Krakow Old Town
- Where exactly is the Old Town?
- Top 5 Things to See (for Free)
- Getting Around the Old Town
- Parking in the Old Town
The Old Town is where most visitors will begin their tour of the city, and where many of the key landmarks are to be found. Since 1989, it has undergone a major transformation, especially in the years since Poland joined the EU (in 2004), and the place is now really looking a treat. Cafes, restaurants and shops are flourishing, (notwithstanding, of course, the recent damaging effects of the Covid pandemic), whilst the black soot that cloaked much of the city has been almost entirely removed.
Orientation in the Old Town is straight forward enough. It was once ringed by a great wall, and a fragment of this still survives. Where its turrets once rose up, one now finds the Planty Gardens, which form an enchanting threshold to the city. The district has preserved its medieval layout, which, unusually, followed a grid pattern. This, combined with its relative compactness, means that it is difficult to get lost here. And besides, the principal streets all lead to the expansive Rynek, or Market Square. So once you have crossed the Planty, it is not a bad idea to forget about maps for an hour or two, and discover the city as it unfolds before you.
Where exactly is the Old Town in Krakow?
Well, a word of caution here! Let’s be honest, the whole city is ‘old’, and people offering apartment rentals or hotels love to claim their property is in the ‘Old Town’ in order to appear more enticing, but strictly speaking the Old Town of Krakow refers to the original medieval town that lay within the fortified walls of the city. This is a clearly-defined, rather small area encircled by the Planty Gardens. In the 1820’s city planners decided to tear down the medieval fortifications (leaving just a small section) and replace them with a charming park that now rings the Old Town. Well, it must have seemed a good idea at the time…. Anyway, here’s a map to show exactly where the Old Town is (the darker area that looks like a giant Google map marker), and now you can check if your ‘Old Town Apartment’ really is inside this area or not!
Top 5 things to see in the Old Town
It’s worth spending a day just wandering around the Old Town, as there are so many things to see. It’s a good idea to just get lost in this area as you can’t really get lost at all. There are all manner of small shops, cafes and restaurants to explore, but you’ll also want to take in some of the more important sights in the city. Whilst there are many more that could be included, here is a rundown of the top 5 you should catch during your visit:
1) The Barbican (Barbakan)
This small, fort-like structure is on the north side of the Old Town, right next to the Florian Gate. It was connected to the Florian Gate by a narrow, walled structure. Essentially, visitors to Krakow had to enter through the barbican, where they could be searched or checked before being allowed into the city. It’s circular, high-walled structure allowed the city soldiers to completely surround any visiting travellers and screen them for concealed weapons or the like, before letting them pass through the Florian Gate. Think of it as a a medieval equivalent of a airport security screening and you’ll have a good idea.
2) Florian’s Gate (Brama Floriańska) and Street (Ulica Floriańska)
From the Barbican, the importance of FLorian’s Gate becomes quite clear. The most important gate into the city, it is the only one that survived the removal of the fortifications in the 1820’s. In addition, there is a small section of the original wall on either side, giving a clear impression of how the whole fortification would have looked. In its place we now have the Planty, the ring of parkland around the Old Town. Pleasant enough in itself, if you walk around this parkway, look carefully and you will see the remnants of the wall and towers that were dotted along the way. Small signs have been set into the ground to mark their positions, and it is quite fun to explore and look out for these hidden footprints of the past.
3) St Mary’s Church (Kościół Mariacki)
In may ways, the crowning glory of the Old Town is this marvellous church, which is certainly the most famous church in Poland. Its origins date back to the 13th century, and the church has acquired a legendary status to Poles since then. From it’s two towers of differing heights (there’s a story here), to the famous trumpet call that rings out on the hour, every hour, St Mary’s in may ways represents the emotional heart of Poland, and no trip to Krakow should miss a chance to explore it.
4) Wawel Royal Castle (Zamek Królewski)
Right on the southern tip of the Old Town lies the imposing Royal Castle, which can be reached wither by following the Planty gardens all the way around, or by going down Grodzka Street, the diagonal route that makes the old Royal Way. The castle itself is on the banks of the Vistula River, with commanding views over the city and beyond. Entrance to the castle grounds is free, but there are also a number of paid exhibitions which you can choose to enter. The castle grounds are also home to Wawel Cathedral, the burial place of Polish kings over the century, and more recently, of Poland’s late president Lech Kacziński, who died alongside a great number of Poland’s leading politicians and military service members, in the tragic crash of the Polish Presidential flight in Smolensk in 2010. Wawel Cathedral houses the remarkable Royal Sigismund Bell, which weighs almost 10 metric tonnes, and is only rung on the most significant of occasions in Polish history, such as the German invasion of Poland on 1st September 1939, the death of Pope John Paul II, and the Smolensk plane crash itself.
5) The Cloth Hall (Sukiennice)
Smack bang in the middle of the Market Square lies the Cloth Hall, a long, Renaissance building that was the centre of Krakow’s trade for centuries. Nowadays the building is the home of souvenir shops and a couple of restaurants, but it’s more significant economic purpose is hard to miss. Krakow was in many ways a frontier trading city that lay between Europe and the east, and was a bustling place to trade. In addition, Krakow was a major producer of salt (from the mines at Wieliczka), and travellers would come to barter their own goods, including silk and spices from the Far East, in return for Krakow’s rock salt. Trade in the middle ages was dominated by guilds, and their heraldic symbols can be seen on the walls of the Cloth Hall. The guilds were also responsible for maintaining and manning their respective sections of the defensive walls of the Old Town, and you can see this when you look at the remains of the walls alone the pathway around the Planty Gardens.
