Poland is one of Europe’s hidden gems. Though technically not-so-hidden–Poland is the sixth largest country in the EU by population–there are ample reasons why Poland should be a priority on your Eastern European itinerary.
Its charm rivals tourist-infested countries like Italy and France at a small fraction of the cost. It is also one of the most significant countries in Europe in terms of historical significance and European excellence. Some of the world’s most influential leaders were born here, including Marie Curie, Frederic Chopin, and Pope John Paul II.
Like many Eastern European countries, however, Poland’s most beautiful and worthwhile attractions aren’t necessarily in the country’s capital, Warsaw. In fact, much of Warsaw’s historical architecture was razed in WWII and what you’ll find in Warsaw today is a historically-accurate replica of Old Warsaw.
Krakow, on the other hand, sustained very little damage during WWII and many of its historically significant places remain completely intact. Not only is Krakow a better-preserved city, but it is also closer to many natural attractions and smaller towns with rich history.
If you must choose between visiting Krakow or Warsaw, then you should most definitely choose Krakow. Krakow is better-preserved than Warsaw and closer to Poland’s unique cultural and natural attractions.
Still can’t decide between the two? Read on to find out why I consider Krakow a superior destination to Warsaw.
(Disclaimer: I’m part Cracovian and my family lived in Podhale for several hundred years, so I have a slight bias here!)
Warsaw vs Krakow– Which is More Expensive
One of the first things you’ll notice on your trip to Poland is that the affordability of travel here is amazing. $15 accommodation in the city center, yes please! $5 kielbasa with a side of kapusta kiszona, yes please!
While Poland boasts a thriving economy and the strongest economy of the EU’s post-socialist countries, it has remained relatively affordable for a number of reasons. One such reason is that Poland has yet to transition to the Euro, the EU’s standard currency. Instead, you’ll need to make your purchases with Zloty, Poland’s national currency.
Luckily, most western currencies are far stronger than the Polish Zloty and so your travel allowance will get you pretty far here. There are some slight differences between Warsaw and Krakow, however.
Warsaw is More Expensive than Krakow
Warsaw is the financial and business hub of Poland. As such, restaurants, transportation, and accommodation all tend to be a bit higher in Warsaw than in rival Krakow. The differences aren’t huge, however.
When I visit Poland, I stay in hostels in Warsaw and Krakow and pay around $15 per night in both locations. Warsaw’s prices tend to be slightly higher year-round, while Krakow’s prices surge in the summertime in response to the tourist influx. If you visit Poland during the summer, then you probably won’t notice any differences in pricing between Warsaw and Krakow.
Restaurants are a bit pricier in Warsaw, as well. My typical meal in Warsaw ran about $7 while a similar meal in Krakow was down around $6. Again, the differences here aren’t dramatic, but Krakow is the cheaper city in most regards.
There is More to See in Krakow
Krakow possesses more charm and natural beauty than Warsaw. To be fair, Warsaw’s historic center is amazing, and the city has a lot of gems. The difference, though, is that the line between Warsaw the city and Warsaw the historic city is very clearly delineated. Warsaw is, for the most part, gray and commercialized. Its few treasures are well-defined and seem out of place in the city.
In Krakow, by contrast, the old city, replete with ornate churches and one-of-a-kind architecture, weaves playfully into the city’s new identity. Krakow’s cultural and architectural sites actually feel like a part of the city, rather than small islands of beauty in an otherwise dull landscape
Things to do in Krakow
If you love European architecture or spamming your Instagram followers with jaw-dropping pictures of your European escapades, then Wawel Castle is the place for you! Built during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Wawel castle is the country’s most prominent cultural hub. The castle served as the home of the country’s kings and rulers, though it is now the site of several museums and religious exhibits.
The castle consists of several large buildings and showcases elements from Europe’s most important artistic periods– Medieval, Baroque, and Renaissance. Wawel Castle is a must-do in Krakow.
