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.
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.
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.
Tadeusz Pankiewicz’s pharmacy in the heart of Podgórze ran quite smoothly until 1941 when the Nazis closed off the surrounding area and created a ghetto for the Jewish community. And although Pankiewicz was offered to move the Aryan side of the city at the time, he chose to stay in the ghetto, where he was able to supply the residents with medication and various pharmaceutical products that were not only used for health reasons but also to help them mislead the Gestapo; for example, many residents used hair dyes to disguise their identity, or even tranquilizers to keep children quiet during raids. The pharmacy itself was often used as a shelter to Jews who escaped deportation to the camps.,
The pharmacy is now part of the Krakow Historical Museum and has been restored to its wartime appearance. Multimedia exhibits and various artifacts, as well as numerous testimonials from Holocaust survivors and Poles, inform visitors about the reality of life in the ghetto.
Tucked away behind the flying buttresses of St Mary’s Basilica, the Maly Rynek is the baby brother of Krakow’s landmark Rynek Główny, just as beautiful but without the constant crowds. The oblong square is lined with townhouses painted in muted greens, yellows and reds, some with Baroque embellishments dating from the 17th century. The brick-red apse of the Church of St Barbara backs on to the piazza; with its origins in the early 14th century, it was Krakow’s Jesuit church for centuries and its interior has a mix of Gothic and Baroque architecture, several rare icons and an mournful sculpture depicting Christ in the Garden at Gethsemane.
Built in the beginning of the 17th century, the Royal Castle of Warsaw - or Zamek Krolewski - marks the entrance to Old Town, and was the official seat of the Polish monarchy up until the beginning of the 19th century, and also housed the Polish Parliament throughout history. Although, like most of Old Town, the castle was destroyed during World War II, it underwent major reconstruction between 1971 and 1984, and is now fully open to the public.
The beautiful brick facade of the castle is bookended by the bulbous spires so common to Polish architecture, and the castle square alone is worth visiting. In addition to the classic Polish architecture, Italian influences are strong, as the palace was designed by an Italian architect. As such, the building is exquisite, and should be on every Warsaw visitor's agenda. Containing an incredible collection of artwork and art objects, the interior of the castle is a beautiful also houses part of the National Museum.
The Old Town Square Market - or Rynek Starego Miasta - is the oldest part of Warsaw, originally constructed in the late 13th century. After being destroyed by the German army, it was restored after World War II to its beautiful prewar charm, lined with 17th and 18th century houses, shops, and restaurants. The historic center of Warsaw, cafe life is at its height with street vendors and performers abound.
Stop to try a local beer or taste traditional Polish fare and admire the incredible architecture all around you. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this area is not to be missed.
This stunning Gothic cathedral in the heart of Warsaw's Old Town is one of the most interesting historical landmarks. Built in the 14th century, St John's Cathedral - or Katedra Sw Jana - is one of the oldest churches in all of Poland, but was completely destroyed during World War II during the Polish Uprising. However, like much of the Old Town, it was reconstructed after the war, true to its original architecture.
In addition to being the site of many historical events, such as the coronation of the last Polish king, the cathedral also houses the beautiful red marble tombs of many Mazowian dukes, and its crypt is the resting place of many celebrated Poles such as Nobel Prize-winning author Henryk Sienklewicz. The Gothic architecture and artwork is some of the most impressive in Warsaw, and is not to be missed.
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 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.
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.
Founded in 1364, Jagiellonian University is the second oldest university in Central Europe. While it has survived to celebrate its 650th jubilee in 2014, its history has been turbulent. After briefly collapsing in 1370, it was revived in 1400, and in the early 16th century, it enjoyed a golden age in the midst of the Polish Renaissance. However, the prestige of the university eventually declined as Poland’s position in Europe got worse and the country was partitioned multiple times. After nearly closing in the 19th century, the university then hosted major scientific achievements. It was then targeted by the Nazis, who sent dozens of faculty members to concentration camps and destroyed university libraries and laboratories. Jagiellonian continued to suffer under Communism, and it wasn't until Poland’s Communist government was overthrown that the university once again began to flourish. Today it is considered one of the top universities in all of Europe.
The Archdiocesan Museum of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was originally founded in 1905, although not opened to the public until 1994. It was created to commemorate and advise the public of the artistic legacy of the Krakow bishopric. The buildings at 19 and 21 Kanonicza street that house the museum date to the late 14th century and today contains more than 600 works of art displayed in 16 rooms. The late Pope John Paul II, formerly known as Karol Wojtyla, resided there once as a young priest and again when he was the Archbishop of Krakow. The museum was named after him in 2005 and visitors are able to see the room where he lived from 1958 to 1967, as well as many of his personal effects, including his skis.
Museum displays showcase a variety of sacral art from the 13th to 18th centuries, including religious artifacts, sculptures and paintings. There is also a treasury of gifts presented to Archbishop from foreign heads-of-state and a set of furniture from 1905.
