On the foothill fringes of the Tatrzański Park Narodowy (Tatra National Park), where the Tatra mountains dagger the Polish skyline with their year-round, snow-capped peaks, marking the borderlands between the southernmost voivodeship of Małopolska (Lesser Poland) and the country of Slovakia to the south, the city of Kraków, a metropolitan hub of Polish life, national art and culture, dominates; living up in stature to its self-proclaimed historical epithet: Miasto Królów (the city of kings).
Kraków is a curious mix of the old and the new, rich with the traditional character of pre-communist, medieval Polish life, but buzzing with energy and youth. It's home to some of Poland’s most prestigious universities, and famous for its imposing bar scene (I've heard locals boast the most bars per square meter than any other city on earth). Locals frequent the two nightlife hotspots – Kazimierz (the old Jewish quarter) and the stare miasto (Old Town) – just as much as the curious traveller, making the city a compact and bubbling melting-pot of people. What’s more, this is one of the few cities still capable of exuding that genuine mystery tied up with classic portraits of the great European cities like industrial London, and bohemian Paris. Here, sitting with a strong coffee steaming into the cold winter air, you really get a feel of a dark and brooding character that lurks in the smoky subterranean speakeasies, where jazz drifts gently in the Slavic air, and wisps upwards, twisting round the gothic towers and into the atmosphere.
For the last twenty years the annual influx of tourists to Poland's old capital has kept increasing. Attracted in part by the towering Wawel hill (Castle hill), where Poland's kings of old were crowned. The hill also houses the , ‘Poland's Westminster Cathedral’, a centre for the country's staunch Catholicism where Polish luminaries lay buried.
Most visitors will either arrive at Krakow's John Paul II Airport in the small village of Kraków-Balice, a convenient 10km out of the town centre (and just a 2zł bus ride to town), or at the dworzec główny, the city's central train and bus station. It's best to look for somewhere to stay close to the stare miasto and, in particular, the Rynek Główny, Kraków's world famous town square, second largest of its kind in Europe, where the imposing spires of Kościół Wniebowzięcia Najświętszej Marii Panny, (of if you prefer the local speak Kosciół Mariacki [St. Mary's Basilica]) tower over the cobbled ground, kawiarnie (cafes), and puby (pubs) below.
Kraków is also a green city, riddled with little parks and pockets of trees. The most famous is probably the planty, a park that surrounds the old town centre on all sides, coming to a head at the castle, where the city meets the Wisła river (the Vistula). The planty is also home to the Barbakan Krakowski (The Barbican), a well preserved segment of the city's fortification walls, and old gateway to the city from the north. Just outside the old city ring formed by the park, you can now find the Galeria Krakowska, a shopping centre adjoining the train station, with everything from fast food to manicures.
The other great pulls of Kraków include the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp site, just a hour away by bus, offering a sobering but informative visitor centre, and the deep kopalnia soli (salt mines) of nearby Wieliczka, subterranean reminders of Kraków's historical might.