Kraków’s Magnetic Main Square

I’m back in Europe. First up on my autumn research swing: Poland, where I’m updating my Rick Steves Eastern Europe guidebook.

That first day in Europe is always a weary slog. After checking into my hotel and showering, I fight the urge to sleep for the first time in 20 hours. Instead, I go wandering around Kraków. I’m seeking that elusive “Hey, I’m in Europe!” epiphany…that moment that makes the long journey worthwhile.

I quickly discover that, today, the entire city is one big “Hey, I’m in Europe!” On this hot, sunny, early-September weekend, everybody is out enjoying the last hurrah of summer.


Bleary-eyed, I stumble a few blocks over to the Main Market Square — my vote for the best square in Europe. It’s always full of life, but today the bustle is cranked up to 11.


The twin towers of St. Mary’s Church seem to be smiling in the sunshine. One of the windows at the top of the crowned, taller tower opens, and the sun glints off the shiny brass bell of a bugle. The trumpeter begins to play a tune called the hejnał that, if you’ve been to Kraków, you’re probably humming right now.

This song is played at the top of each hour to commemorate the town watchman who, back in the 13th century, sounded the alarm when he spotted Tatar invaders approaching town. (According to legend, before he could finish, an arrow pierced his throat — which is why, even today, the hejnał stops subito partway through.) Like the iconic clanging of London’s Big Ben, this tune is synonymous with its city — and makes it unmistakably clear where I’ve arrived.

The hejnał stops with a jolt, and life on the square goes on. The flower vendors are particularly busy, with couples and kids buying bouquets for their loved ones. The outdoor café tables are jammed. And little kids are having the time of their lives chasing gigantic gossamer soap bubbles.


The Main Market Square is a magnet. I just can’t resist its pull. I keep trying to veer off — heading up this or that side street to check details for my book. But the siren call of the square (and the hejnał) keeps luring me back.


I return in the cool of the evening, under a hazy pink-and-purple sky. It’s romantic twilight, and pristine white Cinderella horse carriages line up in front of St. Mary’s Church. Bright lights under their running boards flicker on — attracting customers like a bug zapper. A young mom brings her curious toddler over to pet the horse.


Doing a few more laps around the square, I spot all of my favorite landmarks. The old, green hand pumps, still used by the flower vendors under their yellow tents. The big donation box. The little old ladies who sit behind their blue, aquarium-like stands, filled with fresh-baked dough rings called obwarzanki. And of course, travelers having the time of their lives — treating Europe’s grandest square as their own, very spacious living room.


As usual, there’s plenty of live music. A ragtag and unlikely trio — guitar, trumpet, trombone — entertains passersby.


But one thing’s missing. One time on an early visit to this square, back in the early 2000s, I heard clapping to the beat of a tinny boombox. Following the sound, I spotted a half-dozen pre-teens breakdancing on a big piece of cardboard. I mean, full-on, 1984, Electric Boogaloo breakdancing. They could barely hold a handstand for more than a second…but they were determined. There was something so hopelessly unhip, so disarmingly corny about it all. They charmed me so much that I even mentioned them in my guidebook.

With each visit, at some point I’d pass those breakdancers, busking for tips. They became a Kraków fixture, right up there with St. Mary’s and the hejnał. But on this trip, making my final pass through the square, I’m feeling nostalgic and thinking that surely those guys have moved on by now. They must have real jobs, families, obligations…and happy memories of breakdancing on the Main Market Square.

But then, from across the square, I hear Gloria Estefan’s “Conga” start to play. A crowd is gathering. Could it be? Making my way over, double time, I see — sure enough — those same kids, all growed up, executing flawless windmills and hand glides and headspins under St. Mary’s towers. Their sound system is better. They don’t need the cardboard. They’re now ripped, bearded, and balding. But it’s definitely them. They’ve persevered after all…in spite of the odds, they created their own niche, and filled it. (Millennials…)


Tossing a few coins into the hat, I smile and head back to my hotel. It’s been a long day — or two, actually — since I got on that plane in Seattle. But I’ve made it back to Europe. And here in historic Kraków, some things never change.

