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Visiting Kraków in Poland
Situated at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains on the banks of the Vistula river, Kraków is Poland's second largest city. Dating back to the 7th century, the city was the capital of Poland from 1038 to 1569. Such a long history turned Kraków into a center of Polish academic, cultural and economic life.
When Is the Best Time to Visit Kraków?
Popular with tourists, the best times of year to visit Kraków are in the fall and the spring. Summer can be hot and humid. Winters can be bitingly cold, although seeing the city under a blanket of plentiful snow can be pretty beautiful.
One other advantage of coming during the winter is the chance of bagging a cheap hotel room. May to August is peak tourist season when rooms are obviously much more expensive.
Getting to Kraków
Kraków Airport (also known as John Paul II International Airport Kraków - Balice) (IATA: KRK) is the main airport, located in Balice, about 12km to the west of the centre. It is the second biggest airport in Poland. Trains from Kraków run regularly to the Polish cities of Katowice (2 hrs) and Warsaw (2.5 - 3hrs).
Getting Around Kraków
With most landmarks within easy walking distance from one another, the best way to enjoy old Kraków is on foot. Public transport around the city is also good. Trams and buses serve the city well at reasonable prices. You can buy tickets at kiosks. Immediately after boarding a bus or tram you should put the ticket yourself through the ticket puncher and keep it till you reach your destination. Taxis are also plentiful and relatively inexpensive.
Kraków Old Town is the historic central district of the city. The entire medieval old town is among the first sites chosen for the UNESCO's original World Heritage List. The Main Square, Rynek Główny, is the largest medieval town square of any European city.
The Old Town can be lively and crowded. Horse-drawn carriages wait to give tourists a ride around the sights, which include the Town Hall Tower, the Sukiennice (also known as the Cloth Hall), and the Adam Mickiewicz Monument.
The heynal (a trumpet call), is played each hour from the highest tower of St. Mary's Church. The medieval basements and cellars beneath the buildings of the Old Town contain cafes, pubs and clubs.
A good travel guide is a must when visiting a new city. This DK Eyewitness Travel Guide is visually stunning, with its cutaways and floor plans of important buildings, along with 3D aerial views of the key districts to explore on foot. The guide comes with a free pull-out city map.
The Wawel Royal Castle is a historically and culturally important site. It was the the residence of the kings of Poland and the symbol of Polish statehood for centuries. The Castle is now an art museum, with paintings, prints, sculpture, textiles, goldsmith’s work, arms and armor, ceramics, porcelain and period furniture.
What is the Wawel Dragon?
The Wawel Dragon, also known as the Dragon of Wawel Hill, is a famous dragon in Polish folklore. The dragon supposedly had a lair in a cave at the foot of Wawel Hill. In some stories the dragon lived before the founding of the city, when the area was inhabited by farmers.
To the south of the Old Town is the district of Kazimierz. For many centuries, this was a place where Christian and Jewish communities co-existed. The north-eastern part of the district was historic Jewish. The Jewish inhabitants were forcibly relocated in 1941 by the German occupying forces into the ghetto across the river.
The area received worldwide exposure in the 1990s thanks to the Steven Spielberg film Schindler's List. Today, Kazimierz is a bustling and bohemian district, with cafes and art galleries. Europe's largest Jewish festival of culture and music, The Jewish Culture Festival, takes place in the area every June.
You can learn more about the story of Oskar Schindler, who is credited with saving almost 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware and ammunitions factories. Schindler's Factory is now an impressive and interactive museum which tells the moving story of the city from 1939 to 1945.
If you want to get away from the medieval charm and tourists of the Old Town, you might like to head on over to Nowa Huta. One of only two entirely pre-planned socialist realist cities ever built (the other being Magnitogorsk in Russia’s Ural Mountains), it was intended to be an ideal city. Funded by the Soviet Union, it was created with wide, tree-lined avenues, parks, lakes and buildings in the approved architectural style of the time - Socialist Realism.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
For an interesting trip outside of the city, Wieliczka Salt Mine is well worth a visit. The mine, which is about 14km from the city center, dates back to the 13th century and produced table salt up until 2007. Now existing as a tourist attraction, visitors can see statues which were carved out of the rock salt by miners. There is even an underground chapel and reception room which is used for private functions, including weddings.
Learning a little of the local language is always a useful thing to do before you take a trip to a foreign city. This phrase book and CD from Berlitz covers topics such as food & drink and dealing with emergency situations.