Legend has it that Kraków was founded in the 7th century after the mythical Prince Krak outwitted the resident dragon. More reliable records mention its existence as early as the 8th century as the capital of the tribe of Vistulans (Kraków lies on the Vistula River). By 1038, Kraków became the seat of Polish government and remained so until 1596, when the capital was relocated to Warsaw (a city more centrally located within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth).
Even after losing its status as the political capital, however, Kraków remained the cultural, educational and spiritual capital of Poland. Jagiellonian University, one of the oldest in Europe, was founded here by King Casimir III (the Great) in 1364 and continues in operation to this day. It was a great center of learning that, by the latter half of the 15th century, attracted 40% of its students from areas outside the Kingdom of Poland. Kraków also remained Poland's primary religious center. Even though the capital was Warsaw, Polish royalty still came to Wawel Cathedral in Kraków to be crowned and buried. And it was the Archbishop of Kraków, Karol Józef Wojtyła, who later became Pope John Paul II.
Unlike the rest of Poland, Kraków escaped physical destruction during World War II, thanks to a swift encircling maneuver by the Soviet Red Army that forced the occupying Germans to retreat before they could destroy the city. Kraków's population – particularly its large Jewish population – was not so fortunate. The area called "Kazimierz" had historically been the Jewish quarter of Kraków since the 15th century when Jews were segregated from the Christian majority and forced to relocate. When the Nazis arrived, there were some 65,000 Jews (who made up 30% of the population) living in Kraków, mostly in Kazimierz. After the war, there were virtually none. Most were exterminated in the nearby Plaszów Concentration Camp (the camp portrayed in the movie Schindler's List). Others perished in Auschwitz or Birkenau, camps near the Polish town of Oświęcim, about 30 miles west of Kraków.
Today, Kraków's well-preserved old town and Wawel Hill draw tourists from the world over. The center of old Kraków is Market Square (Rynek Glówny), said to be the largest medieval town square in Europe. In the center stands the ornate, 16th century Renaissance Cloth Hall (Sukiennice), once a major trading center and now a souvenir market. The 14th century Gothic St. Mary's Basilica – one of the most elaborately decorated churches in the world (see slide show below) – towers over the eastern side of the square. To the west, Town Hall Tower, built in the 15th century, rises 70 meters (about 230 feet) above the pavement. The perimeter of the square is lined with outdoor cafés while the interior is enlivened by street performers, passersby and flocks of pigeons.
All around Market Square are narrow streets lined with historic buildings, restaurants and shops. This entire area was once surrounded by a defensive wall, but today only one gate and a nearby bastion remains. The remainder deteriorated over the years and was eventually completely removed and converted into a park and that offers a pleasantly shaded walk around the old city.
Not far away, overlooking the Vistula River, is Wawel Hill, the historic seat of Polish government and religion. Polish kings were crowned (and later buried) in the 14th century Wawel Cathedral and ruled from nearby Wawel Castle (some photos below in a separate slide show).
Aside from its long history and its present status as a prime tourist attraction, Kraków is also Poland's third largest city and an active business center, with an emphasis in information technology. Many multinational corporations, such as IBM and General Electric, have facilities here.
The photos above concentrate on the Market Square and Kazimierz areas of old Kraków. For more detail about St. Mary's Basilica, Wawel Cathedral and Castle, plus other churches in the city, check out the slide shows below, which will run in a separate pop-up window.
St. Mary's Basilica and Other Churches of Kraków: Without a doubt, St. Mary's Basilica is one of the most intensely decorated churches I've ever seen. The impact of both the size and the decor is simply overwhelming. Of particular interest is the magnificent wooden altar carved by Veit Stoss (Wit Stwosz) in the 15th century. Also included are a few photos of the Basilica of the Holy Trinity (also known as the Dominican Church), another ornately decorated Catholic church. (17 Photos) [Preview This Slide Show]
Wawel Cathedral and Castle: The historic seat of Polish political and religious life has been well preserved on Wawel Hill, south of the old town area. The cathedral, from the outside, is a remarkable mixture of architectural styles. Inside, I cannot say, for unfortunately during my August 2005 visit, there was some multi-day event going on (complete with TV cameras) and visitors were not allowed within the cathedral. (11 Photos) [Preview This Slide Show]