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Why rent a car in Krakow?
Krakow, with is remarkable old town, castle, and history, is the prime tourist destination of Poland. Some three million foriegn tourists visit the city every year. While when staying in the central part of the city arental car would be more of a burden than a benefit, the many sites in Krakow’s surroundings, chief among them Auschwitz, are certainly best visited with a vehicle.
Top ways to enter Krakow
Most travelers flying to Krakow will arrive at Kraków John Paul II International Airport located about 12 km west of the city center. The largest rental suppliers have desks inside the terminal on level +1. Other suppliers will either meet you on arrival or provide a shuttle.
Some may fly into nearby Katowice Airport which i less than 100 km away from Krakow or Warsaw Chopin Airport 300km north of Krakow. It is possible to pick up a rental car in both of these airports with the largest suppliers again having desks in the terminal.
With trains arriving from nearby European countries, some travelers may also arrive by train at Krakow Glowny (the main train station) where it is also possible to pick up rental cars via a supplier’s representative meeting you on arrival.
Useful city facts
Once the capital of Poland, Krakow is steeped in history. The first written account of its name was in the late 900s while it became the seat of Polish government in 1038. Wavel castle was first built later in the 11th century the Krakow University would follow two hundred years later. The city experienced its golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries before King Sigismund III Vasa moved the capital to Warsaw. The city would see treatrous times during the Nazi occupation. Today it is again a cultural, industrial, and educational hear of Poland.
Visitors may notice many references to Pope John Paull II throughout Krakow. Karol Józef Wojtyła, as he was known before his papacy, was born in Wadowice, not far from Krakow. He later would move to Krakow where he would eventually attend seminary and become ordained. Wojtyla would go onto become the Archbishop of Krakow before being inaugurated as Pope. Being the first polish Pope, and given Poland is a heavily Catholic country, it is no surprise that the home city of Krakow would honor and celebrate him.
Krakow has four distinct seasons. Summers are generally warm to hot with occasional rainy days and daily highs on average between 23 and 25°C (in the mid 70’s fahrenheit). Winters are usually cold with highs typically just above freezing. The city sees snow during winter sometimes remaining for a week or two.
Krakow has the worst air pollution in Europe. The problem is particularly bad in winter with intense smog due to the use of coal as a heating source, though luckily coal furnaces are being phased out. If you or one of one of your family or travel companions has respiratory issues, then it is best to avoid Krakow in the winter.
Travelers should be careful when it comes to exchanging currency in Krakow. Do not, if at all possible, exchange money at the airport. If you must, only exchange the amount you need before you reach the city center. The same is true for the train station. Wait until you reach the city to exchange money. The rates given in the city center are usually much better than those at the airport and train stations.
One must be careful with currency exchanges in the city center, too. Know the approximate exchange rate before arriving and search for an exchange that offers a BUY rate as close as possible to it. This is important, as some places will trick potential customers by listing the sell rate first. Some will also play a trick with zeros, for example quoting 3.080 instead of 3.80. If not careful, you could fall for this and lose a significant portion of your money.
Another common ripoff is the exchange rate conversion when paying with a credit card or using certain ATMs. When paying in a store or restaurant you will be asked whether to pay in polish zloty or have them covert the purchase amount to your home currency for you. You will invariably receive a better rate from your home bank than what they offer, and sometimes their offer will be far away from the actual exchange rate. You should therefore insist on declining any offers of conversion and pay in polish zloty (i.e., use the red button on the card reader).
Top destinations and activities
- Old Town - The primary draw for visitors, and also something almost no one misses on the visit, the Stare Miasto is the centerpiece of Krakow. It is centered upon the Rynek Glowny, or Market Square, where travelers will find the Cloth Hall that sadly used to sell local goods but now only sells useless tourist trinkets likely made in China. Though food and Christmas markets in the square are certainly worth perusing. Travelers will also find the Church of St. Adalbert and Town Hall Tower here. The atmosphere in square and old town itself will leave visitors wanting to stroll around more and more. The Old Town is surrounded on all sides by a park that makes for the perfect romantic walk.
- Kazimierz - A 15 minute walk south of the Old Town, Kazimierz is the former Jewish section of the city. While there were many more before 1939, there are now a handful of synagogues left. Additionally, there is the Galacia Jewish Museum and a couple of jewish cultural centers. Kazimierz is hotspot for nightlife for the younger crowd. It also has a plethora of dining options. A unique place to grab a drink is Tea Time, a bar serving hand-pump cask ales that are brewed in the basement.
- Wavel Castle - Located at the southern end of the Old Town and along the Vistula River, the Wavel Castle sits upon a hill. It was occupied for hundreds of years and was once the seat of the Polish crown. The castle has several exhibitions that all require separate tickets. This includes the State Rooms, the Royal Apartment, and the Armoury. In addition, visitors can also enter the Royal Tombs and climb up Sigismund's Tower and see the bell.