Getting around the Old Town
Krakow has a pretty decent public transport system, with cheap and reliable buses and trams. However, none of these actually go into the Old Town itself. (interestingly, decades ago a tram line did actually run around the Market Square, and you can see traces of the old tracks when walking around). Tram and bus routes now go around the outside (beside the Planty), so it is easy to reach any part of the outside of the Old Town, and then just walk from there. It is effectively a pedestrian zone, but you will notice there are some vehicles and parking spots (more on that below). As a visitor, you will be getting around the Old Town on foot, or possibly on one of the electric golf buggies that provide tours for visitors, or possibly even a horse and carriage - yes! You can take one of these from the Market Square and feel like a prince or princess as you are driven around the picturesque streets.
Driving and Parking in the Old Town
Driving in the Old Town is restricted to those who live there or own a business in the zone, as well as taxis. Currently, all-electric vehicles are also able to enter the Old Town. All other cars are likely to be fined if caught by the local Municipal Police (Straz Miejska). Having said that, if you are a guest of a hotel in the Old Town, some of them have a handful of parking spots on the street, and you would be allowed to drive right into the centre to park there, so do check with you hotel about this if arriving by car. If not available, most people who drive to Krakow can park very close by (there are long-term parking places on Karmelicka Street, for example, which are reasonably priced), and then just walk into the centre. Generally if you do park just outside the Old Town, the price is currently 6 PLN per hour (2021), and chargeable time is measured from 10 am to 8 pm every day, with the exception of Sunday, which is free all day.
Definitely one of the prettier cities in Europe, and the old town part is perfect to start a visit, but I preferred spending most of my time in Kazimierz and other districts like Podgorze which have a lot of cooler cafes, restaurants etc, and are quite bit cheaper too. Some of the prices on the market square for example are really higher than other major cities.. 4 - 5 Euros for coffee for example. Poland became a lot more expensive it seems....Reply
To be honest, you could spend pretty much your whole time, say a long weekend, without leaving the old town. Cafes, restaurants, great clubs - everything is here. My favourite city in Europe!Reply
Great city to visit. We just came back a few days ago from a 3 day trip - really enjoyed it. Weather was terrible. Hope to come back again in the summer sometime.Reply
Brilliant city for a weekend break, or a bit longer. Now is actually a great time to go as there are hardly any tourists....Reply
Not as cheap as it used to be a few years ago, but still a great place to visit. You can easily spend a couple of days in the old town without going anywhere further. Our favourite spots - Moaburger for amazing burgers, Charlotte for breakfasts (if you can get a free table), coffee as Vis-a-Vis (opposite the large bronze sculpture of the face)Reply
Restaurants around the Market Square are a lot more expensive than in the reset of Krakow - though still a bit cheaper than London.... we liked Smakolyki Restaurant which is good value and the staff were really friendly.Reply
Frankly, you can spend your whole trip just here - just enjoy the cafes, restaurants and the sights. One of my favourite cities!Reply
Just watch out for the e-scooters zipping around everywhere!Reply
Me and some mates are going to Krakow in 2 weeks time, any people know good pubs/clubs to go to? feel Always free to contact me :) email adress belowReply
I was recenlty lucky enough to travel to krakow with school, where we went to see all the old world war two attractions such as auschwitz. I was amazed when we were able to have free time to rome the main center of krakow, it captivated me with all the old building and the european feel to the place. I highly recommend going to castor coffee club on the main square as they serve the very best coffee i have ever tasted, and that is no exaggeration. At the moment as i am only 15 i have many exams coming up, but in my cap year i am hoping to spend this time in the city i love krakow.Reply
My wife and I have been to Krakow for the last 3 new years.This is a lovely city with very friendly and polite people. Not to be missed!!!!!!!!Reply
First time a few years ago I managed to take my 1st Overseas trip and was lucky to spend 3 days in this amazing parting of the world. I cannot wait to come back there and bring my family.Reply
Krakow is the land of artReply
Nice site. My Grandmother was born in Krakow. Her parents sent her to American at the age of 10 alone. I have family here. I would like to know if there is a site where I can speak to a person who is in Krackow to chat who is respectible. Any help would be appreciated. I hope to come to Krakow in the near future and it would be nice to find family. Thank You so muchReply
Krakow is truly beautiful and has a lovely atmosphere.Will definitely come backReply
Have been in many historical citys, but Krakow is definately the best one. Very friendly people and lovely places with a lot of charm. Will be back soon.Reply
Cracow has to be one the most wonderful cities in the world (and I've been around) Great bars and restaurants and friendly people. I just hope it doesn't go the way of Prague and end up with dozens of pissed English kids on stag nightsReply
going to krakow again for the 3rd time this new year,cant think of going anywhere else,counting the days..PARTY ON!!!!!Reply
Such a magical Old Town. We loved Cracow on our tour of Europe.Reply
Thank God this city was not destroyed in the Second World War - the Old Town especially is an absolute gem.Reply
Nice site! I might study in Krakow and having visited a few times I appreciate learning a few new things.Reply
excellent web site,very informative & extremely useful;very good for tourist information.Reply
Why can't we get a hotel quote without giving ex-directory phone numbers etc?Reply
While we don't have the possibility of having our own currency conversion yet, we recommend XE's currency converter, which has Polish Zloty: http://www.xe.com/ucc/Reply
It would be useful to have a currency exchange facility on thew site.Reply