Krakow, locally denoted as Cracow, is one of the oldest cities in Poland. It is the second largest city in the country, and dates back to the 7th century. The mythical origin story of the town relates it to it being founded during the Stone Age, by the mythical ruler, Krakus, atop a cave inhabited by a dragon called Smok Wavelski. Krakow’s Old Town happens to be the first site to be declared as a World Heritage Site, and harbors centuries of history, art, and culture. Krakow’s Old Town was the capital of Poland from 1038 until 1596, when King Sigismund III Vasa shifted the political seat to Warsaw.
In a city as old and full of stories older than time, there is no dearth of places to visit, especially for first-time travellers in Europe.
Places to Visit
The Old Town of Krakow has six thousand historic sites and a couple million pieces of exuberant artwork. It harbors a very rich variety of architecture, having lived through many different time periods. These include the Romanesque (no definitive starting period but posited as probably being from 6th – 11th century), Gothic (Middle Ages: late 10th – late 15th century in Poland), Renaissance (late 15th – late 16th century), and Baroque (early 17th – mid 18th century in Poland) styles. Since Krakow was built starting from the core of this Old Town and out, the many historical architectural works can be seen in a clear, somewhat chronological progression: that is to say, as you walk from the centre towards the outside, not only time passes for you chronologically during say that tour, but you can also see how time periods passed and left their marks on Krakow’s cityscape as they came and went.
The Renaissance Cloth Hall in the Main Square
The historic Cloth Market situated in the Main Square in Old Town Krakow dates back to the Renaissance Age, and was listed as a World Heritage Site in the year 1978. The hall was used as a centre of commerce – a hub for the travelling merchants negotiating over imports and exports. Silk, spices, wax and leather were brought in from other places and Poland exported salt from its Wieliczka Salt Mines, in addition to lead and textiles. The Cloth Market is used as a centre of commerce to this day. It weathered wars and the city’s decline into a decrepit state following the moving of the capital from Krakow to Warsaw in 1596. Some impressive restoration projects took place as well: the most notable one being during Austrian rule in the 1870s, under mayor Mikolaj Zyblikiewicz and designed by Tomasz Prylinski.
- The Renaissance Cloth Market. Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org
Wawel Royal Castle
- Wawel Royal Castle in the nighttime. Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org
The Wawel Royal Castle was built in the 14th century, under King Casimir III the Great, and kept expanding over the next hundred years, thereby incorporating within it structures from the Romanesque, as well as Gothic and Baroque time periods. It was the first ever site to be declared a World Heritage Site, and was declared so in 1978. Wawel is where kings would be coronated and then reside. It has now been turned into a museum.
So the story goes that there lived a dragon called Smok Wawelski who would wreak havoc and bring terror on the villagers living around that hill if they did not pay tribute, in the shape of sheep or local virgins, to him. It is said that Krakus, a legendary prince, slayed the dragon and built the Wawel castle atop this dragon’s den. This den, famously known as the Smocza Jama, is a limestone cave. In commemoration of this very popular Polish myth, a metal statue that breathes actual fire stands on the lower slopes of the Wawel Hill today.
- The statue of Smok Wawelski, Poland’s famous legendary dragon.
Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org
- Inside Smokza Jama (Dragon’s Den). Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org
The Silver Bell Tower (also known as the Priest Tower) was built in the 12th century. Its 12 metre high rectangular base was built in the 11th century as part of the Hermanowska Cathedral, and it has later additions: the belfry was added in the 14th century, and the spire in 1769. Even the bells in the belfry are from different time periods.
The Wawel Cathedral showcases the Gothic style. The first of its chapels was built in 1322, and more were added in the following centuries. The first king to be buried in this cathedral was King Casimir III the Great’s father, King Wladyslaw I the Elbow-High. It is Casimir III the Great (1333-1370) who had a Gothic-style castle built right next to this cathedral.
The castle weathered the fire of 1499, following which King Sigismund I the Old, last of his Jagiellonian dynasty, had it rebuilt in the Renaissance style. His second wife, Bona Sforza, who was born in Italy was a great influence on him in this regard, and helped bring renowned Italian artisans to the castle for this renovation. The courtyard in the castle into which large and light rooms open up from their tiered arcades, is a remnant of this time.
After the fire of 1595 destroyed the north-eastern part of the castle, King Sigismund III Vasa had it rebuilt in a Baroque style under the guidance of the Italian artist Giovanni Trevano.
- The ceiling and the fireplace in the Bird Room of King Sigismund III showcases a Baroque-esque style.
Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org
Barbican of Krakow
The Barbican of Krakow is a fortified outpost which once, along with the city’s fortified walls, formed a defensive outer perimeter of the Old Town Krakow. This then served as a checkpost of sorts for all that entered the city. This Gothic-style outpost was built sometime around 1498, and is very well preserved to date. The Poles built it to defend themselves against a looming attack from the Ottoman Empire, following the defeat of King John I Albert at the hands of Stefan cel Mare, the Moldavian Prince, in the Battle of the Cosmin Forest.
The Barbican used to be connected to the city walls by a covered passageway, which also ran through the Florian Gate. It is a cylindrical structure made out of bricks and encircled with a moat. It has seven turrets, walls that are three metres thick, and a courtyard within with a diameter of 24.4 metres.
