Although the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has pretty much put a stop to 'business as usual', there's no harm in planning ahead for your next trip, and if you end up in Kraków, whether you have a day, a week or longer, our list of the best things to see and do in Kraków will ensure you don't miss out on some of the city's top attractions! Let's begin...
Old Town and is the natural start and finish point for any tour of the city. Originally designed in 1257 - the year Kraków was awarded its charter – the grid-like layout of the Old Town and its central square has changed little in the years that have followed. Measuring 200 metres squared (40,000 square metres), the Rynek ranks as one of the largest medieval squares in Europe, and is surrounded by elegant townhouses, all with their own unique names, histories and curiosities. Through the centuries it was in Kraków’s Rynek that homage to the king was sworn and public executions held. Most famously it was here that Tadeusz Kościuszko roused the locals to revolt against foreign rule in 1794. The Rynek has always been the natural stage for public celebrations, with everything from parades of sausage dogs to Christmas crib competitions taking place. Taking centre stage is the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice). Built in the 14th century this huge hall was effectively the first shopping mall in the world. To this day it is still crammed with merchant stalls selling amber, lace, woodwork and assorted tourist tat.
Directly next to the Sukiennice stands Poland’s most eminent scribe: Adam Mickiewicz. Ironically, the bard never visited the city until after his death when his remains were transferred to the Wawel Cathedral crypt, but this hasn’t stopped the statue from becoming one of Kraków’s best loved monuments. Across from Mickiewicz looms the magnificent St. Mary’s Basilica, its crowning glory being Veit Stoss’ altarpiece - don't miss the famous bugle call played from the tower of St. Mary's every hour, on the hour - one of Kraków's most charming and famous traditions.
On the square’s other side is the 70 metre Town Hall Tower, the only element of the 14th century Town Hall remaining after many fires, renovations and uncaring demolitions - it even leans to one side by 55cm! From March until the end of December visitors can ascend up lots of stairs to the 3rd floor through Gothic vaulted rooms which contain, amongst other things, 1960s photographs of Kraków and rather underwhelming views to the west and south. Wawel as one of his official residences. The first Polish king crowned in Wawel Cathedral was the teenage Władysław the Short (1306-1333) on January 20, 1319, beginning a tradition that would see a further 35 royal rulers crowned there up until the 17th century. All of these rulers used the Castle as a residence, and all of them added their own architectural details to the building. The moving of the capital to Warsaw in 1596 and Poland’s subsequent decline and partitioning saw the Royal Castle fall into a state of disrepair. The occupying Austrians used it as a military hospital and even went so far as to demolish several buildings including a number of churches on the site. The 20th century saw the Castle change hands on a number of occasions, most famously when the Castle was used as the headquarters of the Nazi Governor General, Hans Frank, during the German occupation of WWII. Today’s Castle complex is a beguiling muddle of styles including Medieval, Romanesque, Renaissance, Gothic and Baroque. The inner courtyard with its delightful colonnades is a true architectural masterpiece, and the treasures contained within do much to contribute to Kraków’s rightful status as a truly world-class city.
No matter how many times you see them - the altarpiece, stained glass windows of the nave, and the blue, starred ceiling on St. Mary's will take your breath away. The magnificent wooden altarpiece was the principal work of 15th century German artist Veit Stoss (aka Wit Stwosz) for 12 painstaking years, and depicts the Virgin Mary’s Quietus among the apostles. Surrounding the altar are polychrome paintings by Polish masters Matejko, Mehoffer and Wyspiański done in the late 19th century.
Stanisław Wyspiański, which nicely balance the organic and geometric with unique floral patterns. Wyspiański also made the eight stained-glass windows around 1895, including the controversial and iconic centrepiece, 'God the Father in the Act of Creation.' Dating back to the 13th century, St. Francis' Basilica was the first brick building in the city and is well worth popping in, even for those who could care less for looking at another church.
Highlights of the museum include a fascinating look into life before Kraków received its charter and the market square was laid out, displays on trade and transport in the city, a fantastic area for kids that includes a performance by automated puppets, and the remains of an 11th-century cemetery replete with 'vampire prevention burials' (seriously). Those more comfortable in traditional museums will be pleased to know there are still plenty of artefacts among the virtual exhibits, including the usual array of coins, clothing and other earthly remains. The Czartoryski Princes Museum was Kraków's most well-known and most-visited museum when it closed for renovations in 2010. Although much has changed in the city's cultural landscape in the decade since, including the acquisition of the famous Czartoryski collection by the Kraków National Museum in 2017, the legacy of the prestigious Czartoryski Museum still looms large. After years of careful preparation, restoration and modernisation, the Czartoryski Princes Museum finally reopened in December 2019.
The district south of the Old Town between the Wisła River and ul. Dietla (where a tributary of the Wisła once flowed) was the centre of Jewish life in Kraków for over 500 years, before it was systematically destroyed during World War II. In the communist era it became one of Kraków’s dodgiest districts while gradually falling into disrepair. Rediscovered in the 1990s, thanks to the fall of the regime and worldwide exposure through the lens of Steven Spielberg, Kazimierz has rebounded and is today Kraków’s most exciting district – a bustling, bohemian neighbourhood packed with historical sites, atmospheric cafes and art galleries. Well-known for its associations with Schindler and Spielberg, traces of Kazimierz’s Jewish history have not only survived, but literally abound in the form of the district’s numerous synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. In fact, no other place conveys a sense of pre-war Jewish culture in Europe better than Kazimierz. As a result, the district has become a major tourist draw and pilgrimage site for Jews, which has led to the return of contemporary Jewish culture in the area.
Consisting primarily of paintings by European masters, portraits of Polish nobility, Polish historical documents and national memorabilia, Poland's oldest museum was originally founded by Princess Izabela Czartoryska in 1786 at the Czartoryski family estate in Puławy (eastern PL), which was under Russian occupation during the era of Partitions. In 1798, Izabela's son, Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski expounded upon her 'Temple of Memory' when he travelled to Italy and acquired many Roman antiquities for the museum, as well as two of its most treasured pieces, Leonardo da Vinci's beloved oil painting 'Lady With an Ermine' and Rafael's 'Portrait of a Young Man' - the latter of which has been missing since World War II.
Traces of the Ghetto are still visible today, and Podgórze’s wartime history and 20th century connections to Oskar Schindler remain what people most associate with the district today. However, Podgórze has a long history which dates back over 10,000 years ago to the city’s founding myth. Legend explains Podgórze’s Krakus Mound as the burial place of the city’s first ruler, and scientific studies have proven it to be Kraków’s most ancient structure, dating back to the Iron Age. Although slow to develop in the years after the fall of communism, the opening of the world-class Schindler’s Factory Museum in 2010 not only helped the city come to terms with the ghosts of the Holocaust, it also established Podgórze as a bona fide destination for tourists. The construction of the Bernatek footbridge soon afterwards opened the floodgates even further, creating a direct link from Plac Wolnica (the town square of Kraków's Kazimierz district) to Rynek Podgórski (town square of Podgórze) and leading to a burst of cafes and restaurants on the Podgórze side of the river. Today Podgórze is accepted as an obligatory part of the Kraków tourist trail, but still retains an evocative atmosphere of anguish and independence that sets it apart from Kraków’s other neighbourhoods. To get the most out of a visit to the neighbourhood, make time to explore its mysterious, lesser-known landmarks in addition to its marquee museums.