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Top 10 Things to do in Krakow

Krakow is definitely one of the interesting cities in Europe where history, legends and development melt together. This old, polish city is simultaneously charming, fascinating, beautiful and cheap which makes it perfect for a big city trip. The historic center, famous for its fascinating cultural attractions, is one of the most beautiful Europe has to offer and has even been adopted into Unesco’s World Heritage List. A monumental royal palace, a gigantic medieval marketplace and plenty of other historic monuments that catch the breath of most are amongst the top 10 things to do and experience in Krakow. Krakow is also perfectly located to see other famous attractions nearby like the 700 year old Wieliczka Salt mine, also part of Unesco’s World Heritage List, and of course the World War 2 concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Wawel Castle - the most historically and culturally important site in Krakow

1. Wawel Castle

The Wawel Castle, located in the heart of Krakow on the same named Wawel Hill, constitutes the most historically and culturally important site in Krakow and even entire Poland and is by far one of the most important sights to see in Krakow. When you go to Krakow try to remember the name ‘Casimir the Great’ because he was the one on whose behest the castle was built, making it one of the largest in entire Poland. Wawel Castle was for centuries used as the kings’ residence from the early 11th century up until the 17th century which made all of the rulers add their own architectural style to it. The castle itself though is only a small part of a bigger complex consisting of several structures like the cathedral as well, some of them dating back to the 14th century, and representing a great variety of European architectural styles; from medieval to baroque, most periods are present.

The main market square - one of Europe’s largest medieval town square

2. The Main Market Square

This big urban space located in the center of a city which can be found in basically every city is what is called the Main Market Square ‘Rynek Glowny’ in Krakow, located in the Old Town of the city which has been adopted into UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1978. The square dates back to the 13th century and with a size of around 4 ha makes it one of Europe’s largest medieval town squares. In this open and clean space surrounded by elegant townhouses each with their own unique name and story makes a great atmosphere. The very middle of the square is dominated by the Cloth Hall (the one you see in this picture), a trading hall that was rebuilt in 1555 in a Renaissance style which used to be the major center of international trade. Until today the Cloth Hall is still being used as a trading hall where merchant stalls are selling amber, lace, woodwork and assorted tourist stuff.

Visiting the St. Mary's Basilica

3. St. Mary's Basilica

Adjacent to the Main Market Square is the St. Mary’s Basilica, a Gothic brick church dating back to the 14th century making it one of the best examples of Polish Gothic architecture. The existing foundations of this church date even further back but due to raids in the 13th century there was not much left of the original church but ruins and thus St. Mary’s was rebuilt merely on its foundations. The iconic towers of this church rise high above the market square being 80 meters high. It is also from this very tower that the famous hourly trumpet call is made – one of the cities’ enduring traditions. The tune ironically breaks off mid-melody in honour of the mythical trumpeter who was shot in the neck while belatedly warning the city of Mongol invaders. This is an absolute “don’t-miss-this-situation”.

Kazimierz - the historic district south of the Old Town in Krakow

4. Kazimierz - The Jewish Quarter

No trip to Krakow is complete without a tour through Kazimierz - the historic district south of the Old Town in Krakow and former center of Jewish life. Before it was systematically destroyed in WWII this district was the home of Jewish people for more than 500 years! After World War II followed the communist era where this district slowly fell into disrepair. Luckily, this era ended as well and when the district was rediscovered in the 90’s it was able to rebound from its past and is today one of the most exciting and hip districts in Krakow to visit. In this bohemian neighbourhood the atmosphere is bustling with people, packed with historical sites (like the Remuh Cemetery on this picture), atmospheric cafés, cozy galleries and antique shops. Not only has this district rebound with its Jewish history, in fact, this place conveys a sense of pre-war Jewish culture with numerous synagogues and Jewish cemeteries like no other place drawing tourists towards it like a magnetic force which ultimately has led to the return of contemporary Jewish culture.

So much interesting historical pieces in Krakow

5. The Barbican

Next up the Krakow Barbican which is…well, a barbican – a fortified outpost which once was connected to the city walls. The Barbican is a historic showpiece of the city’s medieval defenses against the Turk’s and Tartar’s which was built in the 15th century to protect Krakows northernmost gateway leading into to Old Town. The Barbican was connected to the Florian’s Gate (next stop) via a drawbridge over the surrounding moat. The Barbican was built in Gothic style architecture in the shape of an incomplete circle comprising seven turrets but its uniqueness definitely lies in the excellent arrangement of defensive features. With incredible 3 meters (!!!!) thick walls and an inner diameter of 24,4 meters this medieval military masterpiece proved impenetrable and stands until this day as one of the only surviving structures of its kind in Europe. You can probably guess what I'm trying to tell you here...go see it, it's a must!

