The city built around Wawel Hill has, over the centuries, established itself as the premier cultural metropolis in Poland. It was, in fact, the country’s medieval capital for several hundred years, reigning over Poland’s Golden Age before plague and foreign rule saw both a drop in prestige as well as population. Thankfully, today’s thriving Krakow is once again a veritable feast for the cultural senses. Home to Poland’s most distinguished academic institutions (Jagiellonian University, among others), a host of artistic galleries (did we mention an original da Vinci?) and an extremely impressive resume of yearly cultural festivals, this is a destination you’ll definitely want to slow down and savor to the fullest.
Much of the mandatory stuff can be seen in the city center, which encompasses major attractions like Wawel Hill/Castle, Krakow’s Main Square (Rynek Glowny), St. Mary’s Basilica and the remarkably reinvigorated Kazimierz Jewish Quarter. Renovated in 2013, the Czartoryskich Museum is home to Leonardo da Vinci’s famed “Lady with an Ermine” among other notable works of art and antiquity, while the recently added MOCAK has been making a name for itself in the world of contemporary art. Interested in some amazing architecture that’s stood the test of time? Then head south, where attractions like the grand Benedictine Abbey in Tyniec and the awe inspiring Wieliczka Salt Mine display centuries’ old structures that are still in use today. Or just visit during one of the city’s many art and cultural celebrations (like the Kazimierz Jewish Festival) to experience urban living at its most vibrant.
Be warned, however; not all of Krakow’s history is particularly easy or pleasant to take in. Like all of Poland, the city was subjected to Nazi occupation during WWII and, while its fate was less dire than that of Warsaw, vestiges of this traumatic experience still linger today. If you have the fortitude, locations such as the Oskar Schindler Factory and the indescribably haunting Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial make an intensely powerful addition to your understanding of 20th century Polish culture and, perhaps, humanity as a whole. Whatever your motivations, though, you can be assured of one thing: when it comes to cultural profundity on a grand scale, Krakow offers what few other cities in the world can. Best to take some time to experience it for yourself.