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Warsaw or Krakow; a city comparison and tourism travel guide

Both Krakow and Warsaw are fantastic cities, but which is better for your city-break or holiday?

We understand your dilemma. There is a wealth of information about both cities, but little stating which is the better destination and more suited for your trip.
This website will provide our unbiased opinions of Warsaw and Krakow, and hopefully help you to choose the best city to visit. The article is divided into the following sections, and can be jumped to using the underlined links:
1) Introductions -
2) City scores -
3) Which one should I, friends, or family visit? -
4) When to visit and weather -
5) Who is the city suited for? -
6) The perfect 48hours (with map) -
7) Tourism details (where to stay? airport details?)

Introduction to Krakow and Warsaw

Krakow is Poland's cultural capital, and draws nearly 10 million visitors every year. Famed for its UNESCO Old Town, it's one of the few cities in this part of Europe to have emerged largely unscathed from WWII. That means the cobbled alleys and the medieval castles are still intact. It means you'll find centuries-old palaces rubbing shoulders with trading halls and gatehouses from the 13th century.

At once cutting-edge and steeped in history, vibrant and packed with chilled-out parks, Warsaw is the beating heart of modern Poland. In many ways, it's a metropolis of contradictions. UFO-like shopping malls loom large on one corner, while a USSR-era skyscraper crowns the square next door. The Old Town looks medieval but it's actually a total reconstruction following the WWII. And the food scene oscillates from hearty Slavic dumplings in traditional milk bars to chic Michelin star restaurants.

But all that's part of the fun. You never really know what's around the corner in this happening capital. From romantic walks through Łazienki Park to sobering tales of anti-Nazi uprisings, masterworks of Polish art in the national galleries to fair-trade coffee roasteries in hipster Mokotow district, there's oodles to add to the itinerary.

High-level summary for Krakow and Warsaw

Summary
Which city would I go to? Krakow
Which one would I recommend to my parents? Warsaw
Which location for my 19-year-old cousin? Warsaw
Which for my food obsessed friend? Krakow
Note: The above comparison does not consider the weather, and assumes travel at the best time of year (which is detailed later in this article)

The following sections compare the two cities and considers; how long to spend in them, when to visit, and provides suggested 48hours in each city (along with an interactive map). The final section is tourism practicalities and includes which airport to fly into, what district to be based in and how best to explore the city. We hope that you find all of this information useful, in planning your next exciting trip.

Destination details

How long to spend in the city?

Warsaw can be done quickly. Just a few days is all you'll need to see the Old Town, the Palace of Culture and Science, the grand parks, and the main museums. To squeeze the lot in, you'll need to make use of the extensive public tram and bus networks. It might be worth considering a 72-hour (36 PLN) ticket, which you can buy at newsagent kiosks.

Of course, if you've got extra time to spare, Warsaw will always be able to fill it. Once you've checked off the main attractions, there are stacks of more local sights, eateries, and activities to get stuck into. They include café hopping down in hipster Mokotow, tasting ethnic foods in multicultural Praga, and even day outings to the Kampinos Forest or the post-industrial city of Łódź.

In many ways, Krakow is the perfect example of a city-break destination. Not only is it compact and walkable, but its main-see sights are all connected via leafy parklands or riverside paths. You can check off the castle, the Old Town, the Jewish Quarter, and plenty more in a mere 48 hours. And the airport hosts oodles of low-cost flight links to cities right across Europe, which makes it easy to whiz in for just a couple of days.

If you're looking to add excursions (and there are loads of them) to your itinerary, you might need a little longer. Trips to Auschwitz, the salt mines in Wieliczka, and the Tatra Mountains can be crammed together in a single two-day tour, but it's better to do them separately and leave at least a day for each.
What's more, the wild Krakow nightlife might just put you out of action for a morning. Those with a penchant for vodka might be better off planning 4-5 days at least in the Polish city of kings.

If you don't want to wrap yourself up in cotton wool and thermals every time you step outside, it might be best to avoid the winter months in Warsaw. From November to December, below-zero temperatures are normal in the Polish capital, along with icy rain, sleet and snow.

