A less obvious destination for a European city break, Krakow was a place I had no preconceptions about, so as our plane approached the runway and I looked down on Poland’s second biggest (and erstwhile capital) city, I received my first pleasant surprise of the weekend: everything was very green. My second pleasant surprise was the modern, stress-free airport, which swiftly led to my third: the much-welcome sight of a driver holding my name at arrivals, meaning my transfer into town required zero brainpower (the perfect start to a much-needed weekend break).
Krakow's Wawel Castle sits on the stunning Vistula River
As our driver whisked us down the motorway to the Sheraton Grand Krakow, which would be our base for the next three nights, we picked his brains for local knowledge. The places every tourist must visit? The main square (the biggest in Europe), the Jewish Quarter, Wawel Castle, the river and Oscar Schindler’s factory. Our newly acquired itinerary revealed the fact that Krakow has a long and chequered past, having survived Austrian, Soviet and, in the second world war, Nazi German occupation. And as our car drew up outside the hotel (a modern glass building overlooking the Vistula river, in the shadow the awe-inspiring 13th Century Wawel Castle), it was clear that this was a city with a story to tell.
Krakow's stunning Wawel Castle is a must-visit destination
The Sheraton Grand is a perfect place to explore that story. The modern building could not be better situated – less than 10 minutes’ walk to all the must-see destinations - and the modern building is peppered with windows to make full use of its stunning location. It’s the go-to destination for celebs visiting Poland (Enrique Iglasias was a recent fan) and it’s not hard to see why. The roof-top bar with its fire lanterns and white lounges would look perfectly at home in Los Angeles. Add to that the evening view of Wawel Castle and the Vistula’s illuminated bridges and the drinks spot is truly sensational (we particularly recommend calling by for Sushi Friday!)
The Sheraton Grand's roof-top bar has amazing views over the city
Our first port of call on our tour of Krakow was the river. Lined with huge grass banks, beside cycling and walking paths, the Vistula is a destination for local Krakovians; families gather to picnic, teenagers hang out listening to music and the entire city lends itself to getting active. Krakow’s version of the Boris Bike is cheap and cheerful (there’s a bike rack beneath Wawel Castle but you must pre-book via this website). There are kayaks to rent on the river (and the river is very wide and calm so it’s a perfect afternoon’s activity) and if you feel like getting the lay of the land with a morning jog, you can stick the the towpath and bridges and barely see a car.
Locals jog, cycle and picnic on the river banks
The sights are awe-inspiring. Much of the castle can be discovered without a ticket (tickets being necessary only for the exhibitions such as the Sandomierska Tower). Krakow's main market square is a bustling hub of activity and history – the cathedral is definitely worth a trip inside, the blue ceiling and stunningly intricate stained glass windows will take your breath away. The Jewish Quarter, the historic District of Kazimierz, is another now-bustling area, enjoying a renaissance as a bohemian and arty zone, with cafes and restaurants aplenty lining squares and giving the area a fabulous community feel. But the history of this neighbourhood is felt in its structures – the memories of Nazi occupation and the horrors of nearby Auschwitz (a day trip for the strong hearted) palpable in its historic buildings and thought provoking everywhere you go.
The Cathedral in the main market square is worth a ticket to get inside
Krakow's Jewish Quarter is a lively, though-provoking spot
A short hop from Kazimierz (by tourist golf buggy if your feet are aching) is Oscar Schindler’s factory – an opportunity to take a look at life in Krakow under Nazi occupation in more depth. The 1993 movie Schindler’s List highlighted the plight of Krakow’s Jews during the second world war, and Schindler’s role in saving many of his Jewish workers from death in concentration camps. The museum is a fascinating look at a troubling part of modern history, but those wanting an in-depth look into Schindler’s story and his enamel factory (now a museum of modern art) may feel disappointed.
There's so much to see and do and Krakow (and so many green parks and river banks to while away your time in) that a weekend simply won't be enough. But it'll be a very pleasant break and a taster for this Polish gem of a city.
Rooms at the Sheraton Grand start at £82 + 8% VAT in low season. We flew to Krakow with Ryan Air from Stansted - a simple London airport with the Stansted Express from London Liverpool Street station taking just 47 minutes.