Dating back to the 7th century, Krako?w is one of Europe’s oldest cities, and it remains one of its last to be built from the center out, where its architectural monuments are all set in chronological order starting at its core. Today, modern-day attractions intermingle with historic sites throughout the city (photo credits: Paweł).
One of Europe’s oldest cities, Kraków in southern Poland boasts a rich heritage and storied sites.
I was wakened abruptly from a beautiful daydream by a strong grip that took hold of both my arms and stopped me in my tracks. A thick metal pole stood no less than 10 inches from where I was stopped, and I knew that my husband’s hands had once again saved me from running into an inanimate object while I gazed up at the stunning architecture of the buildings we were passing on our walk through Kraków’s Old Town.
Dating back to the 7th century, Kraków is one of Europe’s oldest cities and it remains one of its last to be built from the center out, where its architectural monuments are all set in chronological order starting at its core. My husband and I had decided to embark on a “walk through history” of sorts, starting from the central Renaissance Cloth Hall (visitkrakow.com/city/krakows-market-square) and working our way toward the outskirts of the city. The city began to unfold like the pages of a storybook as we passed through Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque styles of architecture, and I became fully entranced in the story that was playing out before our eyes.
I sent a sheepish smile his way and jokingly thanked him for being my “eyes on the ground.” I took his hand and we started off again, him leading the way this time. But it was no less than a minute after we restarted our meandering journey that I again felt my gaze drifting upward, and soon I was lost once more in the story that Kraków’s rooftops had to tell.
A ROYAL TOUCH
Although nowadays most people refer to it as simply Kraków, this southern Polish city actually bears a nobler moniker of Stóeczne Królewskie Miasto Kraków—a name that literally translates to “The Royal Capital City of Kraków.” Kraków is set in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, nestled strategically along the Vistula River between the Jurassic Rock Upland and the Tatra Mountains. The city’s central location made it an early center of commerce in its early years, highly praised by wealthy merchants and royals who established a number of notable universities and schools for academics and artists.
Kraków’s rich heritage with the arts is still present even now, where today the city is home to more than six thousand historic sites, more than two million works of art, and it was proclaimed a UNESCO City of Literature in 2013. Th ere are more than 28 museums and public art galleries spread throughout the city, most notably the Museum of Contemporary Art Krako?w (MOCAK) (en.mocak.pl) and the National Museum (mnk.pl) that houses works by Rembrandt and Leonardo da Vinci.
The city is a boutique hotel lover’s dream, with gems like the Hotel Wentzl (wentzl.pl) topping the charts for outstanding accommodations. This petite guesthouse dates back to the XVI century, acting as the home to Kraków’s wealthiest residents over the years before getting transformed into a hotel and accepted as a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. The 18-room hotel is famous for its “good energy,” but its Italian restaurant Da Pietro (dapietro.pl/en) is making a name for itself all its own with a fantastic wine list and incredibly romantic atmosphere in the wine cellar of the hotel.
Larger luxury hotels are few and far between in Kraków, as the city center has little room for new buildings. As a result, it’s the smaller and more boutique hotels that o?er the best location for Kraków’s top sights. The Bonerowski Palace (palacbonerowski.com) is one such building. The hotel is housed near the Old Market Square inside a refurbished UNESCO World Heritage building that dates back to the Middle Ages, and is within walking distance to just about everything. Each of the 16 rooms (and seven suites) boast stunning views of St. Mary’s Basilica, Renaissance Cloth Hall (Sukiennice), Church of St. Adalbert, and the Adam Mickiewicz Monument, but it’s the sight of the hotel’s 22-meter long chandelier (the longest in Europe) that acts as the most memorable vision for most guests of the hotel.
Polish food is having a bit of a renaissance in many cities around the world, and Kraków is no exception. Throughout the city visitors will find hundreds of options for tasting authentic Polish recipes like pierogi (dumplings) and golabki (cabbage rolls in tomato sauce), and there are a number of fantastic Polish chefs boasting menus with dishes made with the finest Polish ingredients. No. 7 Restaurant (restaurant. number7.pl) is a favorite for many visitors looking to get a taste of Poland in a romantic setting. The restaurant is located underneath Market Square, the clandestine entrance to the stairwell leading down often the key that keeps many tourists from discovering this hidden gem. Inside, diners will find a romantic wine cellar atmosphere with friendly waiters, a fantastic wine list of international and local wines, and a delicious rendition of duck pate and wild boar.
Another fine dining favorite is Starka (starka-restauracja.pl), where Polish staples like sour rye soup, pork sirloin and Polish salads are served alongside an impressive range of homemade flavored vodkas.
Up until recently, Polish wines rarely appeared on wine lists around the world, but the country’s new crop of wine makers are changing the reputation of Polish wines, and Kraków Slow Wines (krakoslowwines.pl) is without a doubt the best wine bar in the city for sampling the best the country has to offer. The wine shop and bar serves wines exclusively from ecological vineyards, with many organic labels on the list. Their menu is full of healthy and sharable plates made with homemade breads, sauces, sausages, and more. Go early for the chance to sample some of the amazing Georgian dishes grilled and smoked fresh from the wine bar’s upscale food truck located out front.
Many hotels and tour companies operate day trips to visit the neighboring town of Wielicza for a therapeutic tour through the famous salt mines or to the former Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz for a very sobering journey through history, but there’s tons to do in Kraków that doesn’t require a road trip.
Along with a castle that dates back to the late 10th century, history buffs are often drawn to the Jewish district. Th e district was once the sight of the Kraków Ghetto during WWII, where beautifully scripted tours of Oskar Schindler’s heroic deeds operate daily at the well-preserved enamelware factory (mhk.pl).
After the sobering tour, grab a little something sweet at Manufaktura Czekolady (manufakturaczekolady.pl/en) in Old Town— where you can sip or eat homemade chocolates while you watch the artists make the creations behind a glass wall—or head to the Bonarka Shopping Mall (bonarkacitycenter. pl/en) to shop your way through the dozens of boutiques from famous Polish designers. Although the Wawel Castle is gorgeous and striking during the day, if weather permits, plan time for an unforgettable walking trip along the banks of the Vistula River as the sun sets to watch the castle light up at night alongside a sky of glittering stars; it’s the perfect end to a perfect Kraków day.