Krakow holds a very special place in my heart: my ancestry can be traced to this former capital of Poland! This year I was delighted to return to it, and here is my list of top things to see there:
1.Main Market Square, or Rynek Główny
The main square of Krakow, Rynek Glowny, is the first place you should visit in Krakow!
Once the largest market square in Europe, it still has an appealing vibe with the horse carriages moving around the cobblestone passages, restaurants framing the square and the musicians coming from different sides.
There’s also a trumpeter who plays from the tower of St Mary’s Basilica every hour during the day the earliest records go back to 1392! Can you spot him in the window?
2. Cloth Hall, or Sukiennice
Cloth Hall, or Sukiennice, is one of the landmarks you won’t miss on the Main Market Square because it’s a huge magnificent Renaissance building dating back to the 16th century (the original 13th century Cloth Hall was destroyed by fire in 1555) when Krakow was the capital of Poland.
Pop in and walk under its arcades to spot various emblems of other cities involved into the large international trade network, shop some souvenirs and local arts, visit the Rynek underground museum to learn more about the place and Gallery of Polish 19th-century Art, a branch of the National Museum on the top floor. The cloth hall is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
3. Town Hall Tower
The 70 metre high Town Hall tower on the Main Market Square is a must see attraction if you want to see the panorama of the old city (there are 110 steps to conquer). It’s the only surviving part of the Town Hall: treasury and chancellery were located there as well as the prisons.
The Town Hall was built in the 14th century but destroyed in the 19th century, when the Main Square was redeveloped by Austrians under the Austrian Partition of Poland. There are also a few exhibition halls showcasing the life of the Town Hall in the past and old clock mechanism.
4.St Mary’s Basilica
Krakow has plenty of magnificent religious buildings, and St Mary’s basilica is one you cannot skip! This iconic building dating to the 14th century (there are even some earlier remains) is considered one of the finest examples of Polish Gothic style.
Just look at this blue ceiling covered with stars, golden decorations and stained glass windows as well as Veit Stoss’s High Altar picturing the life of Virgin Mary. You could also climb the taller tower – I did this during my previous trip to Krakow. And yes, as I’ve already mentioned, every single hour 24/7 there is a trumpet giving a signal from the taller tower!
By the way, there’s a legend why the basilica has two towers of uneven heights. There were two brothers who were commissioned to build them. The younger brother got jealous because his tower was lower at the end, stabbed his brother and ended up killing himself with the same knife. This knife is said to be kept inside the Cloth hall Sukiennice.
5. Wawel Royal Castle
Wawel Royal Castle sits on the large hill overlooking the Vistula (Wisla) river that was inhabited since 7 century AD. It adds three iconic towers to the Krakow skyline: Sigismund Tower, Clock Tower and Silver Bell Tower. The dragon Den below the castle is where the famous legend of Krakow dragon started from.
It became the centre of local political life in the 9th century, and the remnants of the 11th century palatium are still present in the castle.
Big part of the Renaissance castle as we know it today was built in the 16th century and consists of actually not one but five separate museums. I’d recommend not to miss the Royal Gardens, Treasury, Armory and …
6. Wawel Cathedral
The current Wawel Cathedral within the grounds of the Wawel Castle is the third church on this site and it dates to the 14th-century. I’d call in a Polish Westminster Abbey for its importance!
It’s been the principal burial place for the Polish kings as well as for some other important Polish figures such as president Lech Kaczynski, who died in a plane crash, and there is also the chapel dedicated to John Paul II.
You could also climb the tower and to see the famous St Zygmunt Bell.
7. Planty Park
Krakow used to be surrounded by mighty fortifications – however, under the rule of Austrians, they were destroyed.
Now in its place there is a local green area surrounding the Old Town and called Planty Park. There are lots of different sections, so don’t hesitate to walk around (we started our walk from the Barbican).
8. Collegium Maius
Are you a fan of mediaeval architecture and science? Then don’t hesitate to visit Jagiellonian University Museum called Collegium Maius!
Jagiellonian University Museum Collegium Maius is the oldest university building of all Poland: it dates to the mid-14th century! Its arched magnificent courtyard won’t leave you unimpressed.
