A Guide to Historic Kraków: Part 1 (Updated 2024)

As home to Europe’s largest medieval square and with an Old Town included on UNESCO’s first-ever list of World Heritage Sites, Kraków is one of Poland’s greatest cities for history lovers. 

With its array of stand-out architectural gems, museums, and sites of deep historical importance, you’ll have plenty to explore on a visit to Poland’s Royal City

In this first part of our historical guide to Kraków, we’ll focus on the attractions linked to the city’s early history; the second part will explore the story of Kraków in the modern era, paying particular attention to its World War Two history. 

Read on to discover the treasures this marvellous city offers to its visitors. And if we inspire you to begin planning your trip, why not consider joining us for our 4-Day Guided WW2 Tour of Southern Poland?


An Overview of Poland’s Fairytale City

If you haven’t visited Kraków before, prepare to find yourself enchanted. Kraków is one of Europe’s great medieval centres, an open-air museum where the medieval and the modern blend harmoniously.

The first written record of a town named Kraków dates to 965 when it existed as an important trading centre for Moravians (modern-day Czechs). 

In the late 10th century, Kraków came under the control of Mieszko I, the first ruler of an independent Polish state. It wasn’t long before Kraków would be the seat of royal power in Poland and grand buildings began to be constructed.

Though sacked multiple times by invading Mongols, the city was repeatedly rebuilt and established itself as a major economic and cultural hub. 

During Poland’s Złoty Wiek (Golden Age) of the 15th and 16th centuries, the city would continue to flourish, attracting many of Europe’s great artists and thinkers. The Swedish Invasion, however, would lead to Poland’s capital moving from Kraków to Warsaw.

In 1791, with the partition of Poland by Russia, the Hapsburg Empire, and Prussia, the city’s star would dim temporarily. That is until 1866 when Austria was forced into giving the region of Galicia (including Kraków) a certain degree of autonomy. 

This renewed sense of independence would revive Kraków’s reputation for being a cultural epicentre and the city would become known as Polskie Ateny (the Polish Athens). The city would finally be free of foreign rule in 1918 when Poland regained its independence.

Rynek Underground

Your first foray into Kraków’s rich history should be made at the Rynek Underground Museum. This branch of the Kraków Museum opened in 2010 following 38 million złoty worth of government investment. Following fascinating archaeological excavations at the location, it was decided that this underground lair would be opened to the public. 

The museum lies underneath the city’s main market square, occupying a space of around 4,000 square metres. Using holograms, smoke machines, and various bits of multimedia, the museum provides visitors with a rich insight into how life would have been lived in the High Middle Ages. 

Featuring the remains of burnt settlements from the 11th century, the Rynek Underground Museum is located on the spot of the city’s foundational core. This is as immersive a historical encounter as you’re likely to experience. 

As you gaze upon the museum’s many exhibits (including the skull of a beheaded prisoner and the skeletons of people believed to have been vampires) and medieval reconstructions, you’ll develop a profound sense of the city’s storied past.

(Travelling in Gdansk? The Amber City also has an underground attraction underneath its historic covered market. Visit the Romanesque Cellar for a window into the city’s origins — this spooky experience features an ossuary, where the bones of medieval monks are visible to guests.)


Wawel Royal Castle and Cathedral

Though built at the behest of King Casimir III the Great in the 14th century, some of the earliest buildings on the site of Wawel Castle date back as far as 970 AD. The castle complex features elements of almost all the major European architectural styles of the medieval and early modern periods, including Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque.

Young travellers will no doubt delight in the castle’s long-running association with dragons. In a legend that survives in written form from at least the 12th century, it is said that a dragon called  Smok Wawelski terrorised the people of this region until a Polish prince named Krakus outwitted the beast and slew it in its lair. Today visitors to the castle can approach the Smocza Jama (Dragon’s Den) where the creature is purported to have lived. 

After exploring the castle’s fascinating exterior and courtyards, be sure to visit the castle museum, which houses thousands of historically significant items, including paintings, textiles, and weapons. 

Also located here is the Wawel Cathedral, a nearly 1,000-year-old Gothic masterpiece where the bodies of many of Poland’s most illustrious historical figures are interred. Notable burials found at Wawel include Tadeusz Kościuszko, Józef Piłsudski, Władysław Sikorski, Adam Mickiewicz, and numerous Polish Queens and Kings.

Wieliczka Salt Mine

No trip to Kraków is complete without a visit to the world-famous Wieliczka Salt Mine. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, salt has been mined at this location since the 1300s. The caverns and labyrinthine tunnels of the salt mine extend nearly 300 kilometres, indicating the scale of this subterranean wonder. 

The mammoth size of the mines is truly awe-inspiring, though perhaps their most curious feature is the countless, ornate artistic carvings adorning their walls. In fact, it is said that miners began sculpting underground artworks here in the 14th century, and the fame of the mines grew almost immediately, attracting visitors from across the Polish territories, including the great astronomer Copernicus (who also happens to have his own wonderful memorial here).

It is not hyperbolic to state that you’re unlikely to visit many historical sites as unusual as the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Where else can you find an ornate church carved out of salt, hidden 100 metres below the earth? This is a fascinatingly strange, beautiful location, and it’s not to be missed. 

Barbican (City Defence Walls)

Another branch of the Kraków Museum, the Barbican is the site of the earliest remaining sections of Kraków’s original defensive walls. 

Sitting on the edge of the city’s historical centre, the Kraków Barbican (Barbakan Krakowski in Polish) once formed the original entry point to the Old Town. Built in 1498, the fortification is one of the best-preserved examples of its kind in Europe. 

Visit today and you can enter a museum telling the colourful history of the Kraków’s defensive walls and the many battles fought here. You’ll even hear the curious tale of how one Kraków resident shot and killed an invading Russian commander using a button from his coat.

(Source – License)

St Mary’s Basilica, Kraków

Our final entry on this list of Kraków historical sites is St Mary’s Basilica (Polish: Kościół Mariacki). 

Another of Kraków’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, St Mary’s Basilica is as fine an example of Northern Europe Gothic architecture as you’re likely to find.  

However, the treasures extend beyond the building’s exterior aesthetic qualities. Inside you’ll find a 14th-century wooden altarpiece carved by the German master Veit Stoss. Prized by the Nazis, they tried stealing the altarpiece during WW2, though fortunately allied soldiers recovered it in Bavaria and it made its way home to St Mary’s. The church also features murals designed by Poland’s most famous painter, Jan Matejko. 

Finally, it is from the tower of St Mary that the Hejnał mariacki is played every hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This trumpet call represents a famous historical event in Polish history. It is said that in the 13th century, during a Mongol invasion, a trumpeter alerted the city’s residents to the coming invaders and was killed by an arrow the moment after he’d sounded the alarm. 

This brings to a close the first part of our historical guide to Kraków. We’ll return shortly with part two, which will focus on the city’s tragic WW2 history. 

If you’re in Kraków, please consider booking a place on our Krakow Old Town and WW2 Sites Day Tour.

In the meantime, if you have any questions for us, please get in touch

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