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Make magical Krakow your gateway to southern Poland
Discover magnificent architecture and centuries of fascinating history in magical Krakow. This former capital of Poland boasts a medieval World Heritage Site core, characterized by attractive churches, an impressive castle and perhaps Europe’s finest market square. Krakow is perfect for a short visit, but its hinterland also offers much to see and do. Go south for scenic lakes and mountains around Poland’s winter capital of Zakopane. To the west lie the concentration camps at Auschwitz, where museums chronicle the darkest chapter of Poland’s occupation by the Nazis during the Second World War.
Stroll through centuries of Poland’s history
Krakow has a beautiful, well-preserved and compact city centre that has never lost its special character and magical ambience despite enduring wars, invasions and oppressive regimes over the centuries. The Old Town World Heritage Site lends itself to walking, but there’s also a good network of buses and fast trams. At the centre lies the vast main square known to locals as Rynek Główny. Many of the most popular hotels, cafes, shops, bars and nightlife hotspots in Krakow are located in the attractive streets leading off the square, where some of the finest Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture in Poland can be found. Don’t miss the Renaissance Cloth Hall, a splendid centrepiece where medieval market traders once sold their wares, and Gothic St Mary’s Basilica, where a lone trumpeter plays from one of its towers on the hour, every hour. The fascinating Rynek Underground attraction reveals a secret network of medieval passages and tunnels hidden beneath the modern day square.
Other highlights include the old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, filled with synagogues, bookshops, restaurants and museums. Parts of it featured as backdrops in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List, based on the true story of Nazi industrialist Oskar Schindler’s successful efforts to save his Jewish workforce from the murderous regime he was a member of. In the Podgórze district across the Vistula River, Schindler’s former enamelware factory now houses a museum lifting the lid on the Nazi occupation of Krakow during World War II.
Follow in the footsteps of kings, popes and dragons
With its royal connections, Krakow has always been central to the national identity of Poland. Until 1596, it was the country’s capital and legend has it that the city was founded by a dragon-slaying prince whose nemesis supposedly lived in a cave on Wawel Hill, a short walk south of the main market square. Several hotels are situated at this end of town and visitors can go inside the cave, known in Polish as the Smocza Jama or Dragon’s Den. There’s even a fire-breathing statue of the beast right outside. Above the legendary creature’s lair are the wonderfully ornate Wawel Cathedral, where Polish kings were crowned in medieval times, and Wawel Royal Castle, the monarch’s former residence. Here you can tour museums showcasing royal shrines and tombs, the Royal Private Apartments and the grand State Rooms. Art lovers will be sure to want to see Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine painting, a masterpiece which is on view at Wawel Royal Castle until the completion of major renovations at its regular home in the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow Old Town.
Locals are proud of the fact that Karol Józef Wojtyła, who in 1978 became the first non-Italian pope in four centuries, was one of their own. The one-time Archbishop of Krakow, whose former home near several hotels on Kanonicza Street is now a museum, also served as a parish priest at St Florian’s Church near the historic city walls. The main airport is even named in his honour.
Salt of the earth
The Wieliczska Salt Mine, another World Heritage Site located in a satellite town of Krakow, often proves so popular it might be wise to organise tickets before you leave your hotel. Also known as the Underground Salt Cathedral of Poland, this salty subterranean world of chambers, tunnels and passages produced salt for at least eight centuries until 2007. Most impressive are its chapels, altarpieces and statues hewn of rock salt by the miners. It took two brothers more than 30 years to carve out the ornate Chapel of St Kinga from 20,000 tonnes of rock salt.
No trip to southern Poland is complete without visiting Krakow, but there is also much to see and do in the surrounding Lesser Poland region. The charming winter capital, Zakopane, is about two hours south of Krakow by car and bus, or at least three hours by train, but it’s well worth a visit any time of the year, even if skiing and mountaineering aren’t on your agenda. Nestled among luscious meadows in the foothills of the High Tatras mountain range, the town is characterised by attractive wood-panelled churches, villas and chalets. Its bustling main street of Kuprowki is lined with shops, restaurants and market stalls selling artisanal local cheeses and souvenirs. In the nearby Tatra National Park there are Poland’s highest peaks, scenic mountain lakes and cable cars leading to high altitude beauty spots hugging the Slovakian border.
At Oswiecim, about one hour west of Krakow is the former Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz. A visit to this sombre World Heritage Site is not for the faint of heart because the painful history of the Second World War hangs over the place, where more than one million prisoners were murdered.
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