Krakow (also written as Crakow) is a city that has grown from a Stone Age settlement to Poland's second most important city. It began as a hamlet on Wawel Hill and was already being reported as a busy trading centre of Slavonic Europe in 965. It became the capital of the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland from 1038 to 1569. With the establishment of new universities and cultural venues at the emergence of the Second Polish Republic in 1918 and throughout the 20th century, Kraków reaffirmed its role as a major national academic and artistic centre.
The city infamously has associated its mid-20th century history with German concentration camps and nearby Auschwitz, which sadly enough is one of its most visited “attractions”. Krakow, in 1978, was designated as an UNESCO world heritage site which helped for the city to emerge as an important tourist destination of the 21st century. The same year, the city became worldwide known, when Karol Wojtyła, archbishop of Kraków, was elevated to the papacy as Pope John Paul II — the first Slavic pope ever, and the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.
For years I was scorning Krakow as a tourist destination. I have always avoided mass tourist destinations, and Krakow in my mind was always associated with noisy tourists who after visiting Auschwitz gorge on pig knuckles in “traditional restaurants”. And yes… for the majority of the people this is Krakow: a cheap, fairy-tale-like destination, where salt mines can be attractive!
This August, I had decided to stay home and not travel outside Greece. Moreover, I needed all my days-off-work for my autumn holidays. But, obviously, Ι do not have control over my actions, and that hot Athenian night, while wasting my time in bed by browsing the social media, an airline advertisement appeared (don’t they appear all the time?): “Europe from only 19.95€, one-way”…. that triggered the wanderlust gene in me and I started searching … and there it is: Krakow. O well, this may not be my dream destination but the weather forecast for Krakow is attractive (cool for the next couple of weeks)...I could escape from the hot mediterranean weather for some days.
Getting around & tips
Krakow’s main gateway is its airport, officially named “John Paul II International Airport Kraków”, but widely known as Balice (named after the nearby town with the same name). It is located only 11 km west of the city. Direct trains cover the route between Kraków Główny train station (Krakow’s Main Train Station) and the airport in 20 minutes. One-way tickets cost PLN 9,00 (that is just over €2).
At the airport, the train station is located near the passenger terminal, at the rear of the multi-storey car park. The Kraków Główny train station is located in the center of the city, and from there one can walk to most places in the city center or take a tram/bus for a couple of stops.
Taxi costs about PLN 80 from the airport to the city center.
Poland’s currency is called zloty (written as PLN) and at the time of my visit the official exchange rate was PLN 1 = € 4.3.
The part of the city, which the tourists are likely to visit, is very small and flat, so one can walk literally everywhere without taking a bus. Nevertheless, Krakow’s public transport is based on a fairly dense network of tram (streetcar) and bus routes. The bulk of the city's historic area has been turned into a pedestrian zone with bicycle rickshaws, electric cart and horse-drawn carriages; however, the tramlines run within a three-block radius. Tickets are available at almost every tram/bus station and a single route ticket (40-minutes ticket allowing for changing lines) costs 3.8 zloty (an equivalent of roughly 0.9 euro). There are also several other kinds of tickets (reduced fair, etc) or unlimited travel passes for the tourist to choose, but 3.8 zloty is such a small price to pay; it really does not worth looking for better priced tickets.
Krakow is cheap compared to other European cities. Food is roughly 30% cheaper than in Athens. Tips are welcome throughout the tourist service sector. Yet in Krakow only waiters rightly expect extra payment, i.e. roughly one tenth above the charged sum, in appreciation of satisfactory service. Simply leave cash on the table or round up the bill, saying “Raeshty nye chaeba” (“Keep the rest”). Almost everyone dealing with tourists speak very good English and people in general are very polite and always smile back to you, unlike some other eastern European peoples who can hardly pretend a smile!
The center of the city is built on the north of Vistula River and it is all flat, except of Wawel Hill, a rocky hill by the river, which is elevated, but nothing really to bother even those with reduced mobility. All streets in Old Town (Stare Miasto) are cobbled, but in very good condition and the side-walks in excellent condition and hardly higher than 5cm from the road.
Exploring the city
The areas which the visitor will visit for sure during his/her short stay and will pleasantly wander around are the following three. All of them are very close (attached) to each other and easy to explore.
1. The Old Town
2. The Wawel Hill
3. The Kazimierz
The monuments, the churches, the museums, the sculptures, the palaces, are so many in the citythat I believe there’s no reason to try to visit all of them. Unless you want to visit something very specific, my idea of visiting the city is to wander around its clean streets and try to absorb all this architectural beauty without any anxiety of missing something. Besides, no matter how hard you try, there is no way not to miss something!
