Things to Do in Krakow
The Auschwitz concentration camp was established in April 1940 in the prewar Polish army barracks on the outskirts of Oświęcim. Originally intended for Polish political prisoners, the camp was 'repurposed ' as a dedicated center for the genocide of the Jews of Europe. For this purpose, the much larger camp at Birkenau (Brzezinka), also referred to as Auschwitz II, was built 2km west of the original site in 1941 and 1942, and another in Monowitz, several kilometers to the west. It is now estimated that this death factory eliminated some 1.6 million people of 27 nationalities, including 1.1 million Jews, 150,000 Poles and 23,000 Roma.
Auschwitz was only partially destroyed by the fleeing Nazis, and many of the original brick buildings stand to this day as a bleak testament to the camp's history. Some 13 of the 30 surviving prison blocks now house museum exhibitions, either general or dedicated to victims from particular countries or races that lost citizens at Auschwitz.
Just outside Kraków, some 9 miles (14km) southeast of the city centre, Wieliczka is famous for its ultra-deep Salt Mine, which has been in continuous operation for 700 years. It's an eerie world of pits and chambers and everything has been carved by hand from salt blocks. The Wieliczka Salt Mine was included on UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1978. The mine is renowned for the preservative qualities of its micro climate, as well as for its health-giving properties. An underground sanatorium has been established at a depth of 440 feet (135m), where chronic allergic diseases are treated by overnight stays.
The lop-sided towers of the majestic St Mary’s Basilica dominate the northeast corner of Krakow’s lively central square, the Rynek Główny. A church has graced this spot since medieval times, but this incarnation was built of red-brick in Gothic style and consecrated in 1320 after the original was destroyed by invading Tartars in the 13th century. The northern tower was raised to 263 feet (80 meters) and became the city’s watchtower.
The interior is handsomely decorated with a star-spangled blue ceiling, heavy Gothic ornamentation and stained-glass windows that shaft sunlight into patterns in the floor. The showpiece is the magnificent carved altar, constructed with wood by the German craftsman Veit Stoss in 1489; it took him 12 long years to finish his creation, which measures 47 feet (13 meters) across and is carved with 200 biblical figures. The altar is opened daily at 11:50 a.m. to reveal gilded scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary.
Oskar Schindler was a wealthy German Nazi who employed hundreds of Jews in his Krakow enamel factory, which ultimately led to many saved lives. Schindler’s part in all this is immortalized in the Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List.
Since June 2010, Schindler’s old factory has housed a highly emotive, interactive and visually stunning permanent exhibition on the Nazi occupation of Krakow. The horrors of the regime are showcased, from the early days of uneasy truce between Poles and Germans to the ultimate mass genocide of Jews and Poles alike in concentration camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. The multimedia and intense 3-D diorama displays in the “Krakow Under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945” exhibit harshly bring to reality the repeated atrocities, the liquidation of 3,000 Jews from the Podgorzé ghetto in 1943 and the final days of the war.
The political and cultural centre of Poland until the end of the 16th century, Wawel Royal Castle, also known as Zamek Wawelski is, like Wawel Cathedral, the very symbol of Poland's national identity. The original, rather small residence of the Zamek Wawelski was built in the early 11th century by King Bolesław Chrobry beside t he chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary (known as the Rotunda of SS Felix and Adauctus). King Kazimierz Wielki turned it into a formidable Gothic castle, but when it burned down in 1499, King Zygmunt Stary commissioned a new residence. Within 30 years a splendid Renaissance palace, designed by Italian architects, was in place. Despite further extensions and alterations, the 3-store Renaissance structure, complete with a courtyard arcaded on three sides, has been preserved to this day. Repeatedly sacked and vandalized by the Swedish and Prussian armies, the castle was occupied after the Third Partition by the Austrians.
Kazimierz - or Jewish District - was for a long time an independent town with its own municipal charter and laws. Its colorful history was determined by its mixed Jewish-Polish population, and though the ethnic structure is now wholly different, the architecture gives a good picture of its past, with clearly distinguishable sectors of what were Christian and Jewish quarters. The suburb is home to many important tourist sights, including churches, synagogues and museums. The western part of Kazimierz was traditionally Catholic, and although many Jews settled here from the early 19th century until WWII - for example, the main Jewish hospital was on ul Skawińska - the quarter preserves much of its original character, complete with its churches.
A tiny area of about 300m by 300m northeast of Corpus Christi Church, the Jewish sector of Kazimierz became, over the centuries, a centre of Jewish culture equal to no other in the country.
