Created | Updated Jul 3, 2013
Krakow, also known as the Florence of the North, is one of the larger cities in Poland and some say (mainly those from Krakow) that it's the unofficial capital. Under UNESCO1 protection, the whole city centre is a World Heritage Site. Many visitors travel to Krakow by train and the Polish recommend this mode of transport because it means you will avoid joining the grid-locked traffic on the chronically-congested streets.
Once you alight from your train, wander on foot towards the market place. En route lies Florianska, Krakow's most tourist-orientated street. Don't get turned off by the drastically colourful paintings for sale at the old City Wall, or the McDonald's signs, or the bad kebabs you might be tempted to buy - it's fun to watch Polish capitalism in action for a while. Resuming your city ramble, you will slowly approach Rynek Główny, the main market place. This large rectangle is surrounded by Renaissance buildings, almost all of which survived World War Two intact. Near the middle of this area you will find the Clothier's Halls and the tall tower of City Hall. Both are of medieval origin and have been remodelled several times since. They house museums and lots of gift shop arcades. The souvenirs available for purchase are, in the main, of good quality and reasonably priced.
The cafés and restaurants around the Rynek Główny, many geared towards the tourist market, give the area a lively and almost Italian atmosphere. Thousands of people mill around the market and it can be very entertaining to just watch the crowd's antics or listen to one of the many gypsy bands jamming. In one corner of this fascinating place you will find Our Lady's Church. It houses a wooden main altar created by German medieval sculptor, Veit Stoss. At six o'clock each evening its outer wings are folded in by a nun, so you can also view the scenes on the other side. Also, note the hours when the trumpet player on the church's tower gives his signal; he'll stick out his tongue when he's done, and, so legend has it, if you're an unmarried female you might - having seen him do this - find a man soon. The jury's still out on that one.
Wandering away from the market towards Wawel Castle, you will walk through some of Europe's most beautiful Renaissance streets. Krakow has many churches - too numerous to list - and all of them are worth checking out. Note also the many cafés off the market place are astonishingly cheap and many sport beautifully designed interiors.
Wawel Castle was once the residence of Polish kings. It was originally established by King Krak after he (allegedly) killed a dragon. You can still visit the dragon's cave as you make your way out of the castle. The castle's cathedral is an astonishing mix of various styles - there are guided tours available (if required) through this area and also through the royal tombs. Look out for the dragon bones - probably mammoth or whale - outside the portal. The Royal Chambers and the Royal Private Rooms are still well preserved, but beware, opening hours are quite short in the afternoons. Especially worth looking at is the Renaissance court - a masterpiece with a very Italian feel.
For something completely different, visit the Japanese Museum on the other bank of the Vistula. Modern architecture frames the pieces of Mr Manggha's collection (ranging from Hokusai to Hiroshige). They even have a little tea garden.
In the evening you might try out one of the famed restaurants in Kasimierz, the old Jewish district. It has some fine synagogues and lots of atmosphere. You will recognise the streets if you have seen the film, Schindler's List. Try out the Ariel - they serve excellent Jewish food. Kazimierz has some of the liveliest and most interesting bars in all of Krakow.
All in all, Krakow is well worth the visit. It's... alive.