The extensive cultural heritage across the epochs of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture makes Krakow the most popular city in Poland and one of the most visited places in Europe.
Krakow (Kraków) – the second-largest city in the country – possesses the richest complex of historical monuments in Poland. Between the 11th and 18th centuries, it was the seat of Polish and Lithuanian monarchs, and until this day has remained the treasure trove of national tradition and the center of culture. In 1978, the Old Town of Krakow has declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The daily and artistic life of Krakow takes place in streets and quarters full of historical monuments. Let’s explore the best things to do in the largest city in southern Poland.
1. Wawel Royal Castle
The Wawel Royal Castle (Zamek Królewski na Wawelu) is one of the most historically and culturally important sites in Poland. Today it houses a historic residence museum with over 70 exhibition rooms.
The earliest part of the Gothic structure was built between the 11th and 12th centuries. Prince Casimir I the Restorer (1016–1058) was the first Polish ruler to choose the Wawel Castle as his permanent residence.
During the reign of Jadwiga, the first female monarch of the Kingdom of Poland, and Jogaila, Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland, the castle was enlarged and two towers – the “Danish Tower” and the “Hen’s Foot” – were built on Wawel Hill.
In the 16th century, Sigismund I the Old, Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland, invited to Krakow the best local and foreign craftsmen, including Italian architects and sculptors, as well as German decorators, who converted the castle into a Renaissance palace.
Address: Wawel 5, 31-001 Krakow
2. Wawel Cathedral
The Wawel Cathedral (Katedra a Wawelu) is a proud symbol of Poland’s religious heritage and political power. From the 14th to 18th centuries, it was the main ceremonial place for coronations, weddings, and funerals of Polish and Lithuanian royalty. Wladyslaw the Short was the first Polish King to be crowned (1320) and also the first ruler of Poland to be buried (1333) in the temple.
Architecturally, the Cathedral is a brick and stone basilica with a transept and ambulatory lined with chapels. As the rulers added additional burial resting places, the building was expanded and rebuilt many times.
Address: Wawel 3, 31-001 Krakow
3. Gothic Basilica of St. Mary
The Church of St. Mary (Kościół Mariacki) is an aisled Gothic basilica with a transept, completed before 1320. Two towers rise above the façade of the church on the Market Square side, the taller of which is called the Bugle Call Tower – it is 80 meters (262 feet) high and is topped with a late-Gothic cupola from 1478.
You can hear a solitary bugle call from the taller tower at the beginning of each hour. In summer, visitors can climb to the observation deck of this tower. The deck offers stunning views of the city.
Address: Plac Mariacki 5, 31–042 Krakow
4. Renaissance Cloth Hall
The Cloth Hall is the most famous medieval trading hall in Poland. The Gothic building was built in 1380–1400, integrating the stalls where the imported cloth had been traded before. In 1555, the Cloth Hall burn down. In the years 1556–1559, the building was reconstructed, given a Renaissance appearance, and crowned with a parapet featuring a row of mascarons designed by the Italian architect Santi Gucci.
The Gallery of 19th-Century Polish Art is housed on the upper floor of the Cloth Hall.
Address: Rynek glowny 3, 31-042 Krakow
5. Baroque Church of Sts. Peter and Paul
The Jesuit Church of Sts. Peter and Paul was the first Baroque temple built in Poland. Modeled on the highly theatrical architectural style of the churches in Rome, it was erected in 1597–1633 under the supervision of the Italian architects Giovanni Maria Bernardoni and Giovanni Battista Trevano.
The decorative fence with the figures of the Apostles was designed by the Polish architect Kacper Bazanka in 1712–1715.
Address: ul. Grodzka 52a, 31-044 Krakow
6. Jagiellonian University
The Jagiellonian University is the second oldest university in Eastern Europe, after Charles University in Prague, Czechia.
Founded by the Polish King Casimir III the Great in 1364, it was re-established by Jogaila, Lithuanian Grand Duke and Polish King, thanks to a bequest made by his wife, Queen Jadwiga, in 1400. Collegium Maius at 15 Jagiellonska Street is the oldest building of the University.
Address: Gołębia Street, 24, 31-007 Krakow
7. Juliusz Slowacki Theatre
Juliusz Slowacki Theatre (Teatr im. Juliusza Słowackiego), erected in 1891–1893 following the design of the Polish architect Jan Zawiejski, is one of the historical landmarks in Krakow. It has an eclectic architectural style with a predominance of Neo-Baroque.
The theatre was the first building in the city that had electric lighting.
Address: Plac Świętego Ducha 1, 31-023 Krakow
8. St. Florian Gate
A double ring of walls and several dozen towers, that originally surrounded the town, were constructed in the Middle Ages.
In the first half of the 19th century, the fortifications were badly pulled down and only St. Florian Gate (Brama sw. Florianska), dating from the 14th century, and three of the 15th-century towers survived.
Address: Floriańska Street, 31-015 Krakow
9. Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory
Oskar Schindler (1908-1974) was a Sudeten German, a member of the Nazi party NSDAP, and an agent of the German military intelligence service for the Wehrmacht from 1920 to 1945. He is credited with saving as many as 1200 Jews from death in the Nazi labor camps by employing them in his enamel factory at Lipowa Street in Krakow.
The story was made famous by Schindler’s List, the 1993 Steven Spielberg film adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s 1982 historical fiction novel.
Nowadays, the former factory houses a permanent exhibition “Krakow under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945”, which is one of the most interesting exhibitions to visit when in the city.
Address: 4 Lipowa Street, 30-702 Krakow
10. Banks of the Vistula River
Weaving through the city and stretching 1,047 km (651 mi), the Vistula is the longest, largest, and most famous river in Poland. An important trade route through Krakow’s history, there are plenty of important cultural landmarks dotted along the riverside.
You can take a stroll along the banks – there are almost 20 bridges over the river in Krakow, so you are guaranteed a few good views as you cross. There is also a possibility to drift down the Vistula on board a river cruise.
Krakow – the capital of the Lesser Poland Province – is located on the banks of the Vistula River in the south of Poland around 250 km (155 mi) southwest of Warsaw. It has a longitudinal length of 18 km (11 mi) and a latitudinal length of 31 km (19 mi).
I have been to Krakow twice. The city is extraordinarily beautiful both with its historic buildings and hilly landscape. Of course, like all cities, Krakow is incomparably cozier in summer, when a warm breeze pleasantly touches your face, when you can sit on a park bench or drink delicious coffee or tea in an outdoor cafe in the Old Town. But winter also has its advantages: fewer people in the streets, fewer visitors to museums, churches and the castle, which means more convenience for you as a tourist.
I hope you enjoyed my 10 best things to do in Krakow post. If you like European cities with a unique atmosphere and historical heritage, here are a few more posts that I recommend you read next:
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