Krakow is the old capital of Poland and one of Europe’s most beautiful towns. you can see our article about Krakow with kids, but if you are staying in Krakow and have some time to spend in the area, there are lots surrounding attractions and sights which make for great day trips from Krakow.
Poland has 28 UNESCO Heritage sites of which 14 are to be found in the Malopolska Region around Krakow.
Day trips out of Krakow
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Wieliczka Salt Mine is a fascinating destination in itself and sure enough, it is just 10km from Krakow’s town centre. This pretty little town (English speakers would pronounce it Vee-eh-LEECH-ka) owes its fame to a salt mine that has been operating continuously since the XIII century: that’s 700 years of continuous salt mining!.
The mines comprise 270 km of tunnels at nine levels from 57m down to to 327m below ground level. Listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1978, Wieliczka is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Poland for nationals as well as those visiting the country. It can accommodate 10,000 visitors a day and the underground restaurant frequently serves 7,000 meals.
The mine comprises a maze of tunnels, opening out into multilevel chambers, some with vast timber structures reminiscent of Piranesi’s fantasy drawings. Others contain lakes, carved staircases, balconies and statues or monuments. There are 40 chapels, of which the most famous is the Chapel of St Kinga – sculpted entirely from the living salt and hung with vast chandeliers each glittering with thousands of salt crystals.. The chapel is 51m long, spans 33m and is 26m in height. That makes it the world’s largest underground church. The sculptures you can find throughout the tour are the work of the miners themselves – apparently salt is difficult to carve because its crystalline form means it is prone to breaking off (oops!)
Also underground, there is a beautifully presented museum which includes a three-dimensional transparent model of the mine passages and also a magnificent panoramic model of the old town. You will also find here full scale replicas of some of the ingenious mining equipment and pictures showing how pit ponies were lowered into the mines by means of a cradle. Apparently those ponies never saw sunshine again – but it couldn’t have been such a bad life: The last one retired in the twentieth century at the age of over 40 years!
The Wieliczka mine offers two sightseeing tours – the Tourist one (this is the one we tried) and the “Miner’s Route”. For this one you will be wearing a special suit and helmet. The normal tourist route just needs comfy shoes and you should be prepared to walk 5km (representing only 2% of the whole network), including over 600 steps (luckily only down, the return is by lift) The air is always comfortably cool underground.
After visiting various UNESCO Sites all over the world, Wieliczka is in our “Best 3” alongside Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu and Aint Ben Haddou. We went during the reduced lockdown after the main wave of COVID-19 so we had the place almost to ourselves, but in normal circumstances, you should book on-line and well in advance. This place is fabulously popular.
Bochnia Salt Mine
Bochnia Salt mine is located only a few kilometres away from Wieliczka, and is older still. It was listed by UNESCO Heritage in 2013. Bochnia is a little less spectacular so we don’t advise going here if you have recently seen Wieliczka – we don’t want you to come away feeling you have overdone it! But if for any reason you want a less over-the-top experience or on a subsequent trip, Bochnia mines are astonishing for their beauty and history. Try the recently opened Old Mountains Trek Historic Route – this features ancient medieval mines never before open to visitors. Bochnia also offers a boat trip in the underground lakes.
Auschwitz Birkenau was one of the biggest Nazi concentration camps and the largest of the extermination centres during the Second World War. It is located in a suburb of Oświęcim, (pronounced Osh-vi-EN-chim) 65 kilometres west of Krakow.
Auschwitz Birkenau concentration camp was founded by the Nazis in 1940 and during the war became a place of extermination by torture starvation and gassing of about 1.5 million people of 28 nationalities. In 1947 the camp was transformed into a museum – Auschwitz Birkenau Memorial. In 1979, the museum was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List making it probably the saddest of UNESCO’s sites.
Places like Auschwitz Birkenau remain to remind us how cruel humans can be, I don’t know if a visit there is a must, as it’s an experience that can affect people very deeply. I definitely advise against taking children under 14 years old of age to Auschwitz Birkenau.
Entry tickets cost 60 PLN and it is advisory to book tickets online. You should expect to stay at least 3 hours. Oświęcim is quite close to Wadowice (see below) the hometown of Pope John Paul II
Auschwitz Birkenau Memorial website http://auschwitz.org/en/
Zalipie – “The Most Beautiful Village in Poland”
Zalipie (pronounced Za-LEEP-yeh) is a unique village in Poland, famous for beautifully painted wooden cottages. The decorations are mostly floral motifs, and they cover not only the little houses but bus shelters, barns, wells, tree trunks, fences, dog kennels – you name it. What we found most enchanting on our visit in springtime is that the village was also bursting with real flowers. Everyone’s garden and the public spaces too are overflowing with flowering shrubs, and climbers, each one vying with the paintings for the pride of place.