The focal building of Krakow’s fanciful Main Square (Rynek Główny), the Cloth Hall has stood in the same spot in various forms for about 800 years but was originally built to house the local textile traders. From its humble beginnings as a small open-air market, the Renaissance-style hall is now 354 feet (108 meters) long and hosts Krakow’s biggest and best souvenir market, with stalls on the ground floor selling painted eggs, amber jewelry, wooden puppets and organic goods. The hall is gloriously floodlit by night.
On the first floor of the Cloth Hall is the charming, revamped Gallery of 19-Century Polish Art (Galeria Sztuki Polskiej XIX wieku w Sukiennicach). It reopened in 2010 after an extensive facelift, and its artwork hangs in elegant Renaissance salons. The highlights are the two massive satirical works by Polish nationalist artist Jan Matejko.
The cobblestone Main Square (Rynek Główny) of Krakow Old Town is Central Europe’s largest and has been the center of the city’s social, religious and political life since the Middle Ages. Today it still serves as Krakow’s modern pulse, dominated by the splendid Renaissance arcades of the Sukiennce (Cloth Hall), the lop-sided St Mary Basilica and an endless supply of cafés and bars.
From the square, Krakow’s complex medieval alleyways peel off in all directions and work as the focus of most visits. The district contains Baroque churches by the handful, a gorgeous ensemble of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, as well as about 25 museums covering subjects as diverse as Japanese manga, photography and stained glass. The standout historical collections are found in the many branches of the National Museum and in the Rynek Underground below the Cloth Hall.
Wawel Cathedral - or Katedra Wawelska - has witnessed most of the coronations, funerals and entombments of Poland's monarchs and strongmen over the centuries, and wandering around the grandiose funerary monuments and royal sarcophagi is like a fast-forward tour through Polish history. The cathedral is both an extraordinary artistic achievement and Poland's spiritual sanctuary. The building you see is the third church on this site, consecrated in 1364. The original cathedral was founded sometime after the turn of the first millennium by King Bolesław Chrobry and was replaced with a larger Romanesque construction around 1140. When it burned down in 1305, only the Crypt of St Leonard survived.
The present-day Katedra Wawelska is basically a Gothic structure but chapels in different styles were built around it later. Before you enter, note the massive iron door and, hanging on a chain to the left, huge prehistoric animal bones.
More Things to Do in Krakow
Mt Gubalowka is a mountain above the town of Zakopane in southern Poland. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the region, offering amazing views of the Tatras Mountains and a variety of outdoor activities throughout the year. The best way to reach the top is by the funicular that will take you up from Zakopane in just three and a half minutes. First opened in 1938, it was rebuilt in 2001 and now carries up to 2,000 passengers per hour.
Mt Gubalowka has a popular ski resort with about three kilometers of ski runs open from early December to early April. In addition to the funicular, skiers can take a two-person chair lift, T-Bar or rope tow up the mountain. When the ski season ends, a summer toboggan run opens, as do biking and walking trails. There is also a restaurant serving traditional meals, cold beer and hot tea year-round on an outdoor terrace.
In March 1941, thousands of Krakow’s Jews were forcibly moved and incarcerated within the Podgórze ghetto south of Kazimierz. Plac Zgody, a large square in the heart of the ghetto, was the departure point during World War II for Jews boarding trains to Paszów, Auschwitz and various other camps. It has since been renamed Ghetto Heroes Square in honor of the Jewish deportees.
Today the entire square serves as a memorial to the Krakow Jews. Designed by local architects Piotr Lewicki and Kazimierz Latak, the memorial comprises 70 empty chairs placed at regular intervals throughout the open space — a chilling reminder of the furniture, luggage and other personal belongings that littered the square after the final deportations and razing of the ghetto in 1942 and 1943.
In 1499 Krakow was a wealthy city under constant threat of attack, especially from the rampaging Ottomans. So they made themselves into a fortress. The Great Barbican is both the principal entry point to the city and a massive seven turreted point of defense. These days it looks like a fairytale city gate, back then it was either a massive relief to reach it with your wagons intact, or a deterrent to your planned attack on the city.
The actual gate to the city was St Florian's gate, linked to the Barbican by a covered passageway. But the Barbican and the series of moats and walls which lead away from it, ringing the city, were the first point of entry to Krakow in the Middle Ages. Today, you still enter the Old Town of the city through the impressive Barbican.
