Last updated on October 22, 2023 by Wandering our World
If you’re planning a trip to Poland, it’s highly likely that you’ll choose to stay in one of the country’s two biggest cities: Warsaw or Krakow. The former is the country’s capital, while the latter is one of the oldest cities in the nation, and both of them have a lot to offer in terms of attractions and things to do.
Ideally, it’s best to see them both in order to get the biggest and best taste of Polish culture, history, cuisine, and traditions. However, if you only have time to see one of these cities, you might not know which one to pick. Both have their advantages, but which is the right choice for your next adventure?
On the one hand, there’s Warsaw, the economic and political hub of Poland, and one of the biggest cities in the entire European Union. Well-known for its fabulous architecture and rich culture, Warsaw is filled with museums and art galleries, perfect for those who want to learn all about Poland’s past.
Then, there’s Krakow, which, despite being a large city, feels distinctly smaller, cozier, and more romantic than Warsaw in many ways, with its fairy-tale vibes, dragon statues, medieval architecture, and other unique charms. It’s a very quaint city in many ways, but also boasts a surprisingly lively nightlife scene.
Clearly, the two cities have a number of notable differences, but which one is right for you? Well, that’s what this guide is here to help you decide. Below, you’ll find detailed breakdowns of Warsaw vs Krakow in several key areas, from activities and attractions to food, nightlife, affordability, and more.
- A Quick Overview Of Warsaw vs Krakow
- Which Is Best For Activities?
- Which Is Better For Day Trips?
- Which Is Better For Shopping?
- Which Is Better For Nightlife?
- Which Is Better For Food?
- Which Is Best For Families?
- Which Is Best For Couples?
- Which Is Best For Backpackers?
- Which Is Cheapest?
- Warsaw vs Krakow: Which Is Better?
A Quick Overview Of Warsaw vs Krakow
Warsaw: A Quick Overview
Warsaw is the biggest city and capital of Poland. It’s located in the east-central part of the country, beside the River Vistula. Over 1.8 million people live in Warsaw, with more than 3.1 million in the full metropolitan area, making this the sixth-biggest city in the entire European Union.
There are several centuries of history in Warsaw, dating all the way back to its official founding in the 13th century. It started life as a small and sleepy fishing village, developing slowly but surely as the centuries went by. It became the capital of Poland in the 16th century, taking over the title from Krakow, and enjoyed even more development in the 19th century.
Unfortunately, large parts of Warsaw were destroyed during World War II, with many of the oldest landmarks and buildings of the historic center completely wiped out. Fortunately, many of those old structures were rebuilt later on in their original style, and history lovers will still find plenty to enjoy in the Polish capital.
Warsaw is also renowned as being a very energetic, dynamic city. It’s filled to the brim with stores, malls, business centers, and eateries, with no less than 18 districts to explore and discover. Those looking for a deep, diverse metropolis, full of surprises, will certainly enjoy spending some time in this fascinating city.
Krakow: A Quick Overview
Krakow, sometimes spelled Cracow, is the second-biggest city in Poland. It’s also one of the nation’s oldest cities, and it’s located in the Lesser Poland Province in the southern part of the country. Around 800,000 people live in Krakow, with close to 1.5 million in the full metropolitan area, but the city attracts lots of tourists each year, making it feel bigger and busier.
Older than Warsaw by several centuries, Krakow’s origins date all the way back to the seventh century. It started off as a tiny hamlet, developing into a big trading center by the end of the 10th century and serving as the country’s capital all the way until 1596. It has also historically been one of Poland’s top economic and cultural hubs.
Fortunately, Krakow wasn’t bombed and destroyed during the war as Warsaw was, so many of its famous old buildings are still standing, wonderfully well-preserved and open to visitors. Fittingly, Krakow ranks as one of the most-visited touristic locations in all of Poland, as well as being widely-regarded as one of Europe’s prettiest and most romantic cities.
It has a long list of breathtaking landmarks and attractions, like the splendid Wawel Cathedral, vast Main Square, and decorative Krakow Cloth Hall. Those seeking romance, beautiful architecture, lively nightlife, and rich cultural experiences will quickly fall in love with Poland’s second city.
Which Is Best For Activities?
