- One must be a fox in order to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten off wolves. Machiavelli Niccolo
Visit Cracow, Poland
Cracow is one of the most perfectly preserved old cities in all Europe, and although it stands as Poland’s second largest, it rivals Warsaw in any claim to be the country’s cultural capital.
As home to one of Central Europe’s oldest universities, and one of the few parts of Poland not annexed by Germany or Russia (Cracow got the more lenient Austrians instead), the city has always punched above its weight as a place for independent art and thought.
The more learned will see Cracow as a textbook of Gothic, Renaissance and baroque architecture, which has earned it a listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Cracow isn’t just old and pretty, however, it’s also a city that likes to let its hair down. With one of the highest concentrations of pubs, clubs and bars in Europe, hunting down the best of them in the Old Town backstreets and the hip quarter of Kazimierz is one of the city’s true pleasures.
Prices are significantly lower than in Western Europe and consequently the city has become popular with stag and hen parties. Still, this is no metropolitan Magaluf – many Cracow nightspots have real character and charm, and the city’s theatre, opera and classical music are also a major draw.
Things to see in Cracow
Fabryka Schindlera (Schindler’s Factory)
Schindler’s Factory opened in 2010 and has been hugely popular with visitors ever since. The state-of-the-art museum tells the story of Oskar Schindler (whose offices once stood on the site) and his employees during the Nazi occupation of WWII. It tells the story of life under the Nazis, of the fate of the Jews and the underground resistance to the occupation. Already one of the top attractions in Cracow, it’s certainly worth a visit.
Katedra Wawelska (Wawel Cathedral)
Part of the Wawel castle complex, this cathedral was the coronation site and burial place of almost all of Poland's monarchs and rulers. It was built in the early 11th century by King Boleslaw the Brave after Cracow was made a bishopric, and substantially added to since. The relics of St Stanislaw, the patron saint of Poland, are kept here, as are the bodies of many kings, queens and national poets in many elaborate chapels built into the walls. Controversially, Poland’s late president, Lech Kaczynski, who died in a plane crash in 2010, was laid to rest here in what had traditionally been a royal burial site. After admiring the architecture, visitors can climb the tower to see the 9,979kg (11-tonne) Sigismund Bell and enjoy fine views.
Rynek Glowny (Main Market Square)
Laid out in 1257, this is one of the largest and most beautiful market squares in medieval Europe. Occupying the centre of the square is the 15th-century Sukiennice (Cloth Hall), its vaulted, ground floor passages now filled with souvenir stalls. Along the sides of the building, pavement cafés draw locals and tourists alike. A gallery of 19th Century Polish art is upstairs, full of lavish, melodramatic paintings that are actually quite fun. The square is lined by grand old houses, and filled with the church of St Wojciech (Cracow’s oldest) and the lone 15th century town hall tower. It’s the towering twin spires of the Gothic Mariacki church, looming in one corner, that really dominate the square and catch the eye.
Zamek Krolewski (Royal Castle)
Perched atop Wawel Hill, Cracow’s Royal Castle was the seat of Poland's kings from the early 11th to the late 16th centuries. It’s so full of nationally significant monuments that it’s sometimes called the Polish Acropolis. Most of the castle is Renaissance in style (1504-35), based around an Italian-style courtyard flanked by royal apartments filled with baroque Flemish tapestries, paintings and period furniture. The castle also boasts a Crown Treasury and Armoury and a fine Oriental Art Exhibition. Elsewhere, look out for the Lost Wawel exhibit, exploring former buildings on the site, and the whimsical Dragon's Den, a karst cave reached by a spiral staircase, where the legendary Prince Krakus (thus Cracow) supposedly killed a dragon. There’s a daily limit for tickets so arrive early.