Krakow Travel Dairy - Places of Interest and Attractions
Updated: Oct 23, 2021
View of Main Market Square and St Mary’s Basilica from the rooftop cafe of Sukiennice
It is impossible to separate the history of a place from the place itself! It is what creates the fabric – the feel, the colour and the soul of that place. When you talk about Poland, it becomes even more obvious that its history shapes how we witness it today. So, though it can be tempting to just jump straight the to key attractions, it is imperative that we give a thought to how it became what it is today.
Legend goes that as the Slavic tribe was growing in numbers, they needed more resources and space, so the legendary patriarchs, the three brothers Lech, Czech and Rus decided to spread out further as three tribes.
After a long and hard journey, Rus decided to have his tribe settle down on the plains (Russia). Lech and Czech carried on towards the sun. Czech was mesmerized by the beauty of the setting sun on the mountains and decided to settle there (Slovakia and Czech Republic). Lech continued with his tribe further north into fertile lands and was awed by the sight of a magnificent eagle landing on her nest against the backdrop of the red sky (the Polish flag today). Taking this as a good omen, he decided to settle on these lands. His people called themselves the Polonians, meaning the people of the field. Another variation to this legend is that the three brothers followed different preys during hunting and Rus went east, Czech went west, and Lech went north. Well, legends are legends but who doesn’t love a bit of tales!
Legends aside, Poland is indeed thought to been created from Slavic settlements. The Slavs originated from the Indo Europeans who migrated from their homeland in central Europe in response to the weakening Roman empire.
From initial settlements of the pagan Slavs known as the ‘Vistulans’ to more organized hierarchy, the history of the land evolved from the paganist ways to Christianity. The Kingdom of Poland was created under the Piast dynasty in the 10th century. Kraków became the capital of Poland, with Wawel Royal Castle becoming the residence of Polish kings. Following the invasions from the Mongols in the 13th century, the city was surrounded by 3 kilometres of defensive walls, towers and gates which continued to be upgraded over the next few centuries. Kraków flourished under the rule of Kazimierz the Great, who founded the Kraków Academy, now known as Jagiellonian University – one of the oldest universities in Europe. Prosperity continued during the joint Polish-Lithuanian Jagiełło dynasty and artists and scientists arrived from Renaissance Italy and Germany creating some fine examples of Renaissance architecture. With the establishment of the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania in the 16th century, the capital was moved to Warsaw to be closer to the centre of the combined country. Poland was the largest state in Europe with a formidable army. However, from the 18th century, the period of partitions began and parts of Poland got partitioned off and absorbed among the empires of Russia, Prussia, and Austria making it vanish from the face of the world map for 123 years!
Kraków, also spelled Cracow, is situated in southern Poland, lying on both sides of the upper Vistula River.
Top attractions of Krakow:
the only existing gate of the fortify old town - the Barbican
Barbican and defensive walls
With the growing importance of Krakow, there was need to fortify and defend the city from potential invaders. The Old Town and Wawel Hill was subsequently enclosed in more than 2 miles of fortifications with approximately 50 tower outposts and 8 heavily guarded gates.
The Barbican was built as an outpost at the end of the 15th century to protect Kraków's main entrance and was connected to the Floriańska Gate (St. Florian's Gate) via a drawbridge over the semi-circular moat that surrounded it. The moat which was approximately 26m wide and about 6m deep has been now filled and converted to Planty Park.
The Barbican was approximately 25m in diameter and 3m thick wall (though the thickness varies from 1.5 to 3.5 in different parts). The Barbican had 4 floors of shooting holes arranged alternately in chessboard layout. The lower levels were meant for heavier weapons, and the upper for hand-operated firearms.
In the 14th century there were 17 towers around Kracow. These didn’t have a military purpose and were used by craftsmen guilds, from which the towers took their names. Throughout the Planty Park you will see monuments in recognition of the craftsmen that occupied the towers at that spot.
Legend has it that local resident Marcin Oracewicz defended Krakow from the Russians by shooting their commander dead with a coat button from his position within the Barbican. Oracewicz's monument can be seen outside the Celestat Museum.
