Old Town. In the garden of heritage
The small area of 89 hectares inside the Planty Park is the oldest part of Krakow and the heart of the city. Its size is inversely proportional to the accumulation of monuments and the importance of this site for the identity and culture of Poland and Central Europe. And although only a few hundred people live within the former city walls today, Cracovians treat the Old Town as their beloved backyard, the actual and de facto centre of the city – a garden, which needs special care and attention. This is hardly surprising, as every step you make here, brings a new story.
AT THE WAWEL HILL
The limestone hill of Wawel, towering over a bend of the Vistula River, is the oldest settlement site in Krakow. From the 9th century onwards, a centre of secular and later also of clerical authority was located there.
The remains of the oldest buildings –the pre-Romanesque rotunda or the crypt of St Leonard’s – were used as fundaments for the Gothic cathedral built in the 14th century with the monogram of King Casimir I the Great on the iron gates of the main entrance. In later centuries, the cathedral was extended with chapels representing successive architectural styles. The most famous of them is the Sigismund Chapel from the years 1519–1533: a pearl of Renaissance architecture crowned with a distinctive golden dome. The cathedral underground was a burial place for the kings of Poland and in later centuries also for independence activists, people of culture and public figures. One of the three towers of the cathedral has housed the mighty 11 tonne Sigismund Bell, whose peal accompanied special events for centuries, since 1520.
The eastern part of the Wawel Hill is occupied by the majestic Royal Castle, which owes its present form to the 1507–1536 reconstruction under the direction of the leading Italian architects of the time: Francesco Fiorentino and Bartolomeo Berecci. Featuring a vast arcaded courtyard and richly decorated chambers, the castle is considered the finest example of the influence of Florentine Renaissance outside Italy.
The museum collections of the cathedral and castle can boast several unusual artefacts: the spear of St Maurice, dating from around 1000 and used by the first Polish king Bolesław Chrobry; the coronation sword of the Piast dynasty, known as the Szczerbiec, probably forged in the Rhineland in the 13th century; and the magnificent collection of tapestries (arrases) which King Sigismund Augustus commissioned from the best workshops in Flanders.
AROUND THE OKÓŁ SETTLEMENT
Shielded by the defensive functions of the Wawel Castle, the city developed from the 9th century in the area of today’s Kanonicza Street. The settlement of Okół, surrounded by an oak palisade, began to form there. Today, this street is known for its intimate Gothic and Renaissance townhouses with centuries-old portals. They mainly belong to the canons (as the clergy used to be called), to whom the street owes its name.
In the basement of the house at the number 13, a decayed box dating back to the ninth century was recently found, containing 4,200 iron bars resembling axes. This early medieval means of payment was called grzywna – this word has survived to this day in the Polish legal language and describes a fine. At the time, grzywnas were used in the nearby Great Moravian state, demonstrating the supra-local importance of the settlement. A few steps further, we can find the Bishop Erazm Ciołek Palace (at no. 17), which today houses a branch of the National Museum with a stunning collection of medieval sacred art.
The charming St Mary Magdalene Square, created as a result of the demolition of one of the churches, connects Kanonicza Street with Grodzka Street: the main artery and representative promenade linking Wawel Castle with the Main Market Square. The accumulation of religious buildings in the Old Town is unprecedented on the European scale. Let’s take, for example, today’s St Mary Magdalene Square, which is dominated by two temples: the Romanesque, 12th-century Church of St Andrew, which has defensive features and was modelled on Rome’s Il Gesù, as well as the Baroque Church of St Peter and Paul with its distinctive dome. In the 18th century there were 30 churches within the ramparts alone, which means one church per two hectares!
ALONG THE ROYAL ROAD TO THE MAIN MARKET SQUARE
The 650-metre-long Grodzka Street is part of a longer way known as the Royal Route, which was once used by the rulers on their way to Wawel. Before reaching the Main Market Square, it crosses the All-Saints’ Square, created by the demolition of a church of that name. This is yet another public space topped on either side by first-class religious architecture. We’re talking about the soaring St Trinity Church by the Dominican monastery, famous for its simplicity and bright interior almost untouched by later Baroque additions. The second building in question is the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi by the Franciscan monastery, distinctive for its spectacular stained-glass windows and polychrome paintings designed and executed by Stanisław Wyspiański – a leading artist of European Art Nouveau.
