Krakow was once the capital of political power in Poland, but today it’s become the undisputed capital of tourism. So what draws millions of people here from all over the world?
Well, first of all, Krakow has an incredible thousand-year history full of dramatic events and important moments. Then there’s the beautiful medieval Old Town, full of charming streets and impressive buildings. Add an atmosphere fuelled by the city’s numerous clubs, cafes and museums, and you have an amazing combination. The list of reasons to visit is very long indeed and it’s easy to see why many visitors return again and again. But where should you start in a city with so much to see? Here’s a short guide to visiting Krakow for those who are just starting their time in the shadow of Wawel castle.
Sightseeing in Krakow: Must-see places for newcomers
There are many places in the city of Krakow that have enormous historic, artistic, architectural and cultural significance. Most of them are located in the area that contains the Old Town, Wawel Castle and the old Jewish district of Kazimierz. It is this area, in the heart of the city, where most sightseeing begins. A walk around the Old Town is a chance to take in the enchanting views and to feel the unique atmosphere of streets where locals have strolled for centuries.
St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow’s main square is obvious place to start. Its dazzling interior preserves amazing treasures and artistic ornamentations from several different eras. You can’t miss one of the pearls of Krakow, the altar of the church carved by Veit Stoss.
Just a few steps outside the church, you’ll find the Cloth Hall right in the middle of the square. Inside, you’ll find an incredible branch of the Krakow City Museum with an exhibit of extremely impressive works by the greatest Polish painters of the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s also the location of the entrance to a spectacular underground museum that has quickly become one of Krakow’s top attractions. It is certainly one of the most unique museum experiences in the entire country, giving visitors an up-close look at archaeological treasures accidentally unearthed during recent renovations in the square. The museum uses modern technology together with the artefacts to create a virtual reconstruction of everyday life in the Middle Ages. Don’t miss this walk into the past!
Just a five minute walk away from the Cloth Hall is Collegium Maius, the original home of the Jagiellonian Univeristy, the second oldest in Eastern Europe. Its lovely courtyard is the perfect place to relax and enjoy this quiet corner of the centre of the city. Moving on in the direction of Wawel castle, you walk along Grodzka street and its two magnificent churches, side by side – the early Baroque Church of St. Peter and St. Paul and the Romanesque Church of St. Andrew. Just opposite the churches, you can turn onto Kanonicza street, where Pope John Paul II lived when his name was still Karol Wojtyła. Don’t be fooled by the fact that the street isn’t very long – its stunning residences hold enough artistic and architectural wonders to keep you occupied all day.
Wawel Hill rises impressively above the city on the banks of the Vistula river. Among its many treasures are the Cathedral with its royal tombs and Sigismund’s bell and the King’s Castle, where museum lovers can get happily lost for hours on end. If your schedule doesn’t allow for an extended visit, make sure to see the Cathedral and the cloisters before you go.
Kazimierz is famous for being the Jewish Quarter of the city beginning in the 15th century, when the Polish king Jan Olbrecht forced the Jewish community to relocate away from the centre of town. Today we can find many locations in Kazimierz that are tied to an important chapter in Krakow’s history, like the Synagogues where you can still feel a connection to another era. Even though it’s known as the Jewish Quarter, Kazimierz is also the home the three breathtaking churches, the Sanctuary on the Rock (“Skalka” in Polish), St. Catherine’s Church and the Corpus Christi church, all within just a couple of minutes’ walk from each other and all full of beauty and wonder. Add streets lined with lively cafes and restaurants and you have the makings for a wonderful afternoon.
What’s the best way to see all the sights?
This is a question that lots of visitors to Krakow ask. Exploring with a knowledgeable, fun and engaging guide or local can really transform your visit into a truly unforgettable experience. If you don’t know any locals in the city who’ll show you around, try the Krakow Guide website, where you’ll be able to find a knowledgable guide to show you around.
Not only can they help to make your sightseeing come alive with stories, background and local flavour, but guides can also help with the practical side of things and organisational assistance. Making your own way with a guidebook is great if you prefer to go it alone and want some time to yourself but consider what having your own private guide can do to make your holiday even more enjoyable.