Up until 1596 Krakow was the capital of Poland and even after that date retained a central role in Polish political and cultural life. There is no site in Poland as historically significant as Krakow's Wawel Cathedral and Castle. Added to this is that, unique among major Polish cities, Krakow came through World War II unscathed; the German army holding it was out-flanked by the Soviets and withdrew without a shot being fired. The result is that Krakow today is one of Europe's finest preserved Baroque and Renaissance cities.
But Krakow is far more than a living museum; it's large student population and abundance of excellent bars gives the city a young, lively atmosphere, and Krakow's abundance of beautifully preserved churches are nearly all still in use, and are full on Sundays and religious holidays.
Although fast becoming a popular destination (even more so since the death of Pope John Paul II, the local hero), Krakow doesn't suffer quite so much from the hordes of tourists who occasionally overrun the nearby Prague, a similar city in terms of history and appearance, and has a more laid-back, "small town" feel.
And yes, I am aware that it really should be spelt "Kraków" (or Cracow) but I'm afraid I really can't be bothered going through the entire page putting "ó"s in everywhere. Sorry.
Krakow is reasonably accessible, both from the rest of Poland and from other European countries.
Krakow has its own international airport, John Paul II (can you guess who it's named after), or Krakow-Balice as it's also known. The number of flights from Krakow has expanded massively in the last few years (even if the airport itself hasn't). From the UK there are flights to London Gatwick (British Airways and CentralWings), London Stansted (Sky Europe) and London Luton (EasyJet) as well as SkyEurope service from Manchester.
Among other places you can also fly to and from Krakow direct between Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Copenhagen, Milan, Oslo, Paris (Orly), Prague, Rome, Vienna, and Zurich. Further afield there are direct flights to Chicago and New York (JFK and Newark) and Tel Aviv (all on LOT). There are also several daily domestic flights to Warsaw. This link gives the complete timetable.
Air Polonia, the Polish low-cost carrier, went tits-up in December 2004. Stepping into the breach are CentralWings, a low cost airline partly owned by LOT. They fly from London Gatwick to Warsaw and Krakow.
We flew with them in September 2005; our return tickets cost us about £130 each, but had we been a bit more decisive about where and when we were going we could have booked them a couple of weeks earlier for at least £30 less than this. I was pretty impressed with the airline; they fly modern Boeings, and we left and arrived pretty much on schedule (actually, we left Krakow a little bit late but made up lost time in the air and landed on time). They are "no-frills" in that if you want food or drink on board you have to buy it (or just bring your own), not too much of an inconvenience when the flight is just over 2 hours, but unlike some budget airlines they have allocated seating (you're given a seat number when you check-in, rather than there being a free-for-all when boarding starts).
Unfortunately when I flew with them in April 2006 (which cost £110) my outbound flight was over 7 hours late. I think that this was due to a problem with the plane (which flies in early from Warsaw and then back out to Krakow) as when a plane eventually showed up it was a rather tatty Slovakian Airlines one rather than CentralWings, but I can't say for sure as nobody from the airline bothered telling us anything. The problem is that CentralWings don't have any staff at Gatwick, they only have their handling agents, Aviance. And on this occasion nobody from CentralWings in Poland bothered telling the staff from Aviance at Gatwick what was happening; our flight was due to leave at 10.15, but at 12.30 Aviance couldn't even tell us whether the plane had left Warsaw or not because CentralWings hadn't told them. So that left us sitting round the departure lounge of Gatwick airport for around 8 hours, not the most pleasurable experience of my life, and the only compensation we got was £6 worth of "refreshment vouchers", which I promptly blew on a couple of glasses of wine. The return flight left Krakow bang on time so they did partially redeem themselves, but that's 8 hours of good drinking time lost forever...
Krakow has good rail connections to both other Polish cities and destinations abroad. There are at least 10 trains a day to and from Warsaw; try and get on the Inter City train; it's more expensive than normal services, but it's non-stop (well, it stops at Warsaw and Krakow, obviously) and the journey takes around 2 and a half hours. Our tickets from Warsaw to Krakow cost around 120zl (first class, of course!). Other destinations in Poland include Wroclaw (3 times a day, via Katowice), which takes 4 and half arse-numbing hours and cost around 60zl, Gydnia (5 times a day, via Gdansk), Zakopane, Lublin, and Poznan.