“CENTRE OF THE UNIVERSE OF KRAKOW” OR SALON OF EUROPE?
We’re now just a few steps from the Main Market Square – the ‘navel’ of Krakow, its most important and famous square, whose regular shape (with Grodzka Street as the only irregular one, because reaching the market at a different angle) is embedded in the official logo of the city. As written by Professor Jacek Purchla in his album 1000 Treasures of Krakow: the Main Market Square, is an urban creation that determines the place of the former Polish capital in the history of European civilisation. And indeed – there is no medieval square of similar dimensions on our continent, but also no other place that for so many centuries has served as both a market and a public agora, a space for important historical events.
The square, measuring 200 x 200 m, was laid out in the 13th century by the force of the location privilege issued by Bolesław V the Chaste in 1257. The composition made use of previously built or emerging structures, such as the wooden prototype of the current church of St Adalbert and St Mary’s Basilica, marking the central space for a grid of 11 streets running off the square. Long before the modern cities on the other side of the Atlantic enjoyed their regular plans, the streets of the city of Krakow (or Wrocław, which was founded shortly before) set the standard for medieval urban planning.
However, it was by no means a no-man’s land: the Main Market Square was built on the foundations of earlier, scattered residential and commercial developments, including numerous artisanal workshops located on what then were the outskirts of the Okół settlement. The remains of Krakow from before the location were uncovered in the early 21st century when the surface of the market square was repaired. They proved to be of such value that it was decided to create an underground museum. The multimedia narrative exhibition In the footsteps of the European identity of Krakow is today one of the most popular branches of the Krakow Museum and a kind of underground alter ego of the city.
BETWEEN THE HANSEATIC LEAGUE AND THE RENAISSANCE
Two buildings mark the architectural dominant features of the Main Market Square, referred to by Cracovians (sometimes with love, sometimes with irony) as ‘the salon of Europe’. These include the monumental brick structure of St Mary’s Basilica with its two uneven towers and the Cloth Hall – originally a market hall – crowned by a characteristic Renaissance attic with gargoyles. The Gothic style of the church brings to mind Krakow’s former membership in the merchant association of the Hanseatic League (Krakow was the southernmost trading post of this organisation) and the legacy of the numerous settlers from what today is Germany who came to Krakow in later centuries. The Cloth Hall: 16th century splendour of the Italian Renaissance, a city that is open, multicultural and casts its glow upon the whole region.
Halfway between these two of Krakow’s perhaps most famous monuments stands a monument to the Polish bard, Adam Mickiewicz, which is a customary meeting place for gatherings and protests; the local florists, who have occupied the nearby stalls for generations, every year decorate the monument with flowers. Fun fact: the author of Master Thaddeus never visited Krakow!
The richly decorated, three-nave interior of St Mary’s Basilica (formally the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary) includes a true masterpiece of Gothic sacred art. We’re obviously talking about the great main altar with more than 200 figures made of solid linden, the work of the Nuremberg master sculptor Wit Stwosz. The altarpiece, depicting 12 scenes from the life of Virgin Mary, was created between 1477 and 1489 and has survived many adventures, including being hidden and then captured by the Nazi occupiers during World War II. It has recently undergone a comprehensive renovation.
Every hour the higher tower of the basilica hosts a trumpeter who plays the Hejnał Mariacki trumpet call – one of the symbols of Krakow, a mysterious, suddenly breaking melody, which the legend links with the Tartar invasion of 1241. The Mariacki Square around the church, paved with white cobblestones, used to be a cemetery in the past. Let’s highlight also the tiny, late-Gothic Ogrójec Chapel by the church of St Barbara.
