Kraków, Poland

The Old Town of Kraków was among the first two cities designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in its entirety. Their selection was easy. You will be ecstatic to explore over 1,000 years of Polish history during this visual tour. Walk along the path of every Polish king and Pope John Paul II.

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1 Main Market Square of Old Town in Kraków, Poland

According to legend, Kraków was founded by King Krakus of the Vistulan tribes around 700 AD. Within 250 years, it became a major trade center. The Mongols destroyed everything in 1241. When Kraków received a city charter in 1257, Bolesław V the Chaste, the High Duke of Poland, ordered it be rebuilt according to a grid pattern. Main Market Square has been the epicenter ever since. Within these nine acres are several historic landmarks including colorful townhouses (kamienice) over 500 years old. In the center is the Adam Mickiewicz Monument. This 1898 statue is a tribute to the national poet of Poland. He lived in the first half of the 19th century. This plaza (Rynek Główny) – the largest medieval square in Europe – is an excellent place to begin your walking tour of Kraków’s Historic District. In 1978, Old Town (Stare Miasto) was among the first in its entirety to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Within hours of visiting this beautiful medieval city, you will understand why it richly deserves so much praise and accolades.

Rynek Główny, 31-042 Kraków, Poland
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2 St. Mary’s Basilica at Main Market Square in Kraków, Poland

St. Mary’s Basilica is the focal point of Main Market Square in the eastern corner. The Catholic church was founded by Bishop Iwo Odrowąż in 1222, destroyed by the Mongol Empire in 1241, rebuilt by the end of the century and reconstructed again sixty years later. Then enhancements and additions were made during the next seven centuries. The towers are asymmetrical. The tallest one is Hejnalica Tower at 266 feet. Beneath the Gothic cupola, a trumpeter plays part of the Polish anthem Hejnal Mariacki four times an hour, 24 hours a day. The longest serving trumpeter played for 36 years. The Kolton family sounded the five notes for 70 years. To appreciate their arduous task, climb the 239 stairs to the top. When you are gasping for breath, imagine blowing a trumpet. This view of the Church of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven was taken from an arch on Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) from across Main Market Square.

St. Mary's Basilica, Plac Mariacki 5, 31-042 Kraków, Poland
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3 St. Mary’s Basilica Architecture at Main Market Square in Kraków, Poland

The exterior design of St. Mary’s Basilica is elegant yet simple. This entrance belies the opulence inside. Before going in, notice the abundant lancet windows set in red brick. This architecture style – called Brick Gothic or Polish Gothic – flourished in Kraków during the reign of Casimir III the Great from 1333 until 1370. Other 14th century landmarks in the city display similar characteristics. Examples include Town Hall Tower, St. Florian’s Gate, The Barbican, Wawel Cathedral and the lesser known Collegium Maius on the campus of Jagiellonian University. You should visit all of these during your exploration of Kraków.

St. Mary's Basilica, Plac Mariacki 5, 31-042 Kraków, Poland
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4 Interior of St. Mary’s Basilica at Main Market Square in Kraków, Poland

Superlatives fail to describe the interior of St. Mary’s Basilica. Everything below the blue-star vaulted ceilings is awe inspiring. Each inch of the columns and arches is intricately painted with ornate designs and murals. The stained-glass windows glisten with medieval glory. Impressive religious sculptures abound in niches, side aisles and chapels. Elaborate tombs are everywhere. The organ pipes in the nave gallery are accented with angels playing musical instruments. And the pièce de résistance of Kościół Mariacki is the late-15th century wooden Gothic altarpiece by sculptor Veit Stoss, the largest and some claim the best one in the world.

St. Mary's Basilica, Plac Mariacki 5, 31-042 Kraków, Poland
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5 Church of St. Barbara in Kraków, Poland

Tucked into Mariacki Square and in the shadows of the adjacent St. Mary’s Church is the Church of St. Barbara. This began as a cemetery chapel in the 14th century. In 1518, the Gethsemane chapel was given the elegant white Gothic design seen on the left. Then the red brick Baroque church was built around it in 1687. A highlight of the interior is a sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding the body of Jesus. The Pieta dates from 1410. The Roman Catholic church is maintained by the Jesuits.