With plenty of activities in both cities, you can easily spend a full week in either Krakow or Warsaw without getting bored or running out of things to do. However, these cities offer quite different experiences, with Krakow being more oriented around beautiful architecture and well-preserved historic buildings, and Warsaw more of a fast-paced modern metropolis.
Warsaw: The Activities
Even though lots of Warsaw’s historic landmarks were tragically destroyed in the Second World War, there’s still lots of history in this city. Many visitors will want to start their adventure in the Old Town, with its many cobblestone streets and beautiful buildings, rebuilt in the wake of the war, like the Jesuit Church and Royal Castle.
Wilanow Palace is another must-see Warsaw landmarks. Often compared to Paris’ Versailles, this fabulous former home of the Polish royal family is now a rich museum of artworks and decorative, opulent interiors, surrounded by gorgeous gardens. It’s big enough for a full day of activities and sure to please couples and families alike.
If one palace isn’t quite enough, you can also visit Warsaw’s Palace on the Isle, otherwise known as Baths Palace, which is located right in the heart of the city’s 76 hectare Royal Baths Park, a wonderful place for romantic walks and summer picnics. Housing works by Rubens and Rembrandt, the palace has a collection of treasures to rival the greatest museums.
Speaking of museums, Warsaw has plenty of them. There’s the National Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the POLIN Museum, and the Copernicus Science Center. The Warsaw Uprising Museum is particularly moving, dedicated to the Polish underground resistance fighters who put their lives on the line to free their country from Nazi occupation in 1944.
Krakow: The Activities
Krakow may be smaller than Warsaw, but it packs an awful lot into a small space, with a seemingly never-ending lineup of stunning historic buildings, landmarks, and monuments to admire. Start off at Market Square in the heart of the Old Town area, the beating heart of Krakow since the Middle Ages.
From there, you can set off in almost any direction and find all sorts of architectural treasures along the way. Some of the top landmarks to check out include the decorative Cloth Hall and the awe-inspiring Town Hall Tower. The medieval Barbican, with its red brick turrets and bulwarks is yet another gem, adding to the fairy tale feel of this city.
Of course, no trip to Krakow can be complete without a day at the wonderful Wawel Castle. Home of Polish royals many centuries ago, this complex of buildings looms far above the city and has been everything from a royal residence to a military hospital over the years. Guided tours will help you learn all about it, or you can explore solo, at your own pace.
For a bit of nature, head to Planty Park, which surrounds the Old Town in a ring of greenery. Or, for more history, coupled with trendy bars, cafes, and shops, pay a visit to the Jewish Quarter. If you’re visiting with kids, you might also like to see the so-called “Dragon’s Den” – legend says that a dragon used to live beneath the city’s castle, and there’s even a fire-breathing statue to admire.
Overall, both Krakow and Warsaw offer a myriad of activities and attractions. In Warsaw, the focus is mainly on museums and modernity, with more of a lively, working city vibe and several fantastic palaces to see. Meanwhile, in Krakow, the very act of walking around the city is a joy in and of itself, with spectacular historic structures all around and fun family attractions.
Which Is Better For Day Trips?
If you want to make the most of your stay in Poland, you might like to take a day out of the city and explore some other local towns and hotspots, or even pass over the borders and visit one of Poland’s neighboring countries, like the Czech Republic or Slovakia. But which city is best for day trips between Warsaw and Krakow?
Well, as the country’s capital, Warsaw has a very impressive public transport system, with good train links across the country. Nature lovers could head to nearby Kampinos National Park, while art lovers might visit the birthplace of Frederic Chopin in Zelazowa Wola. Charming towns like Lodz and Kazimierz Dolny are also easy to access and worth checking out.
With its location in the south of the country, Krakow offers a very diverse range of day trip destinations. You may consider a trip to the infamous concentration camp of Auschwitz, for instance, or the Wieliczka Salt Mine. The historic haven of Tarnow is a real gem, just an hour from Krakow, or you could head across the body to Ostrava in the Czech Republic.
Overall, both cities have plenty to offer in terms of day trips. Warsaw is more central, with a wider range of Polish places to see, while Krakow is a bit closer to the borders if you’re looking to visit a different country before heading home.
Which Is Better For Shopping?