Founded in 1364, Jagiellonian University is the second oldest university in Central Europe. While it has survived to celebrate its 650th jubilee in 2014, its history has been turbulent. After briefly collapsing in 1370, it was revived in 1400, and in the early 16th century, it enjoyed a golden age in the midst of the Polish Renaissance. However, the prestige of the university eventually declined as Poland’s position in Europe got worse and the country was partitioned multiple times. After nearly closing in the 19th century, the university then hosted major scientific achievements. It was then targeted by the Nazis, who sent dozens of faculty members to concentration camps and destroyed university libraries and laboratories. Jagiellonian continued to suffer under Communism, and it wasn't until Poland’s Communist government was overthrown that the university once again began to flourish. Today it is considered one of the top universities in all of Europe.
Tucked away behind the flying buttresses of St Mary’s Basilica, the Maly Rynek is the baby brother of Krakow’s landmark Rynek Główny, just as beautiful but without the constant crowds. The oblong square is lined with townhouses painted in muted greens, yellows and reds, some with Baroque embellishments dating from the 17th century. The brick-red apse of the Church of St Barbara backs on to the piazza; with its origins in the early 14th century, it was Krakow’s Jesuit church for centuries and its interior has a mix of Gothic and Baroque architecture, several rare icons and an mournful sculpture depicting Christ in the Garden at Gethsemane.
The Sanctuary of Divine Mercy is a church located on the outskirts of Krakow, Poland. The church was consecrated in 1891 and dedicated to St. Joseph. It was originally built as part of the convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. This church is home to the tomb of St. Faustina, a nun who saw a vision of Jesus in 1931. It is said that when he appeared to her, he instructed her to commission an image of him along with the quote, “Jesus, I trust Thee.” This image, painted by Adolf Hyła, has spread in the form of copies and reproductions throughout the world. St. Faustina rests in a white marble coffin below the original image of the Merciful Jesus along with other relics. It is a popular place for pilgrimages for Catholics from around the country and even from other parts of the world. Attached to the church is a tower that provides spectacular views of the city.
Remuh Synagogue (Synagoga Remuh), the smallest of the historic synagogues in Krakow’s historic Kazimierz district, was founded by Israel ben Josef in honor of his son, Rabbi Moses Isserles. The Jewish community began worshipping in the synagogue in 1558, and it’s one of only two active synagogues in the city, as well as the site of the last well-preserved Renaissance Jewish cemetery in all of Europe (Rabbi Moses Isserles is buried there).
Like many of Krakow’s religious buildings, Remuh Synagogue was used as a storehouse by Germans during World War II and looted of its ceremonial objects and furnishings, though the building itself was spared. The cemetery houses some of Poland’s oldest surviving tombstones.
Built during the fifteenth century blending German and Bohemian Gothic architectural styles, the Old Synagogue (Stara Synagoga) is the oldest surviving synagogue in Poland. The structure was rebuilt in 1570 by Italian architect Mateo Gucci, who added a Renaissance aesthetic, and was subsequently renovated several times throughout the early twentieth century. During World War II, Germans took over the building and used it as a warehouse, during which time the furnishings and the ceiling were destroyed.
Today, the reconstructed synagogue houses a Jewish history and culture museum; the collection includes Jewish ceremonial items, Ark curtains, Torah adornments and holiday costumes and craft items, as well as a permanent exhibit on family and private life.
Surrounding Krakow's Old Town, Planty Park stretches about 2.5 miles (4 km) and covers 52 acres. It was established in the early 19th century to take the place of the Old Town walls after they were destroyed. The park is really a chain of gardens designed in different styles, connected by walkways and lawns and topped off with a variety of fountains and sculptures.
Walking through Planty Park is like walking through Krakow’s history. You will pass a small segment of the old walls, as well as the 13th-century Gothic-style Florianska Gate and the Barbakan, a defensive fortress dating to 1499. Other notable landmarks include a Carmelite monastery that was once used as an Austrian prison, the 17th-century bishop’s palace from whose window Pope John Paul II once greeted the residents of Krakow and the Church of the Snowy Mother of God, built in 1635.
Tempel Synagogue dates from around 1862 and was built by Krakow's Reform Jews. It is the only still functioning synagogue in Kazimierz, the Jewish area of Krakow which had its population decimated during World War II. The building is a Neo-Classical style with Moorish interiors. It was badly damaged during the war when the Nazi's used it to store ammunition, but it was repaired and services resumed after the war.
These days services are only held a few times a year, but the synagogue remains a place of worship. It also hosts concerts of Jewish and classical music. it is worth seeing for the contra st between the austere facade and the brightly decorated interior of gilded woodwork and ceiling, lit by stained glass windows.
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