The second you pass the Barbican and St. Florian’s Gate, you’ll find yourself in a completely different world: the oldest part of Kraków, which somehow survived the turmoil of war. Every elegant, stylish building here has a story to tell. In the Main Market Square of the Old Town, stop to smell the floral aromas coming from Kraków’s famous flower sellers, as the familiar clip-clop sound of the horse-drawn carriages passes you by. Overhead, pigeons fly over St. Mary’s Basilica and the Cloth Hall, where trade continues to flourish today as it has throughout the ages: treat yourself to some amber and silver goods, arts and crafts or even miniatures of the unique Kraków-style nativity scenes. You could even pick up traditional regional costumes or opt for other more typical souvenirs (maybe easier to fit in your suitcase!). The art gallery located on the first floor of the Cloth Hall features 19th-Century Polish Art that includes Władysław Podkowiński’s famous painting Frenzy, depicting a naked woman on a black horse as well as paintings by Jan Matejko, Józef Chełmoński and Henryk Siemiradzki, among others.
While you’re there, check out the underground interactive route called Following Traces of Kraków’s European Identity, which goes underneath the main square. A multimedia exhibition takes you back through 1,000 years of history to the city’s beginnings. An absolute must is St. Mary’s Basilica; there’s even a revolving hologram encouraging you to visit. Fun fact here about the Brick Gothic church: those impossible-to-miss different-sized towers are allegedly the result of a deadly quarrel between two competing builder brothers! We can’t be sure of this, however we are sure that the breath-taking church interiors are something you’ll never forget, especially the priceless altar carved by Veit Stoss.
With a tradition spanning some 650 years, the Wierzynek restaurant is not one to be missed. Along with the cult-status Piwnica pod Baranami, these are just two of the many restaurants, cafés and clubs with outdoor gardens open till late at night in the summer season.
The Royal Road and the Stanisław Wyspiański Route cut right across the square, leading along the green Planty park that surrounds the Old Town to the majestic castle on Wawel Hill; the stunning complex that was formerly the seat of Polish rulers. The route continues onto its necropolis, and to the National Pantheon at the striking, cream-walled-green-roofed Church on the Rock, where several famous Poles are buried, including Jan Długosz, Stanisław Wyspiański and Czesław Miłosz.
Exploring Jewish Roots
From Wawel Hill, it’s just a short walk to the Kazimierz district, the Jewish epicentre of Krakow for over 500 years, which today cultivates its strong Jewish tradition. Some curious trivia for you: it’s said that, at night, near one of the two synagogues on Szeroka Street, you can hear the whispering of wedding guests once cursed by a rabbi. True? Find out for yourself… Kazimierz has a plethora of great places on its cobbled streets, where you can try traditional, kosher dishes. The Jewish Heritage Route runs through the district and is highly recommended if you’re interested in a history lesson. Other sites linked to the tragic Holocaust that so greatly shaped this city include Bohaterów Getta (Ghetto Heroes) Square, the fragment of the ghetto wall still standing at 29 Lwowska St., and the exhibition at the Schindler Factory in the Zabłocie neighbourhood. Yes, that Schindler.
The minimalist, concrete and glass building of the MOCAK Museum of Contemporary Art stands in the Schindler Factory compound and is considered something of a gem of modern architecture. It is Poland’s first contemporary art museum built for that purpose after the war and forms part of the Kraków Technology Trail, together with the Glass and Ceramics Centre, also in Zabłocie. If you have time, it’s also worth visiting the local wine cellars. Tasting included, of course
Other striking examples of architecture include the historical power plant with a gigantic steel and concrete frame towering above it. This is an architectural expression of Tadeusz Kantor’s idea of wrapping objects in order to draw attention to their essence and provoking the discovery of hidden secrets. It’s certainly eye-catching! The building houses the Cricoteka Centre for the Documentation of the Art of Tadeusz Kantor and is located in the Podgórze district. While you’re there, head to Nadwiślańska Street for a bite to eat, where the best places for lunch and dinner can be found (especially the popular Drukarnia club).
Another must-see is the magnificent, modern, timber and glass fronted Małopolska Garden of Arts, which combines sound, theatre, installation and multimedia art. It also happens to be the experimental space of the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre, an institution founded more than a century ago and the second oldest in Kraków after the Helena Modrzejewska National Stary Theatre
Meanwhile, the beautiful red-brick Home Army Museum (Muzeum Armii Krajowej) has been organised within the renovated 19th-century walls of a former auxiliary building of the Kraków Fortress, now roofed with armoured glass. The unique collection of mementos and personal effects donated directly by veterans is really nothing short of amazing.
No talk of Krakow’s architecture would be complete without a mention of Nowa Huta, the socialist town that appears in Andrzej Wajda’s film Man of Marble. Standing among the box-like blocks of flats is the unusual Church of Our Lady Queen of Poland – Ark of Our Lord. Unusual because it may well be the first church you see that is shaped like a boat. Yes, a boat. Inside, the evocative figure of the Rising Christ, who seems almost to be taking flight towards heaven from the cross hanging above the altar, was sculpted by an outstanding contemporary artist Prof. Bronisław Chromy.
Other Ideas worth Entertaining
Before you leave the communist town, the Nowa Huta Culture Centre, the Ludowy Theatre, the Cistercian Monastery in Mogiła and the Nowa Huta Meadows are all worth a visit. The latter in particular is an attractive protected area with educational paths. It’s also where you’ll find Jan Matejko’s manor house, with an original porch designed by the artist himself, as well as several mementos of him and also constitutional reformer and educationalist Hugo Kołłątaj.
Kraków’s greatest artistic treasure is the Princes Czartoryski Collection, which includes paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt. The city is also famous for its unique Nativity scenes, the biggest collection of which can be found at the Museum of Kraków (this local craft is included on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity).
Air travel enthusiasts will really enjoy the Polish Aviation Museum, located in the buildings of the former Rakowice-Czyżyny Airport. Budding scientists will find spectacular experiments presented at the Stanisław Lem Science Garden. Clubbers, meanwhile, will find a warm welcome over at the Dolne Młyny former factory complex
Consider yourself a foodie? You’ll be interested in the many culinary events held in Krakow, including regular ones like Kraków Shrovetide (Zapusty) or Obwarzanek (Kraków Bagel) Day, celebrating the city’s trademark snack. Following the European Academy of Gastronomy granting Kraków the title of European Capital of Gastronomic Culture for the first time in history in 2019, many of its restaurants now serve dishes from the Kraków Capital Menu, using local products, so you can really get a taste of this incredible city.
Visitors are really spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing which routes to take; Kraków offers visitors many options, some of which include bicycle trails – the University Route takes you to 17 universities, among them the 650-year-old Jagiellonian University. The Paths of John Paul II includes the famous window in the Archbishops’ Palace at 3 Franciszkańska St. from which the pope addressed the faithful during his pilgrimages to Poland. As you can see, Krakow really does offer something for everyone!
Find out more from Cracow’s tourism website