9. St.Florian Gate
St. Florian Gate is a 34.5-metre tall gothic tower dating back to 1307. It’s located at the end of Florianska street leading to the Market Square and was a part of the Royal route coming all the way to the Wawel castle. In the 18th century the decoration depicting St Florian was added to it.
St.Florian Gate also used to be the main entrance (there were 7 other gates too) to the city within the city fortifications that stood up to the 19th century when they were demolished by Austrians. You can also spot a chapel inside the Tower: it’s dedicated to St Mary of Piasek (Czartoryski Family).
10. Barbican Museum
Barbican is a circular castle-like building with thick walls and towers where the soldiers were once kept. It was built in 1498 and connected to St.Florian Gate – and now it’s a historical museum.
One of the local heroes with the links to Barbikan is Marcin Oracewicz who is said to kill a commander of Russian troops by loading his rifle with a metal button from his clothes because he ran out of bullets (his statue is located in Strzelecki Park) in 1768.
11. Basilica of Holy Trinity
The Basilica of Holy Trinity is a Gothic church built by Dominican friars in the 13th century. After a large fire it was rebuilt in 1872.
I’d highly suggest you visit it because its interior is astonishing – and don’t miss the famous image of Our Lady of the Rosary in the Rosary chapel! In this basilica the remains of St. Hyacinth Odrowąż are kept.
12. Small Market square, or Mały Rynek
Mały Rynek, or the Small Market square, is located just nearby the Rynek Główny and as the title suggests, it’s just smaller in size. It dates back to the same period, used to house the butcher’s stalls and also was a scene for religious battles!
Now we found it filled with stalls with delicious Polish street food and local souvenirs as well as a stage for summer concerts.
13. Kazimierz district
Kazimierz is where the Jewish population of Krakow used to live, and Kazimierz carries its Jewish heritage – there are the Old synagogue, the oldest surviving in Poland, the Jewish cemetery, kosher restaurants, and Galicia Jewish Museum just to mention a few.
However, it also gained a new identity: it’s known as a hipster district now. Don’t miss Plac Nowy, the main square of Kazimierz. Now it’s filled with stalls selling food of all kinds, also I’ve spotted some vintage and modern clothes on sale!
14. Corpus Christi Basilica
Corpus Christi basilica located in the Kazimierz district is another important Krakow landmark. It’s is around 7 centuries old: it was founded by King Casimir III the Great in 1335.
It has stunning interiors decorated with gold but the main feature of it is its 20th century organ (it contains part of the older instrument too) in Krakow!
15. Jewish ghetto museums
Krakow Jews suffered enormously from the Nazi occupation during WWII, and there are a number of museums on the site of the former Jewish Ghetto commemorating those tragic events.
I’d suggest visiting Oskar Schindler’s enamel factory museum, Ghetto wall fragment, Ghetto Heroes Square and Pharmacy Under the Eagle (and I write about those locations in detail here).
16. Church of Saints Peter and Paul
The Church of Saints Peter and Paul is another church to see in the Old Town. It has magnificent baroque elements including 12 marble statues of Apostles (those are dating to the 18th century and were added later with the church itself dating to the late 16th century) and bringing Italian vibe to the mediaeval heart of Krakow.
17. Bernatek Footbridge
Bernatek Footbridge, or Lovers bridge, is a lovely bridge near the Kazimierz district which is illuminated for the night time. It not only has padlocks attached by couples but also 10 acrobatic figures by Jerzy Kędziora installed in 2016.
What else can you do in Krakow?
Try the National Museum, Stained glass museum, Manggha Centre, Krakow Zoo, and Kościuszko Mound.
Where to go from Krakow
Wieliczka Salt Mine and Auschwitz, a museum on the site of the concentration camp, are the most popular short trips from Krakow (I visited them both in the past).
Where to stay in Krakow?
We stayed in Sheraton Grand, a new stylish Marriott hotel, with amazing views over the Wawel Castle and Vistula river. I especially loved our breakfasts because they had an amazing selection of local dishes such as breads, cheeses and meats.
We were very lucky to choose this hotel during our stay because I bet we had the best panorama of the Dragon River parade from our very own room!
Hope you liked my blog!