Whereas most of Poland had been reduced to rubble by the end of the second world war, Krakow escaped total destruction and today there are few European cities with such a concentration of history and art. Krakow's museums and galleries contain more than 2.3 million registered artworks, including Leonardo da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine in the Czartoryski Museum, but it is in the cobbled streets, courtyards, pavement cafes and beer cellars that the city's real beauty can be found. Wawel Castle overlooks Krakow and is the defining landmark of the city. A full tour of Wawel Cathedral and the castle could take all day, but a short walk around the Romanesque, Renaissance and Gothic architecture is worth the effort. The castle is a beguiling mixture of styles and its colonnaded inner courtyard is a masterpiece. However, it is on the stroll down Wawel Hill, through the dappled sunlight of the Planty gardens and along the Royal Road that the visitor finds architectural beauty of quite stunning proportions. Here you'll find the 17th-century Jesuit church of St Peter and St Paul, with 12 disciples mounted on the main gates, and rows of 17th- and 18th-century buildings, housing artworks and selling bottles of Polish beer and fresh salted pretzels. Here, too, is the Florianska Gate, which opens out onto Rynek Glowny: a 4-hectare, 13th-century square (the largest medieval town square in Europe). Rynek Glowny is packed with medieval architecture. The 16th-century Renaissance Cloth Hall, the 13th-century Gothic Town Hall tower, the 14th-century basilica of the Virgin Mary and the tiny 11th-century Church of St Adalbert are the highlights, but fringing the square are myriad stores, restaurants, clubs and cafes in perfectly preserved buildings. Open fires, barszcz (beetroot soup) and Bigos stew characterise this area in winter. Enjoy pavement cafes, sernik (cheesecake) and vodka with strawberries in the warm Polish summers. Sit and watch the world go by, you won't lose track of time; the nearby Krakow Signal, or Hejnal Mariacki, won't let you. The signal is played by a trumpeter every hour from the basilica's taller tower. The signal, dating from the Middle Ages, is so dear to the Poles it is broadcast across the nation at noon every day. Don't be alarmed by the abrupt ending to the tune, it commemorates a bugler who was shot through the throat by a Tatar archer in 1241. Climb the 81-metre-high tower to get a bugler's eye view of the square. From here you can peer across the Wisla River to Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter, and beyond that, to the workers' district of Nowa Huta. Kazimierz was featured in the Steven Spielberg film Schindler's List. The district was home to Krakow's Jews for 500 years before the second world war and the area has been rediscovered in the past decade. The tourist office offers an excellent tour of the main sites, but Kazimierz offers more than cemeteries and synagogues; here you'll find Krakow's edgy artistic side. Behind peeling facades are dozens of smoky cafes, many serving delicious kosher food such as shakshuka (a tomato and egg dish). Kazimierz has its own central square, around which the second world war ghetto was created. It was from here that most of the 17,000 Jewish inhabitants were marched off to nearby Plaszow concentration camp and later to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Jewish population of Kazimierz had been reduced to a few hundred by the war's end and poignant reminders, such as the Remuh Synagogue and cemetery, with its headstones that used to pave the road to Plaszow, have been carefully preserved. Nowa Huta offers an insight into a different chapter of Poland's history. The district is about 10km from the city centre, so what better way to visit the Socialist workers paradise than in an old East German Trabant? This car has become a symbol of Soviet economic failure. It is incredibly small, slow and easy to push over; the plastic body and two-stroke engine weigh very little. Nowa Huta is an artificial settlement created as a 'gift' to the people of Krakow by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who thought the genteel Krakow would benefit from having the biggest steelworks in Europe. More than 10,000 workers were once employed at the giant Lenin Steelworks. Today, the operation is much smaller and the main square, where a statue of Lenin once stood, has been renamed Ronald Reagan Square. The housing areas and roads remain unchanged, however, making a visit to Nowa Huta a time trip to mid-1950s USSR. Back in the old town, I sit sipping a glass of Zubrowka vodka and reflect that Stalin's gift is a reminder that modern isn't always best. How good it is to be back among the old-world sophistication of this wonderfully preserved slice of central European history.