The extensive cultural heritage across the epochs of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture makes Kraków the most popular city in Poland and one of the most visited places in Europe.
Kraków – the second-largest city in Poland – possesses the richest complex of historical monuments in the country. 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, it’s Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Planning to travel to Poland? In this article, you will find useful information about what to see and do in Kraków.
Where is Kraków?
Kraków is located in southern Poland, at the intersection of three geographical regions: Lesser Polish Uplands in the northeast, Polish Jurassic Highland in the northwest and Western Carpathian Foothills in the south.
Historical facts about Kraków
- The first traces of human settlement in the present-day area of Kraków date back to the Stone Age.
- The city was first mentioned by Ibrahim ibn Yaqub, a Jewish envoy of the Caliph of Spain, in 965.
- In 1257, Bolesław the Chaste, High Duke of Poland, granted Kraków a municipal charter.
- From the 11th to 16th centuries, the city was Poland’s capital.
- In the year 2000, Kraków was the European City of Culture.
Top sights in Kraków
Wawel Royal Castle (A UNESCO World Heritage Site)
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 Kraków 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 Kraków
Wawel Cathedral (A UNESCO World Heritage Site)
The Wawel Cathedral (Katedra na 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. Władysław 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 Kraków
The Gothic Basilica of St. Mary (A UNESCO World Heritage Site)
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 Kraków
The Renaissance Cloth Hall (A UNESCO World Heritage Site)
The Cloth Hall is the most famous medieval trading hall in Poland. The Gothic building was built in 1380–1400, integrating the stalls where 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 główny 3, 31-042 Kraków
The Baroque Church of Sts. Peter and Paul (A UNESCO World Heritage Site)
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 Bażanka in 1712–1715.
Address: ul. Grodzka 52a, 31-044 Kraków
The Jagiellonian University (A UNESCO World Heritage Site)
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 (15 Jagiellońska Street), is the oldest building of the University.
Address: Gołębia Street, 24, 31-007 Kraków
Juliusz Słowacki Theatre (A UNESCO World Heritage Site)
Juliusz Słowacki 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 Kraków. 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 Kraków
St. Florian Gate (A UNESCO World Heritage Site)
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 św. Floriańska), dating from the 14th century, and three the 15th-century towers survived.
Address: Floriańska Street, 31-015 Kraków
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 Kraków.
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 “Kraków 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 Kraków
The 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 Kraków’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 Kraków, 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.
Without a doubt, Kraków is one of the most popular destinations in Europe. So interesting, so historical, so beautiful!
The architecture and buildings are breathtaking especially the churches. The city is an amazing space to be in and which draws you back with wonder at any time of day or evening.
I spent a wonderful week in Kraków visiting museums, palaces, small and large churches, riding trams and just hanging out in the Old Town. Highly recommend it!
I hope you enjoyed my guide on what to see and do in Kraków! Please share it with your friends on your social media. Here are a few more informative and interesting articles that I recommend you read next:
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Have you been to Kraków? Feel free to post a comment below.