Things to Do in Krakow
The cobblestone Main Square (Rynek Główny) of Krakow Old Town is Central Europe’s largest and has been the center of the city’s social, religious and political life since the Middle Ages. Today it 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 district 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.
Oskar Schindler was a wealthy German Nazi who employed hundreds of Jews in his Krakow enamel factory, which ultimately led to many saved lives. Schindler’s part in all this is immortalized in the Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List.
Since June 2010, Schindler’s old factory has housed a highly emotive, interactive and visually stunning permanent exhibition on the Nazi occupation of Krakow. The horrors of the regime are showcased, from the early days of uneasy truce between Poles and Germans to the ultimate mass genocide of Jews and Poles alike in concentration camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. The multimedia and intense 3-D diorama displays in the “Krakow Under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945” exhibit harshly bring to reality the repeated atrocities, the liquidation of 3,000 Jews from the Podgorzé ghetto in 1943 and the final days of the war.
Kazimierz - or Jewish District - was for a long time an independent town with its own municipal charter and laws. Its colorful history was determined by its mixed Jewish-Polish population, and though the ethnic structure is now wholly different, the architecture gives a good picture of its past, with clearly distinguishable sectors of what were Christian and Jewish quarters. The suburb is home to many important tourist sights, including churches, synagogues and museums. The western part of Kazimierz was traditionally Catholic, and although many Jews settled here from the early 19th century until WWII - for example, the main Jewish hospital was on ul Skawińska - the quarter preserves much of its original character, complete with its churches.
A tiny area of about 300m by 300m northeast of Corpus Christi Church, the Jewish sector of Kazimierz became, over the centuries, a centre of Jewish culture equal to no other in the country.
The lop-sided towers of the majestic St 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.
The political and cultural centre of Poland until the end of the 16th century, Wawel Royal Castle, also known as Zamek Wawelski is, like Wawel Cathedral, the very symbol of Poland's national identity. The original, rather small residence of the Zamek Wawelski was built in the early 11th century by King Bolesław Chrobry beside t he chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary (known as the Rotunda of SS Felix and Adauctus). King Kazimierz Wielki turned it into a formidable Gothic castle, but when it burned down in 1499, King Zygmunt Stary commissioned a new residence. Within 30 years a splendid Renaissance palace, designed by Italian architects, was in place. Despite further extensions and alterations, the 3-store Renaissance structure, complete with a courtyard arcaded on three sides, has been preserved to this day. Repeatedly sacked and vandalized by the Swedish and Prussian armies, the castle was occupied after the Third Partition by the Austrians.
The Sanctuary of Divine Mercy 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.
The focal building of Krakow’s fanciful Main Square (Rynek Główny), the Cloth Hall 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.
In March 1941, thousands of Krakow’s Jews were forcibly moved and incarcerated within the Podgórze ghetto south of Kazimierz. Plac Zgody, a large square in the heart of the ghetto, was the departure point during World War II for Jews boarding trains to Paszów, Auschwitz and various other camps. It has since been renamed Ghetto Heroes Square in honor of the Jewish deportees.
Today the entire square serves as a memorial to the Krakow Jews. Designed by local architects Piotr Lewicki and Kazimierz Latak, the memorial comprises 70 empty chairs placed at regular intervals throughout the open space — a chilling reminder of the furniture, luggage and other personal belongings that littered the square after the final deportations and razing of the ghetto in 1942 and 1943.
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.
More Things to Do in Krakow
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.
Wawel Cathedral - or Katedra Wawelska - has witnessed most of the coronations, funerals and entombments of Poland's monarchs and strongmen over the centuries, and wandering around the grandiose funerary monuments and royal sarcophagi is like a fast-forward tour through Polish history. The cathedral is both an extraordinary artistic achievement and Poland's spiritual sanctuary. The building you see is the third church on this site, consecrated in 1364. The original cathedral was founded sometime after the turn of the first millennium by King Bolesław Chrobry and was replaced with a larger Romanesque construction around 1140. When it burned down in 1305, only the Crypt of St Leonard survived.
The present-day Katedra Wawelska is basically a Gothic structure but chapels in different styles were built around it later. Before you enter, note the massive iron door and, hanging on a chain to the left, huge prehistoric animal bones.
The Bonerowski Palace is a luxury hotel in the heart of Krakow’s Old Town. Dating back to the 13th century, it was then significantly renovated in the 19th century, at which time the entire building was raised up to three floors and a new staircase was added.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, the building has many remarkable features, including a 70-foot-long chandelier in the lobby (the longest in Europe), a Gothic pillar on the first floor and a 17th-century polychrome on the second floor. It was opened as a hotel in 2007 and has been named the best luxury hotel in Poland. The palace is perfectly situated to explore Krakow as it is within walking distance of a number of important attractions, including the Czartoryski Museum, the Collegium Maius building of Jagiellion University, the Dominican Church, the Franciscan Church and the Barbakan fortress.