St Florian's Gate (Florianska Gate)
Constructed in the 14th century, the Florianska Gate, the most important of the city's eight medieval gates, marked the entry point for royal processions into the city en route to Wawel Castle.
This 34.5m tall Gothic gateway tower with a Baroque top, was once connected to the Barbican via drawbridge over the moat and is the one of the few remnants of the ancient circular defence fortification of the old town. There is a bas-relief of Saint Florian on the side facing Florianska Street.
The largest medieval town squares in Europe - The Main Market Square of Krakow old town
Main Market Square (Rynek Glowny)
The Main Market Square, like other European cities, sprawls out right in the heart of the city. It has existed since the 13th century and was recognized as World Heritage site in 1979 by UNESCO. It also happens to be largest medieval town squares in Europe!
Rows of shops selling gifts and souvenirs inside Sukiennice
Sukiennice (Cloth Hall)
Standing tall and proud in the centre of the square is the grand Cloth Hall or Sukiennice. Thanks to its location between Europe and Russia, Krakow had become a major trade hub of eastern Europe and by the 13th century merchants from the lands of Kievan Rus (modern day Kiev, Ukraine), modern day Lithuania, Hungary, Germany etc. came to trade. Though the term Sukiennice refers to cloth, other items like leather goods, wax, salt, peppers, spices, silk as well as lead and salt from the nearby Wieliczka mines were traded. The cloth halls were indeed international marketplaces, a league above the regular smaller and local markets during that time. They were organized typically with two rows of stone trading stalls with a thoroughfare running between them.
Though the cloth halls popped up in other Polish cities, such as Poznan, Wroclaw, and Torun, Sukiennice of Krakow is the oldest and the largest. Being such important centre of trade, it seemed logical to create a permanent covering over the two rows of stalls so that trade could continue irrespective of the weather. Therefore, a purpose-built Gothic style building was constructed in the mid-14th century after the nod of approval from King Kazimierz the Great, which skyrocketed Kraków’s importance as an east-west trading post.
However, in the 16th century, the Sukiennice was destroyed beyond repair by a major fire. Fortunately, a massive program was launched to redevelop and redesign the building. Today the Sukiennice is a fine example of Renaissance architecture. The Renaissance facelift was carried out by master Italian sculptors, Jan Maria Padovano and Santi Gucci, who created the eye catching ‘deformed’ gargoyles, grotesque stylised human heads, called mascarons on the façade of the building. The main hall was divided into two storeys.
However, as stories from the past go, once Krakow lost its status to Warsaw as the royal capital of Poland, it entered into a period of decline that lasted over three centuries. Under the Austrian rule in 19th century, it was restored to its former glory. The interior of the ground floor was converted into a series of wooden stalls and the first floor saw the creation of the first Polish National Museum. The exterior was transformed with gorgeous shades of ochre and red. The work continued into the 21st century and other amenities like lifts, air-conditioning etc were added.
Today on the ground floor Sukiennice you will find various handicrafts, amber, sheep skin products, jewellery, traditional clothes for kids.
Exhibitions from the underground museum at Sukiennice (Cloth Hall)
It also houses the modern and hi-tech underground museum 4 metres under the surface of the market square to explore the recently excavated archaeological site. It is recommended to buy tickets in advance, however as we travelled during the ‘pandemic’ era we were able to buy tickets at the time of the visit from the information office.
It is incredible that this museum so seamlessly integrates technology to demonstrate history. It is stimulating for both kids and adults as you experience Krakow’s history before the marketplace came into existence through a series of films bringing to life the life that existed then. You can easily spend hours going through the good collection of artefacts and documentaries.
There is the customary café and souvenir shop at the end of the museum. We decided to skip both and head straight to the Polish Art Gallery which unfortunately was closed to due repair works. So, we headed to Cafe Szal overlooking the square below and St. Mary’s Basilica opposite. We enjoyed some leisurely coffee and people watching before we headed to the Town Hall Tower.
