Only three hours apart but vastly different, Wrocław and Krakow are rich cultural hubs steeped in Polish history. But which one should you pick for your next city break, and will the decision matter?
These two Polish cities are smaller than the capital of Warsaw, but their incredible Old Towns and quaint charm make them popular travel destinations. The rich history of Poland spans thousands of years, from the Golden Age of expansionism and becoming one of Europe’s largest powers to the collapse and partitioning of the country. Not forgetting two world wars, Communism and the return of democracy.
Wrocław and Krakow each tell a chapter of Poland’s story and are equally exciting cities to visit. They might be unique in their own ways, but a trip to either destination promises an education in Poland’s turbulent past and a journey through Slavic cuisine, custom, and art. So let’s get into it. This guide weighs up Wrocław vs Krakow to help you decide which city to put at the top of your European travel list.
Wrocław is not as large as Krakow, so it benefits more from small city charm than its southeastern counterpart. Wrocław’s locals are generally perceived to be more friendly and accommodating. The city is more peaceful and less touristy than Krakow, giving it a more authentic vibe.
That’s not to say Krakow’s people are not friendly. The small-town vibe is still alive and well in Krakow, but the city is sprawling with tourists, and everyone is always on the move. Krakow is home to one of the oldest universities in the world. Jagiellon University is Poland’s most reputable school, and the university campus is located right in the city center. This means that Krakow is not just a thriving tourist mecca but a hub for students and academics, and the city is always buzzing with energy.
If it’s peace and quiet that you seek from your city break, then Wrocław is unique in this respect. With no shortage of activities, its slow pace and friendly ambiance is a welcome surprise. Still, Krakow is the best of both worlds when it comes to atmosphere. The city is bustling and alive yet charming and compact, triumphing over Wrocław for its general vibe.
Wrocław is arguably more majestic than Krakow in its architecture. The cities are less than 200 miles apart, but their aesthetics are largely different. German architecture characterizes Wrocław, and its beauty is believed to be internal. Churches, old markets, and Gothic buildings can be found all over the city, and even contemporary architectural wonders like the “domed” Medical Centre and arched NAWA Pavilion.
What makes Wrocław so unique is that the city is an archipelago. We rarely hear this word outside of our tropical island guides, but Wrocław is actually comprised of 12 islands connected by over 100 bridges. These functional walkways that cross the weaving channels of the Oder River are architectural joys in themselves. The city also sits inside the remnants of the ancient Silesian walls.
On the other hand, Krakow is one of Europe’s only major cities not to have been reduced to rubble by World War II. Its architectural history goes back far beyond the 1900s, with medieval settlements, centuries-old palaces, cobbled roads, and looming castles around every corner. But Krakow is also a vital piece of the puzzle regarding Poland’s Holocaust history. The city’s surviving monuments tell a tragic story of Poland’s past that’s been silenced all over Europe.
Krakow is captivatingly varied and built from the inside out, starting with the Neolithic settlements, Renaissance art, and Baroque-style building. Large-scale urban housing is dotted around the city to accommodate the modern student population, while its impressive feats of engineering define Wrocław’s contemporary architecture. Wrocław has been ruled by many kingdoms, from Hungary and Silesia to Germany and, of course, Poland, all of which have left their own mark on the city. The 13th-century Cathedral of St. John the Baptist still stands, as does the 18th-century Royal Palace restored during Austrian rule.
The Old Market Squares of both cities are at the heart of their magnetism and not to be missed. Wrocław and Krakow excel in their own ways, and their varied aesthetics are equally enchanting.
Things To Do
There’s no shortage of things to do in Wrocław and Krakow, but the nature of these cities’ attractions could determine which one you choose to visit. Wrocław’s Old Town, Cathedral Island, markets, and milk bars all make for fantastic days out. The Wrocław Zoo is also one of the oldest in Poland and the third-largest in the world. Hosting over 1,100 species and 14,000 animals over 33 hectares, one day isn’t enough to see everything.
Cathedral Island is Wrocław’s oldest park and hosts an abundance of historic churches, joined by cobblestone streets lit with oil lamps. The island is often labeled “where Poland began” as one of the first centers of the 10th-century Piast Dynasty.
Krakow, too, has unmissable religious monuments like the Wawel Cathedral and the Gothic St Mary’s Basilica. But perhaps one of the most defining attractions of Krakow is the nearby Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps, located in the medieval city of Oswiecim, 66km west of Krakow. These camps are partially destroyed, but their surviving structures are a somber reminder of WWII’s darkest aspect. The camps are now museums that draw millions of tourists every year and are closely associated with the Krakow itinerary.
Dozens of tour operators offer package deals to Auschwitz-Birkenau and the spectacular Salt Mines that can all be seen in one day. The “Wieliczka” Salt Mine is a fascinating historical site located just 16 km from Krakow. The mines reach over 1,000 feet below ground, and their horizontal passages extend over 178 miles. The once working salt mines are now an intricate maze of chambers and art. The most spectacular of all is the St. Kinga’s Chapel, carved into the saline walls and adorned with halite crystals.