Kraków Old Town is the historic central district of Kraków. It was the center of Poland's political life from 1038 until King Sigismund III Vasa relocated his court to Warsaw in 1596.
The Old Town is known in Polish as Stare Miasto.
Medieval Kraków was surrounded by a 3 km defensive wall complete with 46 towers and seven main entrances leading through them. The fortifications around the Old Town were erected over the course of two centuries. The current architectural plan of Stare Miasto – the 13th-century merchants' town – was drawn up in 1257 after the destruction of the city during the Tatar invasions of 1241 followed by raids of 1259 and repelled in 1287.
In the 19th century most of the Old Town fortifications were demolished. The moat encircling the walls was filled in and turned into a green belt known as Planty Park.
The main feature of the district is the centrally located Rynek Główny, or Main Market Square, the largest medieval town square of any European city. There is a number of historic landmarks in Main Square's vicinity, such as St. Mary's Basilica (Church of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven - Kościół Mariacki), home of the oldest and the largest Gothic altarpiece in the world, the Romanesque Church of St. Wojciech (St. Adalbert's), Church of St. Barbara, as well as other national treasures. At the center of the square, surrounded by kamienice (row houses) and noble residences, stands the Renaissance cloth hall Sukiennice (currently housing gift shops, restaurants and merchant stalls) with the National Gallery of Art upstairs. Sukiennice is the city's center of the commercial life since the 15th century and the most recognisable building of Krakow. The building took its current appearance after a thorough restoration in the 19th century.
Sukiennice is flanked by the 13th century Town Hall Tower (Wieża ratuszowa). The 70m high Tower is the only remaining part of the old Town Hall (Ratusz) demolished in 1820 as part of the city plan to open up the Main Square. Its cellars once housed a city prison with a medieval torture chamber. Today, the tower serves as one of many branches of the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow featuring permanent display of photographs of the Market Square Exhibition.
The whole district is bisected by the Royal Road, the coronation route traversed by the Kings of Poland. The Royal Road passes some of the most prominent historic landmarks of Poland's royal capital, providing a suitable background to coronation processions and parades, kings' and princes' receptions, foreign envoys and guests of distinction traveling from a far country to their destination at Wawel.
The Royal Road starts outside the northern flank of the old city walls in the medieval suburb of Kleparz. It begins at St. Florian's Church (Kościół św. Floriana), containing the relics of St. Florian – the Patron Saint of Poland – miraculously saved numerous times. St. Florian's Church was also the starting point for royal funeral processions, concluding at Wawel Cathedral.
The Royal Road crosses Matejko Square (pl. Matejki) and the Grunwald Monument (which unveiled in 1910 to mark the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald, one of the most important battles in history of Poland, when Polish army defeated Teutonic Knights' army, the monument is topped by a huge sculpture of Wladyslaw Jagiello, the Polish king and chief commander of army during the victorious battle), passes the Academy of Fine Arts (Akademia Sztuk Pięknych) on the right-hand side and crosses Basztowa Street – to the medieval barbican (Barbakan).
The Gothic-style Barbakan, built in 1499, is one of only three such fortified outposts still surviving in Europe and also, the best preserved. The Road passes the old fortifications through Floriańska Gate under a defensive tower. It is the original entrance to the city and the only gate, of the eight city gates built in the Middle Ages, not dismantled during the 19th century modernization of Kraków. Inside the Old Town, the Road continues along Floriańska Street and enters the Main Square. On the left-hand side, at the northeast corner of the square stands St. Mary's Basilica. The Road passes the Church of St. Wojciech in the south-eastern corner of the square, and leads down Grodzka Street along a number of historic landmarks and two smaller squares featured on both sides. The baroque 16th century Church of Saints Peter and Paul fascinates the visitor with its size and the raised sculptures of the apostles in the foreground. Grodzka ends at the foot of the Wawel Hill
Throughout the year the Old Town is lively and crowded. Today the Old Town attracts visitors from all over the world. According to recent official statistics, in 2016 Krakow was visited by over 12 million tourists including 2.9 million foreign travelers. There are many tourists, indefatigable florists, and lined up horse-drawn carriages waiting to give a ride. The place is always vibrant with life especially in and around the Main Market Square. No surprise that the square is so packed with visitors and not the best place for agoraphobics! The first time you see the place is really impressive, but then you try to avoid it as it is impossible to walk for 2 meters without stumbling on other tourists.
There is always something going on in and around the square, like folk music festivals or food festivals. This is the place for you to buy your souvenirs or taste traditional delicacies like oscypek cheese, sausages and pierogi.
