Poland's former royal capital effortlessly fuses medieval pomp and pageantry with modern-day, student-fuelled fun into a harmonious whole.
Alternating themes of destruction and rebirth run throughout Kraków's history, all the way back to the 13th century, when marauding Tatars sacked the city and pierced the town crier's throat with an arrow. A century later, Kraków was back on top as Poland's capital, and then dashed again in the 16th century when the capital moved to Warsaw. In more recent times, Kraków re-emerged after WWI only to be occupied by Nazi Germany 20 years later. After that came communism, and another chapter of rebirth. It's a never-ending episode of Games of Thrones and just as enthralling.
Architecture buffs will think they died and went to heaven. Over the thousand years of Kraków's existence, all of the great European architectural styles – Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, baroque and art nouveau – have cycled through and left behind traces that prove the whole is infinitely greater than the sum of the parts. Find the world's largest late-Gothic altarpiece within the darkened interiors of St Mary's Basilica, and then step out into the sunshine to see the gleaming 16th-century Renaissance Cloth Hall, built at a time when Kraków's royal authority was at its apex.
Culture, Culture, Culture
Kraków may no longer be Poland's political capital, but it makes a strong case for being the country's cultural capital. The annual list of festivals and events is as long as your arm, and every week, it seems, brings another celebration of theatre, the arts, music, film, dance, literature and, yes, food. Did we mention there's even a pierogi fest? Outside the festival calendar, Cracovians are inveterate theatregoers, jazz aficionados, poetry lovers, film buffs and klezmer listeners, and seemingly every corner of the city, every dark basement and hidden garden, buzzes with artistic anticipation.
Pierogi, Vodka & More
No accounting of Kraków's charms would be complete without a nod toward the culinary. Come for your fill of traditional delights like kiełbasa (Polish sausage), pierogi and vodka, served everywhere from grand Gothic cellars to simple stands. But Cracovians also love to expand their palates. French, Italian and Asian-inspired restaurants are popular, while vegan and vegetarian foods are experiencing something of a moment – vegan sushi and meatless kebabs are all the rage. Finish off with lody (ice cream), a national mania.
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Some 14km southeast of Kraków, the Wieliczka (vyeh-leech-kah) salt mine has been welcoming tourists since 1722 and today is one of Poland's most popular attractions. It's a subterranean labyrinth of tunnels and chambers – about 300km distributed over nine levels, the deepest being 327m underground – of which a small part is open to the public via two-hour guided tours. First-time visitors take a standard 'tourist' route of the main sights, while return visitors can opt for a more-immersive 'miners' route.
As the political and cultural heart of Poland through the 16th century, Wawel Royal Castle is a potent symbol of national identity. It's now a museum containing five separate sections: Crown Treasury and Armoury, State Rooms, Royal Private Apartments, Lost Wawel and the Exhibition of Oriental Art. Each requires a separate ticket. Of the five, the State Rooms and Royal Private Apartments are the most impressive, but to be honest, the best part is just wandering around the castle grounds – open 6am to dusk.
The vast Main Market Square is the focus of the Old Town, and is Europe's largest medieval town square (200m by 200m). Its most prominent features are the 16th-century Cloth Hal l at the centre, a 15th-century Town Hall Tower and a striking bronze statue of Polish 19th-century romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz on the square's eastern side.
Despite the name, this museum covers more than the story of Oskar Schindler, the Nazi German industrialist who famously saved the lives of members of his Jewish labour force during the Holocaust. It also expands to include all aspects of the German occupation of Kraków from 1939 to 1945 through a series of well-organised, interactive exhibits. Take a tram to Plac Bohaterów Getta, then follow ul Kącik east under the railway line to find the museum.
Wawel Cathedral has witnessed many coronations, funerals and burials of Poland’s monarchs and nobles. The present cathedral is basically a Gothic, but chapels in different styles were built around it later. The showpiece is the Sigismund Chapel (Kaplica Zygmuntowska) on the southern wall. It’s often referred to as the most beautiful Renaissance chapel north of the Alps, recognisable from the outside by its gilded dome. An audio guide (8zł) helps to put it all in context.
This striking brick church, best known simply as St Mary’s, is dominated by two towers of different heights. The first church here was built in the 1220s and following its destruction during a Tatar raid, construction of the basilica began. Tour the exquisite interior, with its remarkable carved wooden altarpiece, and in summer climb the tower (adult/concession 15/10zł) for excellent views. Don't miss the hourly hejnał (bugle call) from the taller tower.
The Collegium Maius, part of Jagiellonian University, is the oldest surviving university building in Poland, and one of the finest examples of 15th-century Gothic architecture in the city. It's best known for its star pupil, Polish astronomer and mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus. Guided tours (from 10am) show off some of his manuscripts as well as scientific books and instruments from those times. Check out the magnificent arcaded courtyard and clock (7am to dusk) and a small temporary exhibition on science.
The Czartoryski boasts the city's richest art collection, including Leonardo Da Vinci's 15th-century masterpiece, Lady with an Ermine (1489–90). Other exhibitions include Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Etruscan art as well as Turkish weaponry. The museum closed in 2010 for renovation and was set to reopen as a branch of the National Museum at the end of 2019. Until then, Lady with an Ermine is on display at the National Museum main branch.
The name of this museum doesn’t sound that exciting, but the Jagiellonian University Medical School’s Museum of Pharmacy is one of the largest museums of its kind in Europe and arguably the best. Accommodated in a beautiful historic townhouse worth the visit alone, it features a 22,000-piece collection, which includes old laboratory equipment, rare pharmaceutical instruments, heaps of glassware, stoneware, mortars, jars, barrels, medical books and documents.