The Best Of: Krakow

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The Independent Travel

Poland's oldest city (and its original royal capital), retains its charm to this day, and its historic buildings, enclosed within its defensive walls, are beautifully preserved. Krakow has 6,000 historic buildings and monuments - more than any other city in Poland - and an incredible 2.5 million works of art. In the 15 years since Poland became the first eastern European state to break from Communism, the country has taken great economic, social and psychological strides. The zloty is at favourable rate for us and from today (until 12 December) you can spend some at the city's Christmas market.

Best hotel

Offering city-centre luxury and old-world charm, Hotel Copernicus (00 48 12 424 34 00) occupies two beautifully restored buildings in one of Krakow's most picturesque streets. It offers amazing views over Wawel Castle from the rooftop bar, and has a swimming pool inside a medieval vaulted brick cellar. Doubles from £125 per night including breakfast.

There are other fine hotels in the inner suburb of Kazimierz - the Jewish part of the city - which is within walking distance south-east of the Wawel. Probably the best option is Hotel Eden (00 48 12 430 65 65), in three meticulously restored 15th-century houses. The hotel has a pub, sauna and the only mikvah (Jewish bath) in Poland. Doubles from £46 per night, including breakfast.

Best restaurant

For a true taste of Poland - and that means lots of filling soups, stews and generous hunks of meat served with potatoes or steamed buckwheat groats - try Restauracja Chlopskie Jadlo. There are two restaurants of the same name, one in Kazimierz at ul Sw Agnieszki l (00 48 12 421 85 20) and another which has recently opened in the old town at ul Sw Jana 3 (00 48 12 429 51 57). Both look like country inns and pride themselves on offering peasant food - you can order a "peasant's bowl" with a selection of dishes representing rural gastronomy. Live music adds to the atmosphere on some evenings. About £12 per head including drinks.

Another good eaterie is the traditional Jewish restaurant Café Ariel (00 48 12 421 79 20, ul Szeroka 18, Kazimierz). You can eat in the tiny courtyard by a tinkling fountain, or upstairs in the 19th-century-style dining room, with its dark mahogany furniture and white lace tablecloths. If you are lucky you may get to hear some Klezmer (traditional Jewish) music while you eat. Dishes might include czulent (a stew with beef, beans and barley) and Jewish cakes, and you can round off your meal with Ariel's special coffee - spiced up with cinnamon and liqueur. Expect to pay around £14 a head for two courses including beer and coffees.

For a special meal in the heart of the city try the Restauracja Pod Aniolami at ul Grodzka 35 (00 48 12 421 39 99), which means "under the angels".

You will eat excellent typical Polish food in the superb surroundings of a vaulted cellar, decorated with household implements and old craftwork. A two-course dinner with alcohol should cost about £15.

Best cultural attraction

The Old Town has so many historical monuments - including a dozen museums and about 20 churches - that there's enough to keep you occupied for several days. However, prioritise a tour around Wawel, the seat of the kings for more than 500 years, from the early days of the Polish state.

At the top of Wawel hill you will find a vast open square surrounded by several historic buildings, of which the castle and cathedral are the major attractions. Admission is free to the Wawel royal cathedral, which is full of magnificent works of arts and crafts. Wawel Castle (00 48 12 422 16 97; www.wawelkrakow.pl) was the political and cultural centre of Poland until the early 17th century. The original Gothic castle was burned down in 1499, so what you can see today is its replacement - a splendid Renaissance palace, designed by Italian architects. The castle is split into five museums, check for opening times and admission prices - the Royal Chambers, the Royal Private Apartments, the Crown Treasury and Armoury, the Oriental Art, and the Lost Wawel.

Best shopping

Head for Cloth Hall in the main square. Built in the 14th century in the middle of the former market place as a centre for the cloth trade, it was destroyed by fire in 1555 and rebuilt in Renaissance style. Arcades were added in the late 19th century to give the hall a more decorative appearance. Inside you will find stalls selling every conceivable Polish craft, particularly jewellery, including some good value semiprecious stones and amber set in silver. Krakow also has several antiques shops, including those at Grodzka 8, ul Mikolajska 10, ul Stolarska 17, and ul Florianska 13.

Best sightseeing

Explore the buildings around the main market square, which is the biggest medieval town square in Europe and has remained largely unchanged since it was designed in 1257. While most of the buildings today look neo-classical, their façades mostly hide much older basic structures, and their cellars date back to medieval times. Highlights include the Krzysztofory Palace at the northern corner which is home to the Historical Museum of Krakow, at Rynek Glowny 35 (00 48 12 422 1 504), check for opening times and admission charges, and St Mary's Church, next door, with its giant, intricately carved altarpiece - acclaimed as the greatest masterpiece of Gothic art in Poland.

Best nightspot

The Krakow Philharmonic, at ul Zwierzyniecka 1 (00 48 12 422 09 58) is home to one of the best orchestras in the country, with concerts held on Fridays and Saturdays. It's well worth soaking up the atmosphere in one of the many bars and cafés around the market square at night, but if you're looking for a more lively evening, head to Klub Pasja (00 48 12 423 04 83) in ul Szewska 5. It's a trendy and attractive nightclub, which is set in vast brick cellars.

Best way to get there

EasyJet (www.easyjet.com) flies from Luton, from £41 return. British Airways (0870-850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Gatwick, from £99 return.

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