48 hours in Krakow

With Poland set to join the EU next year, this colourful city is bound to start attracting more crowds of tourists. So go now to explore the history, culture and tempting restaurants in peace, says Eva Gizowska


WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

Visitor numbers to the most picturesque city in Poland are set to soar once the nation joins the European Union next year. So take the chance to see this cultured and colourful city in the relative tranquillity of late summer, and enjoy a place that has (too) often been called "the new Prague" - but which is more compact and unspoilt than the Czech capital.

BEAM DOWN

Direct flights from the UK are sewn up between British Airways (0870 850 9 850, www.ba.com) and its alliance partner LOT (08000 359 568, www.lot.com). Both fly between Gatwick and Krakow for around £140 return. You can also fly from Heathrow or Manchester via Warsaw. Krakow's airport is handily just 10km west of the city centre; bus 192 takes about half an hour, for a fare of three zloties (about 40p). A taxi will cost about Zl55-60/£9-10.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Start at Rynek Glowny, which translates as Main Market Square. It is the biggest medieval square in Europe and also one of the most beautiful, with Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau houses, restaurants and shops. In the middle of the square is Sukiennice , the Cloth Hall, a stunning Renaissance building which contains shops and an art gallery of Polish paintings on the first floor (open Tuesday and Thursday, 11am-6pm; Wednesday and Friday, 9am-3.30pm; Saturday and Sunday, 10am-3pm; Zl7/£1). This is also the location for the main tourist office, 1/3 Rynek Glowny (00 48 12 421 77 06, www.mcit.pl), open Monday-Friday 9am-6pm; Saturday 9am-2pm. From here follow any of the side streets leading off the squareto explore the town. The square is the centre of the Old Town, Stare Miasto, a curiously ear-shaped area. The lobe is Wawel , the castle that stands above the Wisla river. South of the castle, the Kazimierz quarter is an atmospheric area. The main station is north-east of the centre, with the bus station adjacent. Thieves are rife here. For information in advance, contact the Polish National Tourist Office at 310-312 Regent Street, London, W1B 3AX (020-7580 6688, www.visitpoland.org).

CHECK IN

One of the best hotels is the 14th-century Hotel Copernicus at ul. Kanonicza 16 (00 48 12 424 34 00, www.hotel.com.pl/copernicus). The rooms are elegant and luxurious with historic ceilings and frescoes. Doubles from Zl750/£120, including breakfast. There is also an indoor pool, and terrace bar which offers panoramic views of the city. Another top hotel is the romantically stylish and recently opened Hotel Amadeus at ul. Mikolajska 20 (00 48 12 429 60 70, www.hotel-amadeus.pl). Doubles from Zl660/£105, including breakfast. For a historic setting, stay at Hotel Pod Roza at ul. Florianska 14 (00 48 12 422 12 44, www.hotel.com. pl/podroz). This is one of the oldest hotels in town and previous guests include Tsar Alexander I and Franz Liszt. Doubles from around Zl650/£100, including breakfast. The Hotel Campanile at ul. Sw. Tomasza 34 (00 48 12 424 26 00, www.campanile.com.pl) is modern, well located and reasonably priced. Doubles from Zl380/£60, including breakfast. For a good basic hotel, try Wyspianski at ul. Westerplatte 15 (00 48 12 422 95 00, www.hotel-wyspianski.pl). Doubles from Zl280/£44, including breakfast.

TAKE A HIKE

... along the Royal Route. Starting at the Main Market Square, walk along ul. Florianska. At number 45 is Jama Michalika Cafe , once the haunt of writers and artists. At the top of ul. Florianska is St Florian's Gate (Brama Florianska) - built in the 14th century as part of the city's fortification. Turn left and walk down ul. Pijarska. On the corner is the Czartoryski Museum which houses Krakow's finest art collection (Tuesday and Thursday, 9am-4.30 pm; Wednesday and Friday, 11am-5pm; Saturday and Sunday, 10am-3.30pm; Zl7/£1). Walk down ul. Sw.Jana and across the Main Market Square into ul. Bracka. Turn left down ul. Franciszkanska, then right down ul. Grodzka where you will see the Baroque Church of St Peter and Paul . Walk back up the road, and turn into ul. Senecka which will take you into ul. Kanoniczna, one of the most beautiful streets in Krakow, which leads to Wawel Castle .

