UNESCO World Heritage city, Kraków was the throne of the Polish monarchs for half a millennium up to the 17th century. After being ransacked by the Mongols in the 13th century the Old Town was built anew, and the layout has barely changed since then.
Kraków was at the height of its powers in the 1300s during the reign of Casimir III the Great. He founded Kraków University where Copernicus would later study, as well as the district of Kazimierz, once a separate city home to one of Europe’s biggest Jewish communities.
The sweeping Main Square in the Old Town tells you all you need to know about Kraków’s wealth and authority in Medieval Times, while the royal castle and cathedral on Wawel Hill convey the full might of the Polish monarchy.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Kraków:
1. Stare Miasto (Old Town)
Kraków’s oldest quarter is a planned city drawn up in 1257 just after the Mongol invasion laid everything to waste.
The whole city was encircled by walls, now a belt of parkland, and hoisted above its southernmost point was the mighty royal ensemble on Wawel Hill.
A day in the Old Town will fly by as you drift from churches to atmospheric squares, tempting specialty shops to museums.
The simple act of going for meal or a drink can be a historical journey, descending into cellars with Gothic vaults.
A couple of things we won’t talk about later are the tower of the former town hall, now an observation platform on the Main Square.
But also pop into a bakery for a ring-shaped obwarzanek krakowski, a slightly sweet bun not too different from a bagel.
Included in: 4-Hour Krakow Cycling Tour
2. Rynek Główny (Main Square)
One of the largest Medieval squares in Europe, Kraków’s central marketplace has been the commercial, social and administrative focal point of the city since the middle of the 13th century.
This grand plaza measures 200 metres by 200 and was laid out in the years after Kraków was razed by the Mongol invasion, so is also an enduring piece of Medieval urban design.
A few of the monuments on this list are on or near the square, like the Cloth Hall and St Mary’s Basilica.
At the borders of the Main Square are long rows of townhouses.
And although these took on Neoclassical facades at the turn of the 20th century, the buildings within are usually far older.
See for instance Wierzynek, a restaurant going back to Medieval times, and where the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV and Elizabeth of Pomerania celebrated their wedding in 1364.
3. Wawel Castle
A monument of immeasurable national importance, the UNESCO-listed Wawel Castle completes an ensemble with the cathedral on its lofty perch above the Old Town.
The castle has architecture of every style from Romanesque to Baroque and was the seat of the King of Poland from the 13th century to the 17th century.
A fallow period then arrived, after the capital was moved to Warsaw and the castle was damaged by the Swedish invasion in the 1650s.
But since the 1940s Wawel Castle has been a national museum, presenting the riches of the Polish monarch through sumptuous interiors, painting by Veronese, Lucas Cranach the Elder and Domenico Ghirlandaio, Gobelin tapestries and a marvellous treasury and armoury.
One piece that must not be missed is Szczerbiec, the coronation sword for almost every monarch from 1320 to 1764.
Recommended tour: Krakow: Skip The Line Wawel Castle Guided Tour
4. St Mary’s Basilica
Built on the foundations of an earlier church also levelled by the Mongols, this Brick Gothic wonder is from the beginning of the 14th century, and would be reworked over the next few decades.
The St. Mary’s Trumpet Call is played from the top of the taller of the two towers, on the hour every hour.
This is in memory of the 13th-century city trumpeter sounding the alarm for the Mongol attack.
He was shot in the throat mid-way through the call, which is why the tune breaks off abruptly.
Within, the stained glass windows and the gold stars on the blue background in the vaults are sublime.
But the star of the show is the largest Gothic altarpiece in the world.
Completed in 1484, it was carved over seven years by German sculptor Veit Stoss, with lime-wood sculpted figures up to 2.7 metres high.
5. Wawel Cathedral
A monument of real national importance, Wawel Cathedral is the site of the coronation and burial of numerous Polish monarchs, national heroes and cultural figures.
The current building was completed in the 14th century after the previous two were destroyed or burned down.
And because of its many royal burial chapels, the cathedral has taken on a captivating variety of styles.
Sigismund’s Chapel, the funerary chapel for the last of members of the Jagiellonian line, is a wonder of 16th-century Tuscan Renaissance architecture: Under a golden dome the chapel is rich with detailed carved ornamentation, stuccowork and tomb monuments by some of the leading sculptors of the day.
The cathedral’s status is also underlined by the mausoleum to the Polish patron saint St Stanislaus, in which his silver sarcophagus rests under an exuberant canopy with gilded columns.
South of the Old Town is a district that was a separate city for 500 years up to the 19th century.
