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Krakow, Poland

The importance of the city, which was chartered in 1257 and was once the capital of Poland, is evidenced by its urban layout, its numerous churches and monasteries, its imposing public buildings, the remains of its medieval city walls, and its palaces and townhouses, many designed and built by prominent architects and craftspersons. The value of this urban complex is determined by the extraordinary density of monuments from various periods, preserved in their original forms and with their authentic fittings. Wawel Hill, the dominant feature of the Historic Centre of Kraków, is a former royal residence and necropolis attesting to the dynastic and political links of medieval and early modern Europe. The medieval town of Kazimierz, which includes the suburb of Stradom (chartered in 1335), was shaped by the Catholic and Jewish faiths and their respective cultures and customs.

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One of the finest cultural capitals in the world.

One of the largest administrative and commercial centres in central Europe, Kraków was a city where arts and crafts flourished, and the culture of East and West intermingled. The importance of Kraków as a cultural centre of European significance is reinforced by its being home to one of the oldest universities of international renown – the Jagiellonian University. Together, these three built-up areas create a cohesive urban complex in which significant tangible and intangible heritage have survived and are cultivated to this day.

Historical data

Kraków was the home of the Wiślanie tribe (Vistulans), who occupied Małopolska (Little Poland) until the 10th century. From 988 to 990 Mieszko I, prince of Poland, united the southern and northern territories to form a powerful kingdom, and his son, Bolesław I (the Brave), later made Kraków the seat of a Polish bishopric. The city expanded rapidly as a trade centre, becoming the capital of one of Poland’s major principalities in 1138. It was devastated by Tatar invasions during the 13th century but was quickly rebuilt, receiving “Magdeburg rights,” which consisted of a municipal constitution, in 1257.

When King Władysław I (the Short) reunited Poland, he made Kraków his capital in 1320, after which the kings of Poland were traditionally crowned in Wawel Castle and entombed in Wawel Cathedral. Throughout the 14th century Kraków served as Poland’s economic and political centre and as a major trading point between England and Hungary. Concurrently, it grew into the nation’s intellectual and cultural locus, as evidenced by one of its main surviving medieval structures, the Jagiellonian University. Founded as the Academy of Kraków by Casimir III (the Great) in 1364, the university gained prestige throughout the centuries, drawing scientists, artists, and scholars from across the continent; it is the second oldest university in central Europe.

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Main sights

The Old Town is first on the list of must-see places. The second you pass the Barbican and St. Florian’s Gate, you’ll find yourself in a completely different world: the oldest part of Kraków, which somehow survived the turmoil of war. Every elegant, stylish building here has a story to tell. In the Main Market Square of the Old Town, stop to smell the floral aromas coming from Kraków’s famous flower sellers, as the familiar clip-clop sound of the horse-drawn carriages passes you by. Overhead, pigeons fly over St. Mary’s Basilica and the Cloth Hall, where trade continues to flourish today as it has throughout the ages: treat yourself to some amber and silver goods, arts and crafts, or even miniatures of the unique Kraków-style nativity scenes. The art gallery located on the first floor of the Cloth Hall features 19th-Century Polish Art that includes Władysław Podkowiński’s famous painting Frenzy, depicting a naked woman on a black horse as well as paintings by Jan Matejko, Józef Chełmoński and Henryk Siemiradzki, among others. 

While you’re there, check out the underground interactive route called Following Traces of Kraków’s European Identity, which goes underneath the main square. A multimedia exhibition takes you back through 1,000 years of history to the city’s beginnings. An absolute must is St. Mary’s Basilica. Fun fact here about the Brick Gothic church: those impossible-to-miss different-sized towers are allegedly the result of a deadly quarrel between two competing builder brothers.

With a tradition spanning some 650 years, the Wierzynek restaurant is not one to be missed. Along with the cult-status Piwnica pod Baranami, these are just two of the many restaurants, cafés and clubs with outdoor gardens open till late at night.  

The Royal Road and the Stanisław Wyspiański Route cut right across the square, leading along the green Planty park that surrounds the Old Town to the majestic castle on Wawel Hill; the stunning complex that was formerly the seat of Polish rulers. The route continues onto its necropolis, and to the National Pantheon at the striking, cream-walled-green-roofed Church on the Rock, where several famous Poles are buried, including Jan Długosz, Stanisław Wyspiański and Czesław Miłosz.

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Awesome Architecture

Another must-see is the magnificent, modern, timber and glass fronted Małopolska Garden of Arts, which combines sound, theatre, installation and multimedia art. It also happens to be the experimental space of the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre, an institution founded more than a century ago and the second oldest in Kraków after the Helena Modrzejewska National Stary Theatre.  

Meanwhile, the beautiful red-brick Home Army Museum has been organised within the renovated 19th-century walls of a former auxiliary building of the Kraków Fortress, now roofed with armoured glass. The unique collection of mementos and personal effects donated directly by veterans is really nothing short of amazing. 

Standing among the box-like blocks of flats is the unusual Church of Our Lady Queen of Poland – Ark of Our Lord. Unusual because it may well be the first church you see that is shaped like a boat. Inside, the evocative figure of the Rising Christ, who seems almost to be taking flight towards heaven from the cross hanging above the altar, was sculpted by an outstanding contemporary artist Prof. Bronisław Chromy. 

The minimalist, concrete and glass building of the MOCAK Museum of Contemporary Art stands in the Schindler Factory compound and is considered something of a gem of modern architecture. It is Poland’s first contemporary art museum built for that purpose after the war and forms part of the Kraków Technology Trail, together with the Glass and Ceramics Centre, also in Zabłocie. 

Other striking examples of architecture include the historical power plant with a gigantic steel and concrete frame towering above it. This is an architectural expression of Tadeusz Kantor’s idea of wrapping objects in order to draw attention to their essence and provoking the discovery of hidden secrets. It’s certainly eye-catching! The building houses the Cricoteka Centre for the Documentation of the Art of Tadeusz Kantor and is located in the Podgórze district. While you’re there, head to Nadwiślańska Street for a bite to eat, where the best places for lunch and dinner can be found. 

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