Krakowians 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. It’s dignified and beautiful buildings and assets (e.g. Collegium Maius, Collegium Novum, the Botanical Gardens) are scattered across the city and lie at the core of Krakow’s status as Poland’s primary university town; the presence of so many students of this and the other universities does much to contribute to the unique atmosphere of the city. In fact, for several centuries, virtually the entire intellectual elite of Poland was educated here. This is one of the main reasons why so many great artists, important personalities and high achievers have Krakowian connections.
Though the Golden era of the Krakow Academy (it was renamed as the Jagiellonian only in 1817, in commemoration of the Jagiellonian dynasty of Polish kings) is generally held to have taken place during the Polish Renaissance, between 1500 and 1535, the university has played a vital role in the history of the city and the country since its inception and it’s one of the cornerstones of Krakow’s reputation as the cultural capital of Poland. These days it educates over 52,000 students across 48 disciplines, an increasing proportion of them coming from abroad. The best opportunity to experience them at large, should you want to do such a thing, occurs during their Juvenalia celebrations in May. You won’t come across too many of them in the high summer ‘cucumber season’, as most of them will have headed off for greener pastures.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Krakus MoundOver in Podgorze you’ll find the Krakus Mound, in which according to legend the bones of Prince Krak or Krakus, legendary founder of Krakow, are interred. It was constructed in the eighth century, not long after Krak or Krakus had taken out the dragon who’d been bothering the populace.
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.