A sensible plan for sightseeing in Kraków is to divide the city into three basic areas: the Old Town, including the Rynek Gówny; the Wawel Castle compound (with its many rooms and museums); and Jewish Kraków, including the former Jewish quarter of Kazimierz and the wartime Jewish ghetto of Podgórze farther south. Ideally, leave a day devoted to each. If you're pressed for time, you could conceivably link the Old Town and Wawel in one day, while leaving Kazimierz and a possible day trip to the Wieliczka Salt Mine for the next.
The Bugler's Call
The most popular tourist attraction in Kraków isn't a church, building, or even a museum. It's actually a real-live bugler, who blows his bugle every day, every hour on the hour, from high atop St. Mary's Basilica (Kosció Mariacki), just off the main square, the Rynek Gówny. It's a strange sight and even a more surreal sound to hear the plaintive wail of the bugle call drift down into the modern square, which is usually filled with its own cacophony, from the clip-clop of horses' hooves to the murmur of the thousands strolling below or taking a drink at a square-side cafe. The tradition of the bugle call, or hejna as it's known in Polish, goes back hundreds of years -- to the 13th and 14th centuries -- when Central European cities such as Kraków faced the ever-present threat of invasion by Tatar barbarians from the East. The buglers, the town's watchmen, would stand guard and alert the citizens of any threat of invasion. If you listen closely as Kraków's bugler plays, you'll hear him cut short his final note. Legend has it that in 1240, the sentry in the watchtower saw a band of Tatars approaching and began sounding the alarm. One of the invaders let fly an arrow that sliced the bugler in the throat mid-note, and ever since, buglers have continued to make an abrupt ending in his memory. (Judging from the height and size of the window, that Tatar must have been an excellent shot!) To hear the bugler today, find an unobstructed view to St. Mary's close to the top of the hour. The bugler begins just after the clock chimes the hour. You'll see him lift his window, and if it's a sunny day, you'll probably catch a glint of sunshine off the bugle. When he's done, it's customary for you to wave -- a gesture of thanks for keeping Kraków safe from the barbarians. If you'd like to see the bugler up close, in summer, it's possible to climb the 239 steps to the top of the tower. If you time your climb right, you might even get to see the bugler in action.
In the 1950s, the Communist authorities decided to try to win over the hearts and minds of skeptical Cracovians by building this model Socialist community, just a tram ride away from the Rynek Gówny. They built an enormous steel mill (nowa huta means "new mill"), as well as rows of carefully constructed workers' houses, shops, and recreational facilities for what was conceived of as the city of the future. It didn't quite work out as planned: Kraków intellectuals were never impressed by having a steel mill so nearby, and the workers never really cottoned to the Communist cause. But Nowa Huta is still standing and, in its own way, looks better than ever. Any fan of urban design or anyone with a penchant for Communist history will enjoy a couple hours of walking around, admiring the buildings, the broad avenues, and the parks and squares. There's even a small museum here, the Museum of the History of Nowa Huta, to tell the story. The structures have held up remarkably well, and indeed, the area looks better now than it ever has. Part of the reason for this is that the mills are no longer running at anywhere near capacity, so the air is cleaner. And, ironically, capitalism has added a touch of badly needed prosperity, meaning the residents now have a little extra money to maintain the buildings. Still, there's something undeniably sad, too; this grandiose project in social engineering has been reduced to little more than a curiosity (though more than 100,000 people still call Nowa Huta home). The shops that line the magnificent boulevards -- once conceived to sell everything a typical family would need (even if the shops rarely had anything worth buying) -- look forlorn; some are empty. You'll also search in vain for a decent restaurant, so plan on eating back in Kraków. The easiest way to reach Nowa Huta is to take tram no. 4 or 15 from the train station about 20 minutes to the stop "Plac Centralny," or tram no. 22 from Starowislna near Kazimierz. From here, it's a short walk to the main square, renamed to honor former U.S. President Ronald Reagan. If you'd like a more in-depth tour, Crazy Guides offers guided visits to Nowa Huta, including travel in a Communist-era Trabant car, for about 120 z per person.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.