Plac Mariacki, Mały Rynek 9, 31-041 Kraków, Poland
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6 Church of St. Adalbert at Main Market Square in Kraków, Poland

There are so many places to experience in Main Market Square. It is easy to overlook this small, boxlike structure with a simple copper dome in the southeast corner. Its origin dates back to the end of the 10th century. This qualifies as one of Poland’s oldest churches. Constructed first in wood and then stone, it was rebuilt in the early 12th century and again 400 years later. The Church of St. Adalbert is dedicated to Adalbert of Prague. He was a Christian missionary and bishop before being martyred in 997. It is believed he christened the church shortly before his death. Inside is a museum telling the history of Kraków Market.

Church of St. Wojciech, Plac Mariacki, 31-042 Kraków, Poland
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7 Town Hall Tower at Main Market Square in Kraków, Poland

During the late 13th century, an enormous Town Hall was added to Main Market Square. The municipal government was housed on two floors. In the basement was a prison and torture chamber. The edifice was removed in 1820. Fortunately, Town Hall Tower (Wieża ratuszowa) was left standing. The white limestone blocks set among the red bricks give it a lacelike appearance. Since a major storm in 1703, the 230 foot tower leans 21 inches. You can climb up the 100-step staircase to a viewing platform above the clock for a wonderful panorama of Old Town. Afterwards you can drink beer in the basement cellars. The sideways head sculpture in the foreground is Eros Spetany (Eros Bound) by Igor Mitoraj. Locals call it Big Head. The contemporary Polish artist specialized in truncated anatomies in bronze and marble.

Town Hall Tower, Rynek Główny 1, 30-001 Kraków, Poland
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8 Cloth Hall at Main Market Square in Kraków, Poland

The 350 foot long Cloth Hall historically and physically dominates Main Market Square. Imagine you were struggling to make a living in the mid-13th century after the brutal Mongol invasion. You heralded the building of Main Market Square and the first rustic version of trading stalls. A century later, the trading hall was greatly enlarged. As a traveling Asian spice merchant during the Polish Golden Age (late 15th century to mid-16th century), you conducted a flurry of business at Cloth Hall in exchange for local textiles and salt. In horror, you watched as Sukiennice was consumed by fire in 1555. It rose from the ashes with a grand Renaissance style. The next three hundred years saw a cycle of decline and renovation. By 1879, Cloth Hall had the existing appearance with the colonnades. It was restored again in 2010. Today, Cloth Hall is the place to shop for Polish merchandise, crafts and souvenirs displayed in an array of merchant stalls. Afterwards, sip coffee at Cafe Szał with a great view of Main Market Square.

Sukiennice, Rynek Główny 1/3, 31-042 Kraków, Poland
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9 Art Museum in Cloth Hall at Main Market Square in Kraków, Poland

Before leaving Main Market Square, notice this loggia and staircase at the end of Cloth Hall. They date from the 16th century. Then walk up to the second floor to the Gallery of 19th Century Polish Art, one of the finest museums in Kraków. You might spend hours in these four exhibit rooms. The Sukiennice Museum displays portraits, battle scenes, still life, mythological subjects, religious art, landscapes and sculptures. These works are from leading Polish artists during the mid-18th to the early 20th centuries. Artist styles include Baroque, Rococo, Realism, Romanticism and Impressionism. The 200 pieces of art you will enjoy are a fraction of the 780,000 item collection managed by the National Museum of Kraków.

Sukiennice, Rynek Główny 1/3, 31-042 Kraków, Poland
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10 Floriańska Gate in Kraków, Poland

In response to three attacks by the Mongols during the 13th century, a massive wall was built around Kraków. By the end of the 15th century, the stone defensives measured 33 feet high and eight feet thick. There were 47 towers and eight gates along its nearly two mile length. In 1804, the Austrians ordered the destruction of the medieval fortification. St. Florian’s Gate and three neighboring towers were spared. This Gothic tower was once the main gate into Kraków. As the start of the Royal Road used during major processions, it earned the colloquial name of Gate of Glory. Brama Floriańska was built in 1307 and stands 113 feet. The colorful bas-relief in the center depicts Saint Florian. He was martyred in 304 AD during the persecution of Christians by Roman Emperor Diocletian.

