While personally, my preference is for Wroclaw’s old town attractions, Poland’s star is undeniably its second largest city, Krakow and that is where the bulk of visitors to this deeply fascinating country flock to.
I arrived in Krakow on a wet and misty spring afternoon from a 5 hour or so drive from Poland’s capital, Warsaw. While the latter is noted for its skyscrapers, Krakow remains mostly low-rise and past the Soviet apartment buildings lining the suburbs, I could glimpse a bit of the Stare Miasto or the old town, with its walls, cobblestone streets and turn of the (20th) century buildings. For the casual tourist, there are two districts which are of interest in the city. Aside from the obvious old town, the other is the neighborhood of Kazimierz, the traditional Jewish enclave, which is fast emerging as a hip and happening locale.
Old Town Square (Rynek)
In Krakow, I based myself near the Galeria Krakowska area, a shopping mall near the train station and about 10 minutes walk to the old town. After settling in and dropping my bags, I immediately set out for a customized Krakow walking tour – starting at the Stare Miasto, entering via the picturesque Florian Gate and walking past boutiques and restaurants until I reached the Rynek or the old town square. Poland’s town squares are relatively large by European standards and the one at Krakow is slightly bigger than the one I encountered at Wroclaw. Many of the city’s iconic buildings are located at this square, such as the Renaissance-era Cloth Hall and the towering St. Mary’s Church. I decided to enter the church first.
st. mary’s church – check out that ceiling!
The St. Mary’s Church can be easily identified from the outside due to its two unequal towers. Normally, one of these would be open for public viewings but it was closed when I went. I found the church interiors to be quite impressive. Rather than featuring an unfinished, cemented look, the walls and ceiling of this church were decorated with lavish artwork. I could make out images of angels on the walls while the ceiling was painted in a cool blue shade with golden stars scattered all around.
the landmark of krakow – the sukiennice
From there, I made the short walk to the Cloth Hall or Sukiennice, a most unusual looking building dating back from medieval times. It was originally built as a trading hall and remarkably enough, it still functions as one today although the bulk of trading that occurs nowadays is in souvenir items. The upper floor has been converted into a museum which I did not enter due to a long queue to go up.
town hall tower
Another architectural highlight at the old town square is the Town Hall Tower which again is normally open to visitors but was closed during my visit.
For those willing to explore the small confines of the old town, there are a couple of other minor squares scattered around the walled enclosure as well as an assortment of churches and palaces. One which I made sure to visit is the house of Pope John Paul II which is now known as the Palace of the Bishops of Krakow.
From the old town square, I headed southwards and made the climb to Wawel Hill, one of Poland’s architectural highlights. If you only have time to spare to see one palace in Poland, this should be it. The climb up the hill was relatively short but steep. In all, it is 228 meters above sea level and people who make the climb come here to see Wawel Castle as well as the cathedral adjacent to it. The latter’s a highly historical place, having been around for 900 years. In the 1970s, it served as the cathedral for Pope John Paul II when he was the Archbishop of Krakow. It has served as the coronation site of Polish monarchs and a crypt below the church contains the remains of many Polish kings and saints. Its current Gothic style comes from the 14th century, during the cathedral’s third incarnation.
I also checked out Wawel Castle while I was there. It is heavily touted as one of Poland’s most cultural areas and indeed some parts of the palace look highly elaborate with artwork originating from the Renaissance period. The crown jewels from the old monarchy of Poland is also housed here.
If you have spare time: Check out the nightlife scene over at Kazimierz, which appears in Lonely Planet’s Secret Europe listing. A few hours over at Oscar Schindler’s factory is also highly recommended for its elaborate and dynamic presentation of the holocaust. It was so interesting that my 2 hours there was probably my longest museum stay ever!
Map of Krakow Walking Tour
Going to Krakow soon? Check out Tripscan to compare multi-modal transport options in getting there