Krakow’s Old Town
If you’ve read my reviews of Sibiu or Sighisoara then you already know how much I love a good medieval city. Most medieval cities in Europe are small and quaint. The impressive thing about Krakow’s Old Town is that it has all of the impressive elements of a Medieval town, but on a much larger scale. Its Rynek Glowny is the largest Medieval square in all of Europe, for example.
All throughout the Old Town you’ll find bustling cafes, fountains, and cloth halls. Strolling down the packed streets of Krakow’s Old Town feels like you’re living the “Topsy Turvy” scene from the Hunch Back of Notre Dame, but more exciting (and minus the part where you get to throw tomatoes at that poor dude stuck on a wheel).
Also located in Krakow is Schindler’s Factory, the inspiration for the novel “Schindler’s Ark” and the movie “Schindler’s List.” Oskar Schindler, a prominent Nazi who owned and operated the factory, saved over a thousand of his Jewish employees from the holocaust.
Today, the former site of the factory houses the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Things to do in Warsaw
Warsaw Old Town
Warsaw’s Old Town is an amazing collection of historical buildings, cafes, and museums, organized around a few main squares. The old town was built during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and is now the most picturesque and famed part of the city.
The most popular square is Market Square, which houses the Warsaw Museum of History and the Museum of Literature.
In the city’s largest park, Royal Baths Park, you’ll find Lazienki Palace–or Bath Palace. The palace was originally designed as a bath house for Count Lubomirski during the late 1600’s. Subsequently, the palace was converted into a summer residence and passed through the hands of prominent Polish political families.
Today, the palace is open to the public and can be toured for just under $7. On your visit, you’ll see the ornate, baroque rooms of the bath palace which feature incredible artwork from around Europe.
Warsaw vs Krakow– Size and Vibe
With a population of 1.75 million, Warsaw is over twice as large as Krakow (700k). The larger population in Warsaw means that the city is generally more dense and more vertical. In the city’s downtown district, skyscrapers dot the skyline and gray socialist-style housing is the norm.
In comparison, Krakow has a more laid-back vibe and doesn’t feel quite as urban. Its streets are clearer and not as crowded. Unless you have a strong preference for urban environments, you’ll probably find the the vibe of Krakow more enjoyable. Krakow feels truly unique while Warsaw feels like a standard European business capital–though a bit more flavorless.
Warsaw vs Krakow– Day Trip Possibilities
When it comes to day trip possibilities, Krakow is the clear winner. Southern Poland is considered the heart of traditional Polish culture and so the villages here seem more authentic. Two great day trips to add to your Krakow itinerary are Oswiecim (Auschwitz) and Zakopane.
Oswiecim is a small town near Krakow infamous for the Auschwitz death camps which operated here around WWII. The town itself is small. On the main square you’ll find cafes and ice cream shops. A wealthy ancestor of mine was a merchant in Oswiecim and his residence was on this square, but it now houses the town’s courthouse. The side of the building is adorned with a plaque commemorating the home, “Dom Slebarskich.”
Visiting the death camps at Auschwitz is a must-do, though the experience should not be taken lightly. The camps have been preserved in their original form, so as to teach future generations the significance of the Holocaust.
During your visit to the camps, you’ll walk through barracks, around barbwire fences, and across killing fields where thousands of innocent Jews, Roma, and handicapped individuals were slaughtered. It’s not the kind of place that you visit to feel good about humanity, but rather to reflect on and grieve the past.
Zakopane is an amazing town in Poland’s High Tatry mountains. The town is a ski town, but the scenery is amazing any time of year. During the Summer, Zakopane is a great place to hike through forest meadows and enjoy the cool mountain air. If you are heading southward out of Poland, it is worth stopping through Zakopane for a day or two.
Should I Visit Warsaw or Krakow?
While I really enjoy both of these Polish cities, I think that most travelers will find Krakow more interesting and unique than Warsaw. Krakow’s historical sites are more authentic, and it allows for more day trip possibilities.
Of course, you could always visit both! Happy travels~~