With Poland now so accessible from the UK, there's never been a better time to discover its loveliest city. Cathy Packe is your guide

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Why go now?

Poland's loveliest city is easily accessible from airports across the UK, and yet Krakow remains peaceful and unspoilt, with plenty to offer the visitor. The most detailed information is at www.krakow-info.com.

Touch down

Krakow's handy airport is served by easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) daily from Bristol, Gatwick, Liverpool and Luton, and several times a week from Belfast, Bournemouth, Edinburgh and Newcastle.

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies twice daily from Stansted, and several times a week from East Midlands, Liverpool and Prestwick.

From Krakow airport, a free shuttle bus leaves every half-hour from outside the terminal, connecting passengers with a railway platform some 200m away – walking distance if you only have a light bag. From there a train trundles off on the 15-minute journey to the main train station (1), for a single fare of 6 zlotys (£1.25).

A taxi to the centre should cost around 30 zlotys (£6).

Get your bearings

The heart of Krakow, the Stare Miasto, is shaped like a light bulb, with the Wawel Hill as the end of the stem and the bulb itself defined by the city walls. Much of it is pedestrianised, with most of the traffic flowing around the perimeter using a road that follows the line of the old city walls.

Wawel Castle (2) is built on a rock at the southern tip of the old town. To the south-west, and once separated from the rest of Krakow by the river Vistula, is the former Jewish district of Kazimierz.

Parts of the river have been filled in, and it now loops around the south of the city, separating it from the suburb of Podgorze on the other bank, where the Jewish ghetto was located during the Second World War.

There are information points all over the city, but the main tourist office (00 48 12 433 7310; www.krakow.pl) is in the Town Hall Tower (3), in the main square. It opens 9am-5pm daily.

Check in

Accommodation options have proliferated over the past few years. The most luxurious is the Copernicus (4). Tucked away between the main square and Wawel Castle, at Ulica Kanonicza 16 (00 48 12 424 3400; www.hotel.com.pl), it has double rooms from 850 zlotys (£175), including breakfast – very expensive by Polish standards, but a lot less than you would pay for this quality of accommodation in western Europe.

The Francuski Hotel (5) at Ulica Pijarska 13 (00 48 12 627 3777; www.orbis.pl) is a grand, slightly faded Art Nouveau establishment that has rooms from €115 (£88); breakfast is an additional €15 (£12) per person.

Particularly good value is the Trecius guest house (6), in an ideal location just a block from the main square at Ulica Sw Tomasza 18 (00 48 12 421 2521; www.trecius.krakow.pl). It has friendly staff and offers rooms that are cosy and comfortable. Doubles start at 200 zlotys (£41), with breakfast an additional 6 zlotys (£1.25).

Take a hike

Start your hike at Florian's Gate (7), once a main entrance to the city. It, and the Barbican (8), or fortress, behind it are all that remain of the city's medieval defences. The Barbican opens 10.30am-6pm daily from May to September, but even when it is closed, a peep through the main gate reveals something of the size and strength of the building.

Walk down Ulica Florianska, the old town's main northern thoroughfare, and into the Rynek Glowny or main square, the largest in Europe when it was built in the 13th century, and still one of the most impressive. All around it are elegant buildings in a range of pastel shades; most have shops and cafés on the ground floor. Within the square are a 700-year-old tower (3), all that remains of Krakow's Town Hall; the Cloth Hall (9), now containing souvenir shops; and the small church of St Adalbert's (10), which is older than the square itself.

Dominating the whole space is St Mary's church (11), with its pair of unmatching towers. A trumpeter plays a few bars of a fanfare from here every hour on the hour. The church opens to visitors 11.30am-6pm from Monday to Saturday and 2-6pm on Sundays. Admission is 6 zlotys (£1.25), although there is a separate entrance for worshippers, who are not required to pay.

Leave the square along Ulica Sw Anny; on the right, at the far end, is the collegiate church of Sw Anny (12), whose trompe l'oeil paintings make the interior look wonderfully ornate..

Opposite is the Collegium Maius, the oldest university college in Poland (00 48 12 422 0549; www.uj.edu.pl/museum), the entrance of which is on Ulica Jagiellonska. It is built around a courtyard, and visitors are taken into some of the magnificent upstairs rooms, including the refectory and the aula, or lecture hall. Tours of the college take place every 20 minutes from 10am-2.20pm Monday to Friday, 10am-1.20pm on Saturdays. Tickets cost 12 zlotys (£2.50), 6 zlotys (£1.25) on Saturdays. The astronomer Copernicus was a pupil here, and a statue (13) in his memory stands close to the college at the end of Ulica Golebia.

Continue on to Ulica Franciszkanska. On the left is the Archbishop's Palace (14), identified by the enlarged photograph outside of its most famous former resident, Pope John Paul II; opposite is the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi (15). From there, head back through the Maly Rynek (16), an attractive plaza that in any other city would be the focal point, and back into the main square.

