Things to Do in Krakow
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum is the resting place for some 1.5 million people, as the site once served as a concentration camp and extermination site of the European Jewish community during World War II. Today, Auschwitz-Birkenau is an important historical area, allowing visitors to reflect on the monumental horrors that occurred during the genocide.
An eerie world where everything has been carved from salt blocks, the Wieliczka Salt Mine (Kopalnia Soli) is made up of a labyrinth of tunnels, the deepest of which lies 1,075 feet (327 meters) underground. The ancient UNESCO World Heritage site is a major part of Poland's salt mining history, one of the country's most popular attractions, and one of the world's oldest salt mines, having produced table salt from the 13th century until 2007.
The gigantic town square of Rynek Główny (most often translated Main Market Square) is the centrepiece of Krakow’s UNESCO-listed Old Town and the largest medieval square in Europe. Dominated by the Renaissance-style Cloth Hall and flanked by colorful neoclassical buildings, the square is both an architectural landmark and the main hub of local life.
A wealthy German and member of the Nazi Party, Oskar Schindler bought the Emalia enamel factory in Krakow following the German invasion of Poland during World War II. By insisting that his Jewish employees were vital to the workforce and often advocating for them, he saved more than 1,000 people from death. Today, Oskar Schindler's Factory (Fabryka Schindlera), part of the City of Krakow Historical Museum, houses a highly emotive, interactive, and visually stunning permanent exhibition on the Nazi occupation of Krakow.
The lop-sided towers of the majestic Saint Mary’s Basilica dominate the northeast corner of Krakow’s lively central square, the Rynek Główny. A church has graced this spot since medieval times, but this incarnation was built of red-brick in Gothic style and consecrated in 1320 after the original was destroyed by invading Tartars in the 13th century. The northern tower was raised to 263 feet (80 meters) and became the city’s watchtower.
The interior is handsomely decorated with a star-spangled blue ceiling, heavy Gothic ornamentation and stained-glass windows that shaft sunlight into patterns in the floor. The showpiece is the magnificent carved altar, constructed with wood by the German craftsman Veit Stoss in 1489; it took him 12 long years to finish his creation, which measures 47 feet (13 meters) across and is carved with 200 biblical figures. The altar is opened daily at 11:50 a.m. to reveal gilded scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary.
St Mary’s Basilica is most famous for the much-loved bugle call that rings out across the city on the hour, every hour, played by a trumpeter standing at the top of the structure’s taller, northern tower.
Crowning Krakow’s Wawel Hill and adjoining Wawel Cathedral, Wawel Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that consists of numerous Romanesque, Renaissance, Gothic, and baroque buildings, courtyards, and gardens. Dating back to the 14th century, the castle was home to many of Poland’s monarchs and is a symbol of Polish history and pride.
Krakow’s Jewish Quarter—Kazimierz—has been the heart of the city’s Jewish community since medieval times. Traces of its turbulent past remain, but today it’s reinvented itself as a thriving cultural hub, where historic synagogues and museums sit side by side with art galleries, cocktail bars, bold street art, and vintage boutiques.
The focal building of Krakow’s fanciful Main Square (Rynek Główny), the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) has stood in the same spot in various forms for about 800 years but was originally built to house the local textile traders. From its humble beginnings as a small open-air market, the Renaissance-style hall is now 354 feet (108 meters) long and hosts Krakow’s biggest and best souvenir market, with stalls on the ground floor selling painted eggs, amber jewelry, wooden puppets and organic goods. The hall is gloriously floodlit by night.
On the first floor of the Cloth Hall is the charming, revamped Gallery of 19-Century Polish Art (Galeria Sztuki Polskiej XIX wieku w Sukiennicach). It reopened in 2010 after an extensive facelift, and its artwork hangs in elegant Renaissance salons. The highlights are the two massive satirical works by Polish nationalist artist Jan Matejko.
Well below ground and actually constructed underneath the Cloth Hall, a fairly new addition to Krakow’s museum scene is the Podziemia Rynku (Rynek Underground). Romping through Krakow’s turbulent backstory from prehistory to modern day, the high-tech museum uses interactive displays, special effects, informative touchscreens and holograms to engage the public. After some five years of construction, during which time the Main Square was partially under cover, the museum finally opened in 2010.
The poignant Ghetto Heroes Square commemorates the thousands of Krakow’s Jewish community who were forcibly moved and incarcerated within the Podgórze ghetto. Plac Zgody, a square in the heart of the ghetto, was the departure point for Jewish people boarding trains to Płaszów, Auschwitz, and other concentration camps during World War II.
