Though Warsaw is perhaps a more well-known city as it is the capital of Poland, its second largest city, Kraków, is Poland’s most popular tourist destination. One reason is likely because its Old Town is well preserved due to the fact that it came out of WWII relatively intact, unlike Warsaw which was almost razed to the ground. However, Kraków has a very long history as it is one of the oldest cities in Poland and is the country’s original capital city, a title it held from 1038 until 1795.
Legend has it that Kraków was founded by Krakus, who built it above a cave occupied by a dragon called Smok Wawelski. Whether or not these legends are true, Kraków’s history begins with a Stone Age settlement on Wawel Hill, which is situated above a cave that is now called the Dragon’s Den. The first written record of Kraków is from 965 and it was described as a commercial center. It was held by the Moravians and then the Bohemians until Mieszko I, the first ruler of Poland, took it from the Bohemians, and in 1038 it became the capital of the Kingdom of Poland. It grew and became an important center of trade, and was rebuilt after being destroyed by the Mongols in 1241. In 1335 King Kazimierz III (also known as Kazimierz the Great in Poland, as he is their favorite monarch) declared that two western suburbs just outside Kraków would be a city called Kazimierz. One interesting fact is that Kazimierz the Great had a Jewish lover named Esther who he loved very much, but she would not marry him because he was not Jewish. He also tried to bring her back to life after she died. Based on the tours I took it seems that the residents of Kraków really like this story about their king.
In 1495, King John I Albert expelled the Jews from Kraków, so they settled in nearby Kazimierz, which is why today it is the Jewish quarter of Kraków. Despite this mistreatment of the Jews, the 15th and 16th centuries were a golden age for Kraków. In 1569 Poland and Lithuania united to form the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and Kraków became the capital of this entity. However when King Sigismund II died without children the throne passed to a slew of foreign rulers. Kraków grew less and less important and eventually King Sigismund III (of a Swedish house) changed the capital to Warsaw, his residence.
In the late 1700s the Commonwealth was partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Kraków was ruled by the Austrians, then the French once Napoleon arrived on the scene, then the Austrians again, until after WWI when the Second Polish Republic was established. In 1939 it was taken over by the Nazis, who wanted to rid the city of the Poles and Jews and make it completely German. During an operation called Sonderaktion Krakau, many university professors and academics were arrested and sent to the camps. The Jews were confined to a ghetto within Kazimierz, and those who did not die of illness or starvation were sent to the camps, mostly either Płaszów or Auschwitz. The famous and controversial director Roman Polanski is a survivor of the Kraków Ghetto. Kraków is also where Oskar Schindler had his factory, where he chose to employ many residents of the ghetto, saving them from the camps. The Red Army entered Kraków in 1945. After the establishment of the Polish People’s Republic, Kraków’s intellectual community was put under political control and the city was turned into a more industrial center as opposed to the university city it was before.
However, today Kraków is considered a cultural and intellectual center in Europe. In 1978 it was on the list of the first ever UNESCO World Heritage Sites, so its city center is the first to become a World Heritage Site. The salt mines in nearby Wieliczka were incorporated in the first year as well. Kraków is home to Jagellonian University, considered Poland’s best university. Perhaps one of Kraków’s greatest prides is its former resident Karol Józef Wojtyła, who became Pope John Paul II. He attended Jagellonian University, was Bishop of Kraków, and became the first non-Italian pope in 455 years and the first Slavic pope ever. I saw no less than three statues of him during my time there.
I have not been to Warsaw so I cannot say whether Kraków or Warsaw is the worthier destination, but I can say that Kraków’s rich and interesting history as well as its beautiful Old Town make it well worth a visit. It is also very close to a few other notable destinations that can be visited as day trips from Kraków. One is the Wieliczka Salt Mines, which I visited and enjoyed, and the other is Auschwitz, which I unfortunately did not get the chance to visit. Overall, Kraków was worth the 11 hours I spent on the train to get there from Austria.
(Pictured above: Wawel Hill)
St. Florian’s Gate
The Cloth Hall on the Main Square
The Main Square and St. Mary’s Cathedral
Statue on the Main Square
Statue in the Professor’s Garden
The Bishop’s Palace
Wawel Royal Castle
Tower on Wawel Hill
The Dragon’s Den
Statue of the Dragon
Kladka Bernatka Bridge
Church of St. Joseph
Ghetto Heroes Square
Wall of the Jewish Ghetto
View from Krakus Mound
Inside St. Mary’s Cathedral
St. Mary’s Cathedral
Statue of Pope John Paul II on Wawel Hill
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Underground church within the Wieliczka Salt Mine
Portraits of famous Jewish residents of Krakow within the Jewish quarter