Wawel Royal Castle
Watch out for queues at this number one site in Krakow. Head in early in the day, or alternatively later on to avoid wasting precious touring hours standing in a queue. Nonetheless, any waiting and crowds are worth it for this historic gem that is the Polish State Art Collection. There are 5 separate collections, each a museum in its own right, all situated around a central courtyard. Nestled atop the Wawel hill, the dominance of the Royal Castle in Krakow embodies the history of Poland itself. History and culture come alive here in the 5 unique exhibitions.
It’s impossible not to be awed with a sense of majesty and a sense of occasion stood within the walls of Wawel Cathedral that has played host to a range of state coronations and funerals. History and religion merge as you gaze around at the variety of art around you. Over 1000 years of history are held within these walls. The blend of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and even modern art somehow harmoniously blend and will delight any visitor. This is the resting place of heroes, poets, saints, royalty and bishops, and the atmosphere reflects this. Around the central heart of the Cathedral are 18 chapels full of art treasures such as the white tomb of Queen Jadwiga, affectionately dubbed the ‘Pearl of Renaissance’ for its artistic beauty, as well as the Sigismund and Vasa chapels. Also memorable is the Chapel of the Holy Cross with its Russian murals dating back to 1470.
The Dragon’s Cave is entwined with the legend of Krakow itself that tells of Prince Krak who rid his city of a dangerous beastly dragon. This mysterious cave under the castle can be accessed by visitors from a turret atop Wawel Hill, down a winding spiral staircase that allows you to see three chambers of the 200 ft long natural cavern. The cavern is well-lit and you exit via the mouth of the cave itself. At the exit is a life-sized bronze dragon sculpture that amazes visitors by breathing fire on demand – by text message!
Rynek Glówny – The Main Square and Sukiennice Cloth Hall
Young and Old alike will find themselves wiling away time in Europe’s largest market square. Impressive not only for its sheer size but also for its surrounding architecture, this is the thriving heart of Krakow. Modernity meets antiquity and somehow remains truly beautiful and rich. Forty-Seven buildings surround the Main Square, each and every one an architectural splendour in itself. There is the 16th Century Renaissance Cloth Hall taking a central pride of place alongside the 13th century Gothic Town Halls Tower, 14th Century Basilica of St Mary’s and the tiny but impressive 11th Century church of St Aldabert’s.
Beneath these impressive facades is a wealth of shops, restaurants and cafés bustling with the contemporary and varied life of modern Krakow and marking it out as a tourist highlight. The Square itself hosts numerous open air events from concerts to enactments and political affairs. This is the heart and soul of Krakow.
Sukiennice Cloth Hall
Arguably, Sukiennice is the world’s oldest shopping mall! Situated in the centre of the Main Square, holding a dominant position, back in the 1300s a roof was put over the two rows of buildings to ultimately create Cloth Hall – the home of Poland’s textile trade. Extended again in the 14th Century to add the imposing Gothic Style you see today this is a unique building in the heart of Krakow. The picturesque stairs at either end of the Cloth Hall shouldn’t be missed. On the lower level are a myriad of shops, mostly selling Polish wares to international visitors. Upstairs has been home to the Krakow National Museum since the 1880’s where you can delight in a wealth of Polish art including Jan Matejko’s giant and imposing canvasses.
St Mary’s Basilica
This immense Basilica, off the Market Square, sees visitors move from the bustling bright city in to the peace and awe of this most famous Polish church. Inside is an immense chamber of faith and antiquity combined. Without a doubt, visitors come to look upon the Gothic altarpiece carved by Veit Stoss in the 1400s with its remarkable artistry, but don’t miss the wealth of art and history around you including the three surviving huge stained glass windows.
A visit to St Mary’s Basilica wouldn’t be complete without giving attention to the two towers. The tallest, at 81m, has a Gothic spire topped with a 16th Century gold-plated crown. From here a bugle sounds out on the hour, the ‘Krakow Signal’. The lower tower, at 69m, is home to five magnificent bells.
Fantasy imaginations could easily start with an image of Krakow’s Barbican. Built to be the mainstay of the city’s medieval defences, it was built at the end of the 15th Century and served the city of Krakow well, proving impenetrable. It is connected to the Florianska Gate with a drawbridge over the moat and the three metre thick walls make for this being the most well-preserved building of its type in all of Europe. The seven turrets atop the magnificent walls dotted with 130 defensive slots for use by archers or riflemen make it a real-life stage for children to re-enact history, or for visitors to get away from the hustle and bustle of Krakow itself. The inner area is now used for medieval pageants and jousting, making for a fun and vibrant place to take in Krakow’s changing history.
Dating back to 1801, and located in three old buildings on the northern side of Krakow’s Old Town, next to the city walls, is the Czartoryski Museum. It is made famous for being home to Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine”, but there are four parts of this magnificent museum in total: The Gallery of European Painting; European Decorative Arts and Pulawy Memorabilia; Armoury; and Gallery of Antiquities. The Gallery of European Painting: houses the famous Da Vinci works alongside paintings by Rembrandt and other Western European artists, documenting works from the Middle Ages up to the 18th Century.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is truly outstanding and extraordinary. The Salt Mines have existed over 900 years and consist of a subterranean labyrinth of caverns, lakes, chapels, sculptures and other carvings from the rock salt. You can even stay underground here in the Slowacki Chamber or the Easter Mountains Stable Chamber. Situated on the South East outskirts of Krakow, the Salt Mines welcome visitors to explore its depths on a 3 hour tour of approximately 2000m of the mines. In addition, famed for its health-giving benefits, you can experience the wellness spa and various therapies and relaxation treatments available.
Church of St Francis of Assisi
Native Stanislav Wyspianski has created interiors in this church that are unlike any other. Dating back to the 13th Century, making it the first brick building in the city, the interiors showcase an Art Nouveau colourful style that blends geometric patterns and florals alongside 8 impressive stained glass windows that will linger in the memory. This is a comparatively tiny church, but don’t let that fool you. It is an immersive piece of art in itself and the stained glass windows are famed the world over. Their modern style is unlike the majority of stained glass, and for that it is memorable and worth a visit.
Galicia Jewish Museum
Little known is the fact that this museum operates tours of the Kazimierz, the old Jewish area of Krakow, taking you for a historical informative amble amongst the synagogues reflecting historical tragedy. The museum itself houses a wonderful photographic collection telling the story of Polish Jews both past and present.
A visit to Krakow wouldn’t be complete without taking time to absorb and reflect upon the harsher elements of 20th Century Poland. The sympathetic museum brings an interactive component bringing this era of history to life covering the Nazi occupation of Krakow, housed in the former enamel factory which belonged to Oskar Schindler, the saviour of his Jewish workforc
You’re unlikely to ever see anything quite like the Kościuszko Mound which is situated just outside of the Old Town. At 34m high, the artificial mound consists of soil taken from the Polish and American battlefields where Tadeusz Kościuszko fought. It was erected between 1820 and 1823.