The coronation site of nearly all Polish monarchs, 14th-century Wawel Cathedral is the country’s major religious site. Located on Wawel Hill next to Wawel Castle, the cathedral boasts grand artworks, chapels, a museum, the 16th-century Sigismund Bell, and tombs of Poland’s royals and patron saint, St. Stanislaus.
More Things to Do in Krakow
Standing 3,694 feet (1,126 meters) above the southern Polish town of Zakopane, Mt. Gubalowka (Gubałówka) is one of the region’s most popular year-round attractions. Take in excellent views of the surrounding Tatra Mountains while participating in a variety of outdoor activities.
The Great Barbican is a 15th-century, 7-turreted bastion in Krakow that once protected the city’s main gate—St. Florian’s Gate—and the Old Town within it. One of the few remnants of Krakow’s fortifications, the barbican consists of a small museum, medieval passageways, and a courtyard that hosts summer events such as jousting and pageants.
The cobblestone Main Square (Rynek Główny) of Krakow Old Town (Kraków Stare Miasto or, more correctly, Stare Miasto w Krakowie) is Central Europe’s largest and has been the center of the city’s social, religious and political life since the Middle Ages. Today the Old Town still serves as Krakow’s modern pulse, dominated by the splendid Renaissance arcades of the Sukiennce (Cloth Hall), the lop-sided St Mary Basilica and an endless supply of cafés and bars.
From the square, Krakow’s complex medieval alleyways peel off in all directions and work as the focus of most visits. The Old Town contains Baroque churches by the handful, a gorgeous ensemble of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, as well as about 25 museums covering subjects as diverse as Japanese manga, photography and stained glass. The standout historical collections are found in the many branches of the National Museum and in the Rynek Underground below the Cloth Hall.
The so-called “royal route” leaves the square down Grodzka and leads directly to the great architectural mish-mash of Wawel, perched on a rocky crag south of the square. Some of Poland’s most important buildings are assembled here, including the Renaissance castle, the flamboyant cathedral and the Crown Treasury, which houses the Polish crown jewels.
Built in 1300 as part of extensive fortifications to protect against Turkish attack, St Florian’s Gate (Brama Florianska) once served as the main entrance to Krakow. It was also the starting point of the Royal Road, the route Polish royalty and nobility would follow from the city entrance to the castle. Today, it’s the only remaining gate of the original eight in the old city walls, the others having been dismantled during the nineteenth century modernization of the city.
The Gothic-style stone tower stands 110 feet (33.5 meters) tall and features a decorative metal Baroque topper that was added in the seventeenth century. A bas-relief on the southern wall of the gate houses a statue of the gate’s namesake, while the north side has a stone carving of an eagle. Vendors can often be found selling art and souvenirs around the base of the gate.
Krakow’s Jagiellonian University (Uniwersytet Jagielloński), dating to 1364, is one of the oldest universities in Central Europe and is considered one of the best on the continent. You can explore the Jagiellonian University Museum in the Collegium Maius building, which is filled with university memorabilia, scientific instruments, and a medieval art gallery.
The Divine Mercy Sanctuary (Sanktuarium Bozego Milosierdzia) is a church located on the outskirts of Krakow, Poland. The church was consecrated in 1891 and dedicated to St. Joseph. It was originally built as part of the convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. This church is home to the tomb of St. Faustina, a nun who saw a vision of Jesus in 1931. It is said that when he appeared to her, he instructed her to commission an image of him along with the quote, “Jesus, I trust Thee.” This image, painted by Adolf Hyła, has spread in the form of copies and reproductions throughout the world.
St. Faustina rests in a white marble coffin below the original image of the Merciful Jesus along with other relics. It is a popular place for pilgrimages for Catholics from around the country and even from other parts of the world. Attached to the church is a tower that provides spectacular views of the city.
Pisa’s leaning tower may have all the fame, but Krakow’s Town Hall Tower (Wieża Ratuszowa w Krakowie) is a must-see nonetheless. Quite literally – as one of the focal points of Krakow’s main market square, it’s pretty hard to miss. Built towards the end of the 13th century, the 70-meter tall tower started leaning (it currently tilts by as much as 55 centimeters) after massively strong winds in 1703. It should be said, however, that the tower survived many fires and was therefore weakened considerably throughout the years.
To this day, the tower is the only remaining part of Krakow’s old town all. Visitors interested in visiting the tower should not worry; the tower is perfectly safe for visitors and even has an observation deck on its upper floor, reachable by a narrow staircase. The tower, as part of the Historical Museum of Kraków and because of its location in the old Cloth Hall, often has artworks and medieval costumes on display. There’s also an underground café, which is housed in the former city dungeons and torture rooms.