The Palace of Culture and Science is the tallest building in Poland, completed in 1955 as a gift to Poland from the Soviet people and Joseph Stalin himself. The building iscalled Pałac Kultury i Nauki in Polish, abbreviated PKiN, and has over 3,000 rooms on its 42 floors, which include offices, institution headquarters and the Polish Academy of Sciences. There is a post office, cinema and swimming pool, as well as museums, libraries and theaters.
The Congress Hall (Sala Kongresowa) and Concert Hall (Sala Koncertowa) are considered the most important of their kind in the country. The former can hold nearly 3,000 people and has been considered the home of Poland’s jazz music scene. Artists such as Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones have performed here. Not surprisingly, there have been some negative feelings around the building, as many Polish citizens believe it is a symbol of Soviet domination.
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.
Originally used as a communication route, Warsaw's famous Royal Way (or Royal Route) is a beautiful, 2.5 mile-(4 km) long road that goes from the The Royal Palace at Old Town to the Wilanow Palace. Walking this road assures you an incredible view of Polish historical landmarks, including St. Anne's Church, the Tyszkiewicz Palace, the Holy Cross Church, St. Alexander's Church, Lazienki Park, and so much more. An entire day can be spent exploring the monuments and side streets that are considered part of the "Road of Kings", and there are innumerable sights to be seen.
An impressive monument to the Polish composer Chopin sits in the Lazienki park, and during the summer, classical musical concerts are held on the lawn. In addition to being the living quarters of many Polish nobles, including the Polish president, museums, chic shopping, people-watching, and fine eateries are abound on this most beautiful and historic of streets.
Praga is Warsaw’s right-bank area that was once an independent town, from the time of its first mention in 1432. In the late 18th century, it became formally associated with Warsaw as a small settlement. In its early days as a suburb, many buildings were repeatedly destroyed by natural disasters and military battles; the only surviving historical monument from that time is the Church of Our Lady of Loreto.
Although it suffered repeated damage in its early days, Praga managed to resist WWII destruction, and today, it’s considered one of Warsaw’s trendiest neighborhoods, oozing a cool bohemian vibe. Post-industrial buildings have been converted into art galleries, cinemas, and pubs. Also look for pre-war elements like sidewalks, apartments and lampposts. Praga is quite a departure from the well-traveled tourist spots in Warsaw proper. Its popularity is on the rise, so now is the best time to visit.
The Warsaw Jewish Ghetto - or Getto Zydowskie - is considered to be one of the most haunting and historically poignant places to visit in all of Poland, and for good reason. Before World War II, there were over 400,000 Jews living in Warsaw, and by 1942, all members of the Jewish community were forced into the German-constructed ghetto, demarcated by a 10-foot-high (3-meter high) wall circling around a specified sector of the Jewish district.
In addition to being the restrained living quarters of the Jewish community during the Nazi occupation, the Jewish Ghetto was also the place from which thousands of men, women, and children were dispatched to the Treblinka Concentration camp in the summer of 1942, which, in turn, led to the Ghetto Uprising. While the majority of the wall was destroyed in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, three sections still stand and are not to be missed.
The Sanctuary of Divine Mercy is a church located on the outskirts of Krakow, Poland. The church was consecrated in 1891 and dedicated to St. Joseph. It was originally built as part of the convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. This church is home to the tomb of St. Faustina, a nun who saw a vision of Jesus in 1931. It is said that when he appeared to her, he instructed her to commission an image of him along with the quote, “Jesus, I trust Thee.” This image, painted by Adolf Hyła, has spread in the form of copies and reproductions throughout the world. St. Faustina rests in a white marble coffin below the original image of the Merciful Jesus along with other relics. It is a popular place for pilgrimages for Catholics from around the country and even from other parts of the world. Attached to the church is a tower that provides spectacular views of the city.
Surrounding Krakow's Old Town, Planty Park stretches about 2.5 miles (4 km) and covers 52 acres. It was established in the early 19th century to take the place of the Old Town walls after they were destroyed. The park is really a chain of gardens designed in different styles, connected by walkways and lawns and topped off with a variety of fountains and sculptures.
Walking through Planty Park is like walking through Krakow’s history. You will pass a small segment of the old walls, as well as the 13th-century Gothic-style Florianska Gate and the Barbakan, a defensive fortress dating to 1499. Other notable landmarks include a Carmelite monastery that was once used as an Austrian prison, the 17th-century bishop’s palace from whose window Pope John Paul II once greeted the residents of Krakow and the Church of the Snowy Mother of God, built in 1635.
This church is one of the oldest stone-built religious buildings in all of Poland, with some of the eldest relics dating back to the 10th century. In fact, it has been around for so long that its floor is actually situated roughly two meters under the current level of the square, which was covered with different layers of pavement throughout the centuries. The church underwent several renovations according to the style that was fashionable from one era to the next, but it has remained relatively untouched since it was revamped in Baroque style in the 1610s. In opposition to the grand and voluminous St. Mary’s Basilica on the other end of the square, St. Adalbert Church is actually quite small and confined.
According to the legend, the church was erected on the site where St. Adalbert preached a famous sermon before he left on a mission to bring Christianity to Prussia that would lead him to his untimely and martyr death.