Most locals often say that spring and early autumn are the sweet spots. While summer's warm, it can often be humid, and there's no beach or ocean nearby to help you cool off. Months like April and May see milder days and cool nights, while September is prime time to wander the famous parks of Warsaw, as the trees begin to change colour and glow orange, ochre and yellow.

Summertime sees Krakow fill to bursting with tourists. It's the peak season, and things can get rammed on the main drags of the Old Town. That's why it's often better to try to come in months like May or September. Those are outside of major European vacations. There will be way fewer people queuing for the Wawel Castle. Hotel prices in Krakow also tend to drop considerably after August, while the Tatra Mountains are at their most handsome in spring and autumn.

Krakow in the winter is a totally different beast. Woolly jumpers, thermal underlayers, snow boots – you'll need the lot. Temperatures in south Poland can ebb to minus 25 degrees in the height of the season. However, the Planty Park and the Old Town do look truly stunning under a layer of snowflakes. It's also the time of year to plan ski trips near to Krakow. Just beware that pollution can be bad in the centre – the winter smog is some of the worst on the continent.

Warsaw really charms those who love fast-paced, buzzing capital cities. While the Old Town is a stunner, it's not the main show. Instead, you'll spend your hours exploring vibrant and lived-in neighborhoods that burst with fusion eats and fine dining. You'll embark on craft beer tours and have artisan breakfasts in kitschy cafes.

On the flip side, there's some seriously immersive history. The Warsaw Uprising Museum and the POLIN exhibitions are fine introductions to the struggle of the Polish people and Polish Jews during Nazi occupation. You've got the 800,000 pieces of the acclaimed National Museum to get through. And there are grand parks with Chinese gardens and monuments of Chopin.

Krakow's a seriously versatile travel destination. Weaving the threads of a long, regal history together with a vibrant café culture, the culinary delights of Lesser Poland, and a nightlife that's nothing short of legendary, there's something in these parts to cater to all sorts. First up: Backpackers. The younger, budget-conscious crowd enjoy more hostel dorms and happy-hour deals than they can shake a Polish blood sausage at. Meanwhile, districts like Kazimierz are laden with concept stores and hip coffee shops.

Those who lean towards the more cultural side of things are also in luck. UNESCO World Heritage Sites abound in this part of Europe. In fact, Krakow's Old Town itself is one, bursting with medieval trading halls, brick-fronted churches, and castles that date back to the 1200s. There's also art by Leonardo da Vinci and Polish masters to get through in the museums, along with archaeology expos of the urban underground that are truly fascinating.

Being stuck between the vast plains of central Poland and the Carpathian Mountains means that Krakow is probably not the city for anyone looking for sun, sand and sea. What's more, the air quality is abysmal, so don't come expecting a break from life in a metropolis.

48hours in Warsaw
This perfect first 48 hours offers a fun-filled and exciting introduction to life in the Polish capital. It's a cocktail of wartime history, art, and – of course – good old Slavic beer.

Day 1: Hit the Old Town of Warsaw as early as you can. That way, you'll avoid the crowds, and – on a sunny day – get to catch the gilded medieval-style frontispieces in some perfect photography light. You certainly won't want to miss a moment on grand Plac Zamkowy (Castle Square).
The Royal Castle that gives it the name is the star of the show, with its orange-tinged exteriors and Baroque domes. It, like the whole rest of the Old Town, is actually deceptively new. The entire district had to be rebuilt from ruins in the wake of WWII.

Wait for the folk from the Free Walking Tour under Zygmunt's Column. Their two-hour odyssey through this part of the capital really digs down into the unique mosaic of architecture. After that's done, you can hit Nowy Swiat and follow the route Polish monarchs once took in and out of the city. It's now a buzzing modern thoroughfare with dumpling taverns and beer halls (perfect for lunch).
Follow it all the way south and hop a few more blocks and you'll soon be in Łazienki Park. It's an icon of the metropolis. An evening stroll here could start with a vision of the huge Chopin statue and end with a sighting of the Classicist Temple of Diana. For dinner, where better than hipster Mokotow? The district has everything from Tex-Mex to stylish sushi bars.