Gothic style Krakow town hall tower and exhibits of medieval costumes
Town Hall Tower (Wieza Ratuszowa)
One of the most iconic symbols of Krakow, this 70-75m tall Gothic-styled red brick tower stands on the western side of Main Market Square. It is the only surviving part of the Krakow Town Hall which was built during the 14th century as an administrative hub, but under the Austrian Partition of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth demolished in the 19th century. Only the tower survived following public protests. It is also known as Kraków's 'leaning tower,' and is believed to lean around 50cm apparently caused by very strong winds.
The main entrance is guarded by two lions made of stone and once you enter you have a flight of steep and narrow 110 steps. It is a museum now and you can see the machinery of the old clock tower, collection of medieval costumes and historic photographs that show how the city has evolved. There are tiny windows on the walls which give a sneak peak of the surroundings.
Overall, this is a nice place if you love Gothic architecture and have stamina and agility to climb the narrow and steep stairs.
The tow towers of St Mary’s Basilica with different height and design
St Mary’s Basilica (Kościół Mariacki)
The impressive basilica was originally built in the 13th century but was destroyed after the Tartar raids. It was rebuilt in Gothic style in the 14th century. The two towers are of different heights and the legend has it that the towers were built by two brothers, and one got jealous of the height of the other and murdered his brother with a knife. But later took his own life with the same knife on the tower.
Inside of St Mary’s Basilica
Altarpiece from St Mary’s Basilica
The basilica holds the most magnificent interior altarpiece carved from wood by Viet Stoss in a three-panel design. It happens to be the largest Gothic altarpiece in the world at being 10m wide and 12m feet tall and took over a decade to complete. The basilica boasts of ornately decorated and colourful interiors and stained-glass windows.
Details hand painting work and glass murals of St Mary’s Basilica
Every hour of the day, from the 80m high north tower, a trumpeter plays a tune called the ‘hejnal mariacki’, a melody which stops abruptly midstream in memory of the legendary bugler who was killed by Mongols as he warned the city of their attack.
Tourists are required to enter from the side entrance, after purchasing tickets from a building across the tourist entrance.
Public path in Planty Park
Where the Planty Park sits today was once the moats in the defensive fortifications. During Austrian occupation the moats were filled, the walls and the towers were demolished, with exceptions of the Floriańska Gate (St. Florian's Gate) and the Barbican. This was due to the deterioration of the structures and moats filling up with stagnant water and filth. Though it feels unfortunate that such invaluable and tangible parts of history were lost, the park does provide a long circuit of luscious green space with trees, flowerbeds, fountains and ponds, benches and historic monuments in recognition of the craftsmen that occupied the towers at that spot. The Park is extremely popular with locals and tourists.
The writing says - In this place, within the defensive walls of Kraków, there was a gravediggers' tower
The writing says - In this place, within the defensive walls of Kraków, there was a tower of vendors, sadelniks, elephants
Wawel Royal Castle and Wawel Cathedral
At the end of Grodzka Street emerges the view of the impressive Wavel Castle on the Wawel Hill. This and adjoining Wawel Cathedral, was the first designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Polish monarchs resided in the Royal Castle and buried in the Wawel Cathedral. The architecture represents medieval styles along with the Romanesque, the Renaissance and the Baroque,
Dating back to the 14th century during the reign of King Casimir III, the castle complex was built at an altitude of 228 metres above sea level, on the left bank of the Vistula river. It consists of a number of buildings from different periods around a main courtyard.
Tapestries from Wawel Royal Castle
On display in numerous stately rooms over two floors are priceless tapestries which have their own unique story. The last Polish king of the Jagiellonian dynasty, Sigismund II Augustus was born in Wawel Royal Castle in the 16th century. He grew up in the castle and over a period of a decade, commissioned 160 magnificent tapestries from Brussels to adorn the walls of the castle. Of the original 160 tapestries, apparently 137 survived. These depicted either biblical scenes, different animals including unicorns, grotesque decorations around the King’s initials (SA),
16th century tapestries from Brussels
After Sigismund’s death, the tapestries became the property of the Polish crown and were often used for coronations, royal weddings and important ceremonies, both at the castle and in the cathedral.
