Usually, the first things that one would think about Poland would be Pope John Paul II, WW 2, Marie Curie, Chopin, beautiful women, and delicious food. But there is so much more to experience and see in the beautiful country of Poland.
Today I’ll give you a short guide to the city of Krakow, which is one of the oldest and most well-preserved cities in the country. Krakow, for many centuries, was the capital of the country until the change of parliamentary in the 17th century. Although today is only the second biggest city in the country, it is still a financial and political hub.
Poland was one of the many countries that had suffered tremendous losses during World War 2, both regarding human lives and cultural and heritage amenities. Thankfully, Krakow was lucky enough to retain its magnificent cultural footprint, and it is one of the most important cities in Europe.
With this guide, I’ll introduce you to the most popular areas and sights of the city.
Where to go
1. Market Square
Market Square is located right in the centre of Krakow’s Old Quarter. The Market Square has been active since medieval times thus until today you get to see and feel the fusion of modern and traditional architecture and lifestyle. The colourful buildings and streets are a beautiful sight.
2. Church of St Mary
One cannot miss the magnificent church with the two different size towers. It is the main parish church of Krakow with a Gothic architectural style. The north tower was extended in the 15th century, and it functioned as the city’s watchtower.
3. St Adalbert’s Church
Located at the edge of the square towards Grodzka street is one of the oldest churches in the city. The church has a combination of several architectural styles which reflect the different stages of the square through time.
4. Cloth Hall
The Cloth Hall originates from the 14th century but the current structure was built in the 19th century. In the past it was established for local farmers to sell their products but today it is entirely focused on tourists. Along the corridor there are numerous stalls of different variety souvenirs. Moreover, the Cloth Hall hosts the Gallery of 19th century Polish Arts and the Noworolski Café one of the best cafes in Krakow.
5. Town Hall Tower
It is the only remaining fragment of the Old Town Hall. The original tower was demolished and the current structure was remodelled after WW 2.
6. Rynek Underground
A high-tech museum underneath the Market Square showcasing transportation, trade and archaeological finds in the city. It was opened in 2010, and the level of the museum is the original of the city. Like in most old cities, the original level was covered after centuries of war and pollution.
7. St Florian’s Gate and the City Wall Remnants
In the 13th century the city of Krakow established a new security system of fortification with eight gates in total. Unfortunately, today only St Florian’s Gate with a small stretch of adjoining walls has survived. The gate connects with the Market Square via Florianska Street, which was part of the royal route.
The Kazimierz quarter once upon a time was a separate city founded by Kazimierz the Great. The town was the leading centre of Jewish culture, beautiful synagogues and cultural heritage of both communities, the Polish and the Jewish. In the 18th century, the town was integrated into the city of Krakow. Before WW 2, there was a community of up to 60 000 Jews living in Krakow. But post-holocaust, the population of Jews reduced to less than 6 000. Albeit to all their suffering and damages to their community, even today, when one visits the Kazimierz quarter feels like stepping into a different world. The Jewish culture and heritage still live on, and visitors can experience that through the unique architecture of the houses, streets, synagogues, and tombs.
The Wawel Hill hosts the Wawel Royal Castle. Wawel Hill had been the throne for Polish kings from the 14th century until the 17th, when it was transferred to Warsaw. But essential events were still taking place at Wawel, such as coronations and funerals.
Wawel Hill is surrounded by the fortifications and Towers that once protected the royal family. The walls were constructed from the 15th to the 19th century. Alongside the Wawel Royal Castle, there is Krakow’s Cathedral. Like many other buildings of Krakow, the cathedral is a combination of various styles as gradually through the times they were added.
An interesting fact about the cathedral is that above the entrance you’ll see massive bones hanging by a chain. It is said that the bones are of a vicious dragon that once upon a time terrorised the city. Legends say that the dragon required sacrifices in order to leave the city live in peace. But under the order of the King, a hero killed the dragon by feeding him a lamb laced with sulphur. The dragon was so thirsty from its delicious meal that drunk all the water from the river only to finally explode. And so, the people were finally able to live happily ever after. Tragic, scary, and funny story. Nonetheless, the bones are, in fact, real and have been there for centuries. It is believed that the bones are either those of a whale or a mammoth.
Krakow is a fantastic city to experience central European culture over the centuries. You can experience the times when people were still learning, discovering, and creating but also the modern times of developing and building. Nonetheless, amid the colourful and vibrant lifestyle of both old and contemporary, you can also experience the hard time in Europe during the World War that almost extinguished the city’s life.
Nevertheless, I highly recommend Krakow at any time of the year. Christmas is a fantastic time to see the city waking up with decorative lights and summer is the best time to explore and bar hop around the numerous local bars and pubs. And of course, do try the local vodka shots, you won’t be disappointed.