Brama Floriańska, Floriańska, 31-019 Kraków, Poland
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11 The Barbican in Kraków, Poland

Another surviving element from when Kraków was a walled-in city is The Barbican. Middle Age residents referred to it as Rondel meaning saucepan. This guard post was built as an outer defense for the Florian Gate in 1498. The two structures were connected by a brick passage called The Neck. The cylindrical blockhouse has seven turrets and 130 embrasures (arrow slits). Also notice the row of machicolations. Defending soldiers used these wall openings to pour hot oil on their enemy. The military structure also has a drawbridge over a 98 foot wide moat. This red brick defense is considered to be the best example of a barbican in Europe. During tourist season, there are frequent jousting tournaments and medieval festivals at Barbakan Krakowski.

Kraków Barbican, Basztowa, 30-547 Kraków, Poland
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12 Church of St. Anne in Kraków, Poland

Church of St. Anne began in the late 14th century. In 1418, it became associated with Kraków Academy. The school evolved into Jagiellonian University. This remains its collegiate church. The current Latin cross structure was designed by Tylman van Gameren and finished in 1703. The façade features two bell towers. Flanking the broken pediment are decorative vases and statues of Saint Kazimierz and Saint Floriana in the niches. In the center is the Madonna with Child. Above it is a triangle representing the Holy Trinity. The interior is incredible, among the best examples of Baroque architecture in Europe. Within the nave and six side chapels is a stunning array of fluted pilasters, countless statues and bas-relief decorations, religious art and celling murals. The Roman Catholic church is dedicated to Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary.

Świętej Anny 12, 33-332 Kraków, Poland
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13 Collegium Novum of Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland

In 1364, Pope Urban V granted a royal charter to Casimir III the Great, the King of Poland from 1333 until 1370, to establish a university in Kraków. The highly-rated Jagiellonian University now educates over 43,000 undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral students. It is the second oldest university in Central Europe. This handsome Neo-Gothic structure is Collegium Novum, the university’s main building. It was created by architect Feliks Księżarski and finished in 1887 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the school’s founding. The design is similar to Collegium Maius, a campus building from the late 14th century.

Gołębia 24, 31-007 Kraków, Poland
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14 Basilica of Holy Trinity in Kraków, Poland

While the Bishop of Kraków during the 1220s, Iwo Odrowąż founded several churches in Poland. Part of his legacy was inviting the Dominicans from Bologna, Italy, to the city to establish the Church of the Holy Trinity. The interior is lined with guild chapels and mausoleums from the Renaissance period. Among the crypts are one for Bishop Odrowąż and Leszek II the Black, the High Duke of Poland from 1279 until 1288. After a fire in 1850, the Gothic basilica and Dominican monastery were rebuilt and finished in 1898. The façade is noteworthy for the coat of arms in the tall lancet niches plus the pinnacles accenting the stepped design.

Stolarska 12, 31-043 Kraków, Poland
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15 Saints Peter and Paul Church in Kraków, Poland

In 1597, Sigismund III, the King of Poland from 1587 until 1632, gave money to the Jesuits to build Saints Peter and Paul Church. Three successive architects were employed before Poland’s first Baroque building was finished. The results are stunning. The two-tier, dolomite façade is graced with Corinthian capitals, dentil molding and statues of Jesuit saints in the niches. In the center is the Christogram of the Society of Jesus. In the top pediment is the coat of arms of King Sigismund. Equally impressive are the life-size sculptures of the Twelve Apostles flanking the entrance gate. They are replicas of those created in limestone by Dawid Heel in 1722.

Grodzka 52A, 31-044 Kraków, Poland
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16 Saints Peter and Paul Church Organ in Kraków, Poland

The interior of Saints Peter and Paul Church is also worth seeing yet a bit austere contrasted to the exterior. At one end of the nave is a high altar beneath a semi-dome. In the center is a full dome with light radiating from the windows. At the other end is this pipe organ embellished with a crystal chandelier and golden cherubs. Saints Peter and Paul Church hosts spectacular classical concerts four nights a week from May through October. Typically featured is the Kraków Chamber Orchestra playing famous music from European master composers. Sometimes this magnificent organ is the only instrument.

