Poland’s second city has a lot to offer in itself, with a stunning medieval Old Town that was declared World Heritage by UNESCO, a remarkable mix of architecture (including Gothic, Renaissance, baroque, Romanesque and art nouveau), a Royal Castle and a Jewish Quarter turned bohemian neighborhood, plus a cultural calendar so packed that it could keep you busy for weeks.
But if you have a day or two to spare, there are actually a number of places outside of Krakow that are worth a visit. Read on for three places you should visit on a day trip from Krakow, how much time to spend there and how to do it:
A visit to Auschwitz is not the most joyful of days, but educating yourself about the horrific experiences Jewish prisoners had to endure in this (and similar) concentration camps is something I believe everyone should do. Auschwitz has become the most important representation of the Holocaust, representing the brutal extermination of an entire religion, with over six million people unscrupulously murdered – over one million of which died in Auschwitz – and it is more critical than ever to be informed about genocide and the brutal regime of the Nazis. It is heartbreaking to read about the events of the Jewish prisoners and to see images as well as personal belongings, but a visit to Auschwitz should be on every Krakow visitor’s itinerary.
Trip Duration: Even though Auschwitz is not far from Krakow (65 km (40 mi) west of the city), it will take you hours to see both parts of the concentration camp, one of which now houses an extensive museum. This is a full day trip from Krakow.
How to do it: Buses run regularly between Krakow and Auschwitz from the Central Bus Station, they usually say ‘Oświęcim, Auschwitz Museum”. The main operator is Lajkonik. If they go directly to the concentration camp, bypassing the town, the ride takes around 90 minutes. The longer route can take up to 2.5 hours, so you’ll want to make sure you take a bus that goes directly to Auschwitz. Tickets are PLN13 (US$3.32) each way when purchased online or PLN14 (US$3.62) when purchased from the driver.
You can also take a guided tour from Krakow – they are advertised all over Krakow. Expect to pay between PLN130 and PLN150 (US$33 – US$39). It is also possible to organize your transportation from Krakow individually (i.e. take the cheap bus) and book a guided tour in Auschwitz. Tours run every 15 minutes and take between 2.5 and 3.5 hours. They start at around PLN60 (~US$15).
If you are planning to visit Auschwitz between April and October, it is advised to reserve a guided tour at least one month before your visit. Tours fill up quickly during high season.
Admission to Auschwitz is free.
Important: Note that during high season (between 1 April and 31 October) you can visit one large part of the camp (Auschwitz I) as part of a guided tour between 10am and 3pm due to the large number of visitors. If you prefer seeing the camp at your own pace, make sure to arrive before 10am. Arriving after 3pm would mean a rather rushed visit. Auschwitz Memorial and Museum are open daily from 7.30am – 7pm.
2 Wieliczka Salt Mine
The Wieliczka Salt Mine is a former salt mine where for hundreds of years miners pulled out rock salt which was processed into table salt for pretty much all of Poland.
After the mine closed, talented sculptors gave it a second life by decorating the caves with salt statues so elaborate that you have to go see them with your own eyes to believe it. There is even an entire chapel made out of salt down there – hundreds of meters below ground! The chapel, named Chapel of St Kinga, is so magnificent that it has become a popular spot for weddings and rock concerts. Other highlights of the cavernous maze of underground tunnels include an underground salt lake (which has a higher salt density than the Dead Sea!), a salt sculpture of Pope John Paul II, and a salt-crystal chandelier. There’s even a salt version of Leonardo’s The Last Supper carved into rock-salt wall!
Wieliczka Salt Mine has over 200 miles (300 kilometers) of tunnels, spread out of nine levels, of which the deepest is 1,073 feet (327 meters) underground. UNESCO recognized the splendor of the mine by rewarding it World Heritage status in 2010. In addition to salt sculptures, the mine also has displays of historic salt-mining technology and a salt museum.
Trip duration: You can visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine in a few hours, which means this can be done in a half day trip from Krakow.
How to do it: The easiest way to see the Salt Mines is taking a Wieliczka Salt Mine Tour from Krakow. Tours start in Krakow’s Old Town and with a tour you get to skip the line at the entrance, you are shown around by a knowledgeable guide who provides you with background information on the mines and brings you to the most remarkable sculptures and chambers. Tours take around 4.5 hours (90 minutes of which are transportation from and to Krakow) and cost around PLN150 (around US$35). Be aware that the tour includes quite a bit of walking in the mine, so make sure to wear comfortable shoes, and since it’s quite chilly in the mine (the average temperature is 57°F / 14°C ) you’ll want to pack a jacket, even on a hot day.
3 Tatra Mountains
If you are an avid hiker, you should definitely make the Tatra Mountains part of your Krakow itinerary, but anyone who appreciates nature, scenic landscapes and mountains will enjoy a trip to what is often called the ‘Polish Alps’. Take a bus to Zakopane, a town in a picturesque city in the foothills of the mountains. From there, you can take a cable car up to the mountain top for panoramic views or to start a mountain hike along one of the many trails. In the winter, Zakopane turns into a winter wonderland and becomes a dream destination for winter sports enthusiasts.
You shouldn’t miss the Morskie Oko Trail, which brings you to the most stunning lake in the Tatra Mountains: Morskie Oko. This lake was named as one of the five most beautiful lakes in the world by the Wall Street Journal! If hiking isn’t your thing, soak up the atmosphere of Zakopane, wander Krupówki Street (the main street), which is lined with shops and restaurants, and enjoy a traditionally Polish meal at Dobra Kasza Nasza. Try the famous oscypek, a smoked cheese made of salted sheep milk that you find only in the Tatra Mountains.
Trip duration: Getting to Zakopane / the Tatra Mountains takes about two hours, so this is definitely a full day trip from Krakow, especially if you are planning to go on a longer hike. The Tatra Mountains would also make for a great overnight trip. If you go overnight, book your accommodation in advance – Zakopane can get busy.
How to do it: You can take a bus from Krakow which brings you to Zakopane in two hours and costs only between €3 and €6 (book your buses and trains in advance to save money). There are trains as well, but they take longer (about three hours). If you want to be more flexible, you can rent a car in Krakow – car rentals start at around €35 per day.