Some places in the world are so inundated with tourists that everything special and unique about no longer does the trick.
Hot spots like Stonehenge or Machu Picchu have become almost inaccessible to visitors who have to struggle to find a right viewing spot among crowds of people.
If you’re looking for a genuine experience, you need to find a destination off the beaten path.
Krakow, the ancient capital of Poland, is one of them. Even though the commercialization of the city is proceeding at an increasing pace, the locals have somehow managed to save the town for themselves and stay authentic.
Krakow offers plenty of fantastic attractions to visitors, but it’s also full of hidden gems that make the destination into a truly unforgettable one.
Here are 9 things that make Krakow into and a real off-the-beaten-path treasure. This is an alternative Krakow guide you will love!
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Every visitor to Krakow will sooner or later explore the city’s historic market square. But me a mere 4 meter below their feet lies a huge archaeological site combined with the high-tech multimedia experience called Rynek Underground.
The locals began excavating the square in 2005, and once they discovered various artifacts around Krakow’s famous Cloth Hall, they started to wonder what else might be found below street level. They found a treasure trove of objects and structural remains that offer glimpses of the everyday commercial life in Krakow during the last 700 years. The unique underground excavation uncovered the remnants of medieval thoroughfares, merchant stalls, and even century-old aqueducts.
The attraction was open to tourists in 2010, and it’s paired with a unique museum that combines restored archaeological sites and artifacts with holograms, lasers, and 600 three-dimensional models of everyday objects. Visitors are first greeted by holographic 14th-century Krakowians projected onto a curtain of smoke.
The experience is quite memorable.
The museum can house only 300 people at a time, so make sure to buy tickets in advance for a particular entry time.
2. Milk bars
This is an another option for alternative ways to discover Krakow. Visitors to Krakow can enjoy a remnant from the Communist era, the milk bar. These spots usually offer authentic, hearty Polish cuisine at a very wallet-friendly price. You will find a classic milk bar Tomasza just off the Main Market Square.
Head over there for a delicious hot breakfast or a traditional Polish lunch.
Milk bars are the best pots to try the local Polish cuisine and see the locals ranging from students to pensioners in their natural habitat. Milk bars have always been popular among all generations.
3. Bones of the Wawel Dragon
Every visitor to Krakow heads over to the Wawel Cathedral to admire the architecture and ponder over the remains of the Polish royals or enjoy some of the most famous religious art in town.
However, the real attraction of the castle is actually the bones that are rumored to belong to a local dragon. You will find them hanging right next to the Cathedral’s entrance. The bones are chained together in a jumble and hang high above the main doors.
According to a legend, a dragon was said to live in a cave under one of Wawel’s rolling hills. It was a typical maiden-devouring kind of dragon, and local people were required to put out a fresh young woman each month to satisfy the dragon’s appetite. The dragon was finally killed by a local hero who fed it lamb laced with sulfur. That meal made the dragon so thirsty that he drank water from the Vistula River until he exploded.
So do the bones belong to the Dragon? Some people say that they are actually fossilized whale or mammoth bones. But it doesn’t matter where they originated, they’ve been here for centuries and are credited with magical powers, so they’re definitely a must-see for every visitor.
Walking around Krakow, you might spot many bars named like that. It might look odd, but step inside, and you’re bound to find everyone including students, young adults, and travelers enjoying themselves while sipping a one euro drunk and two euros worth of snacks. Polish people head over to that kind of bars before or after parties.
So if you spot a place like that, you should know that you are stepping into a real local institution.
Expect to meet many interesting people and have fascinating conversations over a glass of warm wine in winter or honey-flavored Polish vodka during the summer.
5. Liban quarry
This hidden attraction is a little creepy, but well-worth a visit. Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s list features and replica the Nazi’s Płaszów Labor Camp. And this place is just as terrifying. This set was created using the original blueprints of the camp and constructed in the quarry nearby its original location.
The inmates of the Nazi camp used to work in the limestone quarry and were murdered on site – today a road made of Jewish tombstones runs through the center of the quarry. The site is forgotten and crumbling as the vast majority of Holocaust tourism is directed on Auschwitz and the Jewish Ghetto.
But if you’re up for a short walk from the city center, you will get to experience the tragic history of the Second World War first-hand.
