Things to do in Krakow

Paintings for sale, Rynek Glowny, (photo by Corrie Wingate)
Paintings for sale, Rynek Glowny

Looking for a Spring getaway? Then what about Krakow? The Polish city set a new tourist record in 2012 with 2.35 million foreign visitors making it one of the top city-break destinations of central Europe, and it’s easy to see why. 

 

Apart from affordable flights, accommodation and restaurants, it boasts more historic monuments and art treasures than any other city in Poland. Ancient capital and residence of Polish royalty for 500 years, it was virtually unscathed in WWII and was one of just 12 destinations to feature in the first UNESCO World Heritage list in 1978.

 

It is a young and dynamic city, with a large student population and a buzzing bar, club and restaurant scene, especially in the ancient Jewish quarter of Kazimierz.

 

In the first of two installments highlighting the very best of Krakow, travel writer Susie Boulton explores her top five things to see and do in the Old Town (Stare Miasto) and Wawel (the castle district).

 

THE RYNEK (or Rynek Glówny, Main Market Square)

Start your visit of the Old Town in this sublime square in the heart of the city. Measuring a massive 200m x 200m (the size of four football pitches), it is the largest medieval square in Europe and still the city’s social hub. The central Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) was formerly the meeting place of wealthy merchants from all over Europe, trading in textiles, leather, salt, silk and spices. The trading hall has been rebuilt several times since but commerce is still alive in the colourful craft, amber and souvenir stalls, while the upper level is devoted to 19th Century Polish art.

 

The square is a social magnet - a venue of festivals, concerts, street performers and parades. The surrounding cafés are great spots for people-watching but at night the action moves underground to stylish cellars for dining out, jazz concerts, cabaret or discos. 

Rynek Glowny

 

ST MARY’S BASILICA (Mariacki)

The unadorned Gothic facade of St Mary’s belies a sumptuous interior, with a star-spangled vaulting, magnificent stained glass and a monumental Gothic altarpiece carved in lime wood over 12 years (1477-89) by the Nuremberg master carver Veit Stoss (Wit Stwosz in Polish). Depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, the polyptych is made up of over 200 carved figures, many based on contemporary Cracovians and portraying them, literally, warts and all.

 

If you happen to be outside St Mary’s on the hour look up to the highest of the two towers where a trumpeter will perform the hejinal, a bugle call played four times. The call breaks off in mid-stream commemorating the watchman who was killed by Tartar arrows as he sounded a trumpet warning of the invasion in 1241. Thanks to the warning the sleeping Cracovians were aroused and the city was saved. The tradition of the hejinal from the tower, on the hour every hour, is centuries old and today it is played by seven of the local firemen. If you miss it in the square switch in to Polish radio – it can be heard daily at noon.  

Inside St Mary's Basilica

 

RYNEK UNDERGROUND MUSEUM

This popular high-tech museum finally opened in 2010 after five years of archaeological digs beneath the main market square. It lies 4 metres below ground level and explores 1,000 years of the city’s history with emphasis on the link between medieval Krakow and contemporary European cities. Krakow was a member of the Hanseatic League (or Hansa), which dominated commercial activity from the Baltic to the North Sea from 13th to 17th centuries. Through screens, holograms and models the museum illustrates life of the earliest settlers, medieval trading in salt, copper and lead, and the city as it looked 600 years ago.

 

Archaeological finds include bones and skulls from the 11th century cemetery which was discovered under the market square. Be warned that visitor numbers are limited and at busy times of year it’s best to buy timed tickets either online or at the information office.

 

WAWEL HILL (Royal Castle and Cathedral)

Overlooking the town, above the River Vistula, Wawel Hill is steeped in history. Political and cultural centre of Poland, Wawel castle was the official residence of the Polish royal rulers until the capital moved to Warsaw in 1596. Each monarch left his mark, expanding the complex and adding to the treasures within. A beautifully proportioned, arcaded courtyard survives from the Renaissance palace, designed by Italian architects. A tour inside reveals the sumptuous State Rooms and Royal Private Apartments, with magnificent French and Flemish 16th century tapestries, fine art and antiques, and a Treasury and Armoury Museum. Leonardo’s famous Lady with an Ermine (see below) will hang in the west wing until 2014. 

 

The cathedral nearby is a hotch-potch of styles but what it lacks in architectural homogeneity is more than compensated by its great wealth of history. The most important church in Poland, it saw the coronation of almost every Polish king and queen and its chapels and vaults house the tombs of monarchs, statesmen, national heroes, great poets and Church dignitaries. Pride of place goes to the grandiose tomb of the 11th century Bishop of Krakow, St Stanislaw, to whom the church is dedicated. Another famous Bishop of Krakow was Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II and presided here for ten years. The most recent burial was that of the late President Lech Kaczynski and his wife following the tragic plane crash in 2010 which killed many of Poland’s political and military elite.

 

In summer a challenging climb up a series of staircases is rewarded by fine views and a close-up view of the Sigismund Bell. This weighs nearly 13 tonnes, requires 12 bellringers and can be heard from 50km – or so they say.

 

You could happily spend a whole day at Wawel Hill but if time is limited take in the exterior of the castle, the State Rooms and the cathedral. 

Wawel

 

LADY WITH AN ERMINE

Don’t miss Leonardo da Vinci’s exquisite painting of the Lady with an Ermine. It is one of only four female portraits by the artist and depicts the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. The portrait arrived in Poland in 1800 when Prince Adam Czartoryski decided to incorporate it into the family collection. The elusive and well-travelled lady was hidden from the Russian army in 1830, then sent to Dresden and Paris, returning to Krakow in 1882. The Nazis seized her in 1939 and sent her to Berlin but she was reinstated to Krakow in 1946. When the Czartoryski Museum, her official home, was closed for restoration in 2010 she graced galleries abroad. Now she is back in Krakow and will hang in the west wing of Wawel Castle until the museum reopens (estimated 2014).

 

Find out what Susie recommends outside Krakow city centre.




 

Plan your trip to Krakow

Krakow travel guide 

To read the full lowdown on where to go and what to do in Krakow, buy our brand-new Berlitz Pocket Guide to Krakow.

And for practical advice on building a trip to the city, you can also visit our online guide to Krakow

 







 


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