The Cloth Hall, designed by the Italian master Giovanni Maria Padovano, had long looked very different than it does today. Surrounded by several squalid outbuildings, it was as late as in the second half of the 19th century that it gained the existing arcades and an art gallery on the first floor, which housed treasures of Polish painting of the era.
EVERY TOWNHOUSE IS A STORY!
A provincial city on the Austro-Russian border, the Krakow of the 19th-centurywas a place where the liberal policies of the Austrian partitioner favoured the development of Polish culture. Noble families from various corners of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth founded monasteries in the city and built their own palaces: their proud façades can still be admired from the Main Market Square today.
These include the Potocki (Zbaraski) Palace at No. 20, now an open venue for cultural events, primarily of literary nature, as well as the Pod Baranami Palace (No. 27), where the Potocki family used to hold one of Krakow’s preeminent cultural salons. This tradition was continued by the post-World War II cabaret in the Piwnica Pod Baranami and led by the charismatic Piotr Skrzynecki, as well as the cinema on the first and second floors. The original furnishings of a typical middle-class house from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries can be admired in the Krakow Museum’s branch in the Hipolit House (3 Mariacki Square) and in the unusual antique shop run by the Soseneks, a family of collectors, upstairs at No. 29.
The eastern part of the Main Market Square is dominated by the Town Hall Tower – a remnant of the former seat of the city hall, demolished by the Austrians in the early 20th century. In the now defunct annex to the tower – the guardhouse – a symbolic changing of the guard took place on 31 October 1918, marking the beginning of the existence of a reborn Polish state. Next door, at No. 23, you can find one of the oldest bookshops in Europe (with a history dating back to 1610), while the Pod Kruki Townhouse (No. 25) houses the International Cultural Centre, known for its excellently prepared, cross-sectional exhibitions on the culture of Central European countries. Number 35, in turn, is the address of the Krzysztofory Palace with the main seat of the Krakow Museum and a permanent exhibition documenting the cultural history of Krakow.
Since the late Middle Ages, the western part of the Old Town has been associated with the functioning of the oldest university in Poland –Jagiellonian University (UJ). In the document establishing the university in 1364 it is written, let a refreshing spring open up and let all those who wish to drink knowledge, satisfy their thirst. The university changed forever the character of Krakow into an academic city in the full sense of the word, creating the local intellectual elite and constituting, especially in the first centuries, a centre of learning renowned throughout Central Europe. Despite the construction of modern edifices in the 20th century and the university campus in the Pychowice district serving the area between Św. Anny, Jagiellońska, Wiślna and Gołębia streets, it’s impossible to miss the crowds of students and professors passing through from one class to another.
The oldest surviving university building, the Collegium Maius, impresses with its Gothic courtyard and treasures stored in the university’s museum, such as an astrolabe from Cordoba from 1054 or a globe by Hans Dorn from 1480. In the 19th century, the administrative centre of the university moved to 24 Gołębia Street, to the neo-Gothic building of the Collegium Novum.
IN THE SHADOW OF A GOOD TREE
We leave the university quarter, heading north along Planty Park. The 3 km-long green area was created in the early 19th century on the site of demolished city fortifications. Medieval Krakow was surrounded by a double wall with 7 gates and 47 towers. They failed to withstand the Swedish invasion in the middle of the 17th century, and in later centuries they not only ceased to have a defensive function, they severely obstructed the flow of fresh air in old Krakow, which facilitated the incubation of numerous epidemics. During the period of the city’s formal independence, when it functioned as the Republic of Krakow (1815–1846), a bold decision was therefore taken to remove this military corset and replace it with these urban ‘Plantacye’.
The park, stunning with its monumental chestnut, maple and lime trees, looks particularly beautiful in autumn, when it’s adorned by falling leaves. The view of the Wawel Castle at the height of Straszewskiego Street was beautifully portrayed by Stanisław Wyspiański in his painting Planty Park at Dawn (1894). Cracovians love the Planty Park so much that in 2022 when a gale knocked down a phenomenal red-leaved beech tree growing there, it was decided, following protests, to leave the fallen tree in its place!