Shopping is another super way to spend a little time during your stay in either Warsaw or Krakow, and both cities have a range of shopping opportunities to offer. But which one is best for the average shopaholic?
Well, if you love to shop, you’ll absolutely adore Warsaw. It’s the No. 1 shopping city in all of Poland, with a myriad of large malls, like Zlote Tarasy and Arkadia, with hundreds of stores to choose from. All the big European and international brands can be found here, along with local Polish fashion houses and grand department stores.
Krakow is a little more subdued in its shopping scene, with fewer grand malls and more vibrant markets. The Cloth Hall, for instance, is a fabulous place to shop in Krakow for beautiful handmade goodies and traditional souvenirs. There are also plenty of cute little stores dotted around the historic center where you can buy gifts for friends and family back home.
Overall, both cities are fun for shopping, but Warsaw is definitely the best. It’s bigger, busier, and has a broader range of stores and boutiques to keep you busy all day long.
Which Is Better For Nightlife?
If you’re the kind of traveler who likes to make the most of their nights, as well as their days, you’ll want to know all about the nightlife scenes of Krakow and Warsaw, too. Well, both cities are reasonably lively after dark, but one is a little more appealing than the other when it comes to bars and clubs.
And it’s Krakow, despite being the smaller city, which earns the title of best nightlife location. Poland’s second biggest city has some of Poland’s wonderful walk-in bars with super cheap rates for drinks and snacks, as well as thumping clubs in the Old Town and lots of trendy underground taverns to savor some Polish vodka or other tasty drinks as you while away the night.
With that said, Warsaw still has a very decent nightlife scene. It’s a big city with a massive population, so it naturally has more than enough bars and clubs to keep everyone entertained. It has a lot of cool rooftop lounges, for instance, along with live music spots to enjoy some entertainment while sipping colorful cocktails and rich spirits.
Overall, Krakow is best for nightlife, but Warsaw isn’t too bad either.
Which Is Better For Food?
Polish cuisine features an interesting mix of inspirations and ideas, with plenty of Slavic influence, and there are some very delicious traditional delicacies to enjoy, like smoked sheep cheese and classic pierogi. But where will you eat best, Krakow or Warsaw?
Well, as the big metropolitan capital city, Warsaw definitely has a wider range of eateries. It’s a great place for sampling Polish food, but you’ll also find lots of other culinary styles on the menu in the capital, from Asian fusion delights to French, Italian, and German cuisine, too. In short, no matter what kind of food you like, you should be able to find it in Warsaw.
In Krakow, there’s much more of a focus on classic Polish food. Sausage, piergoi, traditional cheeses, dumplings, and more are all just waiting to be enjoyed, and Krakow is generally regarded as the better destination for people who want to try the local flavors, rather than just dining out on the likes of burgers, pizzas, and other typical foods.
Overall, if you want classic Polish cooking, make Krakow your destination. For a wider range of tastes, head to Warsaw instead.
Which Is Best For Families?
For families, Warsaw can be a very interesting destination. It has grand palaces, huge parks, and a lot of museums to keep everyone entertained. It’s also a shopping haven, ideal for teens who are eager to browse the stores. However, a lot of the attractions and activities are best-appreciated by a more mature audience, so younger kids may be a little bit bored here.
In contrast, Krakow can definitely appeal to younger visitors with its medieval buildings, dragon statues, and fairy tale castle. It’s the kind of place that almost seems like it was plucked from the pages of a child’s fairy story, and while it may not have the typical family attractions, like theme parks and rollercoasters, it’s still a wonderful place to go as a family.
Overall, Krakow is best if you have younger children or want a more wholesome family getaway. Warsaw may be preferable if your kids are in their teens.
Which Is Best For Couples?
For couples, the choice between Warsaw and Krakow can be a challenging one to make. On the one hand, you have a big, vibrant capital city, with fascinating recent history and a thrilling shopping scene. On the other hand, you have a cozy, quaint city with castles and medieval cobblestone streets to explore.
Of the two, Krakow is certainly the more romantic option. It’s more scenic and splendid than Warsaw, with its striking natural surroundings of mountains and forests, along with its breathtaking historic buildings. It’s the kind of city you and your partner can roam around for hours, feeling completely content and amazed at all you see.