TAKE A RIDE

Even if you're here only for the weekend, a trip to the old Jewish section of Kazimierz is a must. Kazimierz was founded in the 14th century by King Kazimierz the Great. For centuries, Jewish communities found sanctuary here until the Second World War when Hitler invaded Poland. Kazimierz was never an actual ghetto (that was in the district of Podgorze) - yet this is where Spielberg filmed Schindler's List. You can get here by tram - 3 or 24 (Zl2.20/30p), horse-drawn buggy (Zl20/£3.10), or taxi (from Zl10/£1.50) from the Old Town. (Tickets for trams and buses, which run daily from 5am-11pm, are sold at news-stands.) Get off at ul. Miodowa and walk into ul. Szeroka where you will find cafés, two Jewish restaurants - Alef, No 17, and Ariel, No 18 - and three old synagogues; of these, only one, the Remuh, is still in use.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Grab a quick lunch at Chimera , ul. Sw. Anny 3, from about Zl10/£1.50 for two hot dishes, eg potatoes and savoury pancakes, and four different salads. Or pop into the stylish Cafe Camelot , ul. Sw. Tomasza 17, for a delicious selection of salads, and a slice of szarotka (apple pie) and sernik (cheesecake) - which locals claim are the best in town.

WINDOW SHOPPING

For silver, amber and other precious stones, you can find some real bargains at the covered market in Sukiennice . Expect to pay about a third of what you would at home. You'll also find woollen sweaters, toys and other crafts. Shops open Mondays to Fridays, 10am-7pm; Saturday and Sunday, 10am-3pm.

AN APERITIF

Some of the best places are slightly off the beaten track. For example, Kazimierz has become increasingly popular with locals as the place to go. Great bars to try on ul. Estery include: Alchemia, No 5, which has live music; Mechenoff, No 8, a chilled bar that stays open until 4am; and Singer at No 20 - no name on the door. This used to be a sewing-machine factory. Now, it's an atmospheric bar with old sewing-machine tables and music from Brel and Piaf. Try Polish beers such as Zywiec or Okocim for Zl3/50p. Or sample a range of flavoured vodkas. But, watch it, a single here is the same as a double at home.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

Pod Aniolami , ul. Grodzka 35 (open daily 1pm-midnight; Fridays and Saturdays 1pm-1am), is a cosy cellar-style restaurant which offers traditional Polish food, including venison and lamb, and grilled oscypek (ewe's cheese from the Tatra region). For authentic "peasants' food" go to Chlopskie Jadlo , Sw. Agnieszki 1. At Sw. Jana 3 (open daily, noon-11pm), Cherubim at ul. Sw. Tomasza 15, (open daily noon-midnight) serves a mix of Polish and Italian food. Prices vary from around Zl65-150/£10-23.50 for a three-course meal with drinks.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

For a truly uplifting experience, pop your head into St Mary's church on Kosciol Mariacki. This is one of the most beautiful and historically significant churches in Poland, and dates back to the early 13th century. For a breathtaking view of the city, climb the north tower (open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, 11am-6pm; Zl4/65p; closed in winter). This was a watchtower during the 13th century. Legend has it that during one of the Tartar raids, the watchman started to play the bugle to sound the alarm. His warning was cut short by an arrow in the throat. Today, in memory of this, every hour on the hour, a trumpeter plays the haunting melody of the bugle call - stopping abruptly before the end.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Enjoy a lazy brunch watching the world go by on the Main Market Square at the Cafe Europejski , which serves typical brunch dishes such as eggs, pancakes, grilled meats and fish (from Zl10-25/£1.50-£3).

A WALK IN THE PARK

The Planty is the "green belt" which encircles the central part of the city. This was landscaped to replace the city's medieval fortifications (demolished in the early 19th century). Today, the Planty offers a lush route to stroll along. The best starting point is at the foot of Wawel Castle . Simply follow the greenery around the town.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Situated on a hill and overlooking the city is the magical Wawel Castle . This is where Polish monarchs ruled from for centuries. According to legend, Wawel Castle is built on a type of stone which is imbued with mystical and cosmic energies. The locals believe this helps to protect the city from evil. Wawel Castle and the cathedral house many extraordinary works of art, including elaborate tapestries, paintings and furniture which draw upon many different European influences. Wawel Castle (00 48 12 422 51 55) is open Sunday, 10am-3pm; Tuesday to Saturday, 9.30am-3pm; closed on Mondays. Admission to Royal Chambers, Treasury and Armoury, Zl12/£2; admission to Private Apartments, Zl8/£1.30. Wawel Cathedral is open Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-3pm; closed on Mondays; admission Zl8/£1.30.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

Take a trip to Wieliczka Salt Mine, only 15 minutes away from Krakow. You can see beautiful works of art made out of salt. Tours take place daily, 7.30am-7.30pm (April-September) and 8am-4pm (November-March). The easiest way to get there is to book an organised tour with a company such as Intercrac Travel, ul. Krupnicza 3 (00 48 12 422 58 40, www.intercrac.com.pl); trips start at Zl40/£7.

WRITE A POSTCARD

Relax with a chilled beer or a cup of coffee at Wentzl, where you can sit in the lovely summer garden overlooking the Main Market Square.

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