After the third and final partition of Poland in the 18th century, and the country’s disappearance from the map of Europe the tapestries were brought to Russia. However, after the treaty of Riga signed in March 1921, the tapestries in Russia were returned to Poland over a period of 7 years. However soon after in 1939 after the Nazi invasion of Poland, the national treasures of Poland including the Wawel tapestries, were evacuated by the chief curator at Wawel, Stanisław Świerz-Zaleski, and the architect Józef Krzywda-Polkowski who organised their transportation via the river Vistula, to Kazimierz to Romania and then shipped through Malta and Genoa and across France to the United Kingdom. From here they transported to Canada and stored at the National Archives in Ottawa. They remained there for the duration of the war, under the guardianship of Zaleski and Polkowski. The tapestries finally made their way to their homeland in Poland after the war. It is indeed an incredible story of survival of priceless art for the generations to come. The restoration work on the damaged areas is done with great skill and care and the methods are at display at the castle.
Ottoman Turkish tents at display in Wawel Royal Castle
There is also an exhibition of Oriental art in the western wing where the Ottoman Turkish tents are at display. The artefacts exhibited depict the growing influence from the military and trade contacts of Poland with Near East countries, and art works from Turkey, the Crimea, the Caucasus and Iran made their way into Poland. In particular, carpets, silks, tapestries, weapons and armoury, ceremonial horse saddles and equestrian equipment. There is a massive display of vibrant Turkish tents, which became very popular among the Polish nobility due to their ease of installation and dismantling as well as aesthetic beauty. There are also exhibits of trophies, banners, weapons and other artefacts captured during King Jan Sobieski III's famous victory over the Turkish army at Vienna Siege in 1683, including Ottoman commander Kara Mustapha Para's sabre.
Display of Ottoman Turkish weapons and armoury, ceremonial horse saddles
There are numerous permanent exhibitions at the castle, and you pay for what you want to see. Information in English was very limited at the ticket office. The Wavel cathedral is more than 900 years old and been the coronation site and burial ground of the Polish monarchs. It is less jaw dropping than the St. Mary’s Basilica.
Adjoining the southern wall of the cathedral is the Sigismund's Chapel, splendid with a golden dome, it houses the tombs of its founder King Sigismund II Augustus. It is believed to be one of the purest examples of Renaissance architecture outside of Italy.
You can climb the tower via 70 steps to see the Sigismund Bell (Dzwon Zygmunta) which is 2m high and 2.5m wide, and weighs 11 tonnes, making it the largest historic bell in Poland.
Streets and trendy cafes of Jews Quarter - Kazimierz
Authentic Israeli food at Hamas - Kazimierz
Kazimierz (Jewish Quarter)
The Jews started to settle in Krakow from the 12th century and Kazimierz was officially designated as a Jewish settlement from the 13th century onwards. Before World War II, about 64,000 Jews lived in Krakow. They mainly worked as bankers, merchants and craftsman. Most of the Jews that survived the war didn’t return to Krakow.
The 14th Century Church of Corpus Christi
Also located in Kazimirez is the massive Gothic style Church of Corpus Christi, from the 14th century. It was intended to be a monastery church, and hence the significant size and has a monastic cemetery next to it. The church was plundered and ruined by soldiers of the 1655 Swedish invasion and was later decorated in Baroque style.
Another spot to visit is the Plac Nowy (New Square) was previously referred to as Plac Żydowski (Jewish Square) as it was a Jewish market in the pre-war days with a round domed building serving as a kosher slaughterhouse until Nazi occupation. Today the fast-food windows lining the exterior sell 'zapiekanki,' whilst butcher shops exist inside.
Old shops and cafes as stood during and before the occupation
Stalls surrounding the roundhouse sell knick-knacks, antiques, and clothing. Old shops and cafes stand the way they did giving Kazimierz a distinct atmosphere which still exudes the way of life of the Jewish people. Walking around today, it’s a different feeling, with large murals adorning the walls, trendy cafes and restaurants lining the streets, but still exuding a past that cannot be forgotten.
