Kraków, the capital of the Polish region of Maopolska, is one of the most beautiful cities in central Europe and a highlight of any visit to Poland. The city escaped significant damage during World War II, and its only serious regional rival for pure drop-dead beauty is the Czech capital, Prague. The size and formal perfection of its enormous central square, the Rynek Gówny, is breathtaking, and the little lanes that fan off it in all directions ooze with charm. Kraków is one of those places you start plotting to move to nearly the moment you arrive. In addition to the Old Town, there's ancient Wawel Castle, home to Poland's earliest royal rulers and the country's capital until the end of the 16th century. The former Jewish ghetto of Kazimierz is also coming into its own, not just as a fascinating step back into the city's estimable Jewish past, but also as the emerging center of Kraków's booming nightlife.
Kraków's charms have always been known to Poles (and Kraków remains far and away the number-one domestic tourist destination), but now the word is spreading far and wide. The city is firmly, and justifiably, established on the main central European tourism axis that includes Vienna, Budapest, and Prague. All of this is good news for visitors. It means decent plane, rail, and bus connections from any point north, south, or west of the city. It also means that Kraków has some of the best restaurants and hotels in Poland and is fully accustomed to catering to the needs of visitors.
Outside of Kraków, several excursions merit a few hours or a full day of sightseeing. The most important of these is the former Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau (in the town of Oswiecim, about 80km/50 miles west of the city). Also recommended is a trip to the unusual and unforgettable Wieliczka Salt Mines. If you've got the time and a penchant for modern architecture, check out the Nowa Huta Steelworks and the amazing post-World War II Socialist-Realist housing projects built around the mills.
To the south of Kraków, the High Tatra Mountains begin their rise toward the border with Slovakia. This is prime hiking and skiing country, centered on the main mountain resort of Zakopane. Dozens of hiking trails cover the hills south of town, with some of the most adventurous walks crossing the peaks and ending up in Slovakia. But Zakopane is more than just a hiking and ski resort. A hundred years ago, Poland's best young painters, poets, and architects decamped here in a bid to reinvent Polish culture. To this day, Zakopane retains a whiff of arty exclusivity.
The highlands around Zakopane and to the east of Kraków are less breathtaking but lovely in their own right. If you have extra time, check out the budding tourist town of Tarnów -- "Little Kraków" -- with its nicely preserved Renaissance town square and its own moving history of Polish and Jewish cultures living side by side for centuries, only to be destroyed by Nazi barbarism.