Kraków was the only major city in Poland to come through World War II essentially undamaged, and its assembly of monuments has since been hailed as one of Europe’s most compelling by UNESCO. The city’s Old Town (Stare Miasto) swarms with visitors in summer, but retains an atmosphere of fin-de-siècle stateliness, its streets a cavalcade of churches and palaces. A university centre, Kraków has a tangible buzz of arty youthfulness and enjoys a dynamic nightlife.
Kraków is bisected by the River Wisła, with virtually everything of interest on the north bank. At the heart of the Old Town is the Main Square, with WawelHill, ancient seat of Poland’s kings and Church, and the rejuvenated Kazimierz lying to the south.
A few blocks north of the Rynek on ul. Pijarska sits the Czartoryski Palace, usually home to Kraków’s finest art collection, although it is closed until 2014 for renovation. When it reopens, highlights will include Rembrandt’s brooding Landscape with Merciful Samaritan and Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine.
A Jewish centre from the fourteenth century onwards, Kraków’s Kazimierz district had grown by 1939 to accommodate some 65,000 Jews. After the Nazis took control, however, this population was forced into a cramped ghetto across the river. Waves of deportations to the death camps followed before the ghetto was liquidated in March 1943, ending seven centuries of Jewish life in Kraków. Kazimierz is now a fashionable and bohemian residential district, filled with poignantly silent synagogues. Just off pl. Nowy, a colourful square surrounded by chic cafés, is the Isaac Synagogue (Fri 9am–2.30pm, Sun–Thur 9am–8pm) at ul. Kupa 18 – now a working synagogue once again, it contains sizeable chunks of Hebrew inscriptions on its walls. At ul. Szeroka 24 is the Old Synagogue (Mon 10am–2pm, Wed, Thurs, Sat & Sun 9am–4pm, Fri 10am–5pm; 9zł), the oldest surviving example of Jewish religious architecture in Poland and home to the Museum of Kraków Jewry, with its traditional paintings by the area’s former inhabitants. Nearby, the Remu’h Synagogue on ul. Szeroka (Mon–Fri: May–Sept 9am–6pm; Oct–April 9am–4pm; 6zł) contains lovely original furnishings; the cemetery behind the synagogue contains restored 18th-century gravestones.
At the southern end of Kazimierz, the Municipal Engineering Museum at św. Wawrzynca 15 (Tues–Sun 10am–4pm; 8zł) contains a fantastic display of vehicles in a former tram depot.
The largest square in medieval Europe, the Market Square (Rynek Główny) is now a broad expanse with the vast Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) at its centre, ringed by magnificent houses and towering spires. Originally a collection of outdoor market stalls, the Cloth Hall was first built in 1300 and reconstructed during the Renaissance, and still houses a bustling covered market. To its south is the tiny copper-domed St Adalbert’s, the first church to be founded in Kraków. On the east side is the Gothic St Mary’s Church (Mon–Sat 11.30am–6pm, Sun 2–6pm; 6zł), the taller of its two towers, which you can climb during the summer months (May–Aug Tues, Thurs & Sat 9–11.30am & 1–5.30pm; 5zł), topped by an amazing ensemble of spires. Inside is the stunningly realistic triptych high altar (1477–89), an intricate wood-carving depicting the Virgin Mary’s Quietus among the apostles.
Legend has it that during one of the thirteenth-century Tatar raids, a guard watching from the tower of St Mary’s Church saw the invaders approaching and blew his trumpet, only for his alarm to be cut short by an arrow through the throat. Every hour a local fireman now plays the sombre melody (hejnał) from the same tower, halting abruptly at the point when the guard is supposed to have been hit.
The former industrial district of Podgorze/Zabłocie just across the river from Kazimierz is one of contemporary Kraków’s fastest-developing districts, thanks in part to the 2011 opening of this art museum at ul. Lipova 4 (Tues–Sun 11am–7pm; 10zł; Tues free; mocak.pl). Occupying renovated buildings that once formed part of Oskar Schindler’s Emalia Factory it contains a compelling collection of Polish contemporary art, and a regular programme of big-name exhibitions.