6. Rakowiecki cemetery
This cemetery is the largest one in the Krakow. It covers 42 hectares, and it was opened in 1803 when there was no more room in the graveyards located nearby the churches in the city center. Today it’s a lovely place to for an afternoon stroll – full of greenery, scattered with marble statues and ornate family tombs.
It’s also a prominent historical place because many of Krakow’s illustrious inhabitants are buried here – including Polish nobility, the 19th-century historical painter Jan Matejko, and the famous actor actress Helena Modrzejewska. One corner of the cemetery is dedicated to the allied dead of the Second World War. You will also find a monument devoted to the Poles who suffered and died under the Communist occupation.
When entering the cemetery, be sure to pick up a multilingual brochure at the gate – that’s how you will be able to spot all the graves of Polish celebrities.
If you’re a fan of the Socialist realist architecture, this district is a must see. When the Soviet occupying forces rolled into Poland, they entered a country that was utterly devastated by the fights carried out on the Eastern front. The country needed to be rebuilt, and the Communist regime spotted an opportunity for not only transforming the Polish cityscape but also reshaping the Polish society.
Nowa Huta was supposed to be a perfect city representing the vision of a glorious Communist future.
Approved in 1947, the construction of the project began in 1949. The town was to serve a bustling working-class and become an alternative to the older bourgeois lifestyle steeped in the rich history and culture in Krakow city center.
Ironically, during the 1980s the district turned into an anti-Communist hub and was critical in the Solidarity Movement. Today, Nowa Huta remains one of the best examples of Socialist realist architecture and city planning. Take the tram 4 or 10 from Krakow city center to arrive at this remnant of the past regime.
8. Collegium Maius
Krakow the oldest university in Poland, the Jagiellonian University.
And the best part of the University is the so-called Collegium Maius which stands for Great College in Latin. In the past, Collegium Maius used to serve as a hub for scientific research and discovery. Among its many famous students, you will find Nicholas Copernicus himself. You can see his instruments on display there.
The building was created in the 15th century as part of the Krakow Academy. Designed around a central courtyard, its arches lead to various teaching and lecture areas while professors lived on the second floor. Inside, the building is decorated in over-the-top baroque style – pay close attention to the intricate woodwork and the unique decoration.
If you’re passionate about the history of science, you’re in the right place because this is where all the finest scientific instruments of the day are stored. Take a stroll around the astrolabes, globes, clocks, telescopes and breathe in the air scientific discovery.
9. Kościuszko Mound
Krakow houses four human-made hills or mountains that honor some of the country’s greatest leaders. One of the new mounds, created to mimic the ancient hills, is an exciting addition to Krakow’s skyline.
The mound was completed in 1823 and today stands as a well-preserved hill surrounded by a brick fortification at its base. The mound was created to honor the Polish nationalist Tadeusz Kościuszko, who was famous for the battles against foreign powers in Poland. When he died, his body was buried in the Royal Crypt, but people asked for a more public monument to be dedicated to him.
That’s how the mound was built.
Polish residents from all over the country and foreign Polish settlements provided the funding. People came from across the globe to bring dirt from their towns and villages to be added to the mound. The mound has a distinct path that winds up to its peak where visitors can find a commemorative boulder.
Today, the mound stands as a powerful symbol of Polish independence and neither weather or erosion can damage it.
10. Elvis Presley Avenue
Travel to the edge of Skały Twardowskiego Park to find the entrance to a trail marked by a real King. Embedded in the rough stone and adorned with flowers, you will see a sign: Elvis Presley Avenue.
The vice president of Krakow’s Elvis Presley fan club is responsible for that. In 2006, he petitioned the city comes counsel to rename a stretch of the street and call it after Elvis Presley. Surprisingly, the city agreed. But it wasn’t just renaming, as he also added a memorial statue at the entrance to the remaining section that runs through a trail in the park.
At first, the statue was kept clean, but after a while, it began to get dirty, and passersby darkened Elvis’s hair with shoe polish. All in all, the Avenue makes up for a very unusual sight in a city steeped in medieval history and culture.
These 9 hidden gems are just the top of the iceberg.
Krakow houses a large number of attractions that make it into a real off-the-beaten-path destination. Adventurous tourists should head over here to enjoy all the best of the Polish culture and cuisine together with Krakow’s distinctive atmosphere and a fair share of strange spots to visit and enjoy.