St Mary’s Basilica in Cracow Old Town

Cracow: The Ancient Capital of Poland

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Being the capital of the ancient Polish Kingdom until 1596, Cracow is filled with historic and visual wonders. From the castle atop the Wawel Hill to the marvellous chapel at 135 metres below the ground, the royal atmosphere permeates the streets and buildings of this city.


Established in the seventh century, Cracow is perhaps one of the oldest cities in Poland. It was founded by a mythical ruler named Krakus who saved the city from a ravenous dragon. After the dragon was defeated, the city was free to flourish and it had grown into a leading centre of culture and trade in the following centuries. The 15th and 16th centuries were Cracow’s Golden Age when many works of Polish Renaissance art and architecture were created.

Sharing the same fate as Warsaw and the rest of Poland, Cracow was handed to Swedes in the 17th century and to Russians during the 19th century. In 1939, it was swiftly occupied by Nazi Germany, leading to the deportation and murdering of thousands of civilians. After the war, under the Stalinist government, Cracow’s intellectual and artistic heritage was deprived as a result of the industrialisation of the city. The once imperial capital was transformed into an industrial centre forever. Though Cracow’s glory faded away, the city was still able to maintain some of its most beautiful artistic and architectural wonders. That includes the imperial castle on Wawel Hill, the centuries-old Stare Miasto (Old Town) and the incredible Wieliczka Salt Mine.

Wawel Castle

Standing atop the Wawel Hill and overlooking the Vistula River, the Wawel Castle is a magnificent Renaissance construction. It had been the seat of Polish kings for over five centuries until King Sigismund III of Vasa moved his court from Cracow to Warsaw in 1569. The castle was built around an Italian-styled main courtyard. It is home to staterooms, private royal apartments, as well as Poland’s most treasured work of art, Lady with Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci. Also on the hill is the 14th-century Wawel Cathedral, with its distinctive ice-cream scoop domes.

Wawel Castle. It is constructed around an expansive Italian-styled courtyard.
The wall of Wawel Castle
Wawel Cathedral
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Cracow Old Town

Miraculously escaped annihilation in the Second World War, Crakow Old Town is a national treasure and the pride of Poland. The district is house to majestic buildings, priceless cultural monuments, atmospheric courtyards, as well as the 10th-century Rynek Glówny, the most expansive medieval market square in Central Europe.

Dominating the centre of the market square is Cracow Cloth Hall – once the nucleus of international trade. Its history dates back to the Renaissance and is the city’s most recognizable icon. At its height, the hall was an important source of exotic imports from the East, such as spices from India, silk from China, as well as leather and wax from Russia. Overlooking the Cloth Hall is the St Mary’s Basilica in Brick Gothic style. Constructed in the 14th century, the church is characterised by two towers of different heights. It serves as one of the best examples of Polish Gothic architecture.

Cracow Cloth Hall
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Wieliczka Salt Mine

Often referred to as the “Under Ground Salt Cathedral of Poland”, Wieliczka Salt Mine is the masterpiece of tens of generations of miners. It was opened in the 13th century and had been continuously operated until 2007, making it the world’s oldest salt mine in operation. Each year, this royal salt mine attracts more than one million visitors. And unlike many visitors might expect, the salt here does not have a white or crystalline look. It rather comes in naturally grey and resembles unpolished granite.

Wieliczka Salt Mine reaches a depth of 327 metres. It comprises kilometres long corridors, several underground lakes and dozens of chambers carved out of the rock salt, including the beautiful Chapel of Saint Kinga. Located at 135 metres depth, this chapel is dedicated to Saint Kinga, the patron saint of salt miners in and around the former Polish capital. It resembles a large gallery where paintings, historic statues and mythical figures in the distant past are on display. Yet the only difference is that every single artwork is made of rock salt.

St. Kinga’s Chapel. Most items in this beautiful chapel are made of salt rock, even the chandeliers.

Practical Information about Cracow

  • There is a complicated ticketing process for the sights on Wawel Hill. You will need one ticket for the Royal Castle and there is a separate fee for each of its exhibitions. Another ticket is required for the Wawel Cathedral. The same goes for other areas.
  • Wieliczka Salt Mine is located just 10 kilometres from Cracow and easily accessible by trains. Take the train from Dworzec Główny (Central Station) to Wieliczka Rynek Kopalnia. The whole trip takes about 20 minutes and costs around 5€.
  •  Another option is taking Bus 304 to Wieliczka Kopalnia Soli. Buses depart in the vicinity of the shopping mall Galeria Krakowska. Cracow transport tickets are valid on public buses travelling from the city to Wieliczka.
  • Admission to the salt mine is about 21€. A guide is included. Due to its popularity, it is recommended to book the ticket online in advance. Taking photos in the St. Kinga’s Chapel requires another ticket which can be purchased inside the mine.
  • Please note: the whole walking tour takes around 1-2 hours (around 3 kilometres) and there are a lot of steps.
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30 thoughts on “Cracow: The Ancient Capital of Poland”

  1. Kelly MacKay – After a successful 13 years career as a professional female jockey. I now teach fitness to our Canadian Forces soldiers' at Canadian Forces Base Gage town, In Oromocto, New Brunswick. I love what I do. In my off time, I enjoy travel sometimes to exotic places ( recently to Kenya) most often within in my local province. I also enjoy photography both landscape and wildlife. I participate in camping hiking cycling, and I love to go off the regular tourist trail. I have an interest in, art, history, geology, natural history, bird watching. I love to read and write. I enjoy cooking Vegan meals.
    Kelly MacKay says:

    Nice

  2. Bama – Jakarta, Indonesia – Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.
    Bama says:

    Beautiful as always!I wish I could sneak in your suitcase and travel to those pretty European cities that you went to. The Salt Mine looks particularly impressive as it was created many centuries ago — engineering marvels from the past never cease to amaze me.

