In between meeting with my co-worker (who also travelled to Kraków the same weekend), my friend and my family, I made the decision to stick with the old town of the city, as there is always something about Poland’s old towns that draws me to them.
1. Wawel Castle
This is the royal castle in Kraków, which also includes a Church. Parts of this castle are currently under construction, and the museum and church are open during certain hours of the day. Unfortunately, I missed the time slot for it during my visit here this time around because of the 5 hour train ride, but I remember the church as being fascinating. The Castle holds a huge historical importance to the Polish people because all of the Kings and Queens of Poland were crowned and buried here, in addition to those who are considered heros because they have fought for the freedom of the motherland–such as Thaddeus Kosciusko (for y’all New Yorkers reading this, this is NOT a bridge). You can enter the crypt of the church and see all of the tombs of these people. The castle has in recent years also been at the center of some controversy because the Polish President, Lech Kaczynski, who died in a downed plane in April of 2010 is buried there. Some Polish people believe that he is not deserving of such an honor to be buried there, because he did not “fight” for the country, and also, as a president of Poland, he should have been buried with all the other presidents in Warsaw.
Lastly, but probably most importantly (well because this is my favorite)–is the fact that this castle is at the center of a legend involving a dragon, which you can read more about here. You can find the dragon statue at the base of the Wawel Castle, facing the river. It occasionally lets out puffs of smoke from it’s maw–that is if you send a text message requesting it to do so.
The Church also allows access to the top, where you can see all the bells in its possession-some of which still ring today. There is a legend that if you touch one of the bells, the bell of Sisigmund (Zygmunt, in Polish), you’ll get lucky. It’s a rather large bell, made in a gothic style that is rung on certain occasions.
2. Old Town
The old town itself is very big, and it is easy to get lost in. Two things that I discovered by wandering around the place for 48 hours is that it is all interconnected, so you can walk in circles, and that it has a LOT of churches within short distance of each other.
It’s also super colorful and has many stores and restaurants. Within the Old Town, you’ll find the Main Square, and the Sukennice, which I’ll talk about next. I didn’t walk around the Old Town with much purpose, but rather to get lost and to explore the city in my own way–just strolling around and taking in the sights. Nevertheless, it’s easy to get lost in, if you don’t know how it is laid out, so occasionally do check your map. Alas, 48 hours to see the totality of this city is not enough, and I think I could keep coming back and seeing new things.
One thing to note about the old town in Kraków is that, unlike Warsaw’s reconstructed Old Town, it’s the original old town. It was saved by the citizens of the city from the Nazis, so they never had a chance to blow it up. All of this is very old, and historic (although I find it hard to believe that hot pink was a color they used in the 1500s), so what you see is what existed and was used by the citizens of this city years ago. It’s also larger because until 1565, Kraków was the capital of the Polish side of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Old Town was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978.
3. Main Square
So the old town has two market squares that I am aware of, but the one that is the most famous is the one that houses both St Mary’s Basilica (known as Kościół Mariacki in Polish) and the Sukennice (Cloth Hall). It’s a very big main square–and the largest one that I have seen as far as Medieval cities go.
It has three streets coming out of it, on each side of the square, and is surrounded by apartment buildings and churches. On the square itself, in addition to the Basilica, there’s another church–that of St. Adalbert (Wojciech in Polish)–and some statues.
Most of all, it is a very lively area. There are restaurants, performers, horse-drawn carriages everywhere, and if you’re walking around early in the morning, you can even get an occasional car passing through. Sometimes, you’ll find protests (so be careful). On one side, it continues to be a market, with people selling their wares–I’ve seen pottery, wooden spoons, clothes, and a blacksmith–selling their goods there. So it seems like it’s still being used for it’s intended 13th century purpose, and it can be a good place to go buy your souvenirs if you’re willing to spend some time looking from shop to shop.
4. St. Mary’s Basilica
At the time of my visit, the inside of this Basilica was undergoing renovation, which I doubt will be finished any time soon. Still, visiting it even while it’s under renovation, gives you a sense of the church, and it’s beauty. It’s dark inside, mostly staying with red, greens and oranges in color, and has a lot of gold. It looks big from the outside, but from the inside, the main nave looks small; however, when you see the various naves to different saints, it does add on in space.
One thing that makes this Basilica special, to me at least, is that on every hour, a trumpeter signals the hour. If you listen to it, it breaks off mid-note at one point, in a nod to a very famous trumpeter of the 13th century, who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm of the Mongol invasion. My dad always used to say that aside from the first several notes of the trumpet signal, the rest of the signal passed away with the man who died, so no one truly knows what the full signal is. It’s worth a listen, at least because of the history behind it.
5. Sukennice (Cloth Hall)
This use to be the market hall of the Main Square, which at one point or another included merchants selling imported items such as silk, spices, leather and wax, even though Krakow was an exporter of textile, lead, and salt at that time.
Today, it continues to be a market hall, with numerous merchants selling their wares–mostly souvenirs, slippers, and croqueted table-cloths. The upper level is a museum with the largest permanent exhibit of 19th Century Polish paintings and sculptures.
In Addition: Wieliczka Salt Mine
If you time it right, with an early arrival in Kraków, you can do most of the above items in one day, which leaves you the next day free. You can use that day to go to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which is located next to Kraków. It’s a very interesting place to visit and has a spa, as well as one of the largest (I think?!) underground Cathedrals…all made out of Salt. Worth a visit.