic relics and monuments were destroyed or looted. Concentration camps were established near Krakow, including Płaszów and Auschwitz. After German withdrawal, the city escaped complete destruction and many buildings were saved.
In 1978, UNESCO placed Krakow on the World Heritage Sites list.
Train – a direct rail link connects the airport with the main train station (ca. 20 mins ride), every 30 mins during daytime. Cost: 8 PLN to Krakow centre (all prices are for 2016 and a small if any increase can possible in 2018). Tickets can be purchased on the train (2016), queues at the ticket offices might be long.
Buses nos. 292 and 208 run from the airport to the city centre at frequent intervals. If you need to get to the Main Train Station or the Bus Station, get off at the final stop Dworzec Główny Wschód. This bus stop is located next to shopping centre Galeria Krakowska, and directly outside the main train station (Dworzec Główny PKP). The ride takes about 40 minutes (on frequent 292 service – every 20 mins between 4:30-23:00). Single-ride tickets from Balice Airport to the city centre cost approximately PLN4.00 (or PLN2.00 for ISIC/EURO 26 holders), or PLN5.00 if you want to make a transfers into other buses/trams within 60 min time. Make sure you buy the „agglomeration ticket”, this type of ticket is valid in two zones, so also in the area where the airport is located. Tickets can be bought from one of the newsagents or from a ticket machine at the bus stop or on the bus. Make sure you validate your ticket immediately after boarding the vehicle. At night, you can catch Night Bus no. 902 which leaves from the airport to the city centre late in the evening.
Microbus – City Center Bus: There is a privately-run bus service from the airport to city centre and vice versa that costs PLN10.00 and runs roughly hourly on weekdays and Sundays; Saturday service is more sparse. At the airport, it picks up passengers by the regular bus stop right outside T1, it is the one furthest from the airport/at the front of the bus line. It takes roughly 20-30 minutes and drops off passengers right across the Galeria Krakowska apart from the Central Train Station (you can ask gently about any other option on the regular way – the ICE, your hotel). You buy the tickets straight from the driver. To return to the airport, it picks up passengers at the same spot near Galeria Krakowska where passengers from the airport to the city center are dropped off at, in front of the agency that runs the service.
Taxis accept payments by credit card. Taxi stands are located in front of the T1 and T2 terminal exits. BEWARE ‚Airport Taxis’ which can be found in front of the terminals charge a high fixed fare determined by the Zone of the destination. Most of central Krakow is in Zone 3 so the fare is PLN89. Ask the driver to be sure.
To Kraków by train
Dworzec Główny PKP is the Central Train Station in Krakow, and is located just outside of the Old Town. It’s well connected to other cities in Poland. The station has a left-luggage service, waiting room, small cafes and shops. The station staff are not always the most helpful to foreigners who don’t speak Polish as they often speak no English and you can spend an awfully long time waiting in line only to be told to join another long line. If you get confused, try asking someone young to help you as most young Polish people speak communicative English and are very helpful. Staff at the international ticket counter speak English.
Between 06:00 and 20:00 there is a train between Kraków and Warsaw every hour or so. Some of them are Express InterCity (EIC) or Express InterCity Premium (EIP) with a journey time of c. 2 h 20 min. It is by far the most convenient way of travelling between Kraków and Warsaw. The ticket usually costs PLN120 per adult or 49 PLN when bought well in advance, or – if you’re lucky – during off-peak hours. First class tickets are about 25% more expensive, and offer greater leg room. Other trains throughout a day are classified as Express (PLN 116) TLK (PLN 55) or Interregio (PLN 47). They vary in comfort but travel durations are similar, perhaps Interregios take slightly longer. Some of them have discounts for younger people <26 years old; ask at the counter. Some TLKs or Interregios take a different route and then the travel time takes 5 h.
There are just a few direct international trains to Krakow. Overnight sleeper trains arrive daily from Prague, Budapest, Vienna and Lviv.
To Kraków by car
The A4 motorway has been completed from the German border (where it meets the Autobahn A4) to Kraków. This makes travel from the west fairly easy. The speed limit is generally 140km/h, and there is a PLN18 toll each way between Kraków and Katowice. Beginning in Jun 2012 a PLN16 toll is also levied on the A4 between Wroclaw and Katowice. Driving to or from Warsaw (300km) is more difficult as the A1 has not yet been completed. The easiest route is the Route 7/E77 road, which should take less than five hours (it is being upgraded to an expressway with speed limit of 120km/h, yet whole process is estimated to finish around 2020).
Most of the popular tourist attractions are located in the historical downtown (Old Town). See the separate article for complete listings.
Kraków’s historic centre, which includes the Old Town, Kazimierz and the Wawel Castle, was included as the first of its kind on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1978.
The district of Kazimierz with its Jewish heritage is very interesting. The synagogue of Remuh, for example, was built in 1557. Although it’s not so well-preserved and the entrance costs PLN5, it has a great atmosphere with its old walls and its ancient vestments. Adjacent is its cemetery created in 1511 and recently restored. The atmosphere is very melancholic there and deserves a visit.