Krakow highlights in one day
I’m sitting on a bench (below image) admiring all the clusters of bright annuals blooming in a riot of colors, it’s almost too postcard perfect, and yet there it is. I started taking a few photographs, crouching low – almost at plant level, and the image just popped! It’s these beautiful moments and amid grandiose landmarks and vistas that really make visiting Krakow so worthwhile. Spared by all the bombings during World War 2 throughout Poland, this former capital has so many spectacular landmarks and magnificent architecture packed into such a small and tight space, it makes for some wonderful and surprising discoveries. Krakow is a very compact city with its historic central district and surrounding neighborhoods. Everything in the city is relatively easy to walk or take public transportation, so you can visit many of the landmarks and attractions in a relaxed pace and see most of the highlights in a short one day tour.
So I can get a quick look at the city, I signed up for a city walking tour with Discover Krakow. The city tour covers the main attractions in the city and later during my free time, I revisited some of the more interesting spots that we visited and needed more time to explore.
Here are some highlights of visiting Krakow in one day
Rynek Glowny, Krakow’s main square
The ‘Living Room’ as locals refer to Rynek Glowny, the main city center, is the heart of this medieval city and is noted to being the largest medieval square in all of Europe. Even though many of the squares architecture and main attractions are medieval in origin, you will also find a mixture of architectural styles from Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque to even Russian and Polish modernism periods. In the historic center you will find many of the city’s jewels including: St. Mary’s Basilica, the merchant cloth hall, the flower market and a series of churches that make the center one of the most compact and Catholic filled churches in all of Europe. Surrounding the main square are restaurants with outdoor cafes that are popular with locals and tourists alike. Being on the main square at Rynek Glowny is the see and be seen spot in the center to people watch and just enjoy the scene unfold slowly around the square.
Tip: late afternoon to evening is a popular time frame when all the bars are busy and the square is alive with entertainment and activity. Pick a restaurant that appeals to your taste and watching the street life unfold all evening is an entertaining activity for locals and tourists.
The Cloth hall and town hall tower
Flower stalls sell fresh bouquets in the main square
Modern art in the main square of Krakow
Horse carriages fronting St. Mary’s Basilica
In a prominent corner of the Rynek Glowny square sits St. Mary’s Basilica – an iconic image of Krakow and for the whole country. This cathedral is loved by the Polish people and was built in the early 1320s. The gothic church has served as an architectural model for many other churches built around Poland and abroad in many countries. Inside the gilt and ornate basilica, the famous altar is one of the largest wooden and painted altars made in the world and is one of the greatest masterpieces of Polish gothic art on display. Outside of the altar, the entire church is a piece of artwork from the blue and gold starred ceilings to the many smaller chapels dedicated to important Polish dignitaries and rulers.
Tip: The main entrance is restricted to locals and worshippers, entrance for tourist is on the east side door. Don’t miss the hourly bugle call from the main tower which can be heard all over the square.
Interior details of St. Mary’s Basilica
St. Mary’s Basilica altar and ceilings
Just off the main square, Jagiellonian University is the oldest university in Poland and the 2nd oldest in central Europe – after Charles university in Prague. This school of higher learning was founded in 1364 and for several centuries was the center of the Polish intellectual elite. The university has several important libraries, research facilities and has become one of Europe’s leading academic centers for mathematics, astrology, geography and legal studies.
Tip: Visit the Collegium Maius(photo above), the administrative office and the university’s ancient seat to see the administrative nucleus of this prestigious university.
Wedding photo shoot at the university Collegium Maius
The official seat and residence of the Polish bishop, this palace is also part of a large monastery complex of the Franciscan religious order in Krakow. The palace is best known as the residence of Krakow’s famous bishop and pope, Pope John Paul II, who lived in the palace during his time as bishop and when he visited Krakow regularly on official trips.
