Krakow is a good place to begin family holidays in Poland – the former capital's central Old Town (Stare Miasto) is pedestrianised, with rickshaws and horse-drawn carriages to come to the aid of tired little legs. Surrounding it, the UNESCO World Heritage listed ‘Planty' park makes the historic centre feel less polluted than that of many other cities.
Like Italians, the Polish adore kids, and unlike the French, they’re happy to turn a blind eye to over-exuberant ones, so you’re guaranteed of a warm welcome whatever your children’s ages and energy levels.
Things to do with kids in Krakow
Have a wander on Wawel Hill, where Polish history and culture come in concentrated doses. As well as the former royal castle and the cathedral, in which you can admire the royal chambers and tombs respectively, make sure to visit the Smocza Jama or ‘Dragon’s Den’ (closed Oct–Apr), a large cavern inhabited (by humans) from the Stone Age to the 16th century, but according to legend the lair of a fire-breathing beast who ate local livestock and virgins.
For a really grisly outing, take the family to the crypt of the Franciscan monastery and adjoining church of St. Casimir’s in central Old Town, where the peculiar microclimate has mummified its residents.
Take a break in one of the cafés on the Rynek, listening out for the Hejnal Mariacki, a live trumpet signal given out every hour, ending abruptly in memory of a watchman shot through the neck by a Tatar arrow in the 13th century.
Take in a show at Groteska children's theatre on ul. Skarbowa ('Treasures Street'), usually involving traditional puppets. Works are in Polish, but they’re strongly visual and generally based on well-known classics (think Pinocchio or Little Red Riding Hood), so the language barrier shouldn’t put you off. Or if you can’t make a performance, at least come see the building, embellished with murals by surrealist artist Kazimierz Mikulski.
Explore the undergound maze of passages, caverns, lakes and chapels and the subterranean mining museum of the UNESCO-listed Wieliczka salt mine 10km southeast of the city. Younger kids or those carrying them will find the multitude of steps tiring.
Venture out to Krakowski Ogrod Zoologiczny, Krakow’s little zoo in the midst of Las Wolski forest, 10km west of the centre. Among its almost 300 species (many endangered and the subject of breeding programs) are pygmy hippopotami and white camels. There's also an aquarium in the centre of Krakow.
Have a splash around in the indoor aqua-park of Park Wodny, with nearly 1km of slides and the ‘Wawel Dragon’ fountain. Jordana Park is useful for its several good playgrounds including one with a wooden castle, plus its lake with paddleboats and canoes
Another good back-up for family holidays is Kryspinow beach on a huge lake 12km from Krakow, with a guarded swimming area, children’s playground and adventure zone with a high-ropes course.
Lastly, day-tours are available from Krakow to Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum – clearly, these are unsuitable for young children but may be appropriate for older teens studying history.
Eating out with kids is a doddle (and very cheap) in Krakow, with simple options always available, making family holidays here stress-free. The Polish classic is pierogi – a gnocchi/dumpling-like dish that comes with a variety of fillings to suit most tastes, from cream cheese or sauerkraut to prunes or berries. Otherwise, you’ll find plenty of breadcrumbed meat dishes that appeal to younger diners. Restaurant staff are generally very amenable to kids and don't mind you telling them what you want, how you want it cooked and served, and when you want it. That said, you must always book in advance to be sure of a table. And bring a phrasebook – few places have menus in English.
In addition to the restaurants recommended below, try the old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, where ulica Szeroka ('Wide Street') has a string of family-friendly eateries. With older kids you might want to catch one of the live klezmer (a tradition of Jewish music) sessions that you’ll find performed here every night (again, booking is required).
CK Dezerter, Bracka 6, 012 422 7931, is a friendly, laidback spot just off the main square, with good goulash and Wienerschnitzel, plus an enticing selection of vodkas for mums and dads.
Kossakówka, ul Lubicz 5, 012 423 2510, is an inviting restaurant in the Hotel Europejski, with upmarket fare such as boletus mushroom soup with Polish noodles. Try the Queen Anna of Jagiellon’s 16th-century dessert.
Wentzl, Rynek Gówny 19, 012 429 5712, is one of Europe’s most historic restaurants, in a plush hotel on the main square, serving quite fancy food but welcoming kids.
When to go to Krakow
An old Polish poem describes Krakow as ‘most beautiful in August’, but spring and autumn are pleasant times for family holidays too (the overall climate is mild), and funfairs can usually be found near Most Grunwaldzki bridge, close to Wawel Hill, from May to September, although the latter month can be very wet.
In June don’t miss the Lajkonik procession through the Old Town, celebrating the defeat of the Mongol hordes (Tatars) in the 13th century – musicians, street entertainers and members of the public follow a man in Mongol costume with a wooden hobby-horse round his waist, then continue to party ‘til the small hours.
Or come for Christmas, when the city is almost guaranteed to be swathed in snow, bringing a fairytale air to its Gothic churches and Baroque palaces, and when you can see some of Krakow’s famous szopka – puppet nativity crèches up to 2m high and 3m wide, often inspired by local architectural gems. There’s a display of new ones in the main market square (Rynek) in early December, after which they can be seen in the square’s museum of city history. Or each church has its own. The square also has a big Christmas market and you can take a festive sleigh ride.
As Poland remains outside the Eurozone, it still offers the potential for a budget family break or holiday. Krakow hotels are generally cheaper than their counterparts in western Europe or the USA, but eating out is pricier than in the latter.
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