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)
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
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.
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 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 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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.