- Nowa Huta - About 10km east of the Old Town, Nowa Huta is a neighborhood built in communist times for the workers of the newly built steel mills. It is centered around Ronald Reagan Square and is one of the best examples of socialist realist architecture.
- Schindler’s Factory - Made famous by Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Schindler’s Factory is now a museum open for visitation. Oskar Schindler saved more than a thousand Jews from the Holocause during World War II. He did this by employing them in his factory south of the Vistula River in Krakow. The museum, however, doesn’t just cover Schindler and his actions but the entire history of the Nazi occupation of Krakow. Also near the museum is the last remaining piece of the wall of the Krakow Ghetto. It can be found on Lwowska Street.
Traffic and parking tips
As the Polish economy has grown, so has car ownership. With more and more cars on the roads every year in Warsaw, congestion keeps getting worse.It would be best if you could plan your travel times around rush hour. Expect long delays when leaving the city in the late afternoon or early evening, particularly on Friday in the direction of Zakopane.
As with any city its size, parking is scarce in the center of Krakow. All parking spaces in and around the city center are metered. Payment can be made with cash or contactless credit cards (in many zones). Parking is free at night, however.
The city also operates parking garages in Podgórze (across the Vistula River) and near the National Museum of Krakow (which is very close to the Old Town). Other privately run garages or lots can also be found in the center.
Driving is restricted in the Old Town. You will only be able to drive into it if your hotel is located inside of it. It is not permitted to drive on the streets near the Market Square for any reason.
While there are no toll road in the City of Krakow itself, there are in other parts of Poland. Of most concern for travelers is the A4 highway which starts on the outskirts of the city and goes to Katowice and Wroclaw. Driving from Krakow to Katowice will set back drivers 20 PLN and from Katowice to Wrocław a further 16.20 PLN.
Travelers should also be aware that the A1, which will take drivers from Krakow to Gdansk, and the A2 stretching from Warsaw to Berlin are also toll roads (though not on the German side of the border).
All tolls in Poland are collected at toll gates. You can pay with a credit card or cash in Polish Zloty, Euros, or U.S. Dollars, though only bills are accepted for euros and dollars with change given in zloty. While electronic tolling is available, vehicles must still stop for a closed gate when using the systems. Therefore, renters should not worry if their car supplier offers electronic options and plan to just pay at the gates.
Ideas for a day-trip
- Auschwitz -Birkenau - Many visitors come to Krakow with the sole intention of visiting what has become the dominant symbol of the Holocaust. The site of the Nazi extermenation camp is about 65 km west of Krakow in the town of Oświęcim. Auschwitz I, with the famous Arbeit macht frei gate, is now a museum with historical exhibits and the only remaining gas chamber, though it was reconstructed after the war. The museum requires visitors to use a tour guide during the busiest times of the day. Auschwitz II, with the notorious railway entrance, is 3 km away in the village of Brzezinka. This, the largest part of the camp, serves more as a memorial with ruins of buildings, the ponds where victims’ ashes were dumped, and a large memorial in different languages. It is free to walk around during all hours when it is open.
- Many companies advertise tours of Auschwitz in Krakow’s old town. It should be noted that the cost of these tours mostly comes from the transportation. If you have a rental car, it is better to just rely on the guides that the museum itself offers. Do also keep in mind that the site is not a tourist site but a memorial to the more than million victims whose final resting place it is and treat it with the solemnity it deserves.
- Wieliczka - Located just outside of Krakow, Wieliczka is a small town known for its salt mine which had been operating for centuries when it ceased operations in 2007. The tour of the mine takes visitors to a small portion of the overall mine, but includes highlights of statutes and the Chapel of St. King, an impressive cathedral. There is also another tour that includes the history of salt mining in the area. Finally, the mine includes a health resort where it is possible to spend the night. Do be sure to bring warm clothes as the temperature underground is lower.
- Częstochowa - Around 140km northwest of Krakow, Czestochowa is an extremely popular pilgrimage site for Catholics. Pilgrims come from all over Poland and further due to the Black Madonna icon located in the Jasna Gora monastery. The city sees thousands of visitors around August 15 for the Feast of the Assumption.
- Nowy Sącz - Located an hour’s drive southeast of Krakow, Nowy Sacz is another historic town. Its marketplace is one of the largest in Europe, though not a large as Krakow’s, and the Rathauz sits in the center of it. The town is also very popular due to the mountains surrounding it. Tourists enjoy hiking and visiting the resorts in the Beskids nearby the town.
- Castles - There are a number of castles located near Krakow. Examples include Olsztyn Castle located in the small town of Olsztyn just outside of Czestochowa (not to be confused with the town of Olsztyn in northern Poland), Niedzica Castle located South of Krakow near the Slovak border, and Czorsztyn Castle located across Lake Czorsztyn from Niedzica.
