Wawel Cathedral

sights / Religious

Wawel Cathedral information

Opening hours
9am-5pm Mon-Sat, from 12.30pm Sun
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Lonely Planet review

This cathedral has witnessed most of the coronations, funerals and entombments of Poland’s monarchs and strongmen over the centuries. The tradition continued, despite some protest, with the 2010 interment of Lech Kaczyński, the controversial Polish president killed in an air crash that year in Smolensk, Russia.

Wandering around the grandiose funerary monuments and royal sarcophagi is like a fast-forward tour through Polish history. Many outstanding artists have left behind a wealth of magnificent works of art, making the cathedral both an extraordinary artistic achievement and Poland’s spiritual sanctuary.

The building you see is the third church on this site, consecrated in 1364. The original cathedral was founded sometime after the turn of the 1st millennium by King Bolesław Chrobry and was replaced with a larger Romanesque construction around 1140. When it burned down in 1305, only the Crypt of St Leonard survived.

The present-day cathedral is basically a Gothic structure, but chapels in different styles were built around it later. Before you enter, note the massive iron door and, hanging on a chain to the left, huge prehistoric animal bones. They are believed to have magical powers; as long as they are here, the cathedral will remain. The bones were excavated on the grounds at the start of the 20th century.

Once inside, you’ll get lost in a maze of sarcophagi, tombstones and altarpieces scattered throughout the nave, chancel and ambulatory.

Holy Cross Chapel

Among a score of chapels, a highlight is the Holy Cross Chapel (Kaplica Świętokrzyska) in the southwestern corner of the church (to the right as you enter). It’s distinguished by the 15th-century Byzantine frescoes and the red marble sarcophagus (1492) in the corner by Veit Stoss, the Nuremberg sculptor known to Poles as Wit Stwosz.

Sigismund Chapel

The showpiece chapel is the Sigismund Chapel (Kaplica Zygmuntowska) up the aisle and on the southern wall. It’s often referred to as ‘the most beautiful Renaissance chapel north of the Alps’ and is recognisable from the outside by its gilded dome.

Tomb of St Queen Hedwig

Diagonally opposite the Sigismund Chapel is the Tomb of St Queen Hedwig(Sarkofag Św Królowej Jadwigi), a much beloved and humble 14th-century monarch whose unpretentious wooden coronation regalia are on display nearby.

Shrine of St Stanislaus

In the centre of the cathedral stands the flamboyant Baroque Shrine of St Stanislaus(Konfesja Św Stanisława), dedicated to the bishop of Kraków, who was canonised in 1253 and is now the patron saint of Poland. The silver sarcophagus, adorned with 12 relief scenes from the saint’s life, was made in Gdańsk between 1663 and 1691; note the engravings on the inside of the ornamented canopy erected about 40 years later.

Sigismund Bell

Ascend the tower accessible through the sacristy via 70 steps to see the Sigismund Bell(Dzwon Zygmunta). Cast in 1520, it’s 2m high and 2.5m in diameter, and weighs 11 tonnes, making it the largest historic bell in Poland. Its clapper weighs 350kg, and eight strong men are needed to ring the bell, which happens only on the most important church holidays and for significant state events. The views from here are worth the climb.

Crypt of St Leonard and Royal Crypts

Back down in the nave, descend from the left-hand aisle to the Crypt of St Leonard, the only remnant of the 12th-century Romanesque cathedral extant. Follow through and you will get to the Royal Crypts (Groby Królewskie) where, along with kings such as Jan III Sobieski, many national heroes and leaders, including Tadeusz Kościuszko, Józef Piłsudski and WWII General Władysław Sikorski, are buried in a half-dozen chambers.