Lonely Planet review
As the political and cultural centre of Poland until the end of the 16th century, Wawel Castle is a potent symbol of national identity.
The splendid Renaissance palace you see today was built in the 16th century. The original, rather smaller residence was built in the early 11th century by King Bolesław Chrobry beside the chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary (known as the Rotunda of SS Felix and Adauctus). Kazimierz III Wielki turned it into a formidable Gothic castle, but when it burned down in 1499, Zygmunt I Stary (Sigismund I the Old; 1506–48) commissioned the new residence. Within 30 years the current palace, designed by Italian architects, was in place. Despite further extensions and alterations, the three-storey structure, complete with a courtyard arcaded on three sides, has been preserved to this day.
Repeatedly sacked and vandalised by the Swedish and Prussian armies, the castle was occupied after the Third Partition by the Austrians, who intended to make Wawel a citadel. They planned to turn the castle into barracks, and the cathedral into a garrison church, while moving the royal tombs elsewhere. They never got that far but they did turn the royal kitchen and coach house into a military hospital and raze two churches standing at the outer courtyard to make room for a parade ground. They also enveloped the whole hill with a new ring of massive brick walls, largely ruining the original Gothic fortifications.
After Kraków was incorporated into the re-established Poland after WWI, restoration work began and continued until the outbreak of WWII. The work was resumed after the war and has been able to recover a good deal of the castle’s earlier external form and its interior decoration.
The castle is now a museum containing five separate sections, each requiring a different ticket valid for a specific time. There’s a limited daily quota of tickets for some parts, so arrive early if you want to see everything or phone ahead to reserve. You may find you’ll have to go on a Polish- language tour if all the English-language tours for the day have been fully booked.