Kazimierz was founded by Casimir III the Great, taking his name and bestowed the status of a Royal City.
After a fire in Kraków at the end of the 15th century King Jan I Olbracht moved the entire Jewish population to Kazimierz, which ballooned as it took in Jews expelled from cities throughout Europe.
They occupied a space within an interior wall, dividing Kazimierz between Jewish and ethnic Poles.
And although that wall was pulled down more than 200 years ago, the eastern streets of Kazimierz have a Jewish flavour that has been revived since the late 1980s.
A lot of Schindler’s List was filmed in this neighbourhood, which once again has synagogues, bookshops, restaurants and bars for a small but dynamic Jewish community.
Top rated tour: Jewish Quarter Guided Walking Tour: Kazimierz District
7. Franciscan Church
This monastery church took shape in the aftermath of the Mongol Invasion, and was consecrated around the middle of the 13th century.
It was the first example of Kraków’s hallmark brick and sandstone architecture, even if only the rib vaults remain from that initial building.
The church suffered a near-catastrophic fire in 1850, but that handed an opportunity to the artist Stanisław Wyspiański to work his magic.
The founder of the Young Poland movement, Wyspiański produced eight Art Nouveau stained glass windows for the apse and choir, and painted stunning murals with geometric and floral motifs in the transept.
These are accompanied by more traditional paintings in the nave and chancel, by the landscape and historicist artists Władysław Rossowski and Tadeusz Popiel.
8. Cloth Hall
One of the symbols for Kraków, the Cloth Hall has existed in some form since the 1200s, and the Renaissance monument at the centre of the Main Square today is from the 1500s.
A trading hall for 800 years, the cloth hall testifies to Kraków’s position in the middle of Central Europe’s Medieval commercial network.
Most of the goods sold here came from the east, like spices, silk, wax and leather.
The Cloth Hall is still a market, and if it doesn’t quite have the same cachet, it’s the first place to come if you’re stuck for gift or souvenir ideas.
You can idle past stalls with handmade lace, amber jewellery and wooden handicrafts, and then head upstairs for the Sukiennice Museum.
Mainly for Polish 19th-century painting, there are individual rooms devoted to Romantics like Piotr Michałowski, Academic artists in the vein of Henryk Siemiradzki and Realists like Józef Chełmoński.
9. Royal Road
On this themed walk through Kraków’s Old Town you’ll be treading the same path as Poland’s monarchs, as you follow the route of Medieval coronation processions north to south through the city.
The path begins at the Church of St Florian just past the Barbican, then passes through that mighty defence and heads into the city along Floriańska Street and down the east side of the Main Square.
You’ll go past a host of cherished landmarks like St Adalbert’s Church, the Wielopolski Palace and the Church of Saints Peter and Paul.
Then you’ll begin that dramatic climb to the top of Wawel where the coronation ceremony would take place at the cathedral.
You may not have counted on immersing yourself in Japanese culture in Kraków, but that’s just what’s on the menu at this museum across the water from Wawel.
The museum and cultural centre was the initiative of film director Andrzej Wajda: He became enamoured of Japanese art after viewing the collection assembled by art critic Feliks Jasieński in the 1940s.
More than four decades later Wajda, on receiving a film prize, opted to donate the money to set up a new museum for the collection.
Manggha opened in 1994 and Japanese architect Arata Isozaki’s airy, oscillating design has dated very well.
There are now 7,000 pieces in the collection, counting woodcuts, paintings, ceramics, furniture and samurai armour; Emperor Akihito paid a visit back in 2002.
11. Polish Aviation Museum
East of the old town, the old Kraków-Rakowice-Czyżyny Airport dates back to 1912 and was commissioned for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Soon after the airport closed in 1963 a museum opened on the site, initially using the airport’s old hangars.
They are now complemented by an exhibition hall that opened in 2010 and has lots of multimedia and hands-on exhibits.
The Polish Aviation Museum is regularly listed as one of the best in the world, with more than 200 aircraft including fighter jets, bombers, gliders, helicopters and engines from both sides of the Iron Curtain but especially MiGs, Yaks and Sukhois.
Rarest of all though are the Polish pre-war aircraft like the PZL P.11, the only surviving example in the world.
12. Stained Glass Workshop and Museum
More than a static museum, this attraction allows you to watch stained glass craftsmen making use of centuries-old skills.
The workshop was founded by the architect Stanisław Gabriel Żeleński in 1902 and moved into the current premises that he designed in 1906. This studio was intended as a gathering place for Poland’s top glass painters, who were in high demand during the Art Nouveau years.