In 1499 Krakow was a wealthy city under constant threat of attack, especially from the rampaging Ottomans. So they made themselves into a fortress. The Great Barbican is both the principal entry point to the city and a massive seven turreted point of defense. These days it looks like a fairytale city gate, back then it was either a massive relief to reach it with your wagons intact, or a deterrent to your planned attack on the city.
The actual gate to the city was St Florian's gate, linked to the Barbican by a covered passageway. But the Barbican and the series of moats and walls which lead away from it, ringing the city, were the first point of entry to Krakow in the Middle Ages. Today, you still enter the Old Town of the city through the impressive Barbican.
Podgorze is a district of Krakow on the southern bank of the Vistula River and at the base of Lasota Hill. It was originally a separate city, but in 1915, as the Austro-Hungarian Empire was beginning to collapse, the town was combined with Krakow. The neighborhood was home to a large Jewish population, and thousands of its residents were sent to concentration camps during World War II. Several signs of the neighborhood's past can still be found here. One significant memorial is Plac Bohaterow Getta (Ghetto Heroes Square), a monument using large metal chairs that commemorates the heroes of the ghetto and the victims of the Holocaust. This is where many waited to board trains that took them to Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps.
There are several other memorials including Eagle Pharmacy and Plaszow Camp Memorial. Schindler's Factory, which is now a museum, is also located in this district. This is the factory the movie Schindler's List was based on.
Tadeusz Pankiewicz’s pharmacy in the heart of Podgórze ran quite smoothly until 1941 when the Nazis closed off the surrounding area and created a ghetto for the Jewish community. And although Pankiewicz was offered to move the Aryan side of the city at the time, he chose to stay in the ghetto, where he was able to supply the residents with medication and various pharmaceutical products that were not only used for health reasons but also to help them mislead the Gestapo; for example, many residents used hair dyes to disguise their identity, or even tranquilizers to keep children quiet during raids. The pharmacy itself was often used as a shelter to Jews who escaped deportation to the camps.,
The pharmacy is now part of the Krakow Historical Museum and has been restored to its wartime appearance. Multimedia exhibits and various artifacts, as well as numerous testimonials from Holocaust survivors and Poles, inform visitors about the reality of life in the ghetto.
The biggest museum in all of Krakow, the National Museum, is actually the regional (and most important) branch of Poland’s National Museum - There are over 21 departments in Krakow alone, made up of 12 conservation workshops, 2 libraries and 11 galleries, each divided by art period, for a grand total of over 780,000 artworks. The museum came to be after Henryk Siemiradzki, one of Poland’s most celebrated painters, offered one of his works to the city of Krakow; soon after, hundreds of other artists and collectors started doing the same – forcing the city to adopt a special motion to house this invaluable collection. By creating the museum, the Polish government wanted to promote the achievements of the Krakow artistic community and the fine arts in general to the people of Poland, and, later on, to visitors from around the world.
While not nearly as big as other archaeology museums in the world, that of Krakow’s has the particularity of being home to the world’s only Slavonic god to ever be unearthed – an 8-feet tall, 4-faced piece of stone. There are hundreds of other artifacts inside the museum, which offers fascinating information on the ancient people that once commanded Eastern Europe. The permanent collection consists of two exhibitions: one called Prehistory and the Early Middle Ages that focuses on the evolution of the Neanderthal cavemen to the early-medieval Poles, and another called Gods of Ancient Egypt displaying a mesmerizing collection of Egyptian antiquities. There is also a space reserved for temporary collections, which have gained quite a reputation throughout the years for being particularly interesting.
This church is one of the oldest stone-built religious buildings in all of Poland, with some of the eldest relics dating back to the 10th century. In fact, it has been around for so long that its floor is actually situated roughly two meters under the current level of the square, which was covered with different layers of pavement throughout the centuries. The church underwent several renovations according to the style that was fashionable from one era to the next, but it has remained relatively untouched since it was revamped in Baroque style in the 1610s. In opposition to the grand and voluminous St. Mary’s Basilica on the other end of the square, St. Adalbert Church is actually quite small and confined.
According to the legend, the church was erected on the site where St. Adalbert preached a famous sermon before he left on a mission to bring Christianity to Prussia that would lead him to his untimely and martyr death.
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