Buying trains for domestic trains was not a problem; timetables are displayed all over the station (there are 2 sheets; the white sheet shows arriving trains, the yellow shows departures. The timetable is listed in order of train departure rather than destination, so each train is printed in the order it leaves and then it shows which stations that train stops at, so you may have to do a bit of searching before you find the train you want. There are plenty of ticket booths at the station but don't count on the staff being able to speak any English. Do what we did, take along a pen and paper, write down the destination, date and time of the train you want, and with a combination of this and a bit of sign language you should get by. If even the Scotsman and I managed it with no problems, everyone else should be OK.
Traveling by train in Poland is much more enjoyable than traveling by train in, say, the UK. Trains are comfortable (all carriages are divided up into compartments of 6 to 8 seats with a connecting corridor), clean, cheap and reliable (every train we went on arrived and left bang on schedule). The only problem is that due to the poor condition of the track in some places they are sometimes s-l-o-w. Once or twice it would probably have been quicker to get out and walk, and average speeds on non-intercity trains work out at around 50 mph. Try and get on an Inter City if possible. "Express" trains are the next fastest but the name is misleading. Unless you specify you'll be sold a second class ticket; there isn't that much difference between first and second class; the first class seats are bigger (the compartments have 6 rather than 8 seats) and more comfortable. As first class tickets only cost an extra 25% (at the most £3 to £4) if you're on a long, slow service it'd probably worth splashing out that bit more. Watch out for missing toilet paper too.
Krakow is also served by international trains. Popular destinations include Berlin (2 a day, 1 overnight), Budapest (overnight), Hamburg, Prague (overnight) and Vienna (2 a day). As I said above it might work out cheaper to fly to one of these destinations and combine it with a trip to Krakow than to fly direct.
Theoretically you can travel to Krakow by coach from the UK. As the journey takes well over 24 hours and will set you back around £100 I don't think I'd bother. Coach travel to other parts of Poland isn't that much cheaper than the train to justify the saving in money you'd make (the coach journey to Warsaw for instance takes about 8 hours) but for much shorter or local journeys (e.g. Katowice, Zakopane, Oswiecim) the coach is worth considering. International destinations served by coach include Amsterdam, Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris, Rome and Vienna. In many cases the scheduled coach fare is more expensive than the train fare. In addition you can't wonder round the coach to stretch you legs and have a slash whenever you feel like it (well, you could, but I doubt you'd last long before they kicked you off).
With a population of 750,000 Krakow is Poland's third largest city (after Warsaw and Lodz). Although the suburbs spread out for quite a distance most places of interest are in the city's compact, historic core. The Vistula ("Wisla", in Polish) runs through the city roughly from West to East. Almost all tourist sites and hotels are North of the River.
The Castle and Cathedral overlook the Vistula from Wawel Hill, on the outside of a big bend in the river. A 10 minute walk east of Wawel is the old Jewish district of Kazimierz. Krakow's Old Town ("Stare Miasto") extends for about half a mile north of Wawel. Have a look at any street map of central Krakow and the Old Town stands out immediately as it is surrounded on all sides by a narrow belt of park (the Platny Park); the park follows the line of Krakow's old city walls and moat, pulled down and filled-in in the 19th century. At the heart of the Old Town is the Rynek Glowny (Market Square), the biggest of its kind in Poland. The tall spires of St Mary's Church can be seen (and heard - see under "What to See and Do") from most of the city centre. ul Grodzka is one of the main roads in the Old Town, running South from the Rynek to Wawel. The main road to the North of the Rynek is ul Florianska, running north-east.
The main railway station (Dworcec Glowny) and the coach station are sensibly located next to each other a 5 minute walk from the north eastern corner of the Old Town (head through the pedestrian underpass at the junction of Baszlowa and Westerplatte, both of which make up part of the city's inner ring-road). You can easily walk to and from them from any point in the Old Town (it took us less than 15 minutes from our hotel, just off the Rynek, with luggage and if we can manage it anyone can). Some local trains go from Krakow Plaszow station, which is about 2 and a half miles south-east of the central station, although there are regular trains between the two.