- Zalipie - This village is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful villages in Poland. It is located 100km east of Krakow. The village is famous for its house painted with interested designs and colors. There are no other tourist services or sights, just a unique small village off the beaten path.
- Bielsko-Biała - Travelers can drive 80 km southwest of Krakow to reach the town of Bielsko-Biala. Although the town has an old town, it is primarily an entryway to the neighboring ski-resorts and the surrounding Beskid Mountains. The Pszczyna Castle nearby is also worth a visit.
- Zakopane - During both summer and winter, poles flock to Zakopane for hiking or skiing. Sitting just outside the High Tatras National Park, this city has long been the mountain resort capital of Poland. The town and national parks make for a great day trip for those short on time. Many routes can be hiked in a few hours, including making it to the top of Giewont which overlooks the town. Of course, those with more time available will want to stay in Zakopane for at least a few days.
Most popular rental types and cars
Given the crowded city driving (and small parking spaces), it is natural that renters prefer smaller cars in Krakow. The most popular class of cars is the Economy, like the Ford Fiesta, followed by compact, such as the Opel Astra. The third most popular class of car is mini, of which the Fiat 500 is a good example.
Poland shares a border with multiple countries. While it is possible to take a rental car from Poland to other countries in the European for an additional one-time fee starting around 50 euros, it is forbidden to take a rental car to countries that are not European Union members, including Belerus, Russia, and Ukraine. If you wish to travel to these countries, it is best to take a train or fly to them and rent another car there.
- Warsaw - Do just as Sigmund III did when he decided to move the capital of Poland in the 16th century and venture from Krakow 300km north through Kielce to Warsaw, the current capital. After having visited Krakow, Warsaw’s Old Town may leave a traveler wanting, however, there are many museums, excellent nightlife, and delicious cuisine to also be had in the capital .
- Slovakian National Parks - South of Krakow is Slovakia’s natural heart. From the Slovakian part of the High Tatras to the Low Tatras and Slovak Paradise, all of the Slovakian National Parks lie in the central and eastern part of the country that is easily reachable from Krakow. The High Tatras National Park hosts the tallest mountain in the Carpathian Range including Gerlachovsky Stit, the highest point in Slovakia and the Carpathians. The Low Tatras National Park, while not having as much altitude, is much larger and less crowded. Finally, the Slovak Paradise is a mountain range full of canyons, gorges, waterfalls, and caves.
- Wroclaw - Travelers can drive down the A4 about three hours to reach another historic polish city. With a history dating back more than a thousand years and having been a part of various political units, it is unsurprising that the old town is the big draw for the city. Visitors can also enjoy a number of different museums, too. The Sudeten Mountains are not too far south of the city and make for a nice trip from it.
- Bratislava - The capital of Slovakia is about a four drive southwest of Krakow. There are multiple routes that could be taken, the fastest of which goes through the Czech Republic. Many drivers, however, would probably rather go through the slovak mountains. The city, nestled next to the Danube River, is often overshadowed by Prague and deemed to be the second capital due to Slovakia and the Czech Republic being one country through much of the 20th century. However, its windy pedestrian streets and castle overlooking the river certainly make for a tourist-worthy destination
- Prague- A roughly six hour drive from Krakow, Prague is deemed by many to be the most charming and beautiful city in Central Europe, if not Europe as a whole. The Czech capital has abundance of baroque buildings. Its gothic castle and churches are some of the best known in the world. There’s more than one reason why more than 10 million foriegn tourists visit the city every year. However, be prepared for crowded streets and all that comes with a tourist mecca.
- Vienna - It takes roughly five hours to drive from Krakow to the capital of Austria (through the Czech Republic). The former seat of Habsburg power as the capital of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Vienna has everything one would expect of an imperial city. The historic city center, world-class museums and palaces like Schonbrunn are just some of what draws millions of tourists to the city every year.
- Budapest - A 400 km drive south of Krakow through Slovakia brings travelers to the capital of Hungary. Budapest was formerly two separate cities, Buda on the right bank of the Danube and Pest on the left bank. The Buda castle sits on a hill overlooking the river on the Buda side. Pest has more bustling activity, old buildings from the 19th century and the Parliament building that sits along the river. The city is also well known for its numerous thermal baths.
- Lviv - Part of Poland until 1939, and then known as Lwow, the city is now the largest in western Ukraine and a cultural center for the country as a whole. One of the few european cities to survive World War II with most of its building intact, Lviv’s city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city also serves as a great point from which to explore the rest of western Ukraine. Since you are not able to enter with a rental car, the best way to reach Lviv is either by air or by train from Krakow to Przemyśl and switching to another train to Lviv. This is a better option than taking the direct train, as it must stop at the border for a few hours to change the rail gauge.
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