Think of a fairytale setting: a medieval castle with a cave that was home to a fabled dragon; a large market square encircled by colorful buildings; cobblestone streets; a bugler playing from the top of a medieval basilica. This is Krakow, and if it is not already, it should be at the top of your must-see list when traveling in Europe.
Krakow is small enough to be friendly and welcoming, yet rich enough in history and culture to make you want to stay. Child-friendly and affordable (Poland operates on the zloty instead of the euro), the city makes a great family destination. Here are some of the highlights for a 72-hour trip.
Start by heading to the very heart of Krakow, the Old Town (Stare Miasto) and the main market square (Rynek Glowny). Surrounded by colorful townhouses, the impressive 14th-century St. Mary’s Basilica, and numerous cafes and shops — and marked in the middle by a 14th-century market hall, the Sukiennice — the Rynek easily fills half a day or more. Kids can run free in this pedestrian-only zone, and will delight in watching street performers, chasing pigeons, playing in the fountains and indulging in ice cream or a cup of divinely rich hot chocolate, depending on the season.
The best way to explore Krakow’s Old Town, perhaps, is to get lost. Cobblestone streets lead past cultural centers, museums and churches, while alleyways border shops, piano bars and cafes. Oftentimes, cafes contain beautiful open-air gardens, which you won’t know about until you meander inside.
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As you discover the Old Town’s charms, there are a few things you should not miss. Take the time to listen and watch the city’s famous bugle call (hejnal mariacki) from the top of St. Mary’s Basilica, which plays every hour on the hour. Second, don’t miss the Rynek Underground museum, located directly below the Rynek (entrance via the Sukiennice). The museum, an archaeological site itself, has a number of touch-screen and holographic exhibits that show life in Krakow hundreds of years ago, plus a fantastic area for kids that includes a performance by automated puppets. Teens will find it cool that the museum is home to an 11th-century cemetery that was home to vampire prevention burials. Due to the popularity of the Rynek Underground, purchase tickets online in advance.
After resurfacing to the main square, take a signature horse and carriage ride around the old town. This experience will truly delight children. The carriage ride winds through the Old Town, down to the Wawel Castle and back; altogether, it’s about a 20-minute ride.
Spend the second half of the day visiting Wawel Castle and Cathedral. Situated along the banks of the Vistuala River, Wawel Hill has been a place of political power since before 1000 AD, and the cathedral is where almost every Polish king and queen throughout history has been crowned. A full tour of Wawel would be overwhelming for children, so hit the highlights instead. Walk through the opulent cathedral, stroll along the castle’s inner courtyards and gardens, sit and have lunch at Pod Baszta’s terrace garden, and last — but certainly not least — descend into the depths of the dragon’s den.
As legend has it, this underground limestone cave was once home to the Wawel Dragon. Be on the lookout for a bronze sculpture of the dragon at the exit of the cave. Kids will love to watch it breathe fire, which happens every few minutes! The exit to the cave leads right down to the Vistula River, so finish the day by taking a stroll and enjoying the waterfront scenery.
TIP: To make a visit to the dragon cave extra-special for kids, purchase The Legend of Wawel Dragon online or locally and read it ahead of time. Also, note that while the castle and cathedral are open year-round, the dragon’s den is only open seasonally (April-October).
Twice a year, the Rynek becomes an extra-special place: during the Christmas markets, which generally run early December through early January; and the Easter markets, which run the week prior to and during Easter. If you are in town during these times, do not miss the exquisite stalls and wonderful traditions that accompany these festive seasons in Poland.
Head on over to the hip, Bohemian and historically important district of Kazimierz. The home of Jewish life and culture in Krakow for more than 500 years, Kazimierz was systematically destroyed during World War II and fell into disrepair during Communist times. Since the 1990s, though, it has rebounded, becoming one of Krakow’s most vibrant neighborhoods. Not only has the neighborhood made a social and economic comeback, but its reputation as the Jewish quarter has survived and grown stronger. The district is home to numerous synagogues and Jewish cemeteries and hosts the Jewish Culture Festival each year. Packed with art galleries, cafes, museums and historical sites, Kazimierz is a fun place to stumble about, get a bite to eat and visit a few museums.
