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.
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).
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
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.
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.
The Jagiellonian UniversityKrakowians are justly proud of their famous Jagiellonian University (UJ), one of the most distinguished institutions in all Poland and a core element of the Krakowian identity. It was originally founded in 1364, making it the second oldest university in Central Europe (after Prague’s Charles University) and one of the oldest in Europe as a whole.
The Kosciuszko MoundThis dramatic spot, with its commanding view of the city, is a great symbol of Polish patriotism as it is dedicated to Tadeusz Kosciuszko (1746-1817), a hero of the Polish (and, indeed American) struggle for independence. It was raised constructed between 1820-23, inspired by the much older Krak and Wanda mounds. Its construction was itself a great patriotic endeavour, including the transportation of earth from battlefields on which the general himself had fought.
PodgorzeJust acrross the river from Kazimierz lies the Podgorze district, another formerly separate town with a distinctive atmosphere now incorporated into the big city. There’s plenty to see here, and a lot of history, so it’s well worth a visit. It’s now getting the full galloping gentrification and regeneration treatment, being just over the bridge from Kazimierz, so its worth seeing now, before those processes play themselves out.
The Wanda MoundAt about the same time as the Krakus Mound was being raised, the Wanda Mound was going up in what was to become Nowa Huta (at which point any medieval ghosts or spirits lingering there must have been surprised to find themselves adjacent to one of the largest steelworks in Europe).
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.
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.
The Pilsudski MoundThe great Marshal Jozef Pilsudski (1867-1935), who led Poland to its longed for independence after WWI, is commemorated here, along with those who lost their lives in the long struggle for Polish freedom between 1772 and 1918. The mound was raised, between 1934-36, for the most part by Krakowians themselves, as had been the case with the earlier Kosciuszko memorial.
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’.
Rakowicki cemeteryThe Rakowicki Cemetery is as beautiful as it is historically significant, and is worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time to visit – especially if you happen to be in town on 1/2 November the All Souls/All Saints days when Krakowians remember their dead – loved ones and national heroes alike.
Market SquareEntering Krakow’s superb Market Square is never less that a pleasure, and often an inspiration – even for Krakowians who do it daily. For the visitor, it’s pure gravy.
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.
Market Square - Igor Mitoray's Giant Head sculptureIgor Mitoray (b.1944) is a Polish-German sculptor who studied painting at the Krakow Academy of Art. He is best known for monumental, classically-derived anatomical pieces (often giant heads), many of which have been scattered across European cities and beyond as public art. He works in teracotta, bronze and marble.