Communism inspired streets and builds of Nowa Huta
We headed to different side of Krakow’s to the district of Nowa Huta. Soviet leader Stalin ordered its creation of this ‘model’ steel town in 1949. A factory town to produce steel for the Red Army, with a utilitarian and communist settlement, complete with self-contained housing blocks. This symmetrical settlement was meant to be self-contained with shops, services, school and day-care facilities etc so that residents didn’t need to leave their settlement. It was also meant to be defendable so the so apartment blocks were built like a fortress type of layout with gateways into central courtyards that could be protected by tanks.
Square within Nowa Huta where Lenin's statue once stood!
The town was meant to be named after Stalin who was much disliked in Poland and died before the town and steel plant was operational. It was subsequently dedicated to Lenin, but in 1989, protestors pulled down his statue. The spot is now marked by a bed of roses and the statue itself is apparently in Sweden.
Today the boulevards and lush green surroundings with trendy ice cream parlours give it a different feeling, but you cannot but notice the strong communist feel in the architecture and planning of the space.
The sculptures of the 12 apostles at the entrance of he church of St. Peter and St. Paul
Church of St. Peter and St. Paul
The church of St. Peter and St. Paul is believed to be the first ever Baroque-style construction built by Italian architects in Poland built in the late 16th century. In front wall of the Church is adorned by replicas of the original sculptures of the 12 apostles and beautiful metalwork. This makes a very distinguishing front. Also, you cannot help but notice that the church is covered with Italian marble, a departure from the typical red-brick finish. On the inside, a wide single nave leads to the high altar in Baroque style. The two aisles on the sides contain a number of chapels. The stucco decorations depict scenes in the lives of the apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul.
Inside of he church of St. Peter and St. Paul
In the Crypt below the church floor is the sarcophagus of King Sigismund III’s priest, Piotr Skarga; also significant figure in the academic history of Poland. Due to its excellent acoustics, the church is also used as concert hall for classical music.
Gothic architecture of Cloister of the Dominican Fathers
Cloister of the Dominican Fathers (Basilica of the Holy Trinity)
Cloister of the Dominican Fathers is a splendid example of Gothic architecture in Krakow. The church and monastery were built in the mid-13th century by the Dominican friars from Bologna. Its founder and patron, Saint Hyacinth Odrowaz also known as ‘The Apostle of the North’, a much-honoured figure in Roman Catholicism is buried here. Various Polish noblemen have also been interred here over the years
The church suffered badly in the great fire of 1850 which is said to have destroyed 10 percent of the city of Krakow. The reconstruction was done in neo-Gothic style. The interiors are still splendid. A flight of stairs on the left side of the nave leads to the chapel where the monastery cell of Saint Hyacinth Odrowaz was once located. The church also houses the painting of Our Lady of the Rosary and is said to have healing powers. The painting was created in Rome and is said to be a copy of the Roman painting from the Church of Saint Mary Major. The festival of Our Lady of the Rosary is celebrated on October 8, while the feast day of St. Hyacinth falls on August 17.
The church remains home to a community of sixty Dominican friars, the largest house of the order in the world in numbers and is one of the most important places of worship.
A chapel with the miracle-making painting of Our Lady of the Rosary is adjacent to the right-side nave of the church. The painting was created in Rome and is a copy of the famous painting of Our Lady from the Church of Saint Mary Major in Rome. The Krakow painting was enhanced with the papal crowns in 1921.The festival of Our Lady of the Rosary is celebrated on October 8, while the feast day of St. Hyacinth falls on August 17.
Entrance to Camaldolese Monastery
Camaldolese Monastery (Klasztor Kamedułów) and Srebrna Góra Vineyard
A beautiful walk through the green forest takes you to this magnificent yet mysterious hermitage perched on the Srebrna Góra (Silver Mountain). Also known as the Silver Mountain Hermitage, it consists of hermitages and the Assumption of Mary Church.
