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Krakow, Poland

Cracking Krakow
Into the Heart of Poland


Florianska Gate

Treat yourself like royalty today as you explore the city’s regal heritage. The Royal Court may have moved north to the capital city of Warsaw in 1609, but future kings were crowned here until 1734. The royal walk begins at the Barbakan—the largest fortress in Central Europe—outside the Florianska Gate. Brama Florianska marks the entrance to the city and is one of only three remaining towers that were once part of 39 towers forming the city’s medieval defenses. As gunpowder became the weapon of choice in Europe in the 15th century, Kraków’s fortifications were redone using the height of technology—red-brick walls that were ten-feet deep and with windows for firing artillery. At this tower, the first stop of a future king on his way to his coronation, a brief prayer was offered before he traversed the city via ul. Florianska to ul. Grodzka to reach his destination of Wawel Cathedral.

Artist's Market

The days of loyal subjects lining the route are definitely over. Today you’re more likely to meet aspiring local artists tempting you to buy their works at the colorful street market just inside the gate. Older works, however, are the focus of the Kraków National Museum - The Home of Jan Matejko. Here, the home and the paintings of this famous artist are on display. You’ll also find an elaborate collection of costumes and props used by the artist in creating his historical pieces.

Many trendy shops and chic galleries line the street of ul. Florianska, so beware of the crush of pedestrians and window shoppers ambling along the sidewalks. Situated in one distinguished mansion en route is the Space Gallery (ul. Florianska 13), which features 17th-century frescoes on the first floor and Krakovian antiques and artworks from the 19th through 21st-centuries on the upper levels of the house.

Ul. Grodzka leads toward the oldest part of the Old Town and past the 15th-century gothic Kosciól Franciszkanów, or Franciscan Church. After a fire here in 1850, renowned artist Stanislaw Wyspianski renovated the interiors in a neo-Gothic style that included stunning Art Nouveau stained glass and vibrant floral wall paintings in homage to St. Francis.

It may be time for lunch and Miod Malina Restaurant (ul. Grodzka 40). With its laidback Italian-Polish cuisine and warm rustic setting, it’s the perfect spot for satisfying your appetite while being gentle on your wallet. On the walk to the restaurant, notice the carved house signs of exotic animals: No. 32, Podlewe and No. 38, Pod Elefanty.

View of Wawel Hill from Virgin Mary's Church

It’s time to explore the architectural mishmash atop Wawel Hill, the oldest part of Kraków and what the Poles refer to as their “spiritual center.” Here, above the calm banks of the murky Vistula River, you’ll find the home and final resting place of kings and queens, as well as a legendary dragon’s lair. Once you begin ascending the hill, the phenomenal views of the city that reveal themselves will make the trek worthwhile. Note that certain sections require tickets for entrance and that some buildings close before 3 p.m., so check with tourist information.

After passing the Herbowa Brama (Coat-of-Arms Gate), you can admire the views of Nove Mesto and the Tatra Mountains before exploring the Wawel Castle. Be on the lookout for frothily dressed wedding parties taking advantage of the stunning views and backdrops—this area is wedding photo central. Wawel Cathedral’s gothic basilica, which dates from 1320, enjoys a significant collection of diversely-designed chapels. At the entrance, be sure to admire the three big bones—allegedly dragon’s bones—suspended from the ceiling. One tale suggests that if the bones fall to the earth, the world will cease to exist. As for the ornate sepulchers inside, one belongs to Stanislas, patron saint of Poland, upon whose silver casket (held up by four silver angels) victorious kings laid down their spoils of war.

The Dragon's Den on the western slope of Wawel Hill

Castle areas that are open to the public include: the Royal State Rooms and Royal Private Apartments, with period furniture and the tapestry collection of Sigismund II Augustus. Also open are the museums of the Crown Treasury and Armory, with its Turkish and Persian weaponry, and The Art of the Orient, with its collections of Asian ceramics. You’ll also enjoy an archaeological exhibit highlighting the history of the hill and, of course, Smocza Jama (the Dragon’s Den)—home to Kraków’s notorious symbol, the dragon.

According to myth, when King Krak built his castle on the hill he disturbed the dragon resting beneath it. As all awakened—and cranky—dragons do, he began eating the livestock and virgins. King Krak appealed to the bravest of knights to conquer the terrorizing creature, but it was a resourceful cobbler who brought peace to the area: He tricked the dragon into eating a sack full of poison that killed the beast.

For your last activity of the day, a climb up the Zygmunt Bell Tower, with its extensive views of the city, is warranted. The Bell, cast in 1520, tolls only on special occasions these days, but its resounding tone can be heard as far as 50 miles away. One local legend has it that anyone of noble integrity who touches the bell’s clapper will be blessed with good luck. Another legend has it that if you ring the bell, it grants you one wish. At the base of the hill, take note of your directions at the worldly signpost: It’s only 1,670STET to Edinburgh, among other famous cities!

For dinner, go green. Seriously. The cozy GreenWay restaurant serves up tasty vegetarian delights with an emphasis on Mexican and Mediterranean flavors. Get it while it’s hot and find a free table if you’re lucky. After your meal, you may want to drop in at Loch Camelot and the softly lit cellar of Café Camelot (ul. Tomasza 17). Here you can warm your insides with mulled beer or high octane Polish rocket fuel (vodka) to jazzy cabaret tunes.

Continue to Day 3


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* Images by and

(Updated: 05/29/08 HC)

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