The folk art of painting flowers in Zalipie started over 100 years ago, apparently as a local culture of making white splotches in the sooty walls of domestic kitchens, and yes flowery murals decorate internal spaces in the village as well as building facades. Every year there is a competition for the most beautifully painted house. Zalipie has almost 50 painted houses in a village which doesn’t seem to have a centre but takes the form of a ring road, making for a pleasant rural walk of a couple of kilometres. There are more painted houses in nearby villages too. Apparently the culture is catching.
Częstochowa and The Black Madonna
Częstochowa (Chen-sto-KHO-va) is famous for the Monastery on Jasna Góra and its image of the Black Madonna.
The beginnings of this monastery date back to the XIV century, and the early Pauline Order. But building work continued through the ages, to create an architectural ensemble of five centuries. The Monastery we see now is an extremely valuable piece of Christian heritage and a compact monastery complex redolent with Polish history.
Rather than for its cultural heritage, most important for the thousands of pilgrims who come here every year is the place’s spiritual dimension,centred in the Chapel of the Mother of God with the image of Our Lady of Częstochowa to which have been attributed many miracles. The Madonna is to be found on the Baroque ebony altar
Lanckorona and Calvary Sanctuary in Kalwaria – Zebrzydowska
Lanckorona (pronounced Lants-ko-RO-nah) is a very charming town in Malopolska, located between Wadowice and Myślenice. Lanckorona sits on a mountain slope 35 km from Krakow.. Due to this mountainside site the main Market Square offers great views of the valley and even distant towns. In good visibility, you can see the complex of Calvary (Kalwaria)
Lanckorona is known in Poland as the magic city of angels (because of an old famous Polish song – it also has an annual “Angel Festival”) is a lovely place to visit if you feel like relaxing and experiencing the slow life. Go for a stroll around the market square to see pretty little log houses with wide oversailing eaves (the effect of a local law, which stated that the property ended on the roofline) Visit the local ethnography museum, have a delicious “Italian” ice cream from any one of a number of small kiosks – that’s a must. And climb the hill into the forest above the town to to see the ruins of the old castle and the view.
From Lanckorona you should go to nearby Kalwaria Zebrzydowska
Kalwaria Zebrzydowska (Kal-VAR-ya Zeb-zhi-DOV-ska) or Calvary Sanctuary is the most important pilgrimage destination in Poland, after Częstochowa. It is located on the famous Papal Trail leading from Wadowice to Kraków, attracting two million pilgrims a year.
The Calvary Sanctuary combines the worship of both Christ’s passion and the Mother of God. The guiding idea is to map the last journey of Christ. It is often called the Polish Jerusalem and takes its place on the UNESCO heritage list. The site comprises not only the church but a delightful sloping square overlooking the valleys and woodlands on one side and bounded by old balconied townhouses on the other.
Tyniec Benedictine Abbey
Tyniec (pronounced TIN-yets) is a former village near Krakow, which in 1973 was incorporated into Krakow and is now an integral part of the city. Tyniec is located, on the picturesque right bank of the Vistula to the west of the city centre. This place is known mainly due to the Benedictine monastery – one of the oldest monasteries in all of Poland established almost a millennium ago. It is magnificently impressive from outside and is partly open to visitors. there is a delightful guest house adjacent (Dom Gości Opactwa Benedyktynów) with an impressive 9/10 on Booking.com in case you want to stay overnight.
The Tatra National Park and Zakopane
Tatra National Park has numerous glacial lakes (called stawy – ponds). They are characterized by exceptional clear water. The largest of them is Morskie Oko 34.5 ha and 50.8 m deep. Park has different waterfalls with larges over 70 meters high – called Wielka Siklawa.
Zakopane – called the winter capital of Poland is a resort town located at the foothill of the Tatra Mountains. Zakopane is very popular with Poles, hence when you visit the main street – Krupowki is always busy. Zakopane is a great starting point to explore Tatry same in winter or summer.
The length of tourist routes in Tatra Mountains is over 240 km they are well marked and if you hiking here be aware that you are not allowed to go off the marked path.
Wadowice – Hometown of Pope John Paul II
Fifty kilometres from Krakow lies Wadowice (Vad-o-VEETS-eh) a small town, but known to everyone in Poland as the birthplace of the beloved pope – Karol Wojtyła (John Paul II) who spent his childhood here.
