Street view of Krakow, Poland

Old Town Market Square in Krakow, Poland. (ThinkStock)

What to do in Krakow

Krakow's Old Town, with its narrow, cobbled streets, hilltop castle, and large Market Square (possibly Europe's largest), the Rynek Glowny, exudes old world charm. A UNESCO World Heritage site, historic Krakow fits many children's fantasies of a European city, with its pastel-colored buildings, windy streets, cafes, and a massive royal residence. As Poland's top tourist destination, Krakow is hardly undiscovered, yet the city (for now, at least) gets fewer summer crowds than many of Europe's other urban draws; thus, hotels and meals cost less than in Paris or even Prague. Another plus: from Krakow it's easy to visit two very different UNESCO sites—Wieliczka Salt Mine and Auschwitz, the World War II concentration camp.

The current Wawel Royal Castle, adorned with centuries-old Flemish tapestries, some sewn with pure gold thread, as well as paintings, some by masters, the castle, dating to 1499, impresses most visitors. The Royal Audience Hall's ceiling features 30 heads carved in 1540, all that remain of the original 194, which depict nobles, knights, and citizens. Ask your kids to find the one of the woman with a gag over her mouth. Legend has it that she yelled, "King, judge justly," as the royalty passed by, but he preferred silence.

The cafes edging the square serve as excellent people-watching spots. Sometimes mimes and other street performers engage the crowds. From the taller tower of Saint Mary's Basilica, on the square's east, a trumpeter blows a simple tune several times a day. The melody ends abruptly, supposedly in deference to the bugler who sounded an alarm when the Tartars invaded, but was cut off by an enemy arrow. The Cloth Hall, the 1555 building bisecting the square, houses vendors selling folk dolls, T-shirts, carved boxes, as well as rings and necklaces made of Polish gold—amber from the Baltic Sea.

Kazimierz, Krakow's Jewish quarter, housed 68,000 Jews before World War II—more than 65,000 of them were murdered during the war. Now, only about 150 elderly Jews remain. You can see a courtyard and alley used as a setting in "Schindler's List," the restored 1862 Temple Synagogue with its ornate woodwork, and the tiny Remuh Synagogue, established in 1553 and still used for prayers. The Galicia Jewish Museum, with a café and bookstore, displays owner Chris Schwarz's photographs titled Traces of Memory—contemporary images of trees growing in the rubble of synagogues, and other shots that convey what's been lost.

Concentration camps Aushwitz and the adjacent Birkenau are about 38 miles from Krakow. The gas chambers and the horror stories recounted by guides serve as an important reminder, a powerful lesson learned in a dramatic setting, one suitable for 'tweens and teens.

The Wieliczka Salt Mine, located about a 20-minute drive from Krakow, began in the Middle Ages and still operates on a much smaller scale. Highlights of the mine, a nine-level maze of underground tunnels and chambers, all carved out of salt, include several chapels, including one that's the size of a ballroom and decorated with salt-fashioned biblical bas-reliefs.
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Tip: Young kids really enjoy the horse-drawn carriage rides through Krakow's Old Town.

Nearby Trips: Visit Auschwitz and Birkenau and also the scenic Ojców National Park, a small park that has castles, caves, and woods.

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