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Krakow, Poland

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Did You Know … ?

  • The 1993 epic, “Schindler’s List,” was filmed on location in Krakow’s Kazimierz district.
  • Pope John Paul II was born near Krakow, in Wadowice (1920).
  • The Nazis wired Krakow for destruction; the resistance cut the wires.
  • Jagiellonian University houses Copernicus’ instruments.
  • Krakow boasts Europe’s largest market square (9.88 acres).

A Polish past saved

Sometimes it pays to live in the past — or at least examine it closely. A visit to Krakow is justification enough for that.

Sure, this city of nearly 800,000 is a bustling 21st century metropolis and home to tens of thousands students. As befits a university town, it encompasses a mix of high-brow culture, bohemian living and a nightlife that appeals to the young.

However, tourists are most attracted by the medieval Krakow, meaning Wawel Hill, site of a royal castle and cathedral for at least a thousand years; the Old Town at the foot of the hill, and the medieval Jewish quarter, Kazimierz.

By the mid-12th century, Krakow was effectively the capital of Poland, and much of the medieval city took shape in the following century. The street grid and gargantuan Market Square in the Old Town were laid out in 1257 and have remained essentially unchanged. The huge Cloth Hall, built in the square to accommodate cloth traders, also dates from this time. True to its original commercial purpose, Cloth Hall now houses souvenir and crafts stalls.

Thirteenth century planning also brought a new wall, gates and towers. Most of the 1.9-mile wall was knocked down in the 19th century and replaced with an oval-shaped park that encircles the Old Town.

Beginning in 1386, Krakow was the seat of an empire that spread across Poland, Lithuania and parts of Russia. In 1611 the centrally located Warsaw displaced this southern city as Poland’s capital.

Krakow’s heyday as an imperial seat explains why so many important churches, monasteries, palaces and university buildings were built here. It is the city’s good fortune — and ours — that so much of this architectural heritage also survived.

Even during World War II, Krakow was lucky to escape serious damage — although its Jewish population was no luckier than any other. Only 10% returned after the war. As they do in the Old Town, visitors look for the past in the medieval Kazimierz, visiting old synagogues and a cemetery with 400-year-old tombstones. But they also celebrate Jewish heritage in the present, at Kazimierz’s annual Jewish Cultural Festival.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Organize a self-propelled sightseeing jaunt on the Vistula River — i.e., rent a kayak.
  • Arrange with the priests at the Church of the Reformed Franciscans on Reformacka Street to visit the church’s crypt. Because of unique climatic conditions in the crypt, bodies there mummify on their own. The hundreds of bodies there make a compelling sight.
  • Time your visit to attend a rock concert at Krakow’s Rotunda.
  • Take a one- or two-day bike tour of Krakow and a few points outside the city. Or, tour the city in a Melex, which is a light-weight, battery-driven open car.
  • Set aside time for your sobering visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum on the site of a Nazi death camp.
  • Krakow celebrates the new year in its central Market Square with an all-night event including entertainers and a fireworks display. Be in attendance. On other evenings, in this city of university students, repair to one of the city’s cellars for your after-dark entertainment.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Attend the city’s Jewish Cultural Festival, held each summer in the Kazimierz district, once the Jewish quarter.
  • Spend a few hours on a sightseeing cruise on the Vistula River.
  • Get serious about the history here; devote time to your sightseeing in Market Square in Old Town and at the royal castle and cathedral on Wawel Hill. You can learn more with a guide, then spend time wandering on your own.
  • Buy the Krakow Tourist Card for free public transport, free entry into 32 museums and discounts on other activities.
  • Include a visit to the new museum under the city’s historic Market Square; it was built on the site of archaeological excavations that reveal some of the secrets of life in this square in the early Middle Ages.
  • Make a pilgrimage to Pope John Paul II’s hometown, Wadowice. See the church where he was baptized and visit his family’s home, now a museum.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Eat the so-called papal cream cake. It is, in fact, a cake called kremowka, a sweet remembered fondly by Pope John Paul II when he visited his home turf in 1999.
  • Attend a Passion play in nearby Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, plays for which the town is well known. The town’s Bernardine Monastery complex is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
  • No, not all churches look alike. Tour the 13th century Wieliczka salt mine and be awed by St. Kinga’s Chapel carved out of the salt there.
  • If visiting in summer, ride one of the city’s old horse-drawn omnibuses, Krakow’s first public transport vehicle. The omnibuses operate on a single route between the Barbican and Wawel Castle.
  • Buy uniquely Polish souvenirs in the large Cloth Hall on the Rynek Głowny, which is the medieval town square.
  • Krakow boasts it is Poland’s gourmet city. Ask your concierge for suggestions so you can test that claim.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Polish National Tourist Office at