While here in the main market square, one can listen to the heynal, which is played each hour from the highest tower of St. Mary's Church. The church is familiar to many English-speaking readers from the 1929 book "The Trumpeter of Krakow" by Eric P. Kelly.
Oscypek, is a smoked cheese made exclusively in the Tatra Mountains region, south of Krakow. Since 2007 Oscypek is a protected trade name under the EU's Protected Designation of Origin geographical indication. It needs to be made from at least 60% sheep’s milk, and can only be produced between late April to early October when the sheep feed on fresh mountain grass. Before that, any milk they have is needed for the lambs. Any cheese that doesn’t fit the criteria must be sold as serki góralskie (Highland cheese).
A similar cheese is made in the Slovak Tatra Mountains under the name oštiepok. In Poland, there is also a smaller form called redykołka, known as the 'younger sister' of oscypek.
Oscypek is made using salted sheep's milk, with the addition of cow's milk strictly regulated by the protected recipe.
Unpasteurized salted sheep's milk is first turned into cottage cheese, which is then repeatedly rinsed with boiling water and squeezed. After this, the mass is pressed into wooden, spindle-shaped forms, called oscypiorka, in decorative shapes. The forms are then placed in a brine-filled barrel for a night or two, after which they are placed close to the roof in a special wooden hut and cured in hot smoke for up to 14 days. This golden-hued, spindle-shaped cheese has also very specific criteria concerning shape: it must weigh between 600 and 800g and measure between 17 and 23cm. Oscypek, can come into other sizes and shapes, but those are not protected by EU.
The cheese’s history can be traced back to the Vlachs, a tribe that arrived in Poland from the Balkans around the 12th and 13th Centuries and brought the tradition of shepherding and cheesemaking to the region. The name oscypek comes from the word ‘scypać’, which means ‘to split’ in the local dialect. This is related to the molds which are split into two parts. Other sources state that ‘scypać’ refers to pinching or kneading – another important part of the cheese-making process to make it more elastic and pliable. The first mention of cheese production in the Tatra Mountains dates back to the 15th century, in a document from the village of Ochotnica in 1416. The first recorded recipe for oscypek was issued in 1748 in the Żywiec area.
Oscypek is as delicious as it is beautiful. It almost feels like a “firm mozzarella”. But while the texture is comparable, the taste is anything but. Oscypek is much sharper, brinier and smokier. There are many ways to prepare oscypek.
Traditionally, it’s eaten raw, grilled or fried, but it’s also delicious when added to salads or pasta dishes. It goes very well with lingonberry preserve.
The recent years the cheese has enjoyed an increase in popularity. Instead of parzenice (characteristic decorative motif embroidered on traditional clothing) or wooden carves, food-loving tourists now bring home oscypek: I did the same exactly. I tried it in my salad back home and also toasted it between two slices of bread. While in Krakow, you can find it anywhere in shops and in markets, but also in the streets sold off small vending carts. In its most “touristic” version, the cheese is sliced, heated and served with some lingonberry or cranberry preserve: very tasty but very chewy!
St. Mary's Trumpet Call
St. Mary's Trumpet Call (Hejnał mariacki) is a traditional, five-note Polish anthem closely bound to the history and traditions of Kraków. It is played every hour on the hour, four times in succession in each of the four cardinal directions, by a trumpeter on the highest tower of the city's Saint Mary's Church. The noon performance is broadcast via radio to all of Poland and the world. The real origin and author of the hejnał are unknown. The earliest written mention of it appears in civic pay records of 1392. The word hejnał comes from hajnal, the Hungarian word for "dawn". The weird characteristic of the hejnał performances is that they end abruptly before completion.
According to a popular 20th-century legend, during a Mongol invasion of Poland , Mongol troops led by General Subutai approached Kraków. A sentry on a tower of St Mary's Church sounded the alarm by playing the Hejnał, and the city gates were closed before the Tatars could ambush the city. The trumpeter, however, was shot in the throat and did not complete the anthem, and this is the legendary reason as to why performances end abruptly before completion.
The earliest written version of this legend is from the prologue to American Eric P. Kelly’s 1928 children’s book The Trumpeter of Krakow. Part of the current legend may come from a more recent historic incident when a trumpeter died of natural causes while on duty at midnight on 7 July 1901. A 1926 tourist guide vaguely states that the death of a trumpeter was the reason for the premature ending of the anthem, but does not mention the siege or arrows.
Around the Main Market Square there are many cafes, pubs and clubs, which are located in medieval basements and cellars with vaulted ceilings and which during summer months they spread hundreds of tables on the square itself. Numerous events, concerts and exhibitions are also organized there.