You won’t be bored in Wrocław or Krakow, but your interests could affect which city you would enjoy more. Both have a thriving nightlife popular with backpackers and stags, and Poland’s cheap party culture is a driving factor to Wrocław and Krakow. Still, as Poland’s cultural capital, Krakow is a clear winner when it comes to the endless list of things to do. But the region’s haunting history means Krakow won’t be for everyone.
Like much of Eastern Europe, Poland is famously cheap. This nation beats Italy, Spain, and Greece with accommodation and food that’s half the price of what you can find in the Mediterranean. So when it comes to Wrocław vs Krakow, will the costs affect your trip?
Wrocław is still considerably under the radar of world travel compared to Krakow. Wrocław is the largest city and the capital of the Lower Silesia region, but Krakow’s respected university and wartime history have pushed it to worldwide prominence. An influx in tourism to Krakow in the last few decades, along with Poland’s economic boom, means that average living costs have spiked, and the most touristy restaurants and attractions will cost you a pretty penny.
Side by side, the cities’ average prices don’t seem too different, but every złoty adds up. In both cities, the average meal in an inexpensive restaurant will cost around 30zł, or just under $8. Whereas mid-range restaurant prices in Krakow are about 13 percent higher than Wrocław, averaging at $20 per person, compared to $15 in Wrocław. Beer will set you back 50 cents more in Krakow, whereas the cheapest hotel or hostel accommodation can cost $20 less in Wrocław.
All things considered, the average daily cost per person in Wrocław is around $30, whereas you can comfortably spend upwards of $50 in Krakow. Compared to other areas in Europe, both these cities are considerably cheap and possible to enjoy on a shoestring. Still, when it comes to Wrocław vs Krakow, Wrocław steals the win on cost with its quieter streets and lesser population of tourists.
Polish food culture is hearty and traditional, and so much more than pickled goods. Although in both cities, it’s not uncommon to be served a plate of sauerkraut with every meal. You can find Poland’s national dishes all over Wrocław and Krakow, but the cities champion their unique recipes for local favorites.
Pierogi dumplings and meat cutlets aplenty can be found in every milk bar that populates both towns. Milk bars are Communist-era eateries still prevalent in Poland and are an essential part of the food culture. These cafeteria-style restaurants serve cheap local dishes in a friendly atmosphere and are some of the most affordable places to find local delicacies in Wrocław and Krakow.
Zurek and Bigos are two of the country’s most beloved stews, and Wrocław and Krakow have a firm hold on the legacy of both dishes. Krakow’s zurek w chlebie is the city’s unique take on the sour broth. The traditional soup made with rye flour and served with a boiled egg is dished up in edible bowls made of bread all over the city. Slawkowska Restaurant in the central square is famed for its zurek w chelbie and accommodates locals and tourists in a relaxed atmosphere.
Whereas, you’ll find the best bigos in Wrocław. The rich hunter’s stew combines sauerkraut with beef and pork and a mixture of root vegetables to create a hearty bowl to put hairs on your chest. Bigos originates from rural Silesia, so it’s no surprise that Wrocław pioneered this dish. Visit Stol na Szwedzkiej Restaurant which has no menu and only four tables. The chef will throw together the most authentic bigos for visitors on request.
There’s no competition between Wrocław and Poland when it comes to food. Both cities are advocates for authentic Polish cuisine, and you can find the nation’s rich and aromatic dishes in every restaurant across both towns.
Is Wrocław worth visiting?
Wrocław is largely undiscovered, but it’s a hidden gem in Europe’s cultural crown. It’s less touristy than other Polish cities but full of attractions and spectacular architecture. Capital of the Silesia region, Wrocław sits on the Oder River and is crisscrossed by its tributaries. Wrocław sits at the foot of the Sudetes mountain range, providing picturesque views from the city and miles of greenery.
What’s unique about Wrocław is the 12 islands that make up the city, with over 100 bridges connecting them. Wrocław is one of Poland’s oldest and most beautiful cities and worth visiting if you want a quiet city break, removed from the tourist crowds but still rich in history.
How many days in Krakow is enough?
A minimum of two days is recommended to spend in Krakow, but if you can spare three or four, you’ll be able to squeeze in the best of what the city has to offer. A complete tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum takes up the best part of a day, as do the Salt Mines. You need ample time to get lost in the cobbled streets of Krakow’s Old Town and explore the Cathedrals. If you have time, be sure to visit the Zakrzówek Quarry, where limestone cliffs loom over turquoise water, and visitors can swim in the summer months.
Which city is better, Wrocław or Krakow?
Wrocław and Krakow are both fascinating cities and worthy travel destinations. Krakow is Europe’s cultural capital, so if art, history, and academia are your thing, it can’t go amiss. Krakow is also an important reminder of Poland’s role in the Holocaust, and the haunting mark of WWII still hangs over the city. Wrocław is tranquil and enchanting, and while the German architecture tells one story, the remnants of the ancient city walls tell another. They might be relatively close, but these historical hubs are poles apart. When it comes to Wrocław vs Krakow, your personal interests will determine the winner.