Grodzka 52A, 31-044 Kraków, Poland
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17 Church of St. Andrew in Kraków, Poland

Watch for these twin towers crowned with green copper cupolas on Grodzka Street during your walking tour. This is the Church of St. Andrew, one of the oldest buildings in the historic district. It was founded by Palatine Sieciech during the late 11th century. He was a powerful, wealthy and sometimes unscrupulous count. As a consequence of his long enemy list, the church’s Romanesque design doubled as a fortress. During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic church was tagged as the “lower castle.” The stone façade and defenses successfully repelled an attack by the Mongols in 1241. In 1325, a monastery for the Order of Saint Clare was added. The Poor Clares were founded by Clare of Assisi and Francis of Assisi in 1212.

Grodzka 54, 31-044 Kraków, Poland
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18 Tempel Synagogue in Kraków, Poland

Prior to World War II, approximately 30% of Kraków’s population was Jewish. Tragically, about three million Polish Jews were brutally murdered during the Holocaust, including 200,000 from Kraków. Most of the 90 synagogues in Kraków were looted, destroyed and sometimes repurposed during the German occupation from September, 1939 until January, 1945. The current population of Jews in the city is now less than 1%. The Tempel Synagogue is one of only four active synagogues. The Moorish Revival structure was built in 1862. Synagoga Tempel was used as an ammunition depot during the war. Some repairs were made to this religious heritage site after Kraków was liberated by the Soviets. An extensive renovation to its former grandeur occurred over fifty years later. The interior is magnificent.

Miodowa 24, 31-056 Kraków, Poland
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19 Wawel Royal Castle on Wawel Hill in Kraków, Poland

Mieszko I was ruler of the Polans from 960 until 992. During his reign over territories that would later become Poland, he selected a 15-acre limestone outcrop along the Vistula river to build his residence. For nearly 600 years, the elevated site evolved into a large, fortified complex including Wawel Cathedral and Wawel Royal Castle. Wawel Hill was the location for subsequent Polish kings and the center of political power until the capital was moved to Warsaw in 1569. Wawel Royal Castle is an architectural history book of Poland. Each section has a fascinating story. This is the eastern approach. The structures seen above the massive curtainwall are, left to right: Jordan Tower, Danish Tower, Hen’s Foot and Sigismund Vasa’s Tower. They represent nearly 250 years of additions to the castle from the reign of Władysław II Jagiełło (1377 – 1434) through Sigismund III Vasa (1587 – 1632).

Wawel Royal Castle, Wawel 5, 31-001 Kraków, Poland
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20 Pope John Paul II’s Life in Kraków, Poland

Karol Józef Wojtyła was born in Wadowice, Poland in 1920. He attended Jagiellonian University in Kraków until the school was closed by the Nazis in 1939. After struggling to survive during WWII, he began studying for the priesthood at a clandestine seminary in Bishop’s Palace. He narrowly escaped the German roundup of 8,000 young men during Black Sunday in 1944. After the city was liberated, he and other students restored this pre-war seminary. He was ordained in 1946, taught for a while at Jagiellonian University, became Auxiliary Bishop of Kraków in 1958 and Pope John Paul II twenty years later. This 1902 building across from Wawel Cathedral is the Major Seminary of the Archdiocese of Crakow.

Podzamcze 8, 31-003 Kraków, Poland
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21 Introduction to Wawel Cathedral in Kraków, Poland

Almost immediately after Kraków was designated as a diocese in 1000 AD, the first cathedral was built on Wawel Hill. It was replaced with a stone basilica in 1142. Some of the 12th century structure still exists. After a significant fire in 1305, nearly 60 years of construction resulted in the current Wawel Cathedral. This magnificent Gothic edifice evolved for the next 300 years until 19 chapels were added. For centuries, kings commissioned a new chapel at the start of their reign to be there mausoleum. In total, 45 Polish rulers are interred here plus bishops and national heroes. The sarcophaguses and interior were beautified by master artists and sculptors. Marble, stained-glass and gold abound. Starting in 1037, nearly every Polish monarch was coronated in the cathedral. This is also where Father Karol Wojtyła said his first mass in 1946. Then he served at Wawel Cathedral while Archbishop of Kraków from 1963 until he became Pope John Paul II in 1978. Let’s walk around the foundation of the cathedral.