- St. Florian’s Gate as it looks today. Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org
This Gothic-style tower is said to have been built after Prince Leszek II the Black issued a decree in 1285 to build the city’s defenses, following a Tatar attack in 1241 and the sheer scale of destruction that attack rendered to the city.
The Florian Gate tower itself is 33.5 metres tall but when the Baroque-style metal piece from 1690 atop it is considered too, it adds up to a height of 34.5 metres. Back in the day, this gate was connected by a long bridge to the Barbican with the moat in between.
- How the Florian Gate and the Barbican were originally linked together. Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org
St. Andrew’s Church
St. Andrew’s Church is a Romanesque church located in the Old Town and built by a Polish statesman, Palatine Sieciech, between 1079 and 1098. This church was a fortress church, and survived the Mongol attack in 1241, making use of the windows in its lower, broader facade to carry out defense from. It was called the “Lower Castle” at the time, with the “Upper Castle” being the Wavel Castle.
The Romanesque in the church is characterized by its two octagonal shaped towers with double arcade windows. The church has Baroque additions to it: the Baroque domes on its octagonal towers from 1639, and the interior.
- This image shows St. Andrew’s Church and the later Baroque additions atop its Roamnesque ocatagonal towers.
Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org
The Baroque-style interior has stucco and riccoco work. Stucco is a Baroque-esque art technique where a wet construction material is applied, which then solidifies to form decorative coatings on ceilings and walls, for example. The Roccoco – another very Baroque-esque art technique – is an extravagantly ornamental style which involves gilding, asymmetry, pastel colors, and frescoes conveying drama. Stucco and Roccoco both can be seen in the interior of this church, thus marking the different time periods the church has lived through.
- The Baroque interior of the church shows the stucco and roccoco work.
Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org
Juliusz Slowacki Theatre
The Juliusz Slowacki Theatre was built in 1893 by Jan Zawiejski, and showcases an Eclectic architectural style, which is a style that incorporates styles from previous time periods, in order to create an amalgam, yet an amalgam that is new. The theatre was named after the Polish poet, Juliusz Slowacki, in 1909, and declared a World Heritage Site in 1978. The theatre was built after demolishing a church turned residential building that stood in its place – a subject of much controversy at the time. This theatre was the first building in Krakow to have electric light therein.
St. Mary’s Basilica
St. Mary’s Basilica Church is situated next to the Main Market Square in Old town Krakow, and was built in the 13th-14th centuries. It is said that it was first built in 1221-22 by Iwo Odrowaz, the Bishop of Krakow. However, it was destroyed during the Mongol invasion of Poland. The early Gothic church was built upon its remaining foundations between 1290-1300. During the rule of King Casimir III, between 1355 and 1365, the church was completely rebuilt, and later additions continued through the centuries. Today, Saint Mary’s Trumpet Call is played all hours of the day and night and broken mid-stream momentarily to signify the death of the 13th century trumpeter due to the Mongol attack, and his tune breaking mid-stream as a result of that.
- Saint Mary’s Basilica in Old Town Krakow. Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org
The Polish food in Krakow has its own ambience to add to the city’s aura. Roaming through Krakow with so much to see and learn, one is sure to get hungry! There are some must-have foods that the traveller to Krakow should not miss!
Polish food is famous for its pierogies. Pierogies are deliciously filled dumplings, with fillings ranging from traditional to experimental. Some of the traditional fillings include potato and cheese, sauerkraut and meat, mushrooms, and spinach. This food is a traditional one served in Polish homes at Christmas.
This sausage is famous all over Poland, and it takes its name from the city it originated in: Krakow! The kielbasa is Krakow’s street food as well, so you are sure to find it in your hands sooner than later. The sausage has a crunchy outer layer and is soft and deliciously juicy within. It is usually grilled on street stands and served with some bread, onions, pickles and an assortment of sauces.
- Kielbasa at a food truck in Krakow. Image source: https://www.inyourpocket.com
Polish Soup Zurek
This extremely delicious soup is probably the most traditional of soups from Polish cuisine, and a must have around the Easter holidays. It has a sublime sour taste, and its consistency is richly thick. The soup consists of boiled eggs, potatoes, sausage, and occasionally bacon and mushrooms. Traditionally, it is served in a bread loaf.
- Zurek soup served in a bread loaf! Image source: https://elements.envato.com
Kompot is a sweet, fruit-flavored drink, and can be served either hot or cold. It has fruits in it which give it its taste as well, such as cherries in Kompot will give it a tart taste, peaches in Kompt will lend it a sweeter taste. Kompot first came about at a time in Poland when fruit was scarce, and so it had to be rationed. Making a drink out of it brings the flavors to the taste buds much more in abundance than otherwise. Thereafter, Poland retained this drink later too, and it has become a traditional drink served in bars and restaurants around Poland.
Krakow is Poland’s second largest city and encompasses within it centuries of history, art, and culture. Its architecture ranges from the medieval to the Gothic, the Renaissance, and the Baroque. Walking outward from the Old Town Krakow, you see the influence of different time periods chronologically – with the oldest time periods in the heart of the Old Town, and the later layers being added with time. To top up, the city is rich in its culinary delights as well! While there is a wide variety of extremely delicious food to pick from, some of the must-haves while in Krakow include Pierogies, Kielbasa Krakowska, Zurek soup, and the Kompot if you are feeling thirsty!