The region of Małopolskie (lesser Poland) of which Kraków is the capital is one of Poland’s most worthy of exploration. From Kraków, tour companies have developed a really eclectic menu of day long excursions that will take you from the high Tatra peaks, to the slow-flowing rivers of this exceptionally beautiful corner of Europe
It is possible to reach the city of Zakopane to the south in just under two hours, and tours run daily throughout the year from Kraków. Zakopane is hailed as the Outdoor Activity Capital of Poland, and in the snowy months, the ice-capped mountain peaks enclose this traditional mountain town of wooden churches and crooning bars, making it a great place to get away from the city buzz for a day. The price of a typical tour to Zakopane is 200-250 PLN, depending what’s included.
Even further to the south, right on the cusp of the Slovakian Tatras, the magnificent 14th century Castle at Niedzica, looms over the Dunajec River below. One of Kraków’s popular day trips is rafting down the river, starting upstream on the Dunajec and gliding past the romantic hillsides that feather slowly towards the south, and the confluence with the Vistula River that leads the way back to Krakow. Expect to pay around 230-250 PLN for a rafting tour on the Dunajec, a price that should include all entrance fees, transportation, and a guide.
Continuing the ‘day trip with a castle’ theme, frequent excursions to the startlingly close Ojców national park depart from Krakow daily. Here, not only can visitors see the amazing limestone rock protrusions that make the topography of the area so interesting, but the Pieskowa Skała Castle that’s nestled neatly in the same valley is one of the finest examples of early Renaissance fortifications in Poland. Trips to Ojców and back will usually cost around 100-150 PLN, but make sure the ticket includes entry to all attractions.
While Krakow is often hailed as the birthplace of the highly venerated Polish Pope John Paul II, his actual birthplace is the small town of Wadowice to the south west. Tour companies in the city now offer the so called ‘Pope Tour’, which takes you to Wadowice itself, and to a number of different sites relevant to John Paul’s life. Along the route there’s also a few other sites of interest, in particular the small town of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska. ‘Pope Tours’ should cost around 100-170 PLN.
Another popular day trip takes visitors to nearby Niepołomice Castle, another gothic structure with Renaissance façades that has retained it magnificent appearance since the medieval ages. The castle itself sits just on the borders of one of Poland’s primeval forests, a habitat largely unique throughout Europe (and indeed, the world), where the last few herds of European bison can still be spotted. All in, with transportation and entrance fees the Niepołomice Castle tour should cost no more than 200 PLN.
For day trips in particular it’s a good idea to shop around a little. There are loads of different companies that have offices either in, or just out of the Old Town centre, and you’ll probably come across several as you just wander through the city. Meeting places and times can differ slightly, and prices are very competitive, especially during the summer.
Lakes in and around Kraków
The region of Malopolskie is as landlocked as they get. Krakow is the city at its heart, and there’s nothing that says beach about it at all. While Poland does have a magnificent coastline, it is thirteen hours away (at least) from Kraków and one monster of a train ride north; clearly, beaches are not on the menu here. Well, think again!
A favourite among the stag and hen parties in the sweltering high-summer is the beach party excursions that depart from central Kraków, and without a beach in sight, it’s difficult to fathom where they’re heading. But, Malopolskie is lake country, and in the crevices and valleys cut by the limestone contours of the pre-Tatra hills, there are plenty to choose from; some even with bona fide beaches!
The most popular is undoubtedly Kryspinow. Referred to by many a wilfully deluded Cracovian affectionately as Kryspinow Beach, this super-clean, super-large lake is home to Kraków’s most convincing of man-made beaches. Complete with Cuban theme bar and windsurfing facilities, Kryspinow gets the lion’s share of lake going locals and tourists in the summer. Consequently, it can get quite busy, so it may be worth avoiding the controlled section, where most people go to enjoy the best sand, but pay an entrance fee for the privilege. Being around just 10km from Kraków’s centre, the lake is super close, and accessible by the busses that run in the city limits.
Rożnowskie Lake is further from the city, and less orientated to the lazy traveller. Here the real joy is the hiking and biking paths that weave their way round the grassy banks of the fish filled water. What’s really striking initially is how natural Rożnowskie looks, nestled in a valley around an hour and a half to the south east of Krakow, near the small town of Nowy Sącz. It’s actually an artificial lake used to power nearby renewable sources, and wasn’t even there until the 1940s!
Within Kraków’s city limits and reachable by tram or bus, the old quarry of Zakrzowek is a really interesting example of what happens when the diggers dig too deep. Created accidentally when the limestone quarrymen hit underground springs below the surface, the water here is fresh and really, really cold. You’ll notice prohibitive fences around the edge that have been dismantled almost entirely by locals who resent the attempt to prevent swimmers there. But, with a number of accidents occurring as a result of the sheer cliff faces that drop down into the water below, if you want to swim it’s a good idea to heed the warnings and go with the qualified scuba divers that are allowed to practice at Zakrzowek.
Another lake that’s easily reachable with public transport, albeit with a few changes, is the smaller Przylasek Rusiecki. Another man made beach is the most popular spot, and locals come here to barbeque kielbasa in the summer nights. The water is nice too, so don’t forget the swimming gear.
In a town so ostensibly divided from water, the proliferation of lakes in and around Krakow has given rise to something of a lakeside culture in the summer. While not the awesome, mountain shrouded alpine expanses of Switzerland or Austria, the lakes of Kraków are pleasant places to kick back and relax in a city that really knows how it’s done.