With kids in tow, head to the Ethnographic Museum. Children will love walking through recreations of a 19th-century Polish classroom, village home and blacksmith shop. On the second floor, you can view colorful folk costumes, interesting instruments and beautiful crafts from Polish celebrations and holidays. Another excellent museum in Kazimierz is the Museum of Municipal Engineering. It offers many hands-on, interactive exhibits that will excite kids of all ages, as well as a collection of the city’s earliest trams, buses, motorcycles, cars, fire trucks and much more. Want to see the city’s first horse-drawn tram? This is the place to do it!
If you find yourself with good weather in the afternoon, head to Kosciuszko Mound for a beautiful view of the city. Located just a few kilometers outside of the city center, the mound is a monument to Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Polish military leader and national hero who fought against foreign invaders in Poland and, interestingly, on the American side of the American Revolutionary War. Climbing to the top of the mound on a clear day will allow you not only to get a good view of Krakow, but even to see the Tatra Mountains. Kids will enjoy exploring the encircling mound, as well as taking a walk on one of the many trails in the surrounding Wolski Forest. The mound is open every day from 9a until sunset and later in the evenings as the days get longer.
Spend the morning visiting one of Krakow’s biggest attractions and a UNESCO world heritage site, the Wieliczka Salt Mine. A tour of this giant underground cavern, in which everything is made from salt, will leave you mind-blown. Wieliczka has nine underground levels, but tours generally visit the first three, a maximum depth of around 450 feet. The classic tourist route spans two kilometers of underground tunnels, chambers and chapels and lasts about two hours (three if you decide to visit the museum too).
With children, opt instead for a private guided tour in English (request form available online). This will allow you to hit all of the highlights, including the magnificent St. Kinga’s Chapel, decorated chambers, statues and salt chandeliers, and it gives you a child-friendly option to leave the mine at certain points. Highlights for the kids include licking the walls (yes, this is encouraged!), operating a medieval winch used for using moving big blocks of salt, using touch-screen displays to learn about the mine’s history, viewing the Seven Dwarves display, and visiting the salt mine playroom.
TIP: Even with a privately guided tour, we recommend visiting the salt mine only with older children (ages 5 and up).
Wrap up your time in Krakow by heading back to the Old Town and taking a stroll around the Planty. Now a beautiful green space that encircles the Old Town, the Planty was once the location of Krakow’s medieval city walls. All of the defensive fortifications were torn down in the 19th century, except for the notable Barbican and Florianska Gates (which you should not miss).Walking the Planty’s two and a half miles will give you yet another appropriate perspective of Krakow’s personality and history.
In the warmer months, stop at the open-air Bunkier Cafe. Younger kids can play in the outdoor sandbox while adults have a drink. In winter — or any time of year — visit Krakowska Manufaktura Czekolady, one of Krakow’s famous chocolate shops, for an adventure in all things chocolate. The cafe even offers chocolate workshops for children (make sure to book in advance).
The Old Town is the most convenient location to stay in Krakow, and the Sheraton Hotel Krakow has an enviable location at the base of Wawel Castle. It is only a 10-minute walk from the hotel to the main market square or to the famous Kazimierz district. The Sheraton is situated along the Vistula River and has a number of room configurations that work well for families.
With so much to offer, Krakow is a fun destination to visit with kids. Not only does it deliver beauty, history, culture and charm, but public transportation is reliable, easy to use and stroller-friendly, and the city itself is extremely child-friendly. To experience the most that Krakow has to offer, visit during the warmer months of April-October, and you might even be able to take a little cruise down the Vistula River. Happy traveling!
Editor’s Note: Photos by Loren Braunohler.
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