Main Market Square
One of the largest medieval town squares in Europe, dates back to the 13th century. This is the place of the most “mosts”: the most important public space in Kraków, the most expansive Market Square of medieval Europe, it gathers everything most characteristic of the city and has its most distinctive hallmarks, and last but not least: the most beautiful, the most important, the most charming, the most…
From its earliest days, the Main Market Square was the centre of social and political life, the backdrop for solemn processions of monarchs and homages paid to kings, the place of triumphs, parades, and lavish weddings.
Events related to local traditions, some of which have been cultivated for decades (even centuries), lend the square a special colour. These include the procession of the Lajkonik – the Hobby Horse of Kraków, the pre-Christmas competition for the most beautiful nativity scene on the steps of the monument to Adam Mickiewicz (since 1937), and the Enthronement of the Fowler King. The square likewise cannot be imagined without the horse-drawn cabs and pigeons, the latter being knights that were transformed into birds, or so the story goes.
Must see at Main Square:
Town Hall Tower
Dating back to the fourteenth century the Gothic tower was built of brick and stone, measuring 70 meters in height. The remaining surviving monument attached to the Town Hall; which was once the main administration building in Krakow. Steep narrow stone stairs connect the exhibition halls inside the Town Hall.
The spacious hall on the first floor is one of the most beautiful Gothic interiors in Krakow. In the hall on the third floor you can admire the numerous photographs showing the Main Market Square at the beginning of the last century and the great image titled “Self Portrait of Cracovians beginning of the Third Millennium”, created on March 24, 2001 by Richard Horowitz.
From the last “floor” of the City Hall is a beautiful view on the Main Market Square and beyond.
The Wawel Castle
Wawel is a common name for the castle located on the limestone outcrop near Wisła (Vistula) river. Wawel is the very beginning of Kraków, seat of the kings, at the same time it is one of the grandest monuments of Polish and European culture and history. Kraków once used to be the European household of trade and was also non alien to political activity.
The whole castle complex comprises of the Royal Castle, the Arch-see of St. Stanislaus and Wenceslaus and the surrounding fortifications dating from 13th to 19th century. Lots of attractions await the visitors: from the castle itself (i.a. the royal treasury, armory and the royal state and private rooms), through the cathedral and its museum, the “Lost Wawel” exhibition showcasing the early medieval finds of architecture and decoration, to the royal gardens route.
In the cathedral one can find the final resting places of renowned Poles: Jan III Sobieski (the man who stopped the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683), Tadeusz Kościuszko (Polish, American, Belorussian and Lithuanian national hero, general and engineer – now his name is immortalized also as the highest peak in Australia), general Władysław Sikorski (the charismatic chief commander of Polish army and state during WW2, died mysteriously in 1943), Stefan Batory (King of Poland and former prince of Transilvania), Marshall Józef Piłsudski (if you have to compare him to anyone he was Charles de Gaulle for the Poles, being responsible for winning back independence in 1918), Adam Mickiewicz (national bard of central and eastern Europe’s nations).
Wawel is also famous for its Dragon’s Den and the dragon himself (still breathing fire at the foot of the hill, at the boulevards of Wisła) and Zygmunt, the most important and one of the largest bells of Poland, ringing only during historical events and their anniversaries.
The Castle of Wawel, along with the whole historical centre of Kraków (comprising of the old town, Kazimierz, known as Jewish quarter and Stradom, linking the aforementioned) was inducted onto the first UNESCO World Heritage List in 1978 – along with the Great Wall of China and Pyramids of Giza.
Saint Florian’s Gate
In bygone times, kings returning from victorious battles, diplomats, and illustrious guests visiting Kraków entered the city through this gate. Today St Florian’s Gate (Brama Floriańska) is one of the symbols of the city, one that welcomes tourists arriving in Krakow.
Since the Middle Ages St Florian’s was the main of the seven gates leading into the city. It was entrusted to the care of the Guild of Furriers. Its name comes from St Florian’s Church in Kleparz, yet it was also referred to in Latin as Porta Gloriae, i.e. the Gate of Glory, as this was the start of the main Royal Route (Latin: Via Regia) leading to Wawel. It was mentioned in city documents as early as 1307, yet its oldest stone section most probably dates back to the 13th/14th centuries. After the construction of the Barbican (late 15th century), it was connected to it with a fortified corridor, the so-called neck. After the destruction dealt by the Swedish onslaught in the 17th century, the tower received a new baroque dome, which crowns it to this day.
Standing 34.5 m (114 ft) tall, the gate provides a beautiful closing of the vista of Floriańska Street and the Royal Route. It is difficult to imagine that a narrow gauge tram went through it, yet it did – from 1901 to 1953, though each time to do so it had to retract its pantograph.
The Cloth Hall
Located in the middle of the biggest city square in Europe (Rynek), it is one of the most recognizable symbols of Krakow.
