The Royal Cathedral has witnessed many coronations, funerals and burials of Poland’s monarchs and strongmen over the centuries. This is the third church on this site, consecrated in 1364. The original was founded in the 11th century by King Bolesław I Chrobry and replaced with a Romanesque construction around 1140. When that burned down in 1305, only the Crypt of St Leonard survived. Highlights include the Holy Cross Chapel, Sigismund Chapel, Sigismund Bell, and the Crypt of St Leonard and Royal Crypts.
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.
Among a score of chapels, a highlight is the Holy Cross Chapel (Kaplica Świętokrzyska) in the south-western corner (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.
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 wide, 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.
From 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 to 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.
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.
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 is on display nearby.
In the centre of the cathedral stands the flamboyant Baroque Shrine of St Stanislaus (Konfesja Św Stanisława), dedicated to the bishop of Kraków, canonised in 1253 and 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.