Once the capital of Poland, Krakow may be best known for its castle and charming old town. But those who want a deeper introduction to Polish history can head to the city’s plethora of interesting, informative museums. Here are a few top picks.
Things to do in Krakow
Welcome to Krakow
Krakow combines quaint charm with spacious grandeur. Rynek Glowny, the largest medieval market square in Europe, is reigned over by Gothic jewels such as Town Hall Tower and the Basilica of the Virgin Mary. The capital’s UNESCO-listed Old Town and Wawel Hill, crowned by the impressive Wawel Castle, lend themselves well to walking tours, while the nearby Wieliczka Salt Mine—also a World Heritage Site—makes for an excellent day-trip. If you’re a nature lover, don’t miss out on an excursion to Zakopane and the Tatra Mountains, or float down the scenic Dunajec River on a wooden raft. In the Gothic city of Czestochowa, just a couple of hours away from Krakow, you’ll find the revered religious painting, The Black Madonna. Krakow’s Jewish heritage is prominent and poignant, and history buffs will want to book a guided tour to visit essential stops including Kazimierz (the former Jewish quarter), the Oskar Schindler Museum, and the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. In contrast, Krakow’s nightlife burns bright and its historic center resonates with some of the best restaurants, bars, and clubs in Poland. An evening food tour showcases Polish cuisine and the city’s nighttime ambience, and offers ample opportunities to indulge in dumplings, sour rye soup, wild boar, and vodka.
Top 10 attractions in Krakow
The focal building of Krakow’s fanciful Main Square (Rynek Główny), the Cloth Hall has stood in the same spot in various forms for about 800 years but was originally built to house the local textile traders. From its humble beginnings as a small open-air market, the Renaissance-style hall is now 354 feet (108 meters) long and hosts Krakow’s biggest and best souvenir market, with stalls on the ground floor selling painted eggs, amber jewelry, wooden puppets and organic goods. The hall is gloriously floodlit by night. On the first floor of the Cloth Hall is the charming, revamped Gallery of 19-Century Polish Art (Galeria Sztuki Polskiej XIX wieku w Sukiennicach). It reopened in 2010 after an extensive facelift, and its artwork hangs in elegant Renaissance salons. The highlights are the two massive satirical works by Polish nationalist artist Jan Matejko....
The cobblestone Main Square (Rynek Główny) of Krakow Old Town is Central Europe’s largest and has been the center of the city’s social, religious and political life since the Middle Ages. Today it still serves as Krakow’s modern pulse, dominated by the splendid Renaissance arcades of the Sukiennce (Cloth Hall), the lop-sided St Mary Basilica and an endless supply of cafés and bars. From the square, Krakow’s complex medieval alleyways peel off in all directions and work as the focus of most visits. The district contains Baroque churches by the handful, a gorgeous ensemble of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, as well as about 25 museums covering subjects as diverse as Japanese manga, photography and stained glass. The standout historical collections are found in the many branches of the National Museum and in the Rynek Underground below the Cloth Hall....
Oskar Schindler was a wealthy German Nazi who employed hundreds of Jews in his Krakow enamel factory, which ultimately led to many saved lives. Schindler’s part in all this is immortalized in the Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List.Since June 2010, Schindler’s old factory has housed a highly emotive, interactive and visually stunning permanent exhibition on the Nazi occupation of Krakow. The horrors of the regime are showcased, from the early days of uneasy truce between Poles and Germans to the ultimate mass genocide of Jews and Poles alike in concentration camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. The multimedia and intense 3-D diorama displays in the “Krakow Under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945” exhibit harshly bring to reality the repeated atrocities, the liquidation of 3,000 Jews from the Podgorzé ghetto in 1943 and the final days of the war....
Measuring 650 ft x 650 ft (200m by 200m), Kraków's Rynek Główny is the largest medieval town square in Europe and one of the finest urban designs of its kind. It s layout, based on that of a castrum (Roman military camp), was drawn up in 1257 and has been retained to this day, though the buildings have changed substantially over the centuries. Most of them now look neoclassical, but don't let the façades confuse you - the basic structures are much older, as can be seen by their doorways, architectural details and interiors. Here you will find the Cloth Hall (the world's oldest shopping mall at 700 years), the 13th century Gothic Town Hall Tower, the magnificent 14th century Gothic Basilica of the Virgin Mary, and the small church of St Adalbert, some of which dates back to the 11th century....
