Krakow, situated on the Vistula River, is one of the oldest cities in Poland dating back to the 7th century. Started out as a Stone Age settlement, Krakow grew out to be Poland’s second most important city and one of the leading centres of Polish academic, cultural and artistic life. Also regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, it has a rich cultural heritage in the form of masterpieces of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture in its Old Town, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Krakow is also home to the largest medieval market square in Europe, the Rynek Glowny and to one of the oldest universities in the world, the Jagiellonian University. Once the Royal Capital of the Kingdom of Poland, Krakow was also named the official European Capital of Culture in the year 2000.
The city’s main drawcard is undoubtedly the Wawel Cathedral. This Royal Cathedral, dating from 1364, has witnessed many coronations, funerals and burials of Poland’s monarch over the centuries. The Cathedral itself was built in Gothic style, but chapels of different styles were later added around it; the most notable ones being the Holy Cross Chapel, boasting 15th-century Byzantine frescoes and a red marble sarcophagus from 1492; and the Sigismund Chapel, regarded as the most beautiful Renaissance chapel north of the Alps and is immediately recognisable by its gilded dome. Other highlights of the Cathedral include – the Sigismund Bell that can be reached by climbing 70 steps in the tower; dating from 1520, this 2m-high bell weighing 11 tonnes is the largest one in Poland; the climb is also worth for the magnificent views of the city – and the Royal Crypt where kings, national heroes and leaders are buried.
As Krakow was the main political and cultural scene in 16th century Poland, Wawel Royal Castle is a symbol of national identity. This Italian-inspired Renaissance palace serves as a museum today consisting of five separate sections, each section requiring a separate ticket. Of the five, the State Rooms and the Royal Private Apartments are the most impressive. There is also a special display of the city’s most valuable painting here – Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Lady with an Ermine”.
Krakow boasts an abundance of historic churches along with a huge number of monasteries and convents, which earned the city the title of “Rome of the North”, the most impressive of which is the St Mary’s Basilica. Rising high above Rynek Glowny, this magnificent church is dominated by its two towers, which offer excellent views over the Old Town. The Basilica has a stunning brick exterior and an equally beautiful interior, especially its intricately carved wooden altarpiece.
Krakow also has an outstanding collection of Jewish monuments, unmatched anywhere in Poland, that can be found in the historic Jewish quarter located in the Kazimierz district. As an influential centre of Jewish religious life before WWII, there were at least 90 synagogues in Krakow, established since the early 12th century, but most of them ruined during the War. Recently, many synagogues underwent major restoration works and are once again open to the public for religious and touristic purposes. The district of Kazimierz is also particularly notable for its many renaissance buildings and picturesque streets.
The city also has several museums covering the Nazi occupation of Krakow in WWII, with highlights of – Schindler’s Factory, housed in the former factory of Oscar Schindler, with an interactive exhibition telling the moving story of the city from 1939 to 1945 – the Galicia Jewish Museum, celebrating Jewish history and culture as well as commemorating victims of the Holocaust – and the Pharmacy Under the Eagle, a pharmacy run in the Jewish Ghetto during the Nazi occupation.
Situated in the middle of Rynek Glowny, there is the Sukiennice Cloth Hall, once the centre of the city’s medieval clothing trade. Established in the early 14th century, it was later extended in Gothic style, then rebuilt as a Renaissance structure. Today, the ground floor is a busy crafts and souvenirs trading centre, and the upper floor is home to a gallery of 19th century Polish paintings.
The Collegium Maius, part of the Jagiellonian University, is the oldest surviving university building in Poland, and one of the finest examples of 15th-century Gothic architecture. It also has a beautiful courtyard that can be visited free of charge. The Collegium itself can be visited by guided tours only and has a fascinating university collection, including 16th century astronomic instruments used by famous student of the University, Copernicus, as well as some of his manuscripts, a fantastic alchemy room, and the oldest existing globe dating from 1510. The Collegium also has a spectacular Aula with an original Renaissance ceiling, and a treasury containing copies of its foundation papers from 1364 and an Oscar Award given to director Andrzej Wajda.
The Jagiellonian University also has some fascinating museums as well. For example, its Medical School’s Museum of Pharmacy, which is one of the largest of its kind in Europe and undoubtedly, the best, featuring a 22,000-piece collection.
St Florian’s Gate is the only one of the city’s original eight medieval gates that survived. It was built around 1300 with its top section added later. To the north of the gate, you can find the Barbarican fortification (also included in the entry fee), a circular brick bastion with seven turrets, built around 1489 as an additional protection to the Gate. The two once were connected by a narrow passage running over a moat. It’s one of the very few remaining structures of its kind in Europe, also the largest and the most beautiful.
Krakow also boasts 28 museums and public art galleries, the most remarkable of which are the National Art Museum and the Czartoryski Museum, the latter one boasting the city’s richest art collection including works by da Vinci and Rembrandt.
There are about 40 parks including numerous gardens and forests in Krakow, several of them located in the city centre. The best-known is Planty Park, established between 1822 and 1830 in place of the old medieval city walls, thus surrounding the Old Town forming a green belt around it. It consists of a chain of smaller gardens of various styles on an area of 21ha (52 acres) with a length of 4km (2.5 miles), creating a scenic walking path popular with locals and tourists alike.
In the Vicinity
Situated some 14km from Krakow is the Wielicka Salt Mine, an eerie world of salt chambers located deep underground. Guided tours (English-speaking as well) are available to this fascinating world, which is well-known for its healing properties. There’s even an underground sanatorium here at a depth of 135m where chronic allergic diseases are treated by overnight stays. Other highlights of the salt mine are – the Chapel of St Kinga, made and carved entirely out of salt over 30 years by one man and then by his brother – and a salt lake. There is also the Krakow Saltworks Museum situated on the 3rd level of the mine. The tour takes about 2 hours and the average temperature in the mine is 14 °C.