Krakow has a very striking feature when you visit, its rare beauty that seems untouched by modernity when, in fact, Krakow is a European leader in digital technology and services, you can enter a centuries old building and pay with your contactless device. The Old Town is aptly named as the majority of buildings are not from a new age program so a lot of the architecture is pre pre-WW2 and all the way back to the 12th century and even further in certain places. Poland is actually in the centre of Europe and not in the East as one may assume due to the Soviet occupation period. Glorious Krakow has a rich, colourful and progressive history and when Poland joined the EU in 2004 the city has become a popular European destination to visit. Today Krakow enjoys over 14 million tourist visits a year from all over the world and a favourite Stag and Hen Party destination with the nightlife being so vibrant and locally brewed beers and ales the city has a great deal to offer, rich in folklore, art, theatre, tourist attractions and nature, lakes and forests in the outlying districts.
The very first place of interest and beauty is Rynek, also known as the Draper’s Square as in the past Europe’s largest square in existence was an important textile and cloth trading centre. In fact, the world’s silk trading centre back in the 13th century. This medieval era piazza has hardly changed since those early times and only had to be rebuilt after the Mongol invasion of 1241. The Cloth Hall or Sukiennice which houses restaurants and souvenir shops today and Town Hall or Ratusz were added by King Casimir III. The Ratusz was demolished in 1820 leaving only the main tower standing on the square today. The square itself measures almost 4 hectares and is host to a tremendous amount of activity including festivals, markets, buildings and monuments. Rynek is surrounded by cafes, restaurants, hotels, pubs & clubs, a waxwork museum, cinema, theatre and live music venues. On Rynek there is the St. Mary’s Basilica or Kościół Mariacki with its twin towers and bugler sounding every hour of the day from the tallest turret is a marvellous 14th century Gothic church, however, all the interior and its 26 altars were refurbished in the 18th century Baroque style although the neo-Gothic design was brought back in the late 1800s which is visible especially in the stained glass windows.
The basilica also had its own parish cemetery adjacent to it but was later turned into a white stoned lined square called Plac Mariacki which leads to Maly Rynek or Little Rynek Square. A second small domed church, in fact, one of Poland’s oldest known religious buildings, St. Alderbert’s Church or Sw. Wojciech, this petite church in comparison is more than a 1,000 years old. The building was used as a meeting place for merchants and the aristocracy visiting the silk and textile trade exchange before the Sukiennice was built. Next to the Town Hall Tower lies the ever popular ‘Head’ as it is affectionately known or Krakow’s very own Eros Bandato. The huge head of Eros sculpted in bronze laid on its side provides many a happy photograph for visitors. The market square is host to a feast of entertainment throughout the year with the Dragon Parade, Easter Fayre, Summer time open air Music & Theatre productions and Christmas market being the most popular as well as guided sightseeing walks and organised pub crawls. The underground museum below Rynek, Podziemia Rynku, which depicts the daily life of Cracovians through its long history with a number of fascinating exhibitions on display using technology to create the illusion and atmosphere of medieval times. One unusual artefact on display is the huge lead ball in this 6,000m2 interactive museum including a crypt, a bakery and many other life-like recreations. Each road or street leading off the square reveals more of the illustrious Krakow past and one in particular is Brama Florianska or St. Florian’s Tower Gate part of the once required defence barriers, this imposing tower archway is the start of the Royal Thoroughfare down to the main square then onwards to the Wawel Royal Castle.
All those of royal status or important dignitaries were brought through this tower gate in ceremonial style. Today the city gate walls display paintings by local artists. The Royal Castle is open and allows you experience the bygone times similar to the underground museum. Also Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of ‘Lady in Ermine’ is exhibited in one of its art galleries. In the adjoining Wawel Cathedral is where all Poland’s Kings, Queens and Heroes are buried. Ten different areas exhibiting everything from art to arms of varied periods in its history in this listed Unesco World Heritage site. The Jagellonian University which was established in 1364 again by King Casimir III has a student population of around 200,000 with all its different faculties. The university had it golden period during the Renaissance in the 16th century but nearly closed after the Napoleonic Wars and was used as a grain store until saved by King Ferdinand 1 of Austria who reigned over Poland after the partitions. Some famous Alumni are Nicolaus Copernicus (astronomer), Saint Karol Wojtila (Pope John Paul II) and Krzystof Penderecki (composer & conductor). Naturally, the students animate the Old Town and Kazimierz another popular area in Krakow to visit. If you are here in May or June then you will witness the Juvenalia celebrations when the students take over Krakow and hold a great many festivals, concerts and exhibitions around the city.
The area known as Kazimierz which expands over the Vistula River is where you can learn about the Jewish way of life from early times to the tragic WW2 period. A popular part of Krakow synagogues & museums celebrating the Jewish heritage. Today Kazimierz is a vibrant and bustling hive of activity day and night with its markets, festivals and attractions along with unusual pubs and clubs, definitely an area to visit which holds formidable past. and popular with Krakow’s student population. The Krakow Jewish quarter was used in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and the original Schindler’s factory is now open for visitors and you might want to see Plac Bohaterow Ghetta, a square with large chairs symbolising all the ill-fated people waiting to be transported to Nazi camps.
Krakow is not only a cultural mecca but also a modern city with superb fun activities for your friends to enjoy while here- the Aqua Park is a great day out, pools, water slides and jacuzzis or maybe something more upbeat like the popular Krakow Shooting Range or the challenging Olympic white water rafting circuit (p.s-there are expert Krakow stag do companies who can organise all these activities for you and even more- have a look at e.g.: https://partykrakow.co.uk/ ).
Whatever your reason to visit Krakow I hope you can stay longer than planned as you will certainly want to come back and take in the atmosphere and sights that you couldn’t put on the itinerary, many people do exactly that and so did I.