Krakow, or Cracow, is Poland’s most popular city for tourists. It was the royal seat and capital of Poland for over five centuries and as a result the Old Town is packed with monuments, historic buildings, churches and grandiose architecture. It’s no wonder then that Krakow’s historical centre was entered on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1978.
Krakow is also known for its nightlife with a plethora of restaurants, bars and clubs, and the city is a popular choice for stag and hen parties. It gets particularly busy in summer, and since the Polish currency is still the Zloty, many visitors find Krakow comparatively cheap for a night out over other European cities.
Below are some of the top sights to see in Krakow. Most of them are located within the Old Town, so if you only have a short period of time in Krakow, these are the major attractions. Of course Krakow is a large city with 18 districts, so if you have more time it would be worth exploring further afield. Many visitors take day trips to Auschwitz and Wieliczka Salt Mine from here.
1. St. Mary’s Basilica
The interior of St.Mary’s Basilica in Krakow is one of those sights that makes you go ‘wow’. The church is ornately decorated with stained glass windows, blue ceilings and lots of gold, but the most impressive features is the exquisite wooden altarpiece carved by Veit Stoss. From outside, the 80 metre-tall Brick Gothic building dominates the market square and a bugle call rings out from the church on the hour, every hour.
2. Krakow’s Rynek Underground Museum
This ultra-modern archeological museum takes you on a journey through Krakow’s medieval past through a series of hands-on activities, holograms, interactive displays and touch screen monitors. Clearly a lot of money has been pumped into the project: on entering the museum you walk through a curtain of smoke, and there’s also a computer-generated puddle on the floor that ripples when you step on it. What’s so unique about this museum is that it is built 4 metres under the main market square, showing off the city’s foundations dating back to the early Middle Ages.
3. The Cloth Hall
The Cloth Hall or Sukiennice is an enormous building in the main market square that used to be the centre for Krakow’s trade. Dating right back to the 1300s, the Cloth Hall is possibly the world’s oldest shopping mall, and was a place where merchants would meet here to barter and discuss business. It now houses souvenir stalls selling trinkets, amber jewellery and traditional handicrafts.
4. St. Peter and Paul Church
Grodzka Street is one of Krakow’s oldest streets and connects the Main Market Square with Wawel Royal Castle. Along the street you’ll find the Baroque Jesuit Church of St. Peter and Paul with its unmissable figures of the twelve apostles lining the gate.
5. St. Andrew’s Church
Across the road from St. Peter and Pauls Church is the older St. Andrew’s Church, which dates back to the 11th century and is the finest example of Romanesque architecture in Krakow.
6. Kanonicza Street
Located at the foot of The Wawel Hill, Kanoniczka Street is one of Krakow’s most scenic streets and was the final part of the ceremonial route which led from the main city gate to the square of Wawel Royal Castle. Here you’ll find the yellow house where Father Karol Wojtyła, later Pope Jean Paul II, lived from 1951 to 1967.
7. Wawel Royal Castle
The highlight of the Old City is Wawel Royal Castle, a beautiful Royal Residence with a stunning courtyard. For over 500 years Wawel served as the main residence for Polish rulers, until the capital was moved to Warsaw. This is a place where Polish Kings were crowned and buried, and the building remains an important symbol of Polish national identity. Highlights of the interior include the State Rooms and the priceless collection of tapestries, as well as the Treasury and Armoury. Another interesting feature is the bronze dragon that guards Wawel Hill, belching out real fire.
8. Krakow’s Pigeons in Rynek Glowny
Krakow’s main square is full of pigeons and they have become a symbol of the city. Legend has it that back in the medieval ages the Polish Prince Henry IV wanted to become king and unite all the Polish lands. A witch told the Prince he must travel to Rome and present the Pope with a large quantity of gold to obtain his support. She offered Prince Henry assistance, and turned his knights into pigeons. The pigeons flew up to the top of St. Mary’s Church and started ripping out small parts of stone and bricks, which turned into gold as they fell to the ground. He collected the gold and left Krakow for Rome, but spent it all on feasting and merrymaking. He never made it to Rome, got lost along the way and never made it back to Krakow, so his pigeon/knights still remain in the main square awaiting his return.
9. Krakow’s Jewish Quarter, Kazimierz
During your visit to Krakow it’s worth getting lost in the labyrinth streets of the Kazimierz where you’ll find synagogues, churches, museums, cafés, bars and art galleries. If you’re traveling on a budget, it’s a great place to find delicious and inexpensive food. From 1495 this area became a bustling Jewish District, but when the Nazis invaded Poland during the Second World War the Jews of Krakow were forced into a crowded ghetto in Podgórze, and many of them were later killed in Nazi death camps. The area was left in ruins and was considered a dark and dangerous place, but in recent years it has undergone restoration. Now Kazimierz is a trendy area popular with both locals and tourists.
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