Warsaw Or Krakow? Compare Poland’s Two Largest Cities

Warsaw or Krakow
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis
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Warsaw or Krakow is an endless debate that goes on between expats in Poland. Which is better? Where has the better nightlife? Which looks prettier? Where’s the most fantastic Old Town? Which one’s the best for foodies? The argument rages on and on, forever and ever.

Truth is, it’s not a new face off. These two towns have been vying against each other ever since Sigismund III decided to move the royal court and make Warsaw the capital back in 1595. Centuries of friendly (and sometimes not-so-friendly) division ensued, and you’ll still notice southerners screw up their face at any mention of the big city, and vice versa.

Anyhow, this guide is here to help you pick which one you should visit. With info on the ease of getting there, the sort of historical sights that await, day trips, and a whole load more, it’s your 101 to Warsaw or Krakow this year…

Warsaw or Krakow for ease of travel

Photo by Łukasz Nieścioruk/Unsplash

Warsaw is the capital of Poland and has actually emerged as a bit of a transport hub for the Baltic region and Central-Eastern Europe generally. It’s got two big airports: The Warsaw Chopin Airport and Warsaw-Modlin Mazovia Airport. The first is used mainly by flag carrying airlines like Polish LOT (which has long-haul links going direct to the US and Asia). The latter is a low-coster base, offering cheap links to the UK, Germany, Italy – you name it. There are now high-speed train links connecting Warsaw with Krakow and Gdansk, along with overnight trains and day trains going to Germany and beyond.

Krakow is also well linked up, especially from the air. The John Paul II Krakow-Balice International Airport is a growing terminal that offers lots of cross-Europe links on airlines like Ryanair, with an especially good selection of flights to and from the UK (London, Bristol, Edinburgh). There are trains running to Budapest, Vienna, and domestically to Warsaw, too, along with lots of long-distance buses to other major European towns and capitals.

Winner: Warsaw – the two airports seal the deal here.

Warsaw or Krakow for things to do

Warsaw
Photo by Kamil Gliwiński/Unsplash

Most travelers will begin by touring the Old Town in Warsaw. It’s a striking place, totally razed in WWII and then rebuilt in defiance of the Nazis to showcase its former glory. Other famous things to see include the grand walks of Lazienki Park, which knit together oriental gardens and grand statues honoring Chopin the composer, and the Palace of Culture and Science, a Soviet relic that stands tall over the new town. Warsaw is big on museums, too, so don’t miss the Warsaw Uprising Museum and the POLIN Museum, which tells the sobering tale of Poland’s Jews.

Krakow is a place that rarely fails to enthrall. Unlike Warsaw, this town was left largely standing after the war. Its Old Town is a UNESCO site that’s original in every way, centered on the Rynek, a vast square that’s one of the largest medieval plazas in the world. The Wawel castle is also there, standing tall with its cathedral spires and 500-year-old court rooms. So, too, is the immersive district of Kazimierz, a place of paint-peeling concept shops and boho beer bars. Be sure to fit in some people watching in the Planty Park and a picnic on the Vistula Boulevards – that’s how the locals do it.

Winner: Krakow.

Warsaw or Krakow for history

Old Town Krakow
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Krakow simply has to win this one. The town is hailed as Poland’s cultural capital for its vast historical wealth. The Old Town is the piece de resistance, hosting POI after POI. There, you’ll want to see St Mary’s Church (perhaps the most important religious site in the country) and the Sukiennice (a trading hall where merchants from across Europe and the Silk Road might once have gathered). The Wawel Castle is the historic kingpin of town and there are fantastic exhibits and tours within. Then there’s the darker history exposed at Auschwitz, a must for anyone visiting for the first time.

It’s not that Warsaw has a short history. It doesn’t. The town is thought to date back to the 12th century. It’s just that Warsaw is more of a reconstruction of a city that was brutally ruined by the Nazis in WWII. Today, it’s old core is remarkable largely because it’s a rebuild. The castle and the cobbled streets there aren’t the same ones that were laid half a millennia ago. The history where Warsaw is perhaps more enthralling is in the 1940s past, because it has one fantastic museum that chronicles the heroic uprising against Nazi rule.

Winner: Krakow.