Sit at one of the cafes or restaurants and watch people pass by.
Wedel Chocolate Lounge
There are so many attractions around the Main Market Square, which makes you feel dizzy. There is one attraction, though, that has not to do with architecture or history but has to do with more humble feelings, that is chocolate craving! Do not miss the "Pijalnie Czekolady E.Wedel" located at northern part of the square (46, Rynek Główny St). This is one of the lounges the Wedel Chocolate brand has all around Poland and the only one in Krakow.
This lounge is certainly the shrine of chocolate lovers in Krakow and you have to visit it several times to be able to taste an adequate amount of the hundreds of dessert delights they offer. The shop is located on the ground floor of a beautiful building and has a large room inside and several tables on the square itself to serve as many customers with a sweet tooth as possible. There is nothing better than enjoying your ice-cream or a chocolate dessert while watching the crowds come and go in the square, so it is worth waiting some minutes to get a table on the square when the place is crowded. Nevertheless, do not worry if you do not get a table outside, the big room inside is equally attractive. Besides it is the desserts that matter!
Wedel is one of the most recognizable polish brand names. Founded in 1851 by Karl Ernst Wedel (1813-1902), the company and its products became known in most of Central and Eastern Europe. The logo of the company is based on Wedel's signature. His son Emil Albert Fryderyk Wedel (1841-1919) apprenticed in candy and chocolate factories in Western Europe before inheriting and expanding his father's business. His descendant Jan Wedel (d. 1960), the last member of the Wedel family to own the company, was considered "the Willy Wonka" of pre-war Poland. In 1934, during the time of the Great Depression, Jan Wedel opened a second factory in Praga, one of the most modern in the Second Polish Republic. The company was also known for its very generous social welfare policies. As one of the first in Europe, it had its own creche, kindergarten, hospital and cafeteria, and rewarded its best employees with no-interest housing loans; its model was highly acclaimed by the Polish Socialist Party. Hence prior to World War II, Wedel became a successful private company, with shops in London and Paris.
The company managed to continue production during the first few years of the World War II. It also started producing basic foodstuffs such as bread for starving Warsaw. Despite the family's German ancestry Wedel refused to collaborate with the Germans, and did not sign the Volksliste; increasingly this led to him and his employees being persecuted by the Nazis. The war devastated Poland and the company; the buildings at Warsaw were destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising. After the war, Wedel rebuilt the factory, only to have the communist government nationalize the company. The Wedel plant itself was renamed '22 Lipca' (22 July) after the Communist 'Independence Day', although even the communists chose to retain the Wedel brand name, with products bearing both the new and old logos (particularly as after 10 years of not using the logo, all attempts at exporting proved futile).
Besides the Main Market Square, which you will visit or cross many times every single day you spend in the city, there are two smaller and much more pleasant and relaxing squares in Old Town: the Mały Rynek (Small Market) just behind the Church of St. Barbara (Kościół św. Barbary) and Plac Szczepański, a couple of blocks northwest from the Main Market Square.
Planty Park, the park around the Old Town, which used to be the moat encircling the walls, is also a very pleasant place to relax and enjoy your ice-cream. There are several restaurants and cafes overlooking the park and make you feel like being in the countryside. Try the most tasty chocolate cakes in the city at the garden patio of Nakielny Cafe, where Szewska street meets Planty Park.
Wawel (pronounced Va’vel) is a fortified architectural complex erected over many centuries atop a limestone outcrop (Wawel Hill) on the left bank of the Vistula river, at an altitude of 228 m above sea level. This is actually the only natural elevation around Krakow and provides nice views over the river.
The complex consists of many buildings and fortifications; the largest and best known of these are the Royal Castle and the Wawel Cathedral (which is the Basilica of St Stanisław and St Wacław).
Some of Wawel's oldest stone buildings, such as the Rotunda of the Virgin Mary are dated back to 970AD, while wooden parts of the complex date to the 9th century. The castle itself has been described as "one of the most fascinating of all European castles." And this is true. The castle is like coming out of a fairy tale and you expect anytime to see nights on white galloping horses, beautiful princesses with fair long hair and dragons spitting fire.
Did I say dragons? Yes, there is actually a dragon and a dragon cave in Krakow. From the early period of the Wawel's history originates the popular and enduring Polish myth of the Wawel Dragon (Smok Wawelski). Today, it is commemorated on the lower slopes of the Wawel Hill where by the river, is a modern statue of the dragon. The statue is sited in front of Smocza Jama, one of the limestone caves scattered over the hill. The metal sculpture designed in 1969 by Bronisław Chromy and it was placed in front of the dragon's den in 1972. The dragon sculpture has seven heads, but frequently people think that it has one head and six forelegs. To the amusement of onlookers, it noisily breathes fire every few minutes, thanks to a natural gas nozzle installed in the sculpture's mouth.