Thanks to this, the city has gained publicity all over Poland, and Wadowice has become an attractive destination for both tourists and pilgrims. Monuments and the Market Square have been cleaned up and renovated with a modern look. You can even visit the home of John Paul II.
One of the things that we never miss when visiting Wadowice (our local passport office is in the town) are Kremówki. (Krem-OOF-ki) The Pope mentioned his childhood love of these cream cakes once in a sermon when he visited Poland while in office, and now of course they are available from every bakery in the town where it seems every vendor’s version is even better than their neighbour’s.
Ojców National Park and the Eagles’ Nest Castles
Ojców (OYT-soof) National Park is located in the Jura Krakowsko Częstochowska, 30 kilometers north west of Krakow. It is the smallest national park in Poland, but nevertheless very picturesque with lots of hikes in the forested Prądnik Valley where you find yourselves in the shadow of majestic limestone cliffs. Most of these crags overlook the river valley, but several of the rocks are gigantic freestanding megaliths standing precariously on tiny bases. Some of the best known have names such as Hercules’ Club, Diotima’s Needle, and the Gates of Krakow.
In Ojców National Park you can find lots of caves. The most impressive are Grotto Łokietka and Ciemna Cave. In all of the caves you can find bats. Talking of wildlife, the river valley is home to a trout farm, renowned for providing tasty brown river trout to local and national restaurants, and a nearby stream valley is populated by wild beavers. Whilst we didn’t spot any beavers on our walks, the number of dams made by trees felled across the stream was quite remarkable. The woodland around here comprise a mixture of magnificent beech trees and pines, all in their natural unmanaged state, and open to walkers with well waymarked public trails.
Running through this area is the “Eagles Nest Castle Trail” A collection of some of the innumerable castles built by Kazimierz III Wielki; (Casimir III the Great) – the fourteenth century King who transformed Poland for the better and doubled its territory. He also created a new legal system, a university, and improved social justice. It was said that he inherited a kingdom of timber and bequeathed one built of stone, unfortunately not to his own line. Despite having four wives he didn’t produce a male heir to inherit the kingdom. In any event this area is dotted with castles varying from overgrown ruins to magnificent standing examples of mediaeval fortification – each different and all picturesque. The Castle in Ojcow itself though magnificently sited is mostly in ruins whereas that in Pieskowa Skala, has a pretty parterre maze garden, museum, exhibitions and a fine rooftop restaurant (this one is just a stones throw from the Club of Hercules)
The main river valley in Ojców is closed to tourist vehicles, but you can park at the castle (PLN 12 – about $2-50) or do what we did and park a little way out in the woods at the public car park and walk through the forest and the little lanes taking in the castle and the river valley. In season you can hire a horse drawn carriage if you are feeling lush and romantic.
The Wooden Architecture Trail in Malopolska
The Wooden Architecture Trail in Małopolska includes 255 various wodden buildings – Churches, Orthodox Churches (Cerkwia), Bell Towers and many more.
Our favourite was Wooden churches especially one enlisted as Unesco Heritage Sites
- Wooden Catholic churches
- the Church of st. Michael the Archangel in Binarowa,
- the church of st. Michael the Archangel in Dębno Podhalański,
- the church of st. Leonard in Lipnica Murowana
- the church of st. st. Filip and Jakub in Sękowa
- Wooden Orthodox Churches
- st. Jakub the Younger Apostle in Powroźnik,
- Protection of the Mother of God in Owczary,
- St. Paraskevia in Kwiatoń and the
- St. Michael the Archangel in Brunary Wyżne
If you are all overloaded with nature and culture then try Energylandia – Poland’s biggest amusement park. Energylandia is divided into 5 zones and gives everyone something to do. If you come here then reserve the whole day, and take your swimming kit with you too to enjoy the water park which is a great place to cool down on a hot day. For the brave amongst you try the Extreme Zone and take a ride the Hyperion Mega Coaster including an 80m vertical drop. No thank you – it’s not for me, I have just eaten lunch.
Other Polish Town to visit from Krakow
Katowice – (Kat-o-VEET-seh) the closest big town to Krakow, is a coal mining town and not a thing of beauty, but for culture vultures it often has great exhibitions and concerts.
Łódź – (Pronounced Woodsh) is Poland’s answer to England’s Manchester. Like Manchester, it was a cotton town made fabulously wealthy in the Industrial Revolution, sank into grim disrepair in the post-industrial mid twentieth century and reinvented itself as a centre of modern life and creative culture for the millennium. It’s also my home town and I love it. One way in which it differs from Manchester is that there is neither a ship canal nor even a river in Łódź which is strange since the city’s name translates as “ boat”
Krakow day trips – pin it for later
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