With crowds of tourists and a college-town atmosphere, Krakow — once the capital of Poland — has become a European hot spot.
The center of it all is the centuries-old main square in the Old Town, or Stare Miasto, where brick streets are filled with restaurants, coffee shops, trendy boutiques and sidewalk cafes. Midnight feels like noon as crowds crawl late into the night, when many establishments turn bar, pub, disco or dance club. The sound of singing rises up from cellars filled with party-goers.
Krakow, a city of about 800,000 on the banks of the Vistula River in southern Poland, attracts about 7 million tourists a year. The city also boasts two dozen universities with nearly 210,000 students. The mix translates into a youthful, fun energy in the formerly communist country.
In the evening, visitors to the square will find history meeting the 21st century as hip-hop dancers perform in front of the landmark statue of poet Adam Mickiewicz while an older man plays an accordion under the city gate.
The large, long Sukiennice building takes up the middle of the main market square. Inside shoppers move from stall to stall down a hallway, deciding among carved wooden boxes, amber jewelry and other tourist trinkets. The building is also home to the Rynek Underground Museum, where visitors can view centuries-old archaeological ruins of Krakow.
On the northeast corner of the square a bugler emerges every hour, on the hour (yes, even in the middle of the night) from the nearly 270-foot (82-meter) tall tower of St. Mary's Church. When he's done, he waves to crowds below. Visitors can climb the tower stairs for an aerial view of the square or tour the stunning inside of the church.
The buildings just around the square are filled with sidewalk restaurants where diners can watch other tourists take horse and buggy rides or hear an opera singer perform "Ave Maria" for pocket change. Prices for entry to most attractions are reasonable. Poland is not on the euro and the U.S. dollar is worth roughly three Polish zloty.
While Krakow has all the trappings of a touristy European city, a unique vibe sets it apart. Nuns wearing full habits ride their bicycles through the square as Polish families play with their children near large, artistic sculptures. At night groups of young people hop from bar to bar or wait in long lines for large, cheesy loaves of take-out pizza bread called zapiekanka.
Food is plentiful and hardy in the Old Town. There are many Polish restaurants where tourists can sample pierogi, bigos, kielbasa and other traditional dishes. But there are also trendier cafes, Italian eateries and take-out pizza, gelato and kebob counters for a quick bite.
Cheapest and most popular for a snack are the blue carts that sell rings of fresh-baked bread dough covered in poppy seeds, cheese or sesame seeds. Bakeries every few streets sell pastries filled with chocolate, apples, strawberries and cheese, huge loaves of bread and small Polish cookies.
The Old Town is surrounded by green space called the Planty, which tour guides explain was once the city moat. Now it's filled with trees, statues, a walking path, gardens and fountains. Along the north side of the Planty is St. Florian's Gate, where local artists fill a stone city wall with paintings for sale. A tram runs in a circle outside the Planty and then branches out into the city.
Several tourist attractions sit just outside the Old Town, including Wawel Hill, which can be described as the heart of Poland. It's where the country's kings, queens and other dignitaries are buried in Wawel Cathedral. Tours are available of Wawel Castle and outside near the Vistula River a tall statue of a dragon actually breathes fire — a favorite with children.
Those looking for a more authentic shopping experience can head to the Stary Kleparz, a flea market-like space where vendors sell fresh vegetables, sausages, kitchen items, clothing, jewelry and flowers.
Several side trips are worth a look if there's time on your itinerary:
—Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum: The site of the former Nazi concentration camp, where more than 1.1 million people died during World War II, is about 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of Krakow. Tours are available in many languages.
—Kazimierz: The Jewish quarter of Krakow is just south, within walking distance, of the Old Town. Tourists can see several synagogues, a Jewish cemetery and traditional restaurants.
— Nowa Huta: The communists built Nowa Huta as an ideal workers' city, with a steel mill, apartment blocks and once, a statue of Lenin. Tours are available or get there via tram.
—Wieliczka Salt Mine: This UNESCO Heritage Site is about eight miles southeast of Krakow. Visitors can see cavernous rooms filled with intricately carved statues, altars, even chandeliers, all made of salt.
—Zakopane: Poles flock to this resort town in the Tatra Mountains about 65 miles (105 kilometers) south of Krakow. During the winter there's skiing and sledding; summer offers hiking and swimming. Trams take groups to the top of mountains for stunning views and shoppers crowd the market and boutiques along Krupowki Street.
If You Go...