Warsaw or Krakow for nightlife

Polish beer
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Both of these towns are pretty darn good for nightlife. Warsaw is the capital so has a very international crowd and certain districts that stand out on the hedonism front. Chief among them is Mazowiecka Street, which hosts the biggest nightclub names in the city, and the banks of the Vistula. Generally speaking, the venues here are chicer and trendier than in Krakow. They often have dress codes, serve cocktails, and offer an edge of Mykonos cool about them. The one exception to that is Praga district, where it’s all gritty beer pubs and bohemian dives.

Talking of bohemian dives, Krakow has those by the bucket load. Kazimierz is the area to be for parties. South of the Old Town, it’s where the locals and expat locals meet on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays – scratch that, EVERY night of the week. Shot bars, big beer halls, live music places, sports bars – it’s all there. The Old Town is busier and hosts the legendary Krakow Krawl (one of Europe’s original bar crawls) and a particularly epic vodka tasting tour, along with – legend has it – more drinkeries per square meter than any other city on the planet.

Winner: Krakow

Warsaw or Krakow for day trips

Tatra Mountains
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Warsaw isn’t really a city for day trips. There are options but they certainly can’t compete with the prestige of the inner-city sights, which is why many travelers just don’t bother. The most popular outings from town go to Zelazowa Wola, where you can see the birthplace of Chopin, and the wild Kampinos National Park, which has walking trails and bird spotting. It’s also possible to ride the fast train up to Gdansk to tour the medieval ports and see the spot where the first shots of WWII were fired.

Krakow sits among some of the most interesting sights in the country. First on the list has to be Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp that’s really a must for anyone coming to Poland for the first time. It takes a whole day and just over one hour to get to. Then there’s the Wieliczka Salt Mine, another UNESCO site with incredible tunnel complexes filled with salt-carved art and even a salt cathedral. Adventure seekers will want to be sure to head south to the Tatra Mountains and the ski town of Zakopane, though, which has hiking trials and winter resorts aplenty – that’s two hours away by bus.

Winner: Krakow

Warsaw or Krakow for food

Polish food
Photo by Marjan Blan | @marjanblan/Unsplash

The food scene in both these cities is pretty darn good. However, it’s Warsaw that leads the way here because it’s established itself as a stomping ground for some of Poland’s most creative young chefs. It’s even got high-class Michelin or Michelin-worthy bistros like Amber Room and Nolita.  Those are balanced out by some old-school milk bars – Communist-era eateries that serve cheap and cheerful local cooking in the form of pierogies (the famous Polish dumplings) and sour zurek soups.

Krakow’s home to a wide array of cuisines. You can grab spicy Indian curries at Zayka and Taste of India. There’s fantastic Neapolitan pizza at En Plato and Nolio. You’ll get top-quality Lebanese and Israeli food at Cheder café and Hamsa. There’s also a twist of local cooking unique to Krakow and south Poland in the form of zapiekanki pizza breads (best eating from the holes in the wall on Plac Nowy) and smoked ocsypek sheep’s cheese originating from Zakopane.

Winner: Warsaw but Krakow is still great for foodies.

Warsaw or Krakow for romance

A street in Krakow
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

There can only be one winner here: Krakow. When the snow starts a-falling on the Old Town spires and ice cakes the castle on the hill, Poland’s second city is a place that’s sure to tug at the heart strings. It’s also got some fantastically luxurious hotels nestled in old palaces in the middle of its UNESCO district – Stary Hotel ($$$) being probably the prime pick. Remember that Krakow is also the jump-off point for Zakopane, the winter capital of the country, which is romantic on another level, what with the jagged Tatra Mountains looming just behind.

Warsaw does have a fairy-tale area in the Warsaw Old Town but it’s simply not as extensive or original as Krakow’s. The truth is that the big, bustling capital is more like the modern face of Poland. It’s a metropolis of booming business names, rising skyscrapers, rattling trams, and people that always seem to have somewhere to be and something to do. It’s not the best pick if you’re after a loved-up weekend away.

Winner: Krakow.

Warsaw or Krakow? Our verdict

Both Warsaw and Krakow are worth visiting, there’s no doubt about that. However, if you can only pick one then we’d plump for the latter. That might seem strange given that Warsaw is the capital of Poland, but the truth is Krakow is the cultural hub and the more immersive city. It’s got UNESCO sites coming out of its ears, a gorgeous core, castles, parks, and riverways, not to mention one of the wildest nightlife scenes in Europe.

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Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.