    1. It is surely impressive! I kept wondering how they could re-create such masterpieces so perfectly, without having a single painting or a photograph. And certainly, not many miners had the privileged to see the original paintings.

  3. Orvillewrong – "I am well read, fairly well travelled, maybe not as many stamps on my passport as I would like. Young at Heart, Always! I like Military history. I Love Life`s variable, colour, character are potential events to record for posterity!!
    Orvillewrong says:

    A very interesting post with great photographs!

    1. Orvillewrong – "I am well read, fairly well travelled, maybe not as many stamps on my passport as I would like. Young at Heart, Always! I like Military history. I Love Life`s variable, colour, character are potential events to record for posterity!!
      Orvillewrong says:

      My pleasure, the photographs were awesome !

  4. Neha – Gurgaon, India – Nomadic Dreamz (https://nomadicdreamz.com) is all about my passion for travel, food and the experiences I have had on my travels. I hope it will also help me connect with others like me across the world! I usually travel solo and love it!!
    Neha says:

    Enjoyed reading the post and the pics are really pretty. I also like the way you give out the practical details too, very helpful for someone wanting to plan a trip 🙂

  5. Mel & Suan – Singapore – Mel works his day job for a living, but lives for antiquities, history and geography at all other times. He enjoys writing and thought sharing and obviously traveling. Suan is a homey person, who like girlie stuff such as cross stitching etc. Enjoys shopping & modeling for Mel. What a match!
    Mel & Suan says:

    Wonder if the band is still in the salt mine?

    1. You mean the miners? Probably not. Because the mining has been suspended since the 2000s due to various reasons. Now the mine is only a tourist attraction 🙂 But occasionally, I still saw some people wearing miner’s clothes. Perhaps archaeologist or geologist.

      1. Mel & Suan – Singapore – Mel works his day job for a living, but lives for antiquities, history and geography at all other times. He enjoys writing and thought sharing and obviously traveling. Suan is a homey person, who like girlie stuff such as cross stitching etc. Enjoys shopping & modeling for Mel. What a match!
        Mel & Suan says:

        When we were in the mines visiting, there is a band of musicians who would play if you pay a token sum… pretty neat. Did you see them?

  6. Jolene – Sydney, Australia – Jolene is a banker by trade, a writer at heart, and is a contributor to Thought Catalog. You are welcome to peek into her adventures and reflections on films and life at "SoMuchToTellYou", her ultimate love affair with words.
    Jolene says:

    The salt castle is really cool Len I’ve never seen anything like it! I hope there aren’t any silly tourists out there with a chisel trying to take home some free cooking salt??!

    1. I hope not because cooking salt is cheap now. Besides, the rock is pretty hard!
      Although you are not allowed to take the salt back home, you are permitted to taste it. Simply licking the wall, or touch the wall and taste the salt on your fingers 🙂

  7. Nano @ Travels With Nano – Tokyo, Japan – Hi, I'm Nano! Welcome to my site! Travels With Nano is filled with everything I am passionate about: uncovering the world one sight, bite and cultural experience at a time. I'm here to share savvy travel tips and inspire (not influence!) your future travel adventures. Needless to say, I am thrilled to have you here reading!
    Nano @ Travel With Nano B. says:

    Len, this was so informative. Didn’t know the history behind Krakov. Beautiful city! xx

  8. I don’t know why, but Krakow was not on my “to see” list, until last year, when a friend went there and was absolutely inlove with it. And since then, it appears that more and more people visit it and it’s absolutely beautiful! Just as you said, “filled with historic and visual wonders”. It’s added to my list for next year too:)
    By the way, I love the snow effect you have done:)

  9. Maggie – I am finally getting around to doing what I love... Photography, writing, painting, travelling and especially loving life.
    Maggie says:

    Beautiful architecture. Thank you for the informative post.

  10. I loved that salt mine!

    1. It’s extraordinary! But what surprised me more is that this beautiful place was made by miners, entirely. There was no architects nor painters who helped them create those masterpieces.

  11. As usual Len, your amazing description of yet another European city has got dreaming about visiting. I just adore European market squares. They are not just beautiful, but also brimming with vibrance (I wish we had adopted this concept in North America). It looks like Krakow’s market square is extraordinary.

  12. Image Earth Travel – Global – Global travel writer/photographer capturing the globe with words and lens. Travelled to over 60 countries across 6 continents in 30-plus years of adventure!
    Image Earth Travel says:

    Great photos and post! Love Cracow!

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