Built ca. 700 years ago in the heart of Krakow, where lots of city's secret are hidden. The most famous one, is probably the story about a murder between two brothers who tried to build the highest tower of St. Mary's Cathedral in the 14th century. A few meters away from the Sukiennice. The older brother murdered the younger with a knife. But once he finished his tower, he committed suicide killing himself with the same knife. The knife hangs in Sukiennice today, are you able to find it?
At the Cloth Hall you can also visit the 'Rynek Underground' Museum. It is a huge area of over 6000 square meters showcasing the life in Cracow 700 years ago with the help of screen and projectors, including remains of several medieval constructions.
The building not only hides most of the Krakow's secrets, but it holds the largest exhibition of Polish art from the 19t century on the upper floor. A must visit place especially accompanied with a cup of coffee and a delicious apple pie at the cafe on the first floor. Here you can enjoy one of the best views of the Old Square, looking for some inspiration in front of the national Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, and waiting for the Hejnal - the St.Mary's bugle call, played every hour from the windows of the highest tower of St. Mary Cathedral.
Nowadays there is a souvenirs gallery inside Sukiennice where tourists can buy amber from the Baltic Sea, folk costumes from the mountain region of Zakopane, among all kind of souvenirs, especially mascots of the famous Wawel's Dragon and various gadgets with the image of the Pope John Paul II. It isn't hard to imagine how it used to be during the Renaissance, when Sukiennice was an international trade centre and merchants sold here spices, silk, leather and salt from the Wieliczka Mines.
And last but not least, The Cloth Hall is listed as UNESCO World Heritage site since 1978. Enjoy it!
St Mary’s Church
A history spanning over eight centuries, a high altar by Veit Stoss (Wit Stwosz), a bugle call, the star strewn murals by Jan Matejko covering the vaulting: all this in a single church.
It’s worth starting your visit to St Mary’s by admiring the exterior. On the outer walls you will find many epitaphs to Krakow burghers: relics of the parish cemetery that used to surround the church until the end of the 18th century (see: St Mary’s Square).
Now it is time to turn your gaze upwards and savour the towers. The taller one, standing 81 m (266 ft) tall is crowned with a magnificent late-Gothic spire. Known as the guard or bugle call tower (strażnica, hejnalica), it has always belonged to the city: from the late Middle Ages a guard kept watch from its top day and night, looking for fires, enemies approaching Kraków, and other potential dangers. His duties also included playing the bugle call on a trumpet; initially at dawn and dusk only, to signal the opening and closing of the city gates, and from the 16th century onwards – on the hour, every hour, to mark the time. The bugle call became the musical symbol of Kraków and it resounds from the tower to this day: it is played to the four sides of the globe on the hour all day long. Yet, why does the melody break off mid-note? Legend has it that a guard began to sound the alarm having noticed the approaching Tatar hordes. He managed to warn the city of the attack, yet his throat was pierced by a Tatar arrow while playing. This is the reason why the melody of the bugle call ends so suddenly: precisely when the heroic guard stopped playing it.
The other, lower tower (69 m/226 ft) contains a complex of five bells, the oldest of which, the Pół-Zygmunt, dates back to the 15th century. Tradition has it that the strongman Stanisław Ciołek carried it up to the tower without any assistance.
The difference between the height of the two towers, finding no justification in the plans of the architects, is explained by another legend. They were built by two brothers. When the younger one realised that his was neither as high nor as beautiful as the other tower, he got hold of a knife and killed his elder brother in envy. Yet remorse plagued him: on the day of the consecration of the church, he thrust the very same knife into his heart and jumped, or fell, from the top of the church tower. The knife he purportedly used can be seen hanging in the Cloth Hall to this day, recalling that sombre story.
On the southern wall of St Mary’s, outside, just by the entrance, you can see iron rings called kuny that were fastened around the necks of sinners. You could find yourself clamped in these for adultery, drunkenness, evading promised marriage, failure to observe fasts, working on Sunday and church holidays, and even for petty theft. People locked up here could be freely mocked and jeered at by those entering the church, so many locals breathed a sigh of relief when this church penalty was withdrawn (albeit very late: in the 18th century!). It is worth letting yourself be placed in the kuny of your own free will: they say that it is a way to secure luck and constancy in love for yourself.
Our attention is also riveted by the 19th-century polychrome murals: the work of master Jan Matejko (the starry skies are another of his ideas) and his students, including Stanisław Wyspiański and Józef Mehoffer, eminent designers of the stained glass decorations in the window of the western wall.
One of the very few surviving pieces of fortification of its kind. Commonly referred to as Rondel because of its round shape. In the past it was connected with St. Florian’s Gate and formed an imposing section of the walls once encircling the old town. Many apertures in the structure served as loopholes for the defenders.
Nowadays Barbakan belongs to the Historical Museum of Kraków and is open for visitors. Inside one will find exhibitions and galleries, but the building is also used as a location for sport (swordmanship), knights’ tourneys, court dances or other elements of culture of Rzeczpospolita, that is the old Republic of Poland.
During summer the place offers BarbaKino – interesting opportunity for cinema-lovers.