Kazimierz - or Jewish District - was for a long time an independent town with its own municipal charter and laws. Its colorful history was determined by its mixed Jewish-Polish population, and though the ethnic structure is now wholly different, the architecture gives a good picture of its past, with clearly distinguishable sectors of what were Christian and Jewish quarters. The suburb is home to many important tourist sights, including churches, synagogues and museums. The western part of Kazimierz was traditionally Catholic, and although many Jews settled here from the early 19th century until WWII - for example, the main Jewish hospital was on ul Skawińska - the quarter preserves much of its original character, complete with its churches. A tiny area of about 300m by 300m northeast of Corpus Christi Church, the Jewish sector of Kazimierz became, over the centuries, a centre of Jewish culture equal to no other in the country....
The lop-sided towers of the majestic St Mary’s Basilica dominate the northeast corner of Krakow’s lively central square, the Rynek Główny. A church has graced this spot since medieval times, but this incarnation was built of red-brick in Gothic style and consecrated in 1320 after the original was destroyed by invading Tartars in the 13th century. The northern tower was raised to 263 feet (80 meters) and became the city’s watchtower. The interior is handsomely decorated with a star-spangled blue ceiling, heavy Gothic ornamentation and stained-glass windows that shaft sunlight into patterns in the floor. The showpiece is the magnificent carved altar, constructed with wood by the German craftsman Veit Stoss in 1489; it took him 12 long years to finish his creation, which measures 47 feet (13 meters) across and is carved with 200 biblical figures. The altar is opened daily at 11:50 a.m. to reveal gilded scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary....
The political and cultural centre of Poland until the end of the 16th century, Wawel Royal Castle, also known as Zamek Wawelski is, like Wawel Cathedral, the very symbol of Poland's national identity. The original, rather small residence of the Zamek Wawelski was built in the early 11th century by King Bolesław Chrobry beside t he chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary (known as the Rotunda of SS Felix and Adauctus). King Kazimierz Wielki turned it into a formidable Gothic castle, but when it burned down in 1499, King Zygmunt Stary commissioned a new residence. Within 30 years a splendid Renaissance palace, designed by Italian architects, was in place. Despite further extensions and alterations, the 3-store Renaissance structure, complete with a courtyard arcaded on three sides, has been preserved to this day. Repeatedly sacked and vandalized by the Swedish and Prussian armies, the castle was occupied after the Third Partition by the Austrians....
Wawel Cathedral - or Katedra Wawelska - has witnessed most of the coronations, funerals and entombments of Poland's monarchs and strongmen over the centuries, and wandering around the grandiose funerary monuments and royal sarcophagi is like a fast-forward tour through Polish history. The cathedral is both an extraordinary artistic achievement and Poland's spiritual sanctuary. The building you see is the third church on this site, consecrated in 1364. The original cathedral was founded sometime after the turn of the first millennium by King Bolesław Chrobry and was replaced with a larger Romanesque construction around 1140. When it burned down in 1305, only the Crypt of St Leonard survived. The present-day Katedra Wawelska is basically a Gothic structure but chapels in different styles were built around it later. Before you enter, note the massive iron door and, hanging on a chain to the left, huge prehistoric animal bones....
In 1499 Krakow was a wealthy city under constant threat of attack, especially from the rampaging Ottomans. So they made themselves into a fortress. The Great Barbican is both the principal entry point to the city and a massive seven turreted point of defense. These days it looks like a fairytale city gate, back then it was either a massive relief to reach it with your wagons intact, or a deterrent to your planned attack on the city. The actual gate to the city was St Florian's gate, linked to the Barbican by a covered passageway. But the Barbican and the series of moats and walls which lead away from it, ringing the city, were the first point of entry to Krakow in the Middle Ages. Today, you still enter the Old Town of the city through the impressive Barbican....
Top activities in Krakow
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Discover the top things to do in Krakow.
- Day Trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Wieliczka Salt Mine from Krakow including Lunch
- Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Memorial Guided Tour from Krakow
- Wieliczka Salt Mine Guided Tour from Krakow
- Oskar Schindler's Factory Museum Guided Tour in Krakow
- Full-Day Tour to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Wieliczka Salt Mine from Krakow
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