Castles 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. Classy and dignified as well as exciting and vibrant, the city is in better shape than ever, despite having to endure the attentions, over the years, of the likes of the Mongols, the Nazis and Communist overlords, none of whom exactly wiped their feet on the way into Poland. So what we have here is a double whammy; Krakow’s good fortune in retaining its beauty, dignity and charm is now also yours, as you prepare to visit one of the most uniquely atmospheric cities in Europe.
This is a city to dream in, and to roam in – as well as the big attractions, its nooks and crannies, cobbled alleyways, vaulted cellars and hidden courtyards are out there, waiting for you to discover them at your leisure. If inside knowledge and historical exposition are your thing, take a tour with one of the city’s legion of professional, English speaking guides. If you can’t or won’t get around under your own steam, worry not: the city’s extensive fleet of chauffer-driven buggies (which are more dignified than they sound) will do the necessary for a modest fee. And that’s without even mentioning important and easily accessible regional sites like Wadowice, Auschwitz and Zakopane...
Fountains and water featuresThe dearth of watery attractions in the centre of this often arid city (at least in the summertime, and we will not mention the recent floods by the Vistula) is finally being addressed. The conversion of two of the Old Town’s formerly neglected central spaces (Maly Rynek and Plac Sczepanski) into quiet oases in the last couple of years has seen water brought a little more into the heart of things.
The Grey House, called Kamienica Szara in PolishThis house, which has to be one of the most beautiful and distinguished in Krakow, originated in the 13th century and features Gothic vaults, Renaissance ceilings and a large Baroque portal in its façade, this latter a legacy of a 17th century remodel. It is the oldest burgher house in the city and has had some very famous residents throughout its long history, including the first of the elected Polish kings, Henry de Valois.
Parks, gardens and green spacesThough 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.
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)
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).
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 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.
WawelIf Krakow is the cultural, religious and patriotic centre of Poland, then Wawel Hill, overlooking the Old Town, is its heart. No site in the country offers a richer insight into Poland’s past and national mythology.
Sculpture of Piotr Skrzynecki outside Vis-à-visOn your perambulations around the square, you are likely to notice a life-sized sculpture of a rather rakish looking elderly gentleman sitting outside a bar called Vis-a-Vis. You may also notice that every now and then he is joined at his table by visitors having their pictures taken with him or seasoned and vaguely dissolute looking characters toasting his health.
Collegium MaiusThis quiet little spot is one of the jewels of Krakow, whether or not you’re an architecture buff is not to be missed. Built in 1492-7, this is one of the best preserved medieval university buildings in the whole of Europe and in its day a lively centre of Renaissance culture, with Copernicus himself being among its alumni. The exquisite, balconied courtyard has a cloister with star vaulting and carved columns and in the centre there is a Baroque well-head decorated with the arms of Poland, Krakow, Queen Jadwiga and King Wladyslaw Jagiello.
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).
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 ''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’.
Town Hall TowerA centrepiece of the Market Square, this is all that survives from the old Town Hall, most of which fell victim to modernization frenzy in 1820. The tower itself originated in the 1380s and was raised higher in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Its characteristic Baroque helm dates from the seventeenth 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.
Nowa HutaNowa Huta (‘New Steelworks’), about 10km from the centre of town, was planned as a purpose-built industrial suburb on confiscated church land. In this sense it was an attempt, started in 1949, to create a Renaissance-inspired, communist version of the ideal city, which would also have the benefit of parachuting an atheistic working class into the heart of historic, bourgeois Poland.