More than 200 windows produced by this workshop adorn buildings around Krakow today, most famously in Wawel and at the Franciscan Church.
Guided tours in English are on the hour, and will bring you through beautiful exhibitions of stained glass and into the studio where you can see pieces being created.
13. Planty Park
In the 1820s when Kraków was a partially independent Free City, the Medieval fortifications that once enveloped the Old Town were dismantled on the order of Franz I, Emperor of Austro-Hungary.
The moat was also levelled off and the whole four-kilometre belt was planted with English landscape gardens.
Planty Park is a welcome green buffer between the Old Town and the newer quarters beyond.
The northern bend is best for sightseers, as this is where the last vestiges of the old defences have been kept.
The imposing Kraków Barbican, with its menacing ring of machicolations is here and is an outpost for the Florian Gate behind.
These were both saved from demolition after a professor at the university petitioned the Republic of Kraków senate.
14. Schindler’s Factory
You may be aware that a lot of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 movie Schindler’s List was filmed in Kraków.
And since 2010 it has been possible to go inside the administration building of the enamelware factory he took over after the invasion in 1939. Your main motive for coming is for the branch of Kraków Historical Museum.
Here you can peruse accounts of Schindler’s book-cooking that helped save more than 1,000 Jewish lives, the original desk from Schindler’s office, his “list” and photos of survivors.
But there’s also a wider exhibition about the occupation of Kraków in the Second World War: You’ll find reconstructions of a dwelling in the ghetto, underground tunnels used by the resistance and basements where Jews would be hidden, all with genuine artefacts from the 40s to add some depth.
Recommended tour: Oskar Schindler’s Factory Guided Tour
15. Rynek Underground
Also maintained by the Historical Museum is a museum beneath the Main Square, recapturing life in Kraków’s Old Town 700 years ago.
The attraction is an archaeological site with a total area of 6,000 square metres, showing the foundations of the previous Cloth Hall.
In these galleries are footbridges over archaeological digs, as well as electronic displays, touch-screen computers and holograms.
A trove of artefacts has been uncovered four metres under the city, like Tatar arrowheads, clay figurines, leather shoes, dice, beads, medallions and a 693 kg lump of commercial lead.
There’s much more besides, like real graves from an 11th-century cemetery, reconstructions of workshops and maps to explain the complicated flow of goods in and out of the city when it traded with the Hanseatic League.
Online tickets: Rynek Underground Museum Ticket & 2 Other Museums
16. Museum of the Jagiellonian University – Collegium Maius
In the Old Town you can make an intensive 30-minute tour of Collegium Maius, the oldest building for the Jagiellonian University.
Established in the 1300s, this is also Poland’s oldest university building, reconstructed in the Late-Gothic style in the following century.
Copernicus was a student here at the end of the 1400s, and there’s a room with instruments and globes from the time he was alive, so there’s a good chance he laid his hands on them.
On the whirlwind tour you’ll scurry through lecture rooms, ceremonial halls, professor’s quarters, a fantastical library and a museum, which has the oldest globe in the world to depict the Americas.
17. Kościuszko Mound
Tadeusz Kościuszko was a Polish national hero, lauded for his resistance efforts against Prussia and Russia as they divided up the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at the end of the 18th century.
In 1794 he led a doomed but spirited insurrection against Russia, begun on Kraków’s Main Square.
After Kościuszko died his body was interred beneath this 34-metre-high mound, in the style of rulers from Poland’s distant past.
The mound was completed in 1823 and is at the top of the Sikornik hill 326 metres above sea level.
At the base of the mound are the walls of a military citadel erected by Austrians in the mid-19th century.
In the defences is the Neo-Gothic Blessed Bronisława chapel, offering entry to the mound, which you can climb on a winding path to look west to Kraków’s Old Town.
18. Krakus Mound
We’ve talked about the 19th-century burial mound for Tadeusz Kościuszko, but if you want to see a real pagan tumulus it’s a manageable trip to the south of the city near Kraków Krzemionki station.
This site is shrouded in mystery, as for hundreds of years it was assumed to be the 2,100-year-old burial place of the Celtic King Krakus, legendary founder of the city.
But excavations have yet to reveal a grave, and the most recent artefacts buried in the mound have been dated to between the 8th and 10th centuries.
It may instead have had an astronomical function, as it forms an axis with the sun and another mound, Wanda, at sunrise on the morning of the Celtic festival of Beltane.