The dragon was a mystical beast which supposedly terrorized the local community, eating their sheep and local virgins, before (according to one version) being heroically slain by Krakus, a Polish prince, who founded the city of Kraków and built his palace above the slain dragon's lair. The oldest known literary reference to the Wawel dragon comes from 12th century, in the work attributed to Bishop of Kraków and historian of Poland, Wincenty Kadłubek.
The street along the banks of the river leading towards the castle is ulica Smocza, which translates as "Dragon Street".
Today all souvenir shops sell green-tacky-made in China dragons of all sizes and shapes.
Wawel Dragons (Gold, Silver, Bronze Grand Prix Dragons and Dragon of Dragons Special Prize) are awards, usually presented at Kraków Film Festival.
The entrance to the Wawel Hill is from the south: follow the ascending road starting at the end of Grodzka street on the east of the hill till you reach the gate-arcade.
The Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus, also known as the Wawel Cathedral (katedra wawelska), is a Roman Catholic church located on the northern part of Wawel Hill. More than 900 years old, it is the Polish national sanctuary and traditionally has served as coronation site of the Polish monarchs as well as the Cathedral of the Archdiocese of Krakow. Wawel Cathedral is also the burial place of Polish monarchs.
Karol Wojtyla, this controversial (for many) person of 20th century ecclesiastical and political history, the day after his ordination to the priesthood, offered his first Mass as a priest in the Crypt of the Cathedral on 2 November 1946, and was ordained Kraków's auxiliary bishop in the Cathedral on 28 September 1958.
Monarchs who resided at Wawel participated in Holy Masses and other religious services at Wawel Cathedral. There was a special passage from the castle to the cathedral, accessible only to the king and his family.
Once the royal throne stood on the right of the altar, but when Poland lost her independence in the 18th century, it was replaced by a 17th-century throne of the bishops of Cracow. Over the throne hangs a canopy which was placed here on the occasion of the coronation of King August III, the Elector of Saxony, in 1734.
The current, Gothic cathedral, is the third edifice on this site: the first was constructed and destroyed in the 11th century; the second one, constructed in the 12th century, was destroyed by a fire in 1305. The construction of the current one began in the 14th century on the orders of bishop Nanker.
Admission to the Cathedral is free as regular masses take place here, but there is an Admission fee of 12 zł (7,00 zł reduced fee) to enter Sigismund Bell, Royal Tombs, Cathedral Museum.
“Here, everything is Poland, every stone and every little thing. Whoever enters it, becomes himself part of Poland, part of its construction. Here we add a measure to this body – and only now, within these walls, are we Poland ourselves”. Stanisław Wyspiański, 1902 (polish patriotic writter, who is considered the creator of the modern polish drama).
“We are all well aware that to enter this Cathedral cannot be without emotion. More I say, you cannot enter it without the internal tremor, without fear because it contains in it – as in almost no Cathedral of the world – the enormous size, which speaks to us in all our history, our entire past”. Kardynał Karol Wojtyła, 8 marca 1964.
The Wawel Castle
The Wawel Castle is a castle residency located on the eastern part of Wawel Hill. Built at the behest of King Casimir III the Great, it consists of a number of structures situated around the Italian-styled main courtyard. The castle, being one of the largest in Poland, represents nearly all European architectural styles of medieval, renaissance and baroque periods. The Wawel Royal Castle and the Wawel Hill constitute the most historically and culturally significant site in Poland.
For centuries the residence of the kings of Poland and the symbol of Polish statehood, the Castle is now one of the country’s premier art museums. Established in 1930, the museum encompasses ten curatorial departments responsible for collections of paintings, including an important collection of Italian Renaissance paintings, prints, sculpture, textiles, among them the Sigismund II Augustus tapestry collection, goldsmith’s work, arms and armor, ceramics, Meissen porcelain, and period furniture. The museum’s holdings in oriental art include the largest collection of Ottoman tents in Europe. With seven specialized conservation studios, the museum is also an important center for the conservation of works of art.
The Crown Treasury situated in the historic Gothic rooms which were used from the 15th century on for storing the Polish coronation insignia and Crown Jewels, feature on display priceless objects from the former Treasury that survived plunder, among them the memorabilia of Polish monarchs including members of their families and eminent personages, like the hat and sword given to John III Sobieski by the pope after the Battle of Vienna, as well as the coronation sword Szczerbiec.