Krakow's airport, named in honour of John Paul II, is located in the suburb of Balice (its other name) about 10 miles west of the city centre. The 192 and 208 buses run between the airport and the train station (and in the other direction, helpfully). You can buy tickets from the driver, and remember that you'll need to buy tickets for each piece of large luggage you're carrying (or dragging/pushing/kicking along). A taxi ride will take you about half an hour, and set us back 60zl (we paid pretty much the exactly the same fare both from and to the airport, which suggests either that's the correct metered fare or that Krakow's taxi drivers have reached an agreement as to how much they'll rip tourists off; either way it seemed pretty decent value).
The airport is pretty small and is nowhere near big enough for the number of flights and passengers that it handles, but that said it seems fairly well organised. When we arrived we came in at the same time as one of the busy trans-Atlantic flights, which could have been a recipe for chaos, but although the place was packed we didn't have any delays getting through Immigration and collecting our bags. When leaving nearly all of the shops and cafes are before the security check; once you've gone through security there's a lounge with one duty free shop (with the biggest selection of booze on the airport, which isn't saying all that much) and a very limited snack bar (although when we were there the girl behind the counter had an unfeasibly large chest, which made up for the limited selection). After that you go through passport control to the gates, where there's absolutely nothing apart from a few seats. If you want something to eat or to spend your last zlotys you should do it before you go through security, and only go through to the gates at the last minute.
In common with most European cities outside the UK, Krakow has a public transport system that is extensive, reliable, and cheap. That said, the chances are that you'll never need to use it (except perhaps to get to and from the airport). For a start the areas of the city where there's most to see (Old Town, Wawel, Kazimierz) are close together, compact, and are best explored on foot. In any case Wawel and most parts of the Old Town are almost entirely pedestrianised so it's not like you have much choice in the matter.
Public transport consists of trams (running on 22 lines) and buses (over 100 routes). It's easier to buy tickets in advance (most kiosks displaying the MPK sign) sell them. You can buy tickets valid for one single journey, for one hour, or daily and weekly passes. A daily pass will set you back about £1.50. You validate the ticket by stamping it in the machine when you get on the bus or tram. You can also buy tickets from the driver, but this costs more. Some things to be aware of; if you're carrying bulky luggage (anything bigger than 60 x 40 x 20 cm in volume) then you need an additional ticket for each piece. Also, old people get absolute priority when traveling; let them board first and surrender your seat to them when asked (even if the rest of the bus/tram is half empty); let them enjoy it while they still can, who'll be the ones laughing in 10 years time? Being Eastern Europe ticket inspectors are on the prowl, and their favourite targets are rich, Western tourists (or, even better, soap-dodging, dread-locked cheapskate ones); if you're caught without a ticket, with a ticket that hasn't been validated (stamped when you get on), or without a ticket for your luggage, you will be fined. Most bus and tram stops have timetables (although these will not necessarily be accurate and are best viewed as an indication as to frequency of service rather than exact timings); tram stops will also have maps of the tram networks. More detailed maps are available from tourist information offices, and at the bus station. Most buses and all trams stop running at 11pm (although they start up again at 5am, so it's easier to stay up all night drinking and then get the first tram the next morning). In addition there are some night buses going out to the suburbs.
Although the Old Town is off limits to most cars there are places where taxis are permitted. To be honest unless you're heading out to the airport and feeling lazy central Krakow is compact enough that you shouldn't really ever have to take a taxi. The usual precautions apply when taking a taxi; if possible ask your hotel to call a taxi for you as they will generally go with a reasonably reputable company, and either try and arrange the price in advance, or make sure that the driver has the meter switched on. If you're picking up a taxi in the street try and go for one with a company logo on it.
Finally a couple of alternative modes of transportation in the Old Town. If you're feeling romantic (and have money to burn) you can get a ride in a horse-drawn carriage from the Rynek (where they line up like a taxi rank). The cost depends on the length of the ride, and is negotiable with the driver. All of these carriages are licensed, and the horses (and carriages) seemed to be in good condition and well cared-for. If you're feeling lazy there are also electric buggies in the Rynek which will take you off on a whistle-stop tour of various areas of the city, although these are aimed at tour groups of coffin-dodgers.