19. Corpus Christi Church
Casimir III the Great founded this Gothic basilica in the Kazimierz district in 1335. And while the original pointed arches and vaults are still in place today, the fittings and decoration are almost all from the Mannerist and Baroque period.
Corpus Christi has some of the finest and most harmonious Baroque ornamentation in Poland.
The stalls in the choir are exceptional, carved in 1624-32 and embellished with sculptures and paintings of saints.
The altar was completed in 1637, and gleams with giltwood that surrounds paintings by the Venetian court artist Tommaso Dolabella.
Give yourself a few minutes to inspect the beautiful chapels in the northern and southern aisles.
20. Ghetto Heroes Square
The Podgórze district, opposite Kazimierz on the right bank of the Vistula was the location for the Kraków ghetto, from 1941 until it was “liquidated” in 1943. The largest public space, previously known as Plac Zgody, was filled throughout that time with people trying to get some relief from the cramped conditions in the surrounding tenements.
Haunting photographs from the deportations show furniture and bundles of belongings abandoned on the square: Unspeakable tragedies happened on this place, whether it was families being separated for the last time or executions.
When the square was redesigned in 2005, 70 large chairs were installed on the square in memory of the victims of Kraków ghetto, driving home the sense of emptiness and recalling the images of the deportations.
21. Vistulan Boulevards
The Vistula is a river that has been repeatedly moulded by humans over the last millennium.
The wide riverbanks today are man-made and set aside for recreation, with bicycle paths, quays for cruise boats and stops for the city’s “water tram” service.
These shallow grassy embankments slope down from a retaining wall as an anti-flood measure that has proved very effective down the years.
The project began in the 19th century, and the boulevards are appreciated as much by Cracovians as by tourists breaking away from the crowds at Wawel and the Old Town.
You could begin your trip at Salwator by Kościuszko’s burial mound in the west and won’t have to leave the riverside until the second bend at Kazimierz.
22. Saints Peter and Paul Church
Completed in just 20 years at the start of the 17th century, this Mannerist and Baroque church was the work of Italians, both inside and out.
Giovanni Maria Bernardoni finalised the initial plan, which was modified by another Italian Giovanni Battista Trevano, who was responsible for the dome, facade and much of the interior.
The facade is fashioned from dolomite and has statues of saints in its niches and on the pedestals in front.
Yet another Italian Giovanni Battista Falconi produced the vibrant ornamental stuccowork in the interior, as well as the scenes from the life of St Peter and St Paul in the apse.
The church has also had a Foucault’s Pendulum since 1949. This is hung from a height of 46.5 metres, and if you visit on Thursday morning there are demonstrations on the hour showing earth’s rotation.
23. Dragon’s Den (Smocza Jama)
Burrowing through Wawel is Poland’s most famous cave, a karst formation known to all for its legendary dragon.
You can meet a sculpture of this dragon in front of the entrance, installed in 1972 and even breathing fire.
According to folklore the dragon was slain by King Krakus before he founded the city.
At the entrance to the cathedral there are bones hanging from a chain dating to the Ice Age and claimed to belong to the dragon.
The cave itself isn’t to be taken too seriously, but is a light-hearted detour if you’re overwhelmed by all the history of the Old Town.
You’ll enter from the courtyard of the castle to venture through three chambers measuring 276 metres before being deposited by the Vistula at the bottom of the hill.
24. Plac Nowy
Compared to the Main Square in the Old Town Kazimierz’s central square feels a bit rough around the edges.
But that’s exactly the point, as Plac Nowy is exactly the place to be to tap into Kraków’s bohemian side.
At night you can flit from one cafe or bar to the next, while the markets that fill the square change by the day.
Come by on Saturdays for antiques or Sundays for clothes.
The rotunda in the centre of the square was a big kosher butcher for Kazimierz’s Jewish community up to 1939. Now it’s traced with food stands, selling Zapiekanka, an open-faced French bread pizza piled with mushrooms, cheese and hot ketchup.
25. Tyniec Abbey
Ten kilometres southwest of the Old Town, but still belonging to Kraków, Tyniec is a village on a limestone canyon by the Vistula.
You’ll know why you made the trip when you catch sight of the towers of this Benedictine Abbey posted on the clifftop.
This is a functioning monastery, but you can go on a guided tour and visit a small museum, displaying objects from recent excavations.
Tyniec Abbey dates to the 11th century, and has been left with a Baroque design after being ransacked by Tatars and Czechs in the 1300s and then the Swedes in the 17th century.
You can come for concerts and vespers at the church in the summer, while there’s a little cafe on the belvedere, and a gift shop selling items of specialty food and cosmetics made by the monks.