Krakow is a splendid city in southern Poland. Located along the Vistula river in Lesser Poland Voivodeship. For many centuries, it was the largest Polish city. In fact, until 1596, it was the Polish capital! Today, Cracow is the second-largest city in Poland. It still is considered to be an economic, cultural and scientific powerhouse, rivaled only by Warsaw. Many consider it to be one of the top contenders for Europe’s most beautiful city!
The Beginnings of Krakow
We do not know when exactly Kraków was founded. We can tell with a great dose of certainty that people were proud to call Wawel Hill “home” as early as the 4th century. According to legends, it was founded by the cunning Krakus. The legendary ruler – who the city is named after – proved his right to rule the land in truly the most awesome way…By slaying a dragon!
The Story of Smok Wawelski
Before it became a seat of Polish kings, Wawel Hill was a lair of a terrifying dragon. Its name was Smok Wawelski! Many brave and proud warriors tried to destroy the monster. Smok Wawelski had made short work of knights attacking him. Krakus realized that strength was not the way. Instead of trying to overpower the beast, he decided to outsmart it. Knowing that the dragon was a terrible glutton, Krakus fed it a poisoned lamb. It made Wawelski so thirsty it was unable to stop drinking water. It drank so much that it exploded! Krakus proved to be a great ruler and made the city prosper and flourish.
Krakow became a part of the Polish realm shortly after baptism of Mieszko I, the first historical ruler of Poland. Not much later, around 1042, it was made the capital by Casimir I the Restorer. During the fragmentation of Poland, Cracow was the seat of the most important province – the Seniorate Province. The ruler operating from the Royal Wawel Castle was considered the most powerful and respected.
The Wawel Hill Cathedral
If you want to see the bones of Smok Wawelski yourself, visit the almost 1000 years old Wawel Cathedral. They hang just above the entrance. Are they really of a dragon? Or are they whale or mammoth bones? We still do not know the answer to this mystery. Either way, make sure to visit the place. It was where Polish Kings were coronated. It is also where Pope John Paul II offered his first Mass as after his ordination. Karol Wojtyła had a special connection to the city. If you want to learn more about the Polish Pope, you might enjoy a John Paul II Heritage Tour or Catholic Tour.
The Royal Wawel Castle
The Royal Wawel Castle is a landmark you simply cannot miss when visiting Krakow. Once a home to polish Kings, now it hosts more than 70 historical exhibitions. It is almost 1000 years old! One of the biggest castles in the country, it was improved and rebuilt many times. Thanks to that, it bears the influences of all the architectural styles of Europe. In 1978, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sometimes, certain tours of the Castle are open to the visitors for free.
The Golden Age of Cracow
The Second University of Europe
In 1364, Casimir III of Poland founded the Cracow Academy. It was one of the only two universities in central Europe. The proud academic legacy continues to this very day. For those wanting to see it, Jagiellonian University opened a museum. They also offer exhibitions and tours.
Art, architecture and business alike flourished for the following centuries. It became a house of many guilds and craftsmen, making it economically prosperous. Artists continued to create fantastic works of art. By the year 1500, a printing press was established, allowing scholars to fully embrace Renaissance. However, in the year 1596, King Sigismund III Vasa moved the capital to Warsaw.
Krakow, The Heart of Polish Identity
While it changed the role of Krakow in Poland, city still was important. When Poland fell prey to its neighbors, Cracow remained a key element of Polish identity. It was in Krakow’s Market Square where Kościuszko Uprising started. Despite Poland officially ceasing to exist, the city was a reminder that the Polish nation was still alive. Called “Polish Athens”, it unified the divided Poles who flocked there to pay respect to their shared heritage. If you want to understand why, consider taking a City Walk.
In the early 20th century, Krakow prospered greatly. Possibly even more than Warsaw! Just a few years into 1900, it already could boast electricity and running water! The town and all surrounding suburban communities became integrated into one administrative unit, called Greater Krakow. In just 15 years, the population of Cracow more than doubled.
The Second World War
This period of prosperity ended with the onset of World War II. Occupied by Nazi Germany, Krakow fought hard to preserve the cultural heritage of Poland. Jagiellonian University continued the education of Polish youth in secret. Despite the heavy toll the war took on it, Cracow survived. To learn about the heroic struggle of Cracovians during the war, take the Memorial Route Tour.
Nowa Huta, The Pride of PRL
During the communist rule that started after the war ended, the city received a special assignment. In year 1947, Josef Stalin decided that PRL had to build a new center of steelworks industry. After many considerations, Krakow became as the location of this project. It was named “Nowa Huta”. The story of it construction is truly epic. The end result is also really interesting, attracting many foreign tourists. It perfectly captures the unique charm of socialist Poland. To see it with your own eyes, take a Communism or Nowa Huta Tour.
Today, it is a home of 774 839 Cracovians. Named the Cultural Capital of Europe, it attracts more than 13 500 000 of tourists yearly! During 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019, it was the best and most popular choice for city breaks. According to TripAdvisor, it is also one of the 10 Most Excellent Cities in the World, period. So if you don’t know what city to visit in Europe, go to Cracow. Krakow is a bus or train trip away from many other incredible places. This includes Auschwitz, Sandomierz, Zakopane and more.