Being the capital of the ancient Polish Kingdom until 1596, Krakow is filled with historic and visual wonders. From the castle atop the Wawel Hill to the marvelous chapel at 135 meters below the ground, the royal atmosphere permeates the streets and buildings of this city.
Established in the seventh century, Krakow 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 center of culture and trade in the following centuries. The 15th and 16th centuries were Krakow’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, Krakow 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, Krakow’s intellectual and artistic heritage was deprived as a result of the industrialization of the city. The once imperial capital was transformed into an industrial center forever. Though Krakow’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.
1. 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 Krakow 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.
2. Krakow Old Town
Miraculously escaped annihilation in the Second World War, Krakow Old Town is a national treasure and the pride of Poland. The district is home to multiple 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 center of the market square is Krakow 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 characterized by two towers of different heights. It serves as one of the best examples of Polish Gothic architecture.
3. 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 meters. It comprises kilometers 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 meters 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.
Tips for visiting Krakow
- 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 Krakow 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. Krakow 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.