Krakow in Poland is the second-most populous city in the country. The city is an economic hub, known for its thriving technology and financial services firms.
However, it is probably best-known for its stunning Mediaeval Old Town and Jewish Quarter which jointly became one of UNESCO’s first ever World Heritage Sites back in 1978.
It would, of course, be difficult to mention the city’s Jewish Quarter without considering for a moment the Krakow Ghetto. It is where many Jewish people were forced to live during the Nazi occupation before being transported to infamous sites like Auschwitz.
Given that Krakow and Poland as a whole have such a remarkable past, it is hardly surprising that many visitors are drawn to the historic centre of the city. What sights does it have in store for today’s generation of visitors as well as people who want to revisit a much-loved city in pictorial form?
Read on to find out what we discovered during our trip to Krakow.
St. Mary’s Basilica
Located on Plac Mariacki, Krakow’s St. Mary’s Basilica lies just across the road from another architecturally pleasing place of worship – the Church of St. Barbara. There are numerous restaurants and cafes that face this brick-built Gothic church and the area is usually one of hustle and bustle. Good that we were there early to photograph the basilica in all of its glory before the square started to get busy.
The basilica’s altarpiece, carved by the famous German artist Veit Stoss, is something to behold even to this day. It is highlighting the early northern European Renaissance style in a way that few other artworks can even in religious settings. However, we wanted to capture the remarkable architecture of the basilica. Unlike many brick Gothic structures, Krakow’s St. Mary’s Basilica has two towers of unequal height. For this reason alone, we think that it makes a stunning subject for any photographer.
Anyone thinking about visiting central Krakow should know that these towers are still very much in use today. Instead of housing bells that ring out every hour as is common in much of southern and western Europe, trumpeters play a five-note tune of historic significance for all Poles. This tune is repeated in four directions from the taller tower’s windows in remembrance of a musician who sounded the alarm of an impending Mongol army attack on the city back in the 13th century.
St. Mary’s Basilica was consecrated as far back as 1320 but much of the interior of the church dates back to the 18th century when the Baroque style was in vogue. Over the course of the last 30 years, it has been extensively renovated and you can see just how refreshed it looks for a structure that is getting on for a thousand years of continuous usage. You can see the new roof, too, a part of the building that was entirely replaced in 2003.
The Royal Castle – Wawel in Krakow
Heading south on Rynek Glowny and then Grodzka, it takes only a few minutes to walk from St. Mary’s Basilica to Wawel Castle. The former royal residence was built by King Casimir III the Great who ruled Poland from 1333 until his death in 1370. The final monarch of the Piast dynasty, Casimir III wanted a stronghold as well as a place to hold his court in Krakow. During much of the Medieval period, the castle served as a place for the country’s assembly to convene, too.
Looking at Wawel Castle today, you can clearly see that it is a blend of architectural styles. Although much of the early structure is Romanesque in style, there are noticeable touches of Gothic here are there, too. When it is lit up, as it was when we photographed it, the later fortifications probably strike you as the most prominent features. Many of these additions came about after the so-called Third Partition of Poland in 1795, the period when Krakow came under the direct rule of the Austro-Hungarian emperors.
Heading inside the castle, however, you will also pick up Italian Renaissance styles. The tiered arcade of the castle’s main courtyard are a good case in point. Dating back to the 16th century, they resemble the sort of thing you might more commonly associate with Venice or Florence than the inside of a fortified structure in the middle of eastern Europe.
One of the great things about the Wawel Castle is that it is so popular with Poles. Yes, it is a much-visited tourist site, but ordinary Polish people find it just as fascinating as overseas travellers, it seems. For some, it is even a place of pilgrimage. And with such commanding views over the Vistula River, it is easy to see why.
Krakow Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) and the Market Square
From the Wawel Royal Castle to the main square, you can retrace your steps back in the direction of the basilica, but walking through Graznya Park and picking up Wislna offers a more pleasant stroll, especially if the weather is nice. This would mean entering the main market square in Krakow from its south-west corner, not far from where we photographed one of the square’s most stunning feature, Cloth Hall, or Sukiennice as it is known to Poles.
Sukiennice is perhaps the most iconic building in the Old Town. It dates back to the 15th century when Krakow’s reputation as a trading city was at its height. You can almost imagine the silks, leathers and other textiles that would have been traded here, often in exchange for some of the regions main exports, salt and lead. The facade of the building is strewn with arcades that come to a modest point in a subtle use of the Gothic style.
The impressive monument you can see in front of Sukiennice is in remembrance of Adam Mickiewicz. Unveiled in 1898, it commemorates the life and work of one of Poland’s best-loved poets, dramatists and political activists. Although the monument and the Cloth Hall are best seen early in the day before the market square begins to fill up with tourists and shoppers, the Sukiennice Museum is well worth a visit in its own right. It is open from 10am most days of the week.
The Sukiennice Museum houses an impressive collection of Polish art. Much of it is drawn from the 19th century and arranged in various rooms that are based on themes. The museum is situated in the Cloth Hall’s upper floor.
Finally, we wanted to point out just how charming Krakow can be. It is sometimes the little things you notice that make all the difference when visiting a place for the first time and what could be more engaging than the accurate model of the Wawel Castle complex that is located in the grounds of Wawel’s cathedral? Located on Wawel Hill, the third version of the cathedral was completed in the 14th century. It is the final resting place of many Polish monarchs as well as some of its national poets.
The cathedral is important in Polish culture for many reasons, notably because it was the coronation site of many kings throughout the centuries. There is an extremely impressive gilded altar and much of the rest of the interior is highly decorative, as well. Even viewed just from the outside, however, the cathedral looks stunning so it is well worth seeking out even if you have no intention of entering it.
So, what do you think? Ready to explore Krakow? If you’re ready to go, make sure to also check out the near-by Wieliczka Salt Mine. Another World Heritage Site, that you don’t want to miss!