BY THE REMAINS OF THE WALLS
The only surviving part of Krakow’s defensive walls is located in the northern part of the Old Town; it was saved through the efforts of Jagiellonian University professor Feliks Radwański. It includes a section with three towers, an arsenal, St Florian’s Gate and the characteristic circular Barbican structure topped by seven towers. Once colloquially known as the ‘Saucepan’, it’s a well-preserved example of defensive fortification architecture typical of medieval Europe, first used in the French town of Carcassone. In the near vicinity of the fortifications, at 15 Pijarska Street, we can find a palace that is home to one of the oldest and most valuable art collections in Poland – the Czartoryski Princes Museum. Only two of the three most important works that formed part of the collection of this powerful noble family – Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine and Rembrandt’s Landscape with a Merciful Samaritan – have survived to the present day. The Portrait of a Young Man by Raphael Santi disappeared during World War II and it doesn’t seem likely that it’ll ever be found.
PLACES FULL OF TRADITION
In a quarter of the streets in the northern part of the Old Town, several antique shops with valuable collections of old prints and books have been operating to this day. These include the auction antique shops Rara Avis and Wójtowicz at Szpitalna Street, which, in the pre-war Poland, was a centre of antiquarian bookselling, run primarily by the large and thriving Polish-Jewish community. Let’s mention also the Kamiński Antique Shop at 3 Św. Jana Street, with a tradition dating back to the inter-war period.
Despite the continuing exodus of residents from the city centre, several multi-generational, family-run crafts and traditional businesses are still operating there, for example the Garzyński family photography atelier at 4 Sławkowska Street, or the Płonka family watchmaker’s shop at 12 Szewska Street, founded in 1899. Another address where history can literally be touched is Jama Michalika café – a place where the artistic and intellectual energy of the Young Poland movement was concentrated around the Zielony Balonik cabaret.
ON THE STAGES OF THEATRES
The landscape of Krakow’s Old Town is complemented by two theatre sites. The oldest of them, Helena Modrzejewska National Old Theatre, was founded at the end of the 18th century and occupies an Art Nouveau building by the Szczepański Square (5 Jagiellońska Street). The other one is the eclectic edifice of Juliusz Słowacki Theatre, (1 Świętego Ducha Square) and was established at the end of the 19th century in response to Krakow’s metropolitan aspirations and the growing cultural needs of the residents. The second theatre can boast a magnificent curtain with motifs of ancient culture painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
We end our walk through the Old Town of Krakow at the Small Market Square. This is the city’s former ancillary marketplace, where mainly meat was once traded. From here it’s just two steps to reach the Kazimierz district, but that’s another story!
A 15-MINUTE CITY PAR EXCELLENCE
Cabmen used to nap beneath St. Mary’s Tower / Krakow as tiny as an egg in the foliage, wrote the Nobel Prize-winning poet, writer, and literary critic Czesław Miłosz, about the atmosphere of old Krakow, where Miłosz spent the last years of his life. Krakow’s history distinguishes itself by the fact that, contrary to the example of other European urban centres in the 19th century, a midtown was never developed here as an alternative to the old market square. Unlike such cities as Warsaw or Lviv, the attention of the Krakow’s population is still focused on the Main Market Square. And even though the vast majority of residents have long lived outside the old walls (extra muros), it’s the Old Town (intra muros) that remains the symbolic heart of Krakow: intimate, and easy to get around by foot. As if inspired by the contemporary concept of the 15-minute city!
In the era of widespread globalisation and tourism, the special character of Krakow’s city centre has created important challenges for the city authorities. The Old Town is the centrepiece of an area listed in 1978 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and declared a historical monument a dozen years later. In the 21st century, the constant conservation care over the architectural treasures has found its extension in the form of the Old Town Cultural Park, which includes regulation regarding outdoor advertising and street trading as well as placing limits on disruptive lights and noise.
This process is not yet finished and the Old Town, considered as a particular space of social responsibility, is and will continue to be a space of lively debate. Tackling gentrification, depopulation, traffic exclusion, supporting places with history and traditions – these are just some aspects of this important process!