Kraków, Poland is on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites and it’s easy to see why. It’s a beautiful romantic city that buzzes with life. I had the fortune of living there for a few weeks while my husband and I adopted our children. Here’s why I fell in love with it.
The central core of Kraków is visually stunning. Filled with buildings from the Renaissance, Gothic, and Baroque eras, many streets remind me of the graceful sensibility of Paris. They have ornate facades with intricate inlays and regal details. Cobbled sidewalks lead to views of cathedral spires and clock towers piercing the sky. The architectural highlight of Kraków though is Old Town. It’s the original Medieval city, featuring the massive Cloth Hall building, Town Hall Tower, and St. Mary’s Basilica (more on those in a moment). I feel like I’m in an outdoor museum when I walk through Old Town.
Kraków teems with interesting museums, restaurants, and events. Jagiellonian University is the most prestigious university in all of Poland. It was founded in 1364 and today educates over 40,000 students. This means a lot of cultural events occur at or nearby the university. In Old Town, Main Square is an enormous plaza that bustles with tourists and locals. Street buskers play guitars and vendors sell souvenirs and ice cream. Lovely historic townhouses line the square and hold pubs, restaurants, and cafés. Cloth Hall, an old merchants’ arcade, features crafts and amber jewelry stands. The Skiennice Museum has a large collection of 19th Century Polish painting. St. Mary’s Basilica has an amazing Gothic interior. Every surface boasts a religious image or pattern of gold, red, black, and blue. Don’t miss Main Square.
There are a number of pleasant green spaces in Kraków. Most are maintained well, making for cheery outdoor experiences. Park Jordana is a vast 52-acre park with an amphitheater, a pond, little boats to rent, bike trails, a snack bar, and an excellent playground. If you have kids, you want to visit Jordan Park. Conversely, a more adult-oriented park is The Planty. It’s what used to be the ancient moat of Kraków, now filled in and planted with trees and shrubs. It has a comfortable walking path that encircles Old Town. Our family used it often to get to the Galeria Krakowska, Kraków’s most sophisticated mall.
Though you might think Poland is conservative, Krakówians are generally cosmopolitan and progressive. Especially the young people. The young people are smart and friendly. They love music and art, which keeps cool indie nightclubs and galleries going. In fact, I would say most Poles are kind. I experienced this when my daughter cut her lip and we had to find a doctor. While lost on a street, I was literally taken by the hand by a sweet woman who bumped into a gentleman colleague who then led us to the medical clinic we were searching for.
In late Medieval times, Kraków was a political powerhouse. The kingdom partnered with Lithuania and prospered. It became a center for trade and intellectual pursuits. Art flourished. Wawel Castle epitomizes this era. King Casimir the Great built the sprawling compound in the 1300s. While the castle has seen many kings and some destruction from invaders, its Medieval and Baroque buildings now function as an enormous art museum, housing Italian Renaissance paintings, tapestries, and sculptures. There’s a fun legend about a dragon living beneath the castle in a cave. The cave is a limestone passage and worth a visit, especially for kids. Outside of one entrance, a dragon statue mechanically sprays fire every five minutes. Near the dragon is a spectacular view of the Vistula River.