Lying at the heart of Jewish Krakow and today the gritty, edgy focus of the city’s subversive underground scene, Plac Nowy (literally, New Square) in Kazimierz is re-emerging from its Communist-era slump. It is a rather bleak square surrounded by once-handsome townhouses and was incorporated into the Jewish quarter in the late 17th century as its main market place; the landmark Okrąglak (Rotunda) was built around 1900 in the center of the square and it served as a kosher slaughterhouse right up until to the Nazi occupation of Krakow in 1939.
Today, Plac Nowy is jumping with life once more; the daily food market morphs into a sprawling flea market at the weekends, when a young crowd pours in to snap up antiques, pre-loved clothes, Soviet memorabilia and Jewish ephemera. Butchers still operate in the Rotunda and they run a series of takeaway food hatches through which the Cracovian street food of choice, zapiekanki (baguette-shaped pizzas with a choice of toppings) are sold until the wee hours. Around the square is a burgeoning club-and-bar scene, which also stays open and buzzing until late. The Galicia Jewish Museum and several historic synagogues are close by and can be visited on sign posted walking tours of the district.
Surrounding Krakow's Old Town, Planty Park stretches about 2.5 miles (4 km) and covers 52 acres. It was established in the early 19th century to take the place of the Old Town walls after they were destroyed. The park is really a chain of gardens designed in different styles, connected by walkways and lawns and topped off with a variety of fountains and sculptures.
Walking through Planty Park is like walking through Krakow’s history. You will pass a small segment of the old walls, as well as the 13th-century Gothic-style Florianska Gate and the Barbakan, a defensive fortress dating to 1499. Other notable landmarks include a Carmelite monastery that was once used as an Austrian prison, the 17th-century bishop’s palace from whose window Pope John Paul II once greeted the residents of Krakow and the Church of the Snowy Mother of God, built in 1635. More modern structures along the park are the art nouveau Palace of Art and the Bunkier Sztuki, a concrete exhibition hall that has been transformed into a museum and bar.
Remuh Synagogue (Synagoga Remuh), the smallest of the historic synagogues in Krakow’s historic Kazimierz district, was founded by Israel ben Josef in honor of his son, Rabbi Moses Isserles. The Jewish community began worshipping in the synagogue in 1558, and it’s one of only two active synagogues in the city, as well as the site of the last well-preserved Renaissance Jewish cemetery in all of Europe (Rabbi Moses Isserles is buried there).
Like many of Krakow’s religious buildings, Remuh Synagogue was used as a storehouse by Germans during World War II and looted of its ceremonial objects and furnishings, though the building itself was spared. The cemetery houses some of Poland’s oldest surviving tombstones.
Built during the fifteenth century blending German and Bohemian Gothic architectural styles, the Old Synagogue (Stara Synagoga) is the oldest surviving synagogue in Poland. The structure was rebuilt in 1570 by Italian architect Mateo Gucci, who added a Renaissance aesthetic, and was subsequently renovated several times throughout the early twentieth century. During World War II, Germans took over the building and used it as a warehouse, during which time the furnishings and the ceiling were destroyed.
Today, the reconstructed synagogue houses a Jewish history and culture museum; the collection includes Jewish ceremonial items, Ark curtains, Torah adornments and holiday costumes and craft items, as well as a permanent exhibit on family and private life.
Built in 1862 by Krakow’s progressive Jewish community, the Tempel Synagogue (Synagoga Tempel) is one of seven remaining synagogues in the city’s former Jewish quarter of Kazimierz. The synagogue is known for its gilded, Moorish-style wooden interior and hosts occasional religious services and regular Jewish community events such as concerts.
Located in the heart of Krakow, the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Krakow (Teatr im J. Słowackiego w Krakowie) has been staging plays continuously since it first opened in 1893. Later named after noted Polish poet and playwright Juliusz Słowacki, the theater was modeled after some of the most beautiful venues in Europe and was the first building in Krakow to have electric lighting. In the 20th century, the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre became known as a birthplace of modern Polish theater, including theater direction, stage design and acting. The theater hosted the premieres of noted Polish playwright Stanislas Wyspianski and welcomed Poland’s most important actors to its ensemble. While it struggled for a period after World War II, it has regained much of its former stature since the 1990s, hosting a number of popular productions and adding two more stages.
Today, the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre features four stages: the original Large Stage, the Small Stage (added in 1976 in the former electric plant that had been built to provide the theater with its own electricity), the Stage by the Pump and the Gate Stage.
Spilling over Poland’s southern border into Slovakia, the Tatra Mountains (Tatry) are the highest part of the Carpathian range and make up Tatrzański Tatra National Park. Protected as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, this wild and mountainous region is rich with snow-topped peaks, alpine lakes, and sparkling waterfalls.
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