A beautifully preserved old city and an open-air museum dominated by the presence of a superb historic Old Town, Krakow is Poland’s cultural capital. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978, Krakow’s heart is a maze of cobbled streets lined with beautiful architecture, excellent museums, and splendid churches. Moreover, the city boasts one of the largest market squares on the continent and is home to one of the oldest universities in Central Europe.
The second-largest city in Poland, after Warsaw, Krakow has escaped the German and Russian domination and instead had a part of its past shaped by the Austrians who opened the doors for a rich cultural life and fabulous art. While architecture buffs enjoy a fascinating universe of Gothic, Renaissance, and baroque gems, students and hip travelers flood the streets of Krakow in search of pubs and bars renowned for their cheap drinks and bohemian ambiance.
Discover the awe-inspiring main Market Square
The colossal Rynek Glowny (Main Market Square) is one of the most beautiful market squares in Europe, a medieval masterpiece that reigns supreme over the Old Town of Krakow telling fascinating, dramatic, and romantic tales of the past. The center is dominated by the majestic 15th-century Sukiennice (Cloth Hall), a string of vaulted passages where souvenir stalls have found the perfect the ideal spot to lure visitors.
Above the Cloth Hall, you’ll find the Gallery of Polish Painting and Sculpture of the 19th Century that displays fascinating paintings and sculptures, and from where you’ll capture lovely views of the square. Rynek Glowny is framed by pavement cafes and grandiose old houses, as well as a 15th-century town hall tower and the church of St Wojciech, the oldest church in the city. However, the structure that will first catch your eye is the striking Mariacki church, a Gothic presence dating from 1489, remarkable due to its impressive twin spires.
Explore the grandiose Wawel Castle
One of the most popular attractions in Krakow, the Wawel Castle is a magnificent castle complex dating back to the 14th century. Perched on a hill, the castle was the royal residence of Poland for many centuries boasting superb architecture, beautiful gardens, and richly decorated rooms.
While the royal gardens are splendid manifestations of the Renaissance spirit, adorned with elegant beds of flowers and herbs, the rooms capture the essence of royal decadence enchanting visitors with gorgeous chandeliers, amazing wall tapestries and paintings, as well as superb furniture and Persian carpets.
One of the highlights of the Wawel Castle complex is the Wawel Cathedral, the coronation site and burial place of almost all monarchs and rulers of Poland. The cathedral was built in the 11th century by King Boleslaw the Brave and houses an impressive 11-tonne Sigismund bell. If you don’t mind a short climb up to the bell tower, you’ll have the chance to admire fantastic views of the surroundings.
Learn more about the local Jewish history
Kazimierz, the city’s Jewish quarter is now an artsy and bohemian area of Krakow that abounds in restaurants resounding with Jewish Klezmer music. Jozefa Street is a haven for hipsters and travelers who love vintage shops and designers boutiques, as well as contemporary art galleries and chic cafes. While you won’t find many Jews living here these days, before the Second World War about 25% of Krakow’s population was Jewish.
The Jewish have had a home in Krakow since the Middle Ages but it all ended when the Nazis invaded Poland. A visit to Krakow gives you the opportunity to plan a day trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp during World War II. A tour of the Auschwitz is a heartbreaking experience, especially since it includes stops at the gas chambers and barracks, and displays a collection of items left behind by prisoners, such as suitcases, glasses, and clothes, but it’s also a reminder of the importance of tolerance and love to avoid such tragedies from ever happening again.
At the end of the Szeroka Street in Kazimierz, awaits a beautiful Old Synagogue, Krakow’s oldest synagogue and one of the few old synagogues in Europe still standing. Dating from the late 15th century, the synagogue was reconstructed in a Renaissance style after the fire that burnt it down in 1557, and currently houses a museum that familiarizes visitors with the local Jewish life. If you want to delve deeper into the Jewish history, add a visit to the Galicia Jewish Museum to your itinerary.
Visit the museums in Krakow
An old city to the core, Krakow has a plethora of museums waiting to tell you stories about its past, culture, and traditions. The National Museum is an ode to the visual artists of Poland displaying Polish art from the late 19th century onwards, as well as collections dedicated to military history, armor, and weapons dating from the 12th to the 20th centuries.
One of the quirkiest and most interesting museums in Krakow is the Underground Museum situated under the Main Square of Krakow, a branch of the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow and an atmospheric sight that holds both permanent and temporary exhibitions. The Underground Museum takes you back in time to the Middle Ages and carries you along the centuries into the present through an exciting multimedia show.Continue your historic journey with a tour of the Schindler’s factory made famous by Schindler’s List in 1993. Within the walls of the factory awaits a captivating state-of-the-art museum that tells the story of Oskar Schindler and the fate of the Jews during World War II. It’s recommended to make a reservation online ahead of your visit because the museum is hugely popular with visitors.