Though Krakow is on the whole a dense and compact city, it’s not short of natural beauty and green spaces in which to relax (or, if you prefer, exert yourself). First and foremost is the Planty. This almost continuous strip of green, almost completely encircling the Old Town, ensures that entering or leaving the centre is always a minor event. Beautifully kept and very attractive, this surprisingly restful haven from the city’s hubbub is never more than a few minutes’ walk away, wherever you happen to be. It’s recently been further improved by an extensive programme of renovations, and is less popular than it once was with gentlemen of the road, so passing through it, or along it, or pausing to sit on a bench is always a pleasure, never a chore.
Next up is Blonia Common. This large (48 hectare) open common close to the centre of town is another of Krakow’s gems. While not a park, like the neighbouring Jordan Park (see below), it is much used and loved by Krakowians (dogs included) for, among other things, the feeling of openness it affords and its dramatic view of the Kosciuszko Mound. There is a permanent ban on building, so its much valued character is assured for the future. The common has strong associations with John Paul II, who twice celebrated Mass here, and also plays host to numerous concerts and other events. The pretty Jordan Park, right next door, is as full as the Blonia is empty: it boasts three refreshment outlets, a pond (with pedalos in summer), sports facilities, three children’s playgrounds, a hill (popular with aspiring ski jumpers in winter) and hidey-holes galore (popular with elderly philosophers and young canoodlers alike). There is also a secret walled garden and a pathway lined with patriotic busts of the great and the good. Best park in the centre of town. And then there is Park Krakowski, at the top of Karmelicka Street – a very welcome, compact city park affording relief from the busy roads and buildings all around.
The battle of Grunwald and its monumentsThe Battle of Grunwald, the most famous in Poland’s long and chequered history, took place in 1410. It is impossible to overstate the significance of the outcome of this battle, which took place in the context of the Polish-Lithuanian-Teutonic War. Victory in made Poland-Lithuania the major power in Eastern Europe and, equally satisfying from the perspective of Polish nationalist history, the leadership of the Teutonic knights was utterly devastated, most being killed or captured.
Piotr Skarga and his statuesThe Place of St Mary Magdelene (plac sw. Marii Magdaleny), situated cosily between Kanonicza and Grodzka by the Church of Saints Peter and Paul. is a good place to rest up and take stock of things if you are circulating in the area – as you are likely to be at some stage. Here there are benches, a bizarre miniature water feature and a statue. It is the latter which has made this recently renovated little plaza, pleasant as it is, a site of cultural conflict and controversy.
St. Florian's Gate & St. FlorianOne of the most important architectural landmarks in the Old Town, and one of the most important Gothic towers anywhere in the country, St. Florian’s gate was once joined by a bridge to the Barbican as part of Krakow’s medieval fortification system. The original gate was built in stone before 1307, heightened in brick in the 15th century and acquired its Baroque roof around 1660 (estimates of the date vary).
SightseeingCastles and cathedrals, dungeons and dragons, an extraordinary Jewish heritage, papal history, art treasures galore, an enormous (and enormously beautiful) market square and much more – Krakow’s Old Town has the lot. Not for nothing did UNESCO designate it, along with the neighbouring Wieliczka salt mine, a World Heritage site in 1978.
The Schindler FactoryThe story of Oskar Schindler and the eleven hundred Jews he saved from the Nazis is, of course, well known. Steven Spielberg saw to that when he made Schindler's List (much of which was filmed in Podgorze and Kazimierz). This newly refurbished site was inaugurated by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in June 2010. The state-of-the-art museum, which is part of the broader Krakow City Historical Museum, in situated in Schindler's former enamelware factory in the Podgorze district.
KazimierzOriginally founded in 1355 as a separate town with it’s own defences and town hall, Kazimierz was originally Krakow’s competitor. This sense of separateness was heightened in the 15th century, when Krakow’s Jewish population was moved here by King Jan Olbracht.
The BarbicanThis bastion, built in 1498-9, is one of the most characteristic Krakowian sights, looking great since its recent renovation. A turreted ‘rondel’ with an inner courtyard, this is widely considered to be the most spectacular surviving example of its type in Central Europe.
BielanyNot far from the centre of town, in the southern part of the Las Wolski forest park, lies the Camaldulensian church of Bielany, its magnificent façade rising high above the Vistula on Srebna Gora (Silver Mountain). This is the centrepiece of an extensive array of monastery buildings established in the seventeenth century by Mikolaj Wolski, Crown Marshall of Poland.
Krakow ZOOWhether you’re into zoos or not, as far as they go this is a good one: pleasant, interesting and small enough to be got round without knocking yourself out, maintained to very high standards by a clearly dedicated and professional staff and situated in as beautiful a spot - in the thick of the Wolski Woods - as just about any zoo in Europe.
Krakow moundsDramatic mounds - or manmade hills – are a Krakowian speciality, and one of the things that gives the city its particular visual identity and atmosphere. The local liking of these is prehistoric in origin though are now four main examples. The Krakus Mound to the north and the Wanda Mound to the south commemorate legendary figures of the eighth century.
Monuments and pigeonsAs far as those monuments are concerned, we’re talking about the great Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) , St. Mary’s Church ( Mariacki) St. Adalbert’s Church and the statue of Adam Mickiewicz. And if allowing your children to wallow among flocks of winged vermin is your wont – hey, this is a free country! – there are always the pigeons.
Plac MariackiOne of the most beautiful and magical little spots In the whole of Krakow, Plac Mariacki could not be more central yet still somehow manages to produce an atmosphere of unhurried calm. Essentially a courtyard, it has had its present appearance since 1802, when the Austrians closed down what had been the cemetery of St. Mary’s Parish
The Krzysztofory PalaceAt 35 Market Square, on the corner with Szczepanska Street, we find the Krzysztofory Palace – the 17th century result of a merging of Gothic tenement buildings. This important site is a repository of Krakowian history, art and legend; from the Fontan room (named after the ubiquitous Baltazar Fontana , some of whose sclagiola - or imitation marble - work can be seen on the first floor)
The ''New Sukiennice'' projectNobody needs telling by now that the cloth hall (Sukiennice) in the heart of the Market Square is an architectural and cultural beauty beyond prize. It was decided some years ago, however, that the history and beauty of the thing were not matched by its state of repair or technical facilities. And so, with help from the Norway Fund and the ‘financial mechanism’ of the EEA (European Economic Area) was born ‘project new Sukiennice’.
Slowacki TheatreThe eclectically designed Juliusz Slowacki Theatre is named after one of the three great bards and has to be one of the most opulently spectacular buildings in Krakow. Built 1891-3 to the design of Jan Zawiejski, who studied at the Technische Hochschule in Vienna, it bears more than a passing resemblance to Garnier’s Opera in Paris.