Dodging the crowds — some zipping by in golf carts, others following guides holding paddles — is a common part of the Krakow experience as you make your way to must-see sites. These include the ancient cathedral in the old market square, the nearby Cloth Hall — still churning out commerce as it has since the Renaissance, but now of the tourist kind — and further out, the Wawel Castle overlooking the Vistula River, once home to Polish monarchs and a legendary dragon. Just beyond the castle is the city’s historic Jewish quarter. Kazimierz, with its Old Synagogue and Schindler’s Enamel Factory (whose owner, Oskar Schindler, shielded Jews from Nazi concentration camps and was the inspiration for the movie “Schindler’s List”), draws crowds and golf cart tours as well.
There are also more low-key alternatives in Krakow, including the Kosciuszko Mound, a small hill with scenic views built to commemorate a Polish statesman and military adviser to the American Revolution. Or take a walk through Nowa Huta, a leafy residential neighborhood constructed to be a prototype of communist life.
Location: Krakow is in southern Poland, about two hours by train from Warsaw.
In Torun, you can climb a clock tower, make gingerbread and commune with Copernicus.
Further up the Vistula, Torun combines beauty and history but without the raucous crowds. Like Krakow, the city survived World War II intact — a rarity in Poland. Today, old city walls and castle-like gates enclose a town center lined with chic cafes, shops and townhouses from the Middle Ages (many of them lit at night).
At the heart of Torun on the old market square is the Town Hall, a Gothic home to a museum chronicling the city’s storied past. If you don’t mind climbing narrow wooden stairs and past large bells, the clock tower provides a great overview of Torun. On one side of the river, old brick buildings and a medieval street grid; on the other, the city ebbs into apartment blocks from the more recent communist era.
At the ground level, a short walk along pedestrian-only streets takes you to the ruins of a 13th-century Teutonic Knights castle on the edge of the Old Town. Circle back to the center through narrow lanes and past ancient granaries, ramparts and historic fortifications (one now famous as a leaning tower).
Once you look past the Lizard King nightclub and hip-hop graffiti, it is easy to imagine astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus walking the same streets. Copernicus, born in 1473, grew up here, and a Gothic home belonging to his merchant father (and possibly Copernicus’s birthplace) is a now a museum. It has exhibits on life in medieval Torun and on the astronomer’s revolutionary work placing a motionless sun at the center of the universe, with Earth and the other planets revolving around it.
Just behind the Copernicus home is another museum dedicated to a different Torun icon — pierniki, or gingerbread. Torun’s role as a trading center in the Middle Ages brought many influences, including spice from the Far East, adding a distinctive flavor to the gingerbread. Today, you can try your hand at making gingerbread at the museum and discover one of the many ways Torun is a place to be savored.
Location: Torun is in north-central Poland, about three hours by train from Warsaw.
Biggar is a writer based in Washington. See more pictures from Torun and Poland on Instagram @hughbiggar.