Grading: A – If you’re into European history, you will love Krakow’s rich historical tapestry. The preservation, the age, and the condition of these historic structures and relics is amazing. However, if you have young children, this likely won’t be a stop for you, as most little ones don’t find old cathedrals and fortresses very exciting.
Krakow is one of the oldest cities in Poland and has one of the largest medieval town squares in Europe. Dating back to the 7th century, Krakow is cloaked in history. One of the most famous and important areas within Krakow is that of Wawel Hill, which houses Wawel Castle and Wawel Royal Cathedral. For many centuries, Wawel Castle (pronounced “Vavel”) was the seat of Poland’s national government and home to the Polish ruler. The Royal Cathedral within the castle walls, is famous for its coronations of Polish monarchs, being the site of the first mass given by Karol Wojtyla (later becoming Pope John Paul II) after becoming a priest, and one of the main Polish centers of Christianity.
On the banks of the Vistula River, you can find Wawel Hill. This patch of limestone rock formed 150 million years ago and provided safety for people as long as thousands of years ago. It was fitting therefore, that early rulers chose to build their castle on this hill during the 14th century.
Today, Wawel Castle still sits atop Wawel Hill in all of its red bricked majestic glory. Built by King Casimir III, the castle is one of Poland’s largest. High brick walls surround this castle on a hill, equipped with several buildings, a cathedral, and a large courtyard and garden. Because of Wawel Hill’s and Wawel Castle’s rich history, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978 as part of the Historic Center of Krakow. For centuries, the kings of Poland called Wawel Castle home. As Warsaw had become the capital of Poland centuries before World War II, Wawel Castle and most of Krakow was spared from the many bombings of the war. Since WWII, Wawel Castle has largely been an art museum, holding Renaissance paintings, sculptures, tapestries, ceramics, historical furniture, and even Oriental art. Wawel Cathedral is still a functioning church, with daily mass, confession, and church celebrations throughout the year.
Before you walk up to the castle entrance, walk towards the Vistula River to look for the dragon sculpture known as Smok Wawelski or Wawel Dragon. He is a famous dragon in Polish folklore, that once lived in a cave at the bottom of Wawel Hill. A metal sculpture of the dragon was placed in front of the Dragon’s Den (a cave you can tour at Wawel Castle) in 1972 and has been known to shoot fire out of his mouth. (I stood and waited for 20 minutes waiting for fire, before I gave up and kept walking!)
As you walk up to the castle, you realize its perfect placement, being perched atop Wawel Hill. You get a nice view of the Vistula River and parts of Krakow. Take one of two paths up to the castle and be sure to stop for any tickets you might need along the way, should you pass a ticket office.
Be sure to visit the garden and courtyard among the buildings of the castle.
Remember to purchase tickets for everything you want to see, except for general entry into the cathedral (a fee is required only to see a few special sites, see below). Note that there also is no entry fee to simply walk around the grounds. There is a set number of tickets that are sold each day and during the busy summer months, tickets sell out early. Tickets for castle exhibitions are for specific times only. Keep in mind that no photographs are allowed anywhere inside the castle’s exhibitions.
Within the walls of Wawel Castle is Archcathedral Basilica St. Stanislaus and St. Wenceslaus, often simply called Wawel Royal Cathedral or Wawel Cathedral. The first cathedral in this site was built in the 11th century and the cathedral currently standing is the third building, crafted in the 14th century. This cathedral was the coronation site of Polish monarchs and is now is the Polish national sanctuary; it has become a place many Catholics pilgrimage too, as well as a place to celebrate important events in Polish history. Many Polish royalty are buried here as well. Architecturally, it’s a very interesting structure to look at due to the different design styles added on through the years.
As admission to the cathedral is free, anyone in line can enter. When I visited, many people here were part of a large group tour. If you are interested in getting more information about the cathedral’s history, take a tour or rent an audio guide; I walked through the church alone, picking up bits and pieces of information from different tour groups along the way.
As most historically significant churches are large, architecturally stunning, and opulent, this one is no different. You first see the Sarcophagus of St. Stanislaus upon entering. At the end of the expanse, you can see the main gold altar, decorated with a crucifixion painting from the 17th century.
Eighteen different stunning and ornate chapels can be found within Wawel Cathedral. If you want to see the Sigismund Bell, the Royal Tombs, and the Cathedral Museum, be sure to purchase a ticket at the ticket office BEFORE entering the church.
Tip:Trying visiting early in the day or closer to closing time to enjoy the cathedral with fewer tourists.
Important Info for Wawel Cathedral
Open: April – October: Monday through Saturday – 9am – 5pm, Sundays 12:30pm – 5 pm. November through March:Monday through Saturday 9am – 4 pm, Sundays 12:30pm – 4pm.
Note: Wawel Cathedral is closed New Year’s Day, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday, All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1), Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day.
Admission: Free, EXCEPT to see the Sigismund Bell, Royal Tombs, and Cathedral Museum, which costs 12 zloty for adults and 7 zloty for students and senior citizens. There are also audio guides available for a small fee.
The Barbican, St. Florian’s Gate, and the City Walls
Not far from Rynek Glowny, Krakow’s Main Square, you can tour the remnants of the Barbican, a fortified outpost, built around 1498 to protect the city’s main entrance. The Barbican stood in front of the main entrance of Krakow, protecting the drawbridge and entrance to the walled city that stood behind it. This circular outpost was around 80 feet in diameter and had walls that were 9 feet thick, proving to be impenetrable to the various foreign forces that tried to conquer the political and royal center of Poland.
Today, we can admire the Barbican from Planty Park, remembering that centuries ago a moat lay under our feet. The moat’s primary defense was to divide the city’s inner wall from the outer defensive fortifications, like the Barbican. Topped with turrets, tower outposts, defensive slots for archers and riflemen, the Krakow Barbican is one of Europe’s best preserved fortified outposts. Come visit from May through October (10:30am – 6pm) and for about 8 zloty, you can learn about the history of the Barbican and Krakow’s defenses. Otherwise, perhaps you catch a summer concert in the Barbican or visit some of the permanent exhibitions of the Krakow museum that are within the great outpost.
From the Barbican, enter Old Town Krakow by passing through St. Florian’s Gate, the only medieval gate that remains from the original eight that were built. Notice the thick, fortified brick walls that surround the city here. The walls extend for a bit to give visitors a sense of just how imposing these walls were at one time.
I thoroughly enjoyed visiting Krakow’s historic sites. Be sure to wear good walking shoes as you will be on your feet for most of the time you’re touring. It’s such a thrill to visit a genuine castle from the medieval times, complete with its inner buildings, cathedral, and the nearby old city walls. Krakow has plenty of rich history, but it is also a vital center for Poland’s economy, education (there are 10 universities here), Polish history and culture, and a beautiful city to tour.
Do yourself a favor and get to know Krakow! With amazing food (and vodka!), historical gems, and friendly people, it surely is a traveler’s delight.