11 Replies to “Kraków’s Magnetic Main Square”

  1. Hi Cameron! We truly enjoyed our 5 days in Kracow at this time last year. Thanks for a great guidebook! I had torn out the section for each country. (It’s a huge book) Unfortunately, I dropped the Poland section one rainy night and it was lost Fortunately, I still had the rest of the book for our time in Czech Republic, Austria and Hungry. You were right on with all your recommendations. We were lucky to be there over a weekend and the main square was jumping with many stands cooking veggies and sausages in huge wok-like pans. Lots of vendors and entertainers, who were focused on locals rather than tourists. So much fun!

  2. There is a great market just outside of the town walls called Stary Kleparz near Plac Jana Matejki. Y’all should check it out. It was a great find for me and my family when I visited about 6 years ago.

  3. Loved Krakow! I think we ate around the Main Square, or at least all sides. Amazing city with warm people. We have urged our traveling friends to go to Krakow…

  4. Krakow is my favorite city. 2 visits there not enough so hoping for a 3rd in ’17. Yes, Cameron, the Square holds special memories of Zywiec, St Mary’s Masses, and a hilariuos performance art festival show (’13) with terrific colleagues. Studied there (’13, ’15) so Schlinder’s Factory Museum and Auschwitz are a “must” recommendation. Poland–the best! ab

  5. Thank you for the post, Cameron! Will be going there Sept 2017 with your updated Eastern Europe book. Going on a RS tour in a few weeks in Italy. First time ever on a RS tour. Ladies I am traveling with wanted me to relax and not have to plan. ( which I love to do). Talked them into 2extra days in Rome moving on from your ending in Florence to Venice for 3 independent nights. “Pocket Venice” was helpful in planning. BOTTOM LINE: My husband & I plus friends have traveled independently to Europe with the wonderful RS books. Could not have done this without the excellent books. I am 72 years old and hope to keep traveling with RS books in my RS backpack!

  6. Not so fast Cameron. Bigger isn’t necessarily better. Other than St. Mary’s, St. Adalbert’s churches and the Town Hall tower, this “too-big” of a square is remarkably boring and ambiguous to be rated #1. It feels artificial as it appears so pristine, yet it is all commercial. Anchored in two opposing corners by a Starbucks and (most annoying) a Hard Rock Café. The later is right beside arguably the most beautiful and important church in Poland. Enough said but get ready to crop your church pictures.

    The attractive Cloth Hall fortunately breaks the square into two somewhat more manageable sections. All surrounded by mundane, over-priced restaurants that few Kracowians visit. Other than for people (aka tourists) watching, do a “once-around” and move on. Closest you will get to the Magic Kingdom in Poland, with no shortage of horse drawn Cinderella carriages. And the Rynek Underground museum in the centre, perhaps a chance to save the square? Also, way overdone.

    Fortunately Krakow has many other beautiful sites including smaller squares and streets to enjoy the true draw of Poland. Bide your time accordingly. Your wallet will appreciate it too.

    While perhaps stunning for first-timers to Europe, this square will fade quickly from memory once you get home. Don’t get your hopes up if you visit the square expecting to be seeing the real Krakow or to experience an authentic European square without the need of these review embellishments. My travel magnet points away from this square. Hardly a RS “back-door” experience.

    1. Edward, Congratulations. You are the first person I ever met who wasn’t blown away by Krakow’s square. I’ve been there 25+ times and it still charms me. Different strokes, I guess. What’s your favorite? (If a Hard Rock Cafe disqualifies any square from contention, good luck finding one without one!)

  7. I was so excited when I first read your post about the main square in Krakow and have gone back and re-read it a couple of times just reliving our visit there. I couldn’t believe it but we were there at the same time. Our paths surely crossed. I am in full agreement that this square is an exciting and delightful place to visit! Our Polish heritage encouraged us to visit this wonderful country and our first RS tour last year had us seriously looking at anther tour with this tour group. When we realized that the RS tour of Central Europe did not fit into our time constraints if we added on the time we wanted in Poland we counted on the RS philosophy of independent travel to combine with the Best of Prague and Budapest. It worked out beautifully as we we able to reserve a room in a recommended at a B&B and also contracted with a recommended private guide/driver. This combination of independent travel and guided tour made for a wonderful trip with fantastic memories. Thank you so much!!!

  8. PS
    We also enjoyed the break dancers, musicians, Cloth Hall as well as the trumpeter in the window at St. Mary’s. I agree that I would have liked to have seen Hard Rock in another setting, but with so many great cafes to chose from it is easily ignored. We visited many different areas of this city but went back to the square on each of the three days we were there to people watch and soak up the atmosphere. We hated to leave on our last evening!

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