Tip: You can enter through the main garden areas in the center of the palace where there is a statue of John Paul II. In the alcove area are photographs and other images commemorating Krakow’s famous bishop.
Beautiful stained glass in the monastery church to the Bishop’s palace
Just outside of the square is a promenade leading up to Wawel hill located strategically in the center of the city. Over several centuries old, this limestone outcropping is a complete fortified complex containing major landmarks such as the Wawel royal castle, Krakow cathedral and national museum showing royal treasures, artifacts and city history. The vast complex also has intact towers, ramparts, clergy and administrative buildings and royal kitchens, servant/artist/builder work areas.
The architectural complex has a historical and cultural significance to the Polish people who have been invaded and conquered through several nations including the Austrian, Prussian and Russian empires. Throughout all these invasions, the Wawel fortress and complex have remained an integral part and psyche in the endurance of the Polish people and their national identity.
Tip: there are several tours available and entrance fees, you can check out these at the entrance and the tourist center above. Entering the cathedral is free and by donation only.
Krakow Cathedral facade
The royal cathedral and mausoleum houses many royal tombs and famous Polish personalities. The cathedral is a mix of different styles due to its start in the 13th century with progressive additions made throughout the centuries. The church is surprisingly small for a cathedral, but it is filled to the brim with ornate chapels, detailed ornamentation, burial chambers and other impressive architecture. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed inside the church so one can only see and enjoy the interiors or buy a souvenir postcard. But, you can take pictures of the outside of the church from many fantastic vantage points.
Tip: Entrance is free to the cathedral, also scenic spots and walking around the ramparts are a nice way to see the city below and explore Wawel hill.
Wawel hill views of the Vistula river and city
Sitting on hill overlooking the entire city is the Wawel palace, the main palace of the Germanic rulers of Krakow built during the mid 15th century into an Italian renaissance palace with Germanic interiors. Built in a neo renaissance style that was popular during this time frame, the royal palace was ransacked and used by various invaders including the Swedish, Russian and later Austrian forces that dominated the weak Polish army. During Nazi occupation by Germany during World War 2, the royal palace was commandeered as the strategic center in Krakow. Fortunately, the city and Wawel hill were spared from destruction from the Germans, unlike many other Polish cities which were completely demolished.
Tip: You can buy separate or group tickets to visit different parts of the castle and museums including: treasury, armory, state and private rooms, and an exhibition on Oriental Art. You can also enter the interior courtyard for free if you just want to walk around the palace building and gift shop.
Greenbelt areas around the city center
Surrounding the city center is a green belt which used to be the spot where all the city’s medieval walls and towers stood. Only a few segments and towers are remaining in one corner of the town, but the remaining open area is a circular park with allees of trees, children’s play areas and seating areas making this a popular spot for locals to enjoy some of the open spaces and gardens surrounding the old center. After walking around some of the narrow and congested streets, it’s easy to take a break and head out to the park areas just outside the central district.
Tip: Remainders of the city walls, towers and gate called the Krakow Barbakan are all that is left in one small corner of the green belt. It now serves as a tourist attraction for visitor along with current exhibits at the Barbakan entrance.
The Jewish district, Kazimierz
Next to the old central district is the Jewish district called Kazimierz which was an area that was where most of the Jewish settlement along with Christians living in this area that was once its own town during the 14th to 19th century. In 1993, Steven Speilburg shot most of his famous film ‘Schindler’s List’ in the streets of Kazimierz which has brought international attention to this area and many visitors into this district.
The Kazimierz at night
Jewish cuisine in Kazimierz
Now the entire area around the Kazimierz is becoming revitalized and filled with trendy galleries, bookstores, bars, Jewish themed restaurants and boutique stores. It’s fun to explore the area and stay for dinner when the district is lively and filled with activities and nightlife.
Tip: A popular spot to hang out in the evening. There are many fine dining and local restaurants to enjoy a nice meal in this more relaxed and fun area in Krakow.
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