Lunch on the run

A Polish speciality is pierogi, little dumplings filled with meat, vegetables or cheese that are a cross between ravioli and dim sum. Several Krakow cafés specialise in pierogi, such as Zapiecek (17), a small, rustic establishment at Ulica Slawkowska 32 (00 48 12 422 7495), where you will get a quick but very tasty lunch.

A walk in the park

The moat that once surrounded the city walls has been turned into a series of gardens: the Planty. These completely surround the old town and have been landscaped with trees, ponds and sculpture. They are a lovely place for a stroll, and as the weather gets warmer and the outdoor cafés open up, a good place to have a coffee or a beer.

Window shopping

You can find quirky little shops all over the old town: don't miss Szambelan (18), at Ulica Bracka 9, a tiny place full of big flasks of fruit vodka and a selection of bottles; choose one and have it filled with the spirit of your choice. For a concentrated retail splurge, go to the Galeria Krakowska (19), an airy shopping mall. Its 270 stores include familiar names such as Benetton and Swatch, as well as a Carrefour supermarket and an English-language bookstore. The Galeria opens 9am-10pm from Monday to Saturday, and 10am-9pm on Sundays.

An aperitif

Anyone looking for nightlife should head towards Kazimierz, the city's most bohemian quarter, and full of lively bars. Enjoy a glass of the local Okocim or Zywiec beer, or a shot of Polish vodka, at Alchemia (20), at Ulica Estery 5 (www.alchemia.com.pl). or one of the many bars on Plac Nowa.

Dining with the locals

Look out for Polish specialities such as oscypek, a smoked cheese that is fried and eaten with cranberry sauce, and bigos, a spicy mixture of pickled cabbage and chunks of sausage. CK Deserter (21), at Ulica Bracka 6 (00 48 12 422 7931), is a relaxed place with a rustic decor and a warm atmosphere, serving a tasty range of meat and fish dishes as well as a good selection of vegetarian fare. Main courses start at 18 zlotys (£3.70).

Sunday morning: go to church

The cathedral is part of the Wawel complex (2) (00 48 12 422 5155 ext 219; www.wawel.krakow.pl), a collection of buildings that include the castle, and it opens 9am-5pm daily. It is dominated by the tomb of St Stanislaw, a former bishop of Krakow, but also contains the tombs of several Polish kings. There is an admission charge of 10 zlotys (£2) for the crypt and the bell tower, from where there is an impressive view of the old town.

While you are there, it is well worth visiting the castle, too. The State Apartments, with their coffered ceilings, leather wallpaper and sumptuous tapestries, are particularly impressive.

The whole Wawel complex opens daily, 6am until dusk. The State Apartments are open 9.30am-4pm from Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-4pm on Sundays, 9.30am-1pm on Mondays from April to October.

Admission costs 14 zlotys (£2.90) for the rest of this month, but is free on Sundays; it increases to 15 zlotys (£3) from April onwards (free on Mondays).

Out to brunch

Le Scandale (22), at Plac Nowy 9 (00 48 12 430 6855; www.lescandale.pl), has a good breakfast menu. Expect to pay 9 zlotys (£1.85) for scrambled eggs and bacon, 18 zlotys (£3.70) for American-style pancakes.

Cultural afternoon

Explore the district of Kazimierz, home to Krakow's Jewish population until the outbreak of the Second World War, when many Jews were sent to Auschwitz, some 50 miles away.

The Galicia Museum (23), at Ulica Dajwor 18 (00 48 12 421 6842; www.galiciajewishmuseum.org), is an excellent starting point for a visit to the area. It opens 10am-6pm daily, and admission costs 12 zlotys (£2.50).

The centre of the Jewish district was Ulica Szeroka. At one end is the Remu Synagogue (24), built in the 16th century and still operating; beside it is a cemetery that was ruined during the war, but many of the headstones have been collected and placed in a commemorative wall. The museum and cemetery open 9am-4pm daily except Saturdays, and admission is 5 zlotys (£1).

At the opposite end of the street, at number 24, is the Stara Synagogue, once the most important in the community. It is now a museum containing a fascinating collection of artefacts and memorabilia. It opens 9am-4pm Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, 10am-2pm Monday, 10am-5pm Friday; longer hours in summer. Admission is 7 zlotys (£1.45).

Write a postcard...

...from Nowa Huta, the industrial area some six miles east of Krakow that is known for its striking socialist-realist architecture.

Take tram 4 from the city centre; tickets are available from machines at each stop, and cost 2.50 zlotys (50p) one way. Get off at the main square – Plac Centralny – and head north.

Highlights include the Arka Pana church, built in the shape of Noah's Ark, and the People's Theatre, both on Obroncow Krzyza.