At the same time, while Warsaw may not be quite as typically romantic, it’s still a terrific city for a quick city break with someone special. It has some great restaurants, lots of brilliant boutique hotels with large, comfortable rooms, and more than enough attractions, museums, and malls to take up your days.
Which Is Best For Backpackers?
Poland is a terrific destination for backpacking. It’s affordable, relatively compact, and easy to get around, with lots of charming towns and cities to see, coupled with world-famous historic landmarks galore. Both Warsaw and Krakow can work well for backpacking adventures, but one might be a little better for you than the other.
In general, Krakow will be more appealing to backpackers, for several key reasons. Firstly, it’s cheaper. So, if you’re on a strict budget, you can stretch it a little further in Krakow. Plus, the nightlife tends to be livelier in Krakow for those who like to party, and the general feel of the city is a little friendlier and calmer, ideal for those who are traveling solo or in Poland for the first time.
However, Warsaw is still worth considering. It has lots of cheap hotels in many of its districts, and it’s a bigger place to explore. It also has quite a lot of diverse neighborhoods to check out for backpacking adventurers, along with super public transport links all over Poland if you plan on hopping about to other towns and cities.
Which Is Cheaper?
Last but not least, let’s talk about costs. Many travelers like to take price into account when picking out their vacation destinations, and many people have specific budgets they need to stick to. So, if you’re on a budget or want to maximize value from your trip, which is the better city to visit?
Well, both of these cities – and Poland in general – are quite cheap to visit compared to many other parts of Europe. So you won’t need to worry too much about overspending. However, Krakow is definitely the cheaper of the two, with lower rates for accommodation and food. Plus, with Krakow being smaller, you most likely won’t spend as much getting around, either.
Where to Stay According to your Budget
Budget: Vienna House by Wyndham Mokotow, Warsaw, nestled in the vibrant Mokotów district, offers an exceptional stay with its fitness center and stylish terrace. The hotel’s contemporary design and prime location make it an ideal choice for travelers keen on convenient public transport connections to explore Warsaw’s center. Guests can savor daily continental breakfast, adding to the overall charm of this accommodation. See photos and rates!
Luxury: InterContinental Warszawa, a luxurious 5-star hotel, graces central Warsaw with its opulent rooms and a stunning wellness center on the 43rd and 44th floors. Guests can indulge in panoramic views of the city from the indoor swimming pool and hot tub or unwind in the sauna and steam bath. With two exceptional restaurants, this hotel is a gateway to modern Polish and international cuisine. It’s the perfect base for exploring Warsaw’s vibrant culture and attractions, with Warsaw Central Station just steps away. See photos and rates!
Budget: AC Hotel by Marriott Krakow invites you to a beautiful retreat in the heart of Krakow, with a garden, fitness center, indoor pool, and sauna. This modern hotel provides comfortable air-conditioned rooms, some with terraces, and serves a delicious breakfast. It’s ideally situated for exploring the city, with attractions like the Wisla Krakow Stadium and National Museum of Krakow nearby. See photos and rates!
Luxury: Hotel H15 Luxury Palace in Krakow is a luxurious retreat that captures the essence of elegance and comfort. With a stunning indoor pool and a relaxing hot tub, this 5-star hotel offers the perfect blend of relaxation and convenience. Located near popular attractions like St. Florian’s Gate and St. Mary’s Basilica, it’s an ideal base for exploring Krakow. See photos and rates!
Warsaw vs Krakow: Which Is Better?
Overall, both Warsaw and Krakow are fantastic destinations, showing off the very best that Poland has to offer. You can find tons of history in either city, along with rich cultural experiences, fantastic food, and much more. But, if you only have time to pick one, there’s a clear winner.
And it’s Krakow. If we look back throughout this guide, Krakow consistently emerges as the better choice in so many key areas. It’s arguably got the more fun and thrilling attractions, while also boasting better nightlife, more of a family-friendly vibe, and more romantic activities for couples. It’s also cheaper, making it utterly ideal for the majority of travelers.
At the same time, even though Krakow is a terrific place to go, you shouldn’t simply rule out Warsaw right away. The Polish capital has a lot of intriguing landmarks to visit and is fully worth checking out if you’re eager to learn all about Poland’s past, especially its recent history over the last hundred years. It’s also the best place in the nation for shopping and live entertainment.