If 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. Wawel’s rambling and far from uniform patchwork of architectural treasures, built up over time (the hill was originally settled in the Neolithic period) and in different styles, continue to exert a powerfully atmospheric pull on the Polish imagination and provide a fascinating experience for visitors. The two great centrepieces of this heavily fortified complex are the splendid Royal Castle, which is both a fortress and a palace and the Gothic Krakow Cathedral. Both are an absolute must-see.
Other attractions include the fortifications and towers themselves, the cathedral museum, a statue of Tadeusz Kosciuszko (a great national hero and one of the leaders of the 1794 uprising), the ‘Lost Wawel’ exhibition for those of a medieval bent , an open archaeological site and, lower down, in the subterranean depths, the lair of the legendary dragon who terrorised the city long ago. During the season there is an outdoor cafe at which you can take a break from the swarming hordes (unless you have made an early start and hit the hill before noon) and wet your whistle with something cold. This is perhaps the best spot in which sit back and enjoy the overall ambience of the place, which manages somehow to be both grandly regal and inspirational yet intimate, cosy and charming. A very special place.
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)
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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.