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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
Collegium NovumThis fine and imposing Neo-Gothic building is the seat of the Jagiellonian’s Rector and houses much of the university’s administrative apparatus; as such, it is the most visible symbol of UJ’s status and significance in the life of the city. Situated rather dramatically on Planty, it was opened in 1887 following the destruction by fire of its predecessor, Jerusalem College. Its official opening served as a pretext for a symbolic patriotic demonstration, with delegations attending from all three partitioned parts of Poland.
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.
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.