Jul 20, 2022 • 7 min read
From modern art at the MOCAK Museum of Contemporary Art to underground treasures and historic trams, the museums in Krakow, Poland will not disappoint © monteiro.online / Shutterstock
Kraków’s best museums: from bagels to bungee trampolines
Jul 20, 2022 • 7 min read
Kraków is packed with more museums than any other Polish city. There's so much to see: venerable age-old edifices, architecturally striking former homes of renowned Polish painters, modern spaces showcasing contemporary art and multimedia exhibitions and quirky little museums dedicated to local institutions such as the Kraków bagel.
Some museums are independent, although many of them fall under the umbrella of the Museum of Kraków, spread over 19 venues. A dozen more are considered part of the MNK (Kraków National Museum). Multi-venue tickets and six-month passes are a terrific way to save money; all branches of the MNK are free on Tuesdays and to students under the age of 26. Many museums are closed on Mondays, and some offer free entry on certain days (check with individual museums).
Here are the best museums in Kraków.
One of the biggest highlights of the Museum of Kraków is descending to subterranean depths beneath the main square in Old Town and experiencing Kraków’s entire history through a whirlwind of touchscreens and holograms. At the heart of the museum are archaeological finds – from medieval merchant stalls to original stretches of cobbled street beneath glass-bottomed walkways – unearthed when Rynek was repaved from 2005-2008.
You'll enter through a screen of fog and view a short introductory film before acquainting yourself with displays on trade through the centuries, automated puppets (great for kids!) and depictions of vampire prevention burials at the remains of an 11th-century cemetery.
Due to the museum’s popularity, buy your timed ticket online in advance. The museum is free on Tuesdays and is closed on the second Monday of each month.
This Gothic university library-turned-museum is the oldest building on the campus of Kraków’s renowned 14th-century Jagiellonian University. Originally, the professors lived upstairs, while students, including Nicolaus Copernicus (15th-century mathematician and astronomer), spent much of their time in the ground floor lecture halls.
On weekdays, access is by guided tour only (choose between the 30-minute standard tour or the more in-depth, hour-long full tour). On Saturdays, you are free to wander around by yourself and take in the old refectory, the aula (lecture hall), professors’ quarters, the mechanical courtyard clock and the oldest surviving globe from the 1520s that places America in the wrong hemisphere.
Intricately decorated Egyptian sarcophagi, mummified cats and an extensive collection of pre-Columbian Chimú ceramics from Peru are among the things not to miss at this excellent museum. The tour de force is the sole surviving ninth-century carved pillar featuring the head of Swiatowit, the chief Slavic god in the pagan pantheon. Look out for mannequins of "ancestors" in the permanent exhibit on the prehistory of Malopolska, their faces recreated using the latest forensic science techniques. Enjoy free entry to permanent exhibits on Sundays.
Part of the MNK, this beautifully-preserved artist’s residence is an essential stop for any Art Nouveau enthusiast. Józef Mehoffer (1869-1946) was a turn-of-the-20th-century painter and skilled stained-glass artist, particularly renowned for restoring and restyling numerous Kraków churches. His former home is filled with belle époque furnishings, Art Deco and impressionist-era art, as well as his own stained-glass pieces, including the immortality-portraying Vita somnium breve (1904). The museum is closed Mondays.
Part of the Museum of Kraków, the former enamel factory belonging to German industrialist Oskar Schindler is justifiably one of Kraków’s must-visit museums. During WWII, Schindler saved more than a thousand Jewish inhabitants of the Podgorzé ghetto by employing them at his factory, thus keeping them off the Nazi deportation lists. Much of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was shot in and around the factory building.
The spotlight here is on the superb permanent exhibition, "Kraków During Nazi Occupation 1939-1945," which tells the story of everyday life, underground resistance and anti-Semitic repressions in the city, with a particular emphasis on Schindler and other Righteous Among The Nations who risked their own lives to save Jews. Period artifacts, photos, archival documents, filmed interviews with Holocaust survivors and multimedia installations are used to tremendous effect. Entry is by timed slot; buy tickets online three or more days in advance. The museum is closed on the first Tuesday of every month.
