Many are drawn to Kraków for the Jagiellonian University, established in 1364 and one of the oldest places of learning in Europe. The city center is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the Main Market Square is still the largest medieval urban center in Europe.
A definite stop is St. Mary’s Church where visitors are drawn to see the high altar carved by the Nuremberg sculptor Veit Stoss. A perfect example of Gothic architecture in Poland, St. Mary’s Church was built on the site of a Romanesque church from the early 1200s. The facade of the Basilica is ornamented by two towers. Every hour, a bugle call can be heard sounding from the highest tower at St. Mary’s, a reminder of the Tatar raids on the city in the 13th century.
On the popular Royal Route, travelers begin in Matejko Square and see the Gothic Barbican and Florianska Gate that wind to the Main Market Square. The Barbican is a breathtaking example of medieval fortification, and it is one of only three left in Europe. Florianska Gate was once part of the defensive walls of the city and is visible to tourists before heading along to Grodzka Street. The Neo-Classical architecture here is a real find, leading onward towards the Church of St. Peter and Paul.
From Kanonicza Street (one of the oldest and most beautiful streets in Kraków) visitors proceed to Wawel Hill, and normally spend an afternoon visiting the cathedral and Royal Castle. Wawel Castle, located high on the hill, offers a look at the entire city below. It has been home to Polish royalty, and there are a number of regular exhibitions here, including the royal chambers, a collection of Eastern art, war trophies, and a plethora of Flemish tapestries. The castle dates back to the year 1000, but since that time, every culture has played a part in its architecture.
The castle sits adjacent to Wawel Cathedral, which is another historical masterpiece and home to the tombs of Polish kings, national heroes and poets of the Romantic period. There have been many royal coronations and funerals held at the Cathedral though the years.
The first incarnation of the cathedral was built after the Gniezno convention in the year 1000. The second Wawel Cathedral was consecrated in 1142. That version of the cathedral was destroyed by fire in the 1300s and only one crypt and the lower section of the tower survived. From there came the third wave of construction, which is the Gothic structure of the cathedral that can be visited today.
Highlights within the cathedral include the Baroque altar with the 1649 painting of Christ Crucified, by Marcin Blechowski, and the Ara Patriae - Altar of the Homeland - with the relics of the patron saint of Poland, St. Stanislaus of Szczepanow, the bishop of Kraków who was murdered in 1079.
Here, the relics of St. Jadwiga are found in a small bronze coffin. She died in 1399, but was well-known during her lifetime for her charity and was (and still is) adored by many.
Poland’s World War II
One of the most profound visits a tourist can make while in Kraków is a poignant reminder of World War II. Travelers can visit Schindler’s Factory, which is now a museum, located in what was once the administrative building of the former Oskar Schindler factory, Emalia.
While the name Schindler became known worldwide only after Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, the museum delves much deeper into the facts from that time period with the intention of showing the overall history of the factory, and it’s part in the lives of people who were there. On the walls outside the museum are photos of the Polish and Jewish people who faced the German occupiers - many whom were saved, and played a role in Schindler’s story.
the Outskirts of Kraków
Not far from the city of Kraków is the German concentration camp, Auschwitz Birkenau. It was established
in 1940 in the suburbs of Oswiecim, a Polish city that was annexed to the Third Reich by the Nazis. There is no way to describe the emotions and thoughts that Auschwitz will evoke for travelers, it is a destination that must be experienced personally.
Most of the blocks of housing inside the camp can be visited, but Block 5, which displays mounds of shoes (45,000 pairs in all) is particularly moving. One of the most haunting experiences for me was seeing the photos of people getting off the trains. Admission to the grounds of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial is free, but for a guide or to rent a headphone guiding system there is a fee. Plan on at least 90 minutes for the Auschwitz site and the same amount of time for Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Located about one mile from each other, there is a free shuttle bus to get you back and forth to the locations.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
A must see destination on any trip to Kraków is the Wieliczka Salt Mine, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where visitors can see statues and carvings made entirely from salt. There are numerous chambers to visit as well as long pathways connecting the underground salt mining exhibition of the Kraków Saltworks Museum, located on Level 3 of the mine. The tour takes about three hours and offers a glimpse of the remarkable St. Kinga’s Chapel as well as other chambers excavated from salt, underground lakes and a look at the original tools and equipment used by the miners. This salt mine is the only mining facility in the world today that has been
working continuously since the middle ages.
Kinga’s Chamber, the deepest underground active church in the world, is available for weddings. Visitors should take note of the reliefs carved on the side of the wall in salt, and of the chandeliers decorated with salt crystals. Services are still being held every Sunday morning at 7:30 a.m. in the chapel. Only guided tours are allowed. Occasionally, tourists will find themselves waiting up to an hour to join a group.
Not Using the Euro
Poland still uses the Polish “Zloty”, meaning “golden.” This is the traditional currency of the country, dating back to the Middle Ages. The currency went through a re-denomination in the 1990s from the old “Zloty” (PLZ) to the new “Zloty” (PLN). The monetary unit is symbolised as [Zl] and banknotes come in 200, 100, 50 and 10 Zloty denominations, and the coins are in denominations of 5, 2 and 1 Zloty and 50, 20, 10, 5, 2 and 1 Groszy units.
Where to Stay
There are more than 150 places to stay in Kraków with a variety of price points and options. One standout includes Hotel Copernicus (www.hotel.com.pl) a Relais and Chateaux property that has been in operation for half a century. Featuring a gothic facade, Hotel Copernicus is located on Kanonicza Street, in the midst of anything a tourist desires to see or do while visiting Kraków, and has some of the best preserved frescos anywhere in the country.
Visit the Polish National Tourist Office at www.poland.travel/en-us