The gate to Krakow

6. St. Florian's Gate

Not far from the Main Market Square and right in front of the above mentioned Barbican stands a focal point of the Old Town, the Florian Gate, the main gate of the seven gates leading into the city. Today, St. Florian’s Gate still remains the primary entry point to the Old Town leading you through the Florianska Street in the direction of the Main Market Square. St. Florian’s Gate is a rectangular Gothic tower erected in 1307 as part of the defense fortifications against the Turkish and stands thus aligned with the defense walls with a height of 34,5 meters. After the Tartar attack in the 13th century where most of the city was destroyed the construction of new defense features began, this tower included. This gate is the next building structure you will see after passing through the Barbican and cross the bridge that connects the two structures. Also, Krakow’s Royal Route begins at the Florian Gate through which the kings and princes once passed after glorious battles en route to Wawel Castle.

Hiding in the underground of Krakow

7. Rynek Underground Museum

Walking around on the Main Market Square one may not realize that hidden four meters underneath the surface lays a treasure of knowledge about Krakow’s past in the shape of a huge site of archaeological works in the underground. The archaeological works began in 2005 after the discovery of various artefacts around the above mentioned Cloth Hall and were supposed to only last 6 months. While the excavations were carried out it was realized that the extent was way bigger than first planned and so the excavation works were extended and lasted 5 years in total which somehow is no surprise considering that the Main Square contains history of 1000 years. The results of these excavations are shown in the hi-tech and highly popular Rynek Underground Museum which you can enter on the site opposite from the St. Mary’s Basilica. Over the course of 4000 m2 you can explore the city’s entire history of the past 700 years and even beyond. My favorite part were the skeletons!

A fun experienc and a change of scenery

8. MOCAK - Museum of Contemporary Art

Now that we’ve been through the most important cultural venues of the Old Town in Krakow let’s refresh our minds with something more…contemporary, like for instance the Museum of Contemporary Art, MOCAK. The relatively new museum was opened in 2011 and is located around 3 km from the city center on a demolished part of Oskar Schindler’s factory from WWII. While I must admit that I’m often overwhelmed by contemporary art because most of the time I don’t understand it, the exhibited art in MOCAK did not disappoint me! One of the most important aims of this museum is to present art of the last two decades, highlighting both Polish and international art that are showcased pieces designed across a variety of media with the aim to demystify what contemporary art often is. But not only was the content impressive, the building itself in its avant-garde style is absolutely admirable too, blending well in with its industrial surroundings; the factory’s and warehouses nearby.

So much cruelty happened here

9. Ausschwitz-Birkenau

Except from being a great city itself Krakow also works as a great base for daytrips to for instance the former German concentration and extermination camp Ausschwitz-Birkenau. This is not a place I am excited about to recommend but it’s still that sort of place you need to go to understand the cruelty of our history. The day we went there the weather was just as grey and moody as the whole atmosphere in and around the former concentration camp. With a heavy feeling in my chest I walked through the gateway and followed the paths of Ausschwitz were 1,1 million people have lost their live between May 1940 and January 1945, primarily Jewish people. Ausschwitz was by far the largest and lethal concentration and extermination camp built by the German Nazis. The German Nazis made no difference in age or gender, everyone was deported to the camp and either murdered or enslaved and dehumanized in every possible way. For so long I thought about what to write and how to describe the horror of this place, but no word could ever be sufficient to describe the Holocaust.

Underneath the ground lies a gem

10. Wieliczka Salt Mine

My last recommendation to you when you go to Krakow is to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine around 14 km southeast of Krakow. Excavated since the 13th century the salt mine produced salt continuously until 2007 being one of the world’s oldest operating salt mines. Today, the Wieliczka Salt Mine is declared an official Polish Historic Monument that was listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1978. For everyone who doesn’t know what to expect, then imagine an underground city comprising of 300 km tunnels and chambers distributed over nine levels, the deepest of them being 327 meters under the ground of which a small part is open to the public. The salt-hewn chambers include chapels with altarpieces, statues and monuments and even beautiful emerald underground lakes like this one in the picture. The highlight of your tour through the salt mine will doubtless be the vast chamber containing the Chapel of St. Kinga. If you want to see it, you need to go 'cause I'm keeping these beautiful pictures aaaaall to myself. Everything in this chamber is made out of salt – the chandelier, the altarpiece…everything! This took 3 men over 30 years to complete this incredible underground temple. So, now you know you need to go.


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