The Cultural Heart of Poland
Located in the south of Poland on the Vistula river, Krakow is the country’s second largest city and of great importance to the country in both historical and modern contexts.
While Krakow was established as a city in the 7th century, there has been human habitation on the ground it stands on since the Stone Age.
In Poland’s imperial past, the city served as the seat of royalty and the capital of the country. It held the role of capital until the royal court was moved to Warsaw in 1596.
Krakow’s history is steeped in academia and the arts, despite many forceful attempts by foreign regimes to change it, the city has remained faithful to those cultural roots into the present day and is home to several higher education institutions, theatres, galleries and museums. The city is recognised internationally as one of the most beautiful cities in the world and it’s Old Town district holds the distinction of being one of the original UNESCO world heritage sites, inscribed onto the inaugural list in 1978 along with the nearby Wieliczka salt mine.
Perhaps Krakow’s greatest claim to fame, and what makes it one of Poland’s most visited places, is the level of preservation in the city. It was left relatively unscathed by the bombs that levelled so many other European cities in the Second World War and, as such, can claim a large percentage of original architecture to still be standing while other cities needed to be rebuilt almost entirely.
In late December of 2016, we took a few days in Krakow and enjoyed it very much. Here’s but a small sampling of what one can do and see in a short period in and around the city:
The Old Town
The logical place to start talking about Krakow is with it’s primary attraction, the preserved Old Town district. Our hotel was an easy ten minute walk from the area.
Entering the area from the north, the first structures you’ll see are the Barbican defensive rampart and Florian gate that date to the 15th century. Florian gate forms part of a preserved section of the old city walls. The Barbican is a heavily fortified building with seven watchtowers and 130 openings through which the city protectors could do battle with potential invaders. The Barbican is the largest structure of it’s sort in Poland and the best preserved of it’s kind in Europe.
Further in, Old Town is filled with numerous buildings representing a wide variety of architechural styles. Architectural highlights of the district include the Slowacki theatre, Main Market Square and buildings connected to Jagiellonian University.
With an area of 400 square metres, the Main Market Square is the largest medieval square in Europe. It dates to the 1250s and contains four architectural highlights: the Renaissance style Cloth Hall, the Gothic St. Mary’s basilica, the 70 metre high Town Hall Tower and the Romanesque Church of St. Adalbert.
The Town Hall Tower is the last remnant of the city’s old town hall. The rest of the town hall was demolished in the early 19th century due to damage.
It is possible to go to the top of the tower, but it bears mentioning that it is certainly not an attraction for claustrophobic people or those with poor physical health or mobility issues of any sort. While there are one or two places to rest on the way up, the individual steps are unusually high and narrow and the staircase takes some unexpected turns along the way. Additionally, the staircase is only about one person wide and poorly illuminated. The views are rewarding if you choose to make the climb up, but it is definitely for the more intrepid and fit visitor.
Along the western edge of Old Town, you can find buildings connected to Jagiellonian University. This institution, established in 1364, is one of the world’s oldest still functioning universities. It counts Nicolaus Copernicus and Karol Wojtyla, who later became Pope John Paul II, among notable alumni.
At the southern tip of Old Town is the imposing Wawel castle complex. The castle and adjoining buildings represent a mix of architectural styles that include elements of Baroque, Gothic, Renaissance and Romanesque among others.
The castle is a very popular spot to visit and offers a range of tours. However, it should be noted that the number of tickets available per day for some of the tours are quite limited in order to protect the exhibits. It is best to visit the castle website to select a tour and reserve tickets on line if possible.
Going off Centre
A short distance to the south of Old Town is the Kazimierz district. This area has a notably different feel to Old Town. This is largely due to the fact that it has been the home of the city’s Jewish quarter since the 13th century.
The area fell into decline and disrepair under Socialist rule after the Second World War, but a change of fortune after the fall of that regime marked the start of a renewed interest in the area and a great deal of restoration work has been done since then. As a result, the district is popular with tourists.
A structure of particular note in the area is the Old Synagogue. The building dates to the 1400s and is the oldest synagogue in Poland. It is also a very rare example of a fortified synagogue; it was not only built for worship, but also built strongly enough to act as a community shelter against siege.
A short walk to the west of Old Town took us to the Stained Glass Museum and a very informative tour, from start to finish, of what goes into creating a work of art in this medium.
As well as a museum, this facility is also an active producer of stained glass windows and has been since 1902. They have done work for clients around the world and many of the stained glass windows you see in Krakow are their work.
If you were ever left wondering how some of the stained glass windows you’ve seen were created, this museum should definitely go on your itinerary if you visit Krakow. English language tours run Tuesday to Saturday on the hour and there is a small cafe on the premises.
If you wanted to venture outside of Krakow, there are attractions for you within reach of the city. Most notable among those attractions are the Wieliczka salt mines and the preserved Auschwitz concentration camp complex. While you can join organized group tours from Krakow to both places, neither is particularly difficult to reach from the city on your own if you prefer to save some money.
If you like to theme your holidays around UNESCO world heritage sites, Krakow and vicinity will reward you. Beyond Old Town, both the salt mines and Auschwitz are UNESCO listed. For the more devout visitor, the Calvary sanctuary and pilgrimage in Kalwaria Zebrzydowska to the south of the city is also UNESCO territory.
Paying a Visit and Learning More
Being a city of both national and international importance, Krakow is well connected and accessible by air, rail and road.
As a university town and cultural centre, linguistic flexibility in the city is not difficult to find. English is widely spoken and the city is prepared for and welcoming to visitors.
To see a wider range of what Krakow and it’s surroundings offer to visitors, any of the three following links will give you a good start to planning your own trip there: