There’s so much to see and do in Krakow – Poland’s so-called “Cultural Capital” – that’s it’s practically impossible to do it all in one visit. During my six days there, I stepped inside the many beautiful Gothic and Renaissance churches, toured the spacious rooms of the 16th – 17th century Royal Castle, strolled colossal Market Square (one of Europe’s largest), walked the streets of the Kazimierz neighborhood with its old synagogues, and of course stopped to relax at some of the many cafes and restaurants. What makes Krakow so appealing and awe inspiring are the buildings, with some dating back to medieval times and almost all surviving the destruction of World War II, unlike many Polish cities including Warsaw and Gdansk.
VIDEO: Street musician at Church of Sts. Peter and Paul.
My favorite spot is bustling central Market Square, dominated by the twin-towered Church of St. Mary. On any summer day, tourists cram the square’s sidewalk cafes and restaurants and cluster around street musicians hustling for a few Polish zloty coins. Yes there’s a statue in the center (Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz flanked by allegorical figures), but what makes this square so unlike others in Europe is the elongated Cloth Hall marketplace building right in the middle. Inside is a stretch of market stalls reminding me of a single street of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Shops line the Venetian-style arcades on the building’s side entrances, and on the second floor sit both a café with great views of the square and a fine arts gallery with 19th century Polish paintings.
VIDEO: Market Square on a Beautiful Summer Day
Visitors flood through colossal St. Mary’s at all hours of the day to see the church’s 40-foot-high multi-paneled, 15th century alter paintings. From the church’s twin towers – each with a unique spire – stems the legend of why one tower is taller than the other. As the story goes, two brothers were competing to build their towers and when the elder brother finished first, he killed the younger brother so his tower would not be as tall. The elder brother felt remorseful and jumped to his death from a high window in his tower. Another legend reveals how a tower bugler was shot in the throat with an arrow, thus abruptly ending the song. Today, a trumpeter plays through different tower windows hourly and ends the song abruptly, according to the legend (see video below).
VIDEO: St. Mary’s Tower Trumpeter
Anyone up to the challenge of huffing and puffing up some 270 steps can see a grand view of Market Square from one of the church’s towers. To see the square from above, I walked to the other side of Cloth Hall and climbed the Town Hall Tower, the only part of the 13th century Town Hall that remains today. Before climbing the 130 steps, an attendant warned me to watch my footing up the twisting stairwell. “The step are different sizes, some taller than others,” he said. Well, that’s exactly what I found, making my climb a bit tedious but well worth it once looking down upon the frolicking pedestrian scene below.
On Wawel Hill, I twist and grunt as I climb 70 or so steps of yet another narrow stairwell, up Krakow Cathedral’s Zygmunt Tower. I maneuver past the church bells and up to a window with sweeping views of red-roofed Old Town with its Renaissance and Baroque church steeples. “We see the roofs of many churches because at the time when Krakow was the political capital it was also the center of religious life,” says Krakow tour guide Marta Weigel. “And that’s why we have so many churches in our city.” From up here, I can also see where the medieval city walls once ringed the town – the walls now long gone, but in their place is what’s known as the Planty, a horseshoe-shaped greenbelt and park. Wawel Cathedral was where Karol Wojtyla was Cardinal before becoming Pope John Paul II.
Striking views along the Vistula River can be seen from the vantage point of the Royal Castle on Wawel Hill, while those bold enough to go up in a hot air balloon can see similar views nearby. And away from the city center, a hike up the circular pathways ascending the 112-foot-high Tadeusz Kościuszko Mound – dedicated to the Polish general and American Revolutionary War hero – yields stunning views of the entire Krakow metropolitan area.
These are just a few of the highlights from my Krakow visit. Other notable sights include the Florian Gate and the Barbican, part of the old city walls and a short walk down the pedestrian Florianska Street from Market Square; and Schindler Factory Museum and Ghetto Heroes Square, dedicated to holocaust victims.