Krakow, located on the upper Vistula River and in the southern part of Poland, is the capital of Voivodeship (Lesser Poland). With about 800,000 inhabitants, Krakow is the second largest city in the country and is located about 350 kilometers southwest of the capital Warsaw. In recent years, Krakow has increasingly developed into an industrial, scientific and cultural center and has the second oldest university in Central Europe. The entire cityscape of Krakow is characterized by a variety of different buildings from different eras, such as Baroque, Renaissance and Gothic. Due to its rich history, Krakow is considered the nexus of Polishness and combines history, modernity and culture like no other city in Poland. Along with the national capital Warsaw, Krakow is considered an important cultural center of Poland and was named European City of Culture in 2000.
Tip 1: Wawel Cathedral
Wawel Cathedral sits atop Wawel Hill in Krakow and is the most important church in all of Poland. Located right next to the royal castle, important personalities are buried in the Wawel Cathedral. In the ornate and impressive chapels of the church, in addition to almost all the kings of Poland, Polish national heroes and artists have found their final resting place. The cathedral in Krakow served as a court church for monarchs and courtiers for many years and had a close connection with the Polish royal family. Dedicated to “St. Stanislaus”, the Wawel Cathedral in Krakow bears the full name “Cathedral of St. Stanislaus and Wenceslas”.
The three-nave Gothic church building, with a rectangular closed choir and a transept, is considered a parade example of Gothic architecture in Krakow. A characteristic feature of Krakow Gothic is the cross-ribbed vault, which rests on elongated supporting pillars. This typical feature can also be found in other Gothic church buildings in Krakow. The main entrance gate of the Krakow Cathedral is situated between two Gothic chapels and is located on the west side. Its iron gate wings are emblazoned with the monogram of “King Casimir the Great”. In the center of Wawel Cathedral, between the nave and transept, is the mausoleum of “St. Stanislaus”, the Bishop of Krakow, created by “Giovanni Trevano”. Among the many chapels around the Wawel Cathedral, one is considered particularly remarkable. The Sigismund Chapel, with its golden dome, is one of the most striking additions to the south facade of Wawel Cathedral. The chapel is considered one of the most significant Renaissance buildings in Poland. Inside there is a unique decoration in Italian style. Artistic ornaments and a silver altar from a Nuremberg workshop decorate the interior of the chapel.
Tip 2: Wawel Castle
The Wawel in Krakow refers to the former residence of the Krakow kings. The impressive castle complex is located on the approximately 28-meter-high Wawel Hill directly on the Vistula River and is considered one of the most imposing sights of the city. Due to its location, the Wawel Hill was well defended against the attack of enemies. It was settled in prehistoric times and became an important center of power of the Vistula tribe. The gigantic buildings of the mighty castle complex testify to more than 1000 years of construction. Inhabited by people since ancient times, Wawel Hill became the center of ecclesiastical and secular power in the early Middle Ages. Wawel experienced its heyday in the 15th – 16th centuries during the reign of the Jagiellonians and the Piasts.
The once Gothic castle was rebuilt at the beginning of the 16th century and today, in Renaissance style, it is one of the most impressive buildings in all of Europe. The Renaissance castle was built by Italian master builders, whom once “King Sigismund the Old” himself invited to Poland. The arcaded courtyard of the castle was an inspiration for other builders of numerous palaces and castles throughout Poland, among others. For several centuries, Wawel was the seat of kings from the Vasa, Jagiellonian and Piasts dynasties. As a result of warfare, the castle was robbed and destroyed several times. After many years of restoration, the former seat of the Polish kings now functions as a museum. In the impressive royal chambers you can admire, among other things, the Renaissance and Gothic portals, as well as valuable Flemish tapestries. The ceiling of the Hall of Envoys impresses with finely carved heads and in the Armory and Treasury you can admire various treasures, such as national souvenirs, jewels and ancient weapons.
Tip 3: St. Mary’s Basilica
One of the landmarks of Krakow is St. Mary’s Church, located in St. Mary’s Square next to the Market Square. Dis Gothic St. Mary’s Church was built and financed by the bourgeoisie in Krakow in the 13th and 15th centuries and is used, among other things, as a parish church. The German sculptor “Veit Stoß” began to carve a new high altar for St. Mary’s Church in 1477. It took him twelve years to complete the work. Today, the Gothic high altar is the largest in Europe. The magnificent St. Mary’s Church in Krakow has two towers. In the southern part of St. Mary’s Church there is a tower with a height of 69 meters.
The second tower with a height of 81 meters and a pointed roof is located in the northern part of St. Mary’s Church. Also in the northern tower of St. Mary’s Church there is a medieval four-part bell ringing and another clock bell. In the north tower of St. Mary’s Church, at a height of 54 meters, is the Brass room. Every hour on the hour, the Krakow tower brass player plays the so-called “Hejnal”, an alarm signal that was supposed to warn of attacks at that time. In the past, a guard had to keep watch from there to see if enemies were approaching the city walls or if, among other things, a fire had broken out in the city. This is also the reason why the melody of the tower blower abruptly stops. It is supposed to remind of the earlier attack of the Tatars. The then tower blower blew the alarm, but was unsuccessful in doing so, as he was killed with an arrow from the Tartars through his throat.
Tip 4: Krakow Cloth Hall
In the middle of the beautiful Main Market Square stand the Krakow Cloth Halls, which separate the largest medieval market square in Europe into two equal parts. Since time immemorial, there has been lively trade here. In 1257, Duke Bolesław the Shameful had a double row of brick market stalls built where souvenirs and handicrafts can be purchased today.
Before a wide variety of goods from all over Europe were traded here, it was mainly English and Flemish cloths that give the halls their name to this day. At night, horse-drawn carts loaded with all kinds of goods drove into the narrow passage between the grocers’ stores to deliver new goods. The side entrances were blocked with metal bars to protect them from thieves.
In 1358, King Casimir the Great had the market row roofed over, creating a large Gothic brick building 18 meters wide and 108 meters long.
In the course of time, the unrenovated cloth halls lost their splendor. They acquired their present appearance from 1875 to 1878 during extensive renovation and remodeling works, for which the architect Tomasz Pryliński, a student of Jan Matjeko, was responsible. Matjeko himself was also involved in the reconstruction and designed the neo-Gothic arcades with column capitals attached to the long sides. A technical novelty was the gas lighting installed at that time, which is still functional today.
Tip 5: Wieliczka Salt Mine
Running up to 327 meters below sea level, the Wieliczka mine, located near Krakow, has nine “floors” and a total length of 245 kilometers. Over a period of around 700 years, an estimated 7.5 million cubic meters of salt were mined in the 26 shafts. Tourists can only walk a small fraction of this route themselves, but it’s a tough one.
After the salt was mined, the many corridors and rooms were refurbished and converted. There are now various small chapels, an underground lake and chandeliers made of salt. It is not without reason that the Polish Wieliczka Salt Mine was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 1978.