A must-see for WWII buffs, this comprehensive museum inside the renovated Austrian military headquarters charts the mass resistance that the Polish population put up during the Nazi occupation. Efforts ranged from organized underground military campaigns to boy and girl scouts who delivered packages, undertook reconnaissance duties and engaged in sabotage.
Guests will receive a media card that triggers video displays as they walk around. It’s worth booking a tour a day in advance if you’d like to hear in detail about Operation Storm – the joint 1944 Soviet and Polish campaign to liberate Vilnius and Lviv, as well as the Warsaw Uprising of the same year. The museum is closed on Mondays.
This somber museum covers the former Habsburg province of the Austrian Empire (stretching from Kraków to Ternopil in present-day Ukraine). Traces of Memory is a poignant collection of images by photographer Chris Schwartz that depict former death camps and the abandoned and derelict cemeteries and synagogues of southeastern Poland. Keep an eye out for temporary exhibits relating to Jewish history in the converted warehouse. Head out into the garden to view murals of Marek Edelman (leader of the failed Warsaw Ghetto Uprising) and Irena Sendler (Righteous Among the Nations).
Popular with kids and adults alike, this 19th-century tram depot in the Kazimierz neighborhood is home to an extensive collection of vintage buses, tramcars and swanky 1950s saloons made by Warsaw Automobile Works. Even though the new permanent exhibition is under renovation till late 2022, you can visit the revamped Trams on Wawrzyńca display with the "type C" Polish tram carriage as its star (there are only two in existence).
Check out the 1957 Smyk mini-car, with the driver and passengers alike having to clamber in through a hinged bonnet in the absence of doors, and sign your kids up for workshops in the Creativity Zone. The museum is closed on Mondays.
If recreated peasant interiors from the Kraków region and colorful folk costumes float your boat, then you’ve come to the right place! Three floors of this revamped 14th-century town hall are filled with intricately crafted scale models, traditional musical instruments, painted wooden furniture and farming implements. The floral motifs adorning the cottage from Malopolska are particularly impressive, and if you haven’t yet encountered pisanki (painted Easter eggs) and szpoki (brightly painted Nativity displays), you’re in for a decent introduction. Lovers of the bizarre shouldn’t miss the straw effigies burned at Shrovetide or the death’s head and stork masks traditionally worn by Christmas carolers. The museum is closed on Mondays.
Occupying a clutch of renovated buildings that were formerly part of Schindler’s factory, as well as a brand new avant-garde exhibition space, Kraków's Museum of Contemporary Art features a permanent collection of post-1980 Polish greats and frequently changing, provocative high-profile exhibitions. Don’t miss Krystian Lupa’s interactive installation Live Factory 2, which draws on Warhol's cult NYC studio for inspiration, and look out for Malgorzata Markiewicz’s photography on the subject of motherhood, as well as sculpture by Miroslaw Balka. The museum is cloed on Mondays.
This open-air attraction is named after longtime Kraków resident and science fiction writer, Stanislaw Lem, and provides a wonderfully hands-on way of teaching kids about the laws of physics. It's a giant educational playground that gives visitors the opportunity to swing on the end of a giant pendulum, explore optical illusions, check out the resonance of different materials by banging on a special xylophone and ride a bicycle on a tightrope, among dozens of other fun exhibits. There’s also an onsite planetarium, greenhouse and herb garden. Some of the attractions for older kids – human gyroscope, bungee trampoline, zorbing – cost extra. The museum is open from mid-April to late October.
Vendors selling obwarzanek – a cornerstone of Kraków cuisine – can be found on every corner in Old Town. These chewy, parboiled dough rings (plain, or topped with poppy seeds or sesame seeds) have been "beloved by citizens, tourists and pigeons" for more than 600 years, according to the museum. Find out what makes them so special, and bake and sample your own. English-language tours take place at 2pm on Wednesdays and noon on Saturdays.
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Jul 20, 2022 • 7 min read