Central Kraków’s newest and most entertaining tourist attraction is the Rynek Underground (April–Oct: Mon 10am–8pm, Tues 10am–4pm, Wed–Sun 10am–10pm; Nov–March: Mon, Wed–Sun 10am–8pm, Tues 10am–4pm; closed first Tues of every Month;17zł), an extensive subterranean museum that stretches beneath the market square – it is entered from the eastern side of the Cloth Hall. Recent archeological excavations have been left in situ and covered by glass walkways, allowing you to explore the layout of the medieval marketplace. The display also features touchscreen computers, recreated thatched wooden huts, and videos of role-playing actors dressed up as medieval traders.
Touristy Floriańska and the boutiques in the Rynek contain a few bargain art dealers among the overpriced souvenirs. Kazimierz is filled with reasonably priced galleries and secondhand shops and, on Sundays, pl. Nowy becomes a colourful flea market of cheap clothes and jewellery.
You can find a good selection of English used books, including translations of Polish authors, at the café/bookshop Massolit on Felicjanek 4 (Sun–Thurs 10am–8pm, Fri & Sat 10am–9pm), where you can also trade in your old books for new reading material.
For a Western “mall experience”, head for Galeria Krakowska (Mon–Sat 9am–10pm, Sun 10am–9pm), just next to the train station. It has all the fashionable Western brands that you could wish for, in addition to a large Carrefour supermarket.
West from the Rynek is the university area, whose first element was the fifteenth-century Collegium Maius building at ul. Jagiellońska 15. Now it’s the University Museum (Mon–Fri 11am–2.20pm, Sat 11am–1.20pm; 16zł). Entrance is by guided tour only – the museum office will sign you up for the next English-language tour, which depart at regular intervals throughout the day. Inside, the ground-floor rooms retain the mathematical and geographical murals once used for the teaching of figures like Copernicus, one of the university’s earliest students.
For over five hundred years, Wawel Hill was the seat of Poland’s monarchy. The original cathedral (Mon–Sat 9am–5pm; 8zł) was built in 1020, but the present basilica is a fourteenth-century structure, with a crypt that contains the majority of Poland’s 45 monarchs. Their tombs and side chapels are like a directory of European artistic movements, not least the Gothic Holy Cross Chapel and the Renaissance Zygmuntówska chapel. The excellent Cathedral Museum (Mon–Sat 9am–4pm; 12zł) features religious and secular items dating from the thirteenth century, including all manner of coronation robes.
Visitor numbers are restricted, so arrive early or book ahead to visit the various sections of Wawel Castle (ticket office Mon–Fri 9am–5.45pm, Sat & Sun 10am–4.45pm), including the State Rooms (April–Oct Tues, Thurs & Fri 9.30am–4pm, Wed & Sat 9.30am–3pm, Sun 10am–3pm; Nov–March Tues–Sat 9.30am–3pm, Sun 10am–3pm; 16zł), furnished with Renaissance paintings and tapestries, and the grand Royal Private Apartments (Tues–Sun 9.30am–5pm, Sat & Sun 11am–6pm; 21zł). Much of the original contents of the Royal Treasury and Armoury (same times as the State Rooms; 16zł) were sold to pay off royal debts, but still feature some fine works, including the Szczerbiec, the country’s original coronation sword.
On the western side of Wawel Hill is the Dragon’s Den (daily: July & Aug 10am–7pm; April–June, Sept & Oct 10am–5pm; 3zł), a cavern accessed by a spiral staircase. This was reputedly once the home of Smok, a dragon whose rather objectionable diet included children, cattle and unsuccessful knights. Krak, the legendary founder of Kraków, tricked him into eating a sheep stuffed with sulphur; to quench the burning, Smok drank half the Wisła, causing him to explode. Despite his unfortunate end, the dragon is now the symbol of the city.
Ten kilometres from Kraków is the “underground salt cathedral” of Wieliczka, 300km of subterranean tunnels that have been used to mine salt since the thirteenth century (daily: April–Oct 7.30am–7.30pm; Nov–March 8am–5pm). The ticket price includes a tour (68zł English, 49zł Polish), which passes by an underground lake and a number of impressive statues and edifices – including chandeliers – carved out of rock salt. To get there, catch bus #304 from ul. Kurniki next to the main train station (every 20min; 3zł).