Warsaw Barbican

The Warsaw Barbican (barbakan warszawski) dates from 1540, and was part of the fortifications that encircle the city

Day 2: A selfie stop outside of the iconic Palace of Culture and Science starts day two with a bout of Soviet architecture. A 237-metre spire of a building, it was a personal gift to Poland by one Joseph Stalin. From there, a few trams stops can whisk you over to the Warsaw Uprising Museum. The enthralling exhibits of that showcase the heroic efforts of Poland's underground resistance during the fight against the Nazis.
Afterwards, make straight for the riverside and the leafy Vistula Boulevards. They're a hubbub of life in the summer months. Dog walkers meet buskers and street entertainers right by the water. (An optional drop into the family-friendly Copernicus Science Centre is a great addition if the rain's a-pouring). For the evening, hip and elegant Praga awaits. That's arguably Warsaw's most stylish area, with Lebanese kitchens giving way to bohemian bars and cool coffee shops.

48hours in Krakow
It's a good idea to stick to the city of Krakow itself for your first 48 hours. That's where you'll be able to uncover the rich medieval history, tales of Polish kings and queens, and some of the best dining (and drinking) the country has to offer:

Day 1: Where better to start than the UNESCO-tagged heart of Krakow? The Old Town is the piece de resistance here. Begin on the Market Square. It's one of the largest urban squares in the world, and a lively gathering point for both people and sights. On its eastern side is the wonderful Basilica of St Mary, arguably the most important church in Poland. The Cloth Hall (a stunning Renaissance building) stands in the middle, filled with souvenir stalls.

After learning about powerful kings and battles with Tartar hordes, you'll finish under the mighty Wawel Castle. That's an icon of Krakow. Walk through its gateways to find a green courtyard with a small café. Glug a coffee and then scale the belfry of on-site Krakow Cathedral for sweeping panoramas of the Vistula River and the Tatra Mountains (on a clear day).
For the evening, return to the Market Square and hit the local bars with fellow travellers.

Krakow Vistula River

Tourist boats moored along the banks of the Vistula River in the scenic Kazimierz district of Krakow

Day 2: A hangover-cure breakfast (if required) in Milkbar Tomasza complete with traditional Polish sausage starts the day. From there, head to the Planty Park. A famous green space, it follows the route of the old city walls and is a people-watching paradise. Move south to the district of Kazimierz. Known as the Jewish Quarter, it's got centuries-old synagogues and some of the coolest cafes in town.
An optional walking tour here is for you if you want to delve into the darker history of Krakow's wartime past. If not, stroll to the Vistula Boulevards to join the joggers. Then, it's easy to cross over to Podgorze neighborhood and find corner cafés and wine bars. For sunset, push southwards to the Krakus Mound. This off-the-beaten-track spot is great when the light dips low over the city.

Warsaw has two international airports. There's the larger Warsaw Frederic Chopin Airport, which can be reached by direct train from Warsaw's main station on line S2 or S3. The smaller Warsaw Modlin International Airport is a hub for European low-cost carriers. To go from terminal to city from there, you can ride the private Modlinbus, or catch the loop train that goes to both airports and then Warszawa Centralna.

A big Polish presence and a welcoming local vibe means there's rarely trouble for tourists in WarsawPickpockets, angry bouncers in clubs, and the classic European taxi scammers are the most common frustrations beyond that. .

When it comes to picking a hotel, it's typically best to be on the western side of the Vistula River. Some of the very best accommodation choices hide amid the cobbled lanes and squares of the Old Town. Others sit within walking distance, by Mirow or the Palace of Culture and Science. Being on the far side of the river means finding some cool aparthotels in local's favourite Praga.

The Balice International Airport is the main gateway to Krakow from the air. Getting to and from the terminal is now really easy thanks to a dedicated train line that runs every 30 minutes or so to the central station. You can purchase your ticket at the airport platform or on the train (9 PLN). A taxi from the airport typically costs around 50-100 PLN, depending on the company you go for (Mega and Eco taxis are usually the cheapest).

Most of Krakow's hotels can be found at least within walking distance of the Old Town. Generally speaking, the closer you are to that the better. However, you might also prefer the café scene and more local atmosphere of Kazimierz, which sits just a little to the south.

Krakow is generally safe for visitors. Reports of bar scams (when staff charge astronomical rates for just a few beers) and taxi scams are occasional. Also be warned that Police will pounce on anyone caught drinking alcohol in public or crossing the road on a red light (both warrant a fine).

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