Wawel Cathedral, Wawel 3, 31-001 Kraków, Poland
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22 Sigismund Tower at Wawel Cathedral in Kraków, Poland

Sigismund Tower was constructed in the 15th century, elevated in the 16th and capped with a copper dome in 1899. This is one of the most famous belfries in Poland. Inside are four small bells named Urban (1364), Cardinal (1455), Stanislaw (1463) and Wacław (1460). The fifth is the Royal Sigismund Bell. This enormous bronze bell forged in 1520 is over 15 feet tall, eight feet wide and weighs more than 14 tons. A dozen men are required to make the Dzwon Zygmunta toll. In the foreground is the Tadeusz Kościuszko Monument. During the American Revolution, this Polish engineer helped build fortifications against the British in Philadelphia, West Point and for the Battle of Saratoga. At the end of the 18th century, he was a revolutionary leader in Poland against Russia and Prussia. The equestrian statue was created by Leonard Marconi in 1900. After the original was destroyed by the Nazis during WWII, this replica was erected in 1960.

Wawel Cathedral, Wawel 3, 31-001 Kraków, Poland
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23 Clock and Silver Bells’ Towers at Wawel Cathedral in Kraków, Poland

Wawel Cathedral’s main gate is at the west end. You will first encounter Trinity Chapel (Queen Sophia’s Chapel) on the left and the Chapel of the Holy Cross (Jagiellon Chapel) on the right. Soaring above them is the Clock Tower. Although construction began in the late 14th century, Wieża Zegarowa was not finished until 1522. The dome was added in 1715. The tower has been fitted with four versions of the Great Clock … in 1519, 1602, 1681 and the current one in 1899. You will enjoy hearing the gong every quarter hour. Also notice the brick Silver Bell’s Tower. Wieża Srebrnych Dzwonów may seem less significant based on size. Yet sections date back to the early 1100s, qualifying it as the cathedral’s oldest tower.

Wawel Cathedral, Wawel 3, 31-001 Kraków, Poland
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24 Sigismund Chapel at Wawel Cathedral in Kraków, Poland

When you turn the corner to the main square in front of Wawel Cathedral, your eyes are attracted to the gilded dome of Sigismund Chapel. Kaplica Zygmuntowska is one of the finest examples of Italian Renaissance architecture in Europe. It was created during the elaborate expansion of Wawel Cathedral and Castle in the 16th century. Inside are the opulent tombs of Sigismund I the Old (reign 1506 – 1548), his son Sigismund II (1548 – 1572) and daughter Anna Jagiellon, the Queen of Poland from 1575 – 1587. The interior is embellished with intricate reliefs, marble statues of saints, busts of kings, religious paintings and a silver altarpiece.

Wawel Cathedral, Wawel 3, 31-001 Kraków, Poland
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25 Vasa Chapel at Wawel Cathedral in Kraków, Poland

Next to Sigismund Chapel (and with a similar design) is the Vasa Chapel, also named the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception. This was commissioned to be a mausoleum for members of Vasa. The House of Vasa was a royal family from Sweden founded in 1523. Through marriage, the lineage produced three Polish kings from 1587 through 1668. The Vasas’ Royal Chapel was finished in 1666. The façade has the Vasa coat of arms, plus those from the countries they ruled: Poland, Lithuania and Sweden.

Wawel Cathedral, Wawel 3, 31-001 Kraków, Poland
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26 Artist Painting Wawel Cathedral in Kraków, Poland

There are few places on earth where you can marvel at where over 1,000 years of a country’s royalty were crowned, ruled and buried. This spot in front of Wawel Cathedral and the adjacent Wawel Royal Castle represents the history of Poland from the Middle Ages, through the Renaissance and into modern times. You have not visited Kraków unless you have thoroughly explored these exemplary landmarks.

Wawel Cathedral, Wawel 3, 31-001 Kraków, Poland
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27 Renaissance Courtyard in Wawel Royal Castle in Kraków, Poland

You are standing in the majestic courtyard of Wawel Castle. The Renaissance square was commissioned by Sigismund I the Old during his reign from 1506 until 1548. Imagine the royal processions, tournaments and pageantry held here for centuries. Behind these colonnades were the residential wings. Members of the court lived on the first floor and the royal families occupied the second. The piano nobile (principal floor) was the third level with the state apartments. Wawel Royal Castle offers five separate tours. They are: State Rooms, Royal Private Apartments, Crown Treasury plus Armory, Oriental Art and Lost Wawel. If you are short on time, purchase a ticket for the first two.

Wawel Royal Castle, Wawel 5, 31-001 Kraków, Poland
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