Krakow has always been a charmed city. It is a city that’s prone to attracting history but, for the most part, it has managed to avoid the destruction that often comes with it.
Since it was founded in the 4th century, it has managed to survive the Mongol destruction of the surrounding area. After the Mongols finally settled elsewhere, the city grew to be one of the most prominent cities in central Europe. However, while many cities in Poland came out of World War II in bad shape, Krakow and its medieval beauty persisted, undestroyed. Even after 45 years of Communist supervision, the city remained unmarred, still as beautiful and enchanting as it always was.
Krakow Old Town
Krakow Old Town hosts almost all of the Krakow's medieval attractions. It is surrounded by three kilometres of defensive walls that are complete with 46 towers and seven main entrances that lead travellers through the walls. This is one of the most prominent examples of medieval defenses that exist today.
Due to fact that Krakow was, for many years, the royal capital of Poland before Sigismund III Vasa moved the court to Warsaw in 1596, the city's district has been named to the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites. Travellers seeking history in Krakow will find no shortage of it inside the city walls.
The Krakow Barbican is the fortified outpost of, and gateway to, the city's most historic district: the Old Town. It was placed along the city's coronation route, where young princes and the royal family rode in order sire in their latest king. In the late 15th century it provided excellent defenses and a good vantage point for those guarding Poland's royalty.
While the city once had a complex network of fortifications and defensive walls, the Barbican is one of the last remaining relics. Today its battlements no longer serve as a defense; they are now a major tourist attraction and home for many multidisciplinary exhibits from Krakow's medieval past.
For those who are familiar with the fortifications of European's defensive architecture, they may find the Krakow Barbican odd and out of place. It is not styled in the traditional style of European defensive architecture – it is based on Arabic defenses instead. The circular style of the building provided panoramic views of the surrounding area and would be easily defensible in a siege. It is regarded as one of the few masterpieces of medieval military engineering that is still standing today.
Church of St Casimir the Prince
creativecommons.org/ Jennifer Boyer
There are a number of stunning churches within Krakow, but the Church of St Casimir the Prince in the Old Town district is among the city’s finest. This church, as well as its adjacent Franciscan monastery and catacombs, are home to the Catholic Order of Franciscans known as the ‘Little Brothers’. The Little Brothers originally settled in the outskirts of Garbary in 1622 and built their church there thanks to a donation from Zuzanna Amendowna, who also bequeathed them the miracle painting of Madonna. However, their church was destroyed during the Swedish Deluge in the 1650. The monks reconstructed their church in Krakow's Old Town in the Baroque style in 1672.
The exterior of the church belittles the beauty that lies inside. The church building host late-Baroque style alters where the original miracle painting of the Madonna sits peacefully displayed on one side. The image of St Casimir is assumed to be the work of the famed Gdansk painter Daniel Schultz. The church is small, but beautiful, however the monastery and crypts are wonders as well. Travellers can visit the monastery, but the catacombs are only open once a year, on All Saints Day, when visitors can enter and pay their respects to the dead within.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Though the Wieliczka Salt Mines are not technically in Krakow, they are still counted among the city's medieval wonders, because it was the salt plucked from these mines that helped build the city.
Poles have toiled in these mines for 900 years, making it one of the world's oldest operating salt mines. The labour has spawned 200 kilometres of passages and 2,040 caverns of various sizes.
While touring a defunct salt mine doesn't seem like the most interesting of pursuits, there are surprises inside that make it a must-visit attraction and have caused it to be named beside wonders like the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids. In the various caverns of the Wieliczka Salt Mines there are statues - and even a cathedral - that have been carved from the rock salt by workers, making these mines a veritable museum of art and history.
Travellers should venture down and enjoy the grandeur. The salt crystal chandelier gives everything a treasured golden glow, causing all the structures carved from the rock salt to glitter in the light.
The Renaissance era Sukiennice, or Cloth Hall, is one of Krakow's most recognizable landmarks. It was once a major centre for international trade in the city, where travelling merchants met to barter and discuss business.
During the golden age in the 15th century, travellers would have found all manner of exotic imports from the east there: silks in all colours, supple leather and the air filled with the aroma of foreign spices and incense. Over the centuries, this hall hosted a number of distinguished guests and it is still used today to entertain monarchs and other foreign dignitaries while they are in Krakow, such as Charles, Prince of Wales and Emperor Akihito of Japan.
While visitors can enjoy the stalls on the lower floor, the upper floor hosts the Sukiennice Museum, an offshoot of the Krakow National Museum. This museum hosts the largest permanent exhibit of 19th-century Polish painting and sculpture arranged in four grand exhibition halls. The museum features late Baroque, Rococo and Classicist 18th century portraits and battle scenes by Polish and foreign pre-Romantics.
The Royal Road and Wawel Castle
Krakow's extensive fortifications were not only put in place for the public's protection in medieval times, but for the protection of the royal family that once lived there. Travellers who wish to explore the history of the royal family must begin at the Royal Road. This road begins at the northern end of Krakow's Old Town and continues south through the centre of town towards Wawel Hill, where the ancient residence of kings, Wawel Castle, sits.
This Royal Road passes by some of the most prominent historic landmarks in Krakow which once provided a suitable background for the coronation processions, parades and the welcoming of kings and foreign envoys.
Wawel Castle is a Renaissance palace that is complete with graceful courts and loggias that were built by Italians for the Polish King, Zygmunt the Old, in the 16th century. Yet for all the Florentine veneer, Wawel Castle is still a northern citadel that hosts an array of jostling turrets and balconies that tower over the Vistula River. The massive rooms boast scenes Venetian battle scenes and roomy fireplaces.