Krakow City and Culture

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Krakow City and Culture
The hardest challenge in Krakow is working out how to squeeze in all the things you want to do in a short visit. The city is home to several excellent museums, a thriving arts scene, and a program of great festivals throughout the year.
Photo courtesy of the Polish National Tourist Office
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    Poland’s Royal Capital
    Even though the country's monarchy has long been consigned to the history books, Wawel Hill remains the spiritual heart of Poland. The 14th-century castle still stands in Krakow, now as home to one of Poland's most prominent art collections. The adjacent Cathedral of St. Stanislaus and St. Wenceslaus is more than 900 years old and is the resting place of many Polish greats. It was in this church that Karol Wojtyla, later to become Pope John Paul II, was ordained in 1946. The Wawel complex is worthy of hours of exploration; don't miss the lavish State Rooms and Royal Private Apartments.
    Photo courtesy of the Polish National Tourist Office
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    Europe’s Largest Square
    All roads in Krakow lead to Rynek Główny, the largest medieval market square in Europe. In the city's heyday, this central point would have been full of merchants and traders who would bring and take away all manner of goods in their horse-drawn carts. The horses remain, now carrying thousands of tourists daily around the square in elegantly painted carriages. The square is the great meeting point in central Krakow and there is no better way to absorb its charm than to order a drink at one of the many cafés around its perimeter and indulge in the timeless pursuit of people-watching.
    Photo courtesy of Grzegorz Zak/Polish National Tourist Office
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    The Rynek Underground Museum
    During the last decade, Krakow's market square has been heavily excavated to create what is now one of the city's most intriguing museums. The subterranean Rynek Underground museum takes you directly under the square to explore Krakow's history as one of the most important commercial and cultural cities of central Europe. This is a very modern twist on an archaeology museum, with highly interactive exhibits throughout the dimly lit passageways that try to recreate life in Krakow during the Middle Ages. Look out especially for the holograms of medieval characters who hurl insults at visitors in their own language as they appear throughout the maze of excavated tunnels.
    Photo courtesy of Wiesław Majka/archiwum UMK
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    The Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz
    A 30-minute walk from the Old Town is the bohemian district of Kazimierz. Once one of the most important centers of Jewish culture in Poland, and indeed in the whole of Europe, few of the city's Jewish people survived the horrors of the Holocaust. This part of Krakow retains its unique identity and indeed the celebration of its Jewish heritage has seen a steady revival since Steven Spielberg used the streets of Kazimierz as a backdrop for his movie Schindler's List. Visit the Old Synagogue in Ulica Szeroka, browse the galleries run by recent Jewish immigrants along Ulica Jozefa, and pay a visit to the excellent Galicia Jewish Museum, which also hosts regular cultural events.
    Photo courtesy of the Polish National Tourist Office
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    St. Mary's Basilica: Krakow's Gothic Marvel
    St. Mary's Basilica is Krakow's most iconic church, occupying a prominent spot in the northeast corner of the main square. The main structure dates back to the 14th century and its two towers are distinctly asymmetrical, with one doubling up as watchtower during the church's early years. The interior of the church is magnificent throughout, but the highlight is the 15th-century wooden altar carved by German artist Veit Stoss. Entry to the main part of the church is free but it's worth buying the separate ticket required to see the intricate beauty of the altar up close. On a weekday try to visit just before noon when the wooden doors of the altar are opened.
    Photo courtesy of the Polish National Tourist Office
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    The Hourly Sound of the Interrupted Bugler
    Every hour on the hour the sound of the hejnal mariacki, a drawn-out bugle call, is played from the tower of St. Mary's Basilica and drifts across the rooftops of central Krakow. After around a minute the music of the bugle is interrupted mid-note, just as it has been for hundreds of years, in honor of the bugler who, in the 13th century, used his instrument to alert the city's inhabitants of an imminent Mongol invasion. A well-aimed arrow to the throat prevented him from finishing his warning tune and his unfinished melody is played four times in quick succession by a proud cohort of buglers, some of whom come from a long line of family members to have performed this Krakow tradition.
    Photo by Henryk T. Kaiser/age fotostock
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    The Story of Krakow during World War II
    While Krakow never saw fierce fighting during the Second World War, the Nazis committed some of their worst atrocities in the city and its suburbs. The concentration camp at Plaszow in the southern part of the city is a memorial site to those who were murdered here. The camp was run by the infamous SS commandant Amon Goeth, whose house still stands nearby. The best way to understand Krakow in the war years is to visit the world-class museum in Oskar Schindler's former enamel factory in Podgorze, just south of the river from Kazimierz. The multimedia displays depict life all-too-accurately for Krakow's residents during the 1940s; the interviews with Holocaust survivors are a particularly poignant element of the museum.
    Photo by Petr Svarc/age fotostock
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    Day Trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau
    About 30 miles west of Krakow is the sleepy town of Oswiecim, better known around the world by its German name of Auschwitz and for the infamous concentration camp that bore that name. It was here and in the neighboring site of Birkenau that around 1.1 million people, about a million of them Jewish, were killed during the war by the Nazis. The two camps now serve as important memorial sites to the horrors of the Holocaust. There are several tour companies running guided day trips from Krakow to Auschwitz-Birkenau and it's fairly easy to travel independently by train. A visit to Auschwitz is something that no visitor will forget.
    Photo courtesy of the Polish National Tourist Office
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    Come Face to Face with a Dragon
    As a city with almost 1000 years of history, it will come as no surprise that Krakow has more than its share of legends. One of the most enduring is that of the dragon Smok who lives in the caves below Wawel Hill. The story goes that the dragon lived in the 12th century and would terrorize the local people, his only appeasement being a maiden offered to him as a sacrifice once a month. Today Smok lives on in the form of a 1970s metal sculpture on the riverside path below the castle. He even breathes fire occasionally, prompted not by the sight of a maiden, but in response to visitors texting SMOK to the number 7168.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    The Salt Mines at Wieliczka
    It's only a short bus or train ride from Krakow to Wieliczka, the site of one of Poland's most remarkable attractions. The salt mine in Wieliczka produced commercial salt for over 700 years and for much of that time curious visitors (from Nicolaus Copernicus to Bill Clinton) have been coming down to admire this surreal underground world. A tour of the mine begins with a descent of 378 steps before following a two-mile route through the mine, where the guides show visitors the highlights of this strange world including underground lakes and statues carved from salt. The highlight is the stunning Chapel of St. Kinga, where even the chandeliers are made from salt. The journey back to the surface is via a mining cage–style elevator.
    Photo courtesy of the Polish National Tourist Office