The hermit order was introduced to Poland by Mikołaj Wolski, from Italy in early 17th century. The location provides the monks seclusion from chaos of the outside world. Each monk lives a secluded life in his hermitage, meeting other monks only for mass and prayers, and they gather for communal vegetarian meals only a few times a year. They talk to each other three times a week: on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. In the garden behind the church are 14 surviving hermitages where several monks live (others live in the building next to the church), but the area is off limits to visitors. The church and the monastery can only be visited in accordance with the unusually strict and severe rule of the order. Men are admitted throughout the year, when the doors open, while women are allowed on the premises only 12 days a year.
The monks wear hooded white robes and follow the principles ‘Ora et labora’ (‘Pray and work’) and ‘Memento Mori’ (‘Remember you must die’), apparently each hermitage has the skull of its predecessor. The vaults of the choir hold a chapel and a crypt in houses the remains of the deceased monks in niches (without coffins). Every 80-100 years, niches are opened, and the remains transferred to a communal grave, to make room for subsequent monks. It’s then that the hermits take the skulls to keep in their shelters. It is believed that there are less than 60 Camaldolese monks in the world today.
Srebrna Góra Vineyard and the statue of St. Martin of Tours
Srebrna Góra Vineyard
The picturesque and somewhat ‘secretive’ Srebrna Góra (Silver Mountain) Vineyard sits at the foot of the Camaldolese Hermit Monastery and shielded by the Wolski Forest. The Srebrna Góra Vineyard in Bielany is one of the two 14-hectare sites of the vineyard, the other being in nearby Przegorzały. It was founded in 2008 and is home to white grapes like Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Seyval Blanc, Solaris, Hibernal, Johanniter and red ones like Pinot Noir, Zweigelt, Acolon, Regent, Rondo, Cabernet Cortis. The wines are created in the old farm buildings of the Camaldolese Monastery.
In the vineyard is the statue of St. Martin of Tours, the patron saint of wine growers and every year the Srebrna Góra Vineyard also produces a young wine at the end of the harvest in recognition of the patron. The vineyard invites wine lovers to explore the vineyard and offers wine-tasting sessions.
Sunset over Kościuszko Mound
The Kościuszko Mound was built on top of the Bronislawa Hill in the western part of the Zwierzniec District to honour Tadeusz Kościuszko, the much loved and revered hero of the American Revolutionary War and the famous defender of Poland’s independence. Not only was the mound funded by the Polish people, the work was done by volunteers and the soil for the mound was brought by people from all over the country. It took 3 years to build the mound and unlike the other historical mounds in Poland this has a circular winding pathway leading to the top where there is a granite boulder with Tadeusz Kosciuszko’s inscribed and the Polish flag flies high. Views of the city from this is 34m mound high are breath-taking and on clear days they say you can even see the Tatra Mountains
Next to the mound is a hi-tech museum that displays artifacts relating to Kościuszko. The surrounding fortifications can also be walked upon, a number of historical exhibits on Kościuszko’s life can be found inside. The Chapel of St. Bronisława also holds a number of items relating to the Polish hero’s life.
Hand painted pieces of Polish pottery
Polish Pottery is hand crafted in the small town of Boleslawiec in Lower Silesia, where clay deposits were discovered in the Middle Ages. Boleslawiec pottery continues to symbolize ‘Poland’ to the outside world.
The first ceramics were characterized by the brown lead glaze and slowly evolved into distinct styles and today’s iconic blue-on-white patterns. With the use of cut sponges and brushes, more creative motifs inspired by the Art Nouveau (German artistic movement) style started being made. Circles, scales, flowers, dots and clovers etc. were painted in bright colours which gave the pottery their signature ‘country’ look. One of the most distinctive patterns is the peacock’s eye or Pfauenauge.
Typically, the pieces are usually hand thrown, or shaped with the use of moulds. The decorative patterns are stamped and or painted onto the pottery before firing and glazed twice by hand. Pieces that are handmade like this usually have trademark of the workshop stamped on the base of every piece produced by that workshop. Today Boleslawiec pottery is collected and used by people around the world. These are chip-resistant, oven-proof, dishwasher and microwave-safe, and can be used in refrigerators