Krakow Guide - Introduction to Krakow

Krakow, Poland's ancient royal capital, is also the country's most celebrated city. Even after the royal seat was moved to Warsaw in 1609, Krakow was still the crown jewel of Poland and the Wawel Castle and Cathedral its spiritual seat. Not spared by wartime occupation or the subsequent Soviet era, but a graceful survivor, the unique beauty of the city remains remarkably intact to this day. And while some East European cities have allowed their palms to be greased by the cash-in-hand charisma of Western commercialism, Krakow has largely preserved its integrity thanks in part to its stubborn worship of nostalgia and a firm indisposition toward change. The authentic character of the city is manifest in the epicentre of the Main Market Square, as much as on the secretive side-streets, unkempt courtyards and underground cellars.

Krakow's proud nod towards tradition doesn't come without its fair share of eccentricities, and even a weekend holiday-maker is sure to encounter one of Krakow's inexplicable flourishes of disarming quirkiness and bizarre spectacle. While the city has a myriad of attractions for visitors, and a busy schedule of rewarding cultural events year-round, it is the overall ambiance of the city that makes people fall in love with it: this combination of old-world mystery, serene spiritual energy, artistic and intellectual inspiration, aristocratic aesthetic and bohemian vibrancy.

Most of the city's landmark attractions can be found in two districts. Foremost is the Old Town, with the Rynek (Main Market Square) at its heart, whose energy funnels toward the Wawel, but duly pulses out through the tear-shaped Planty park to the neighbourhoods beyond. Here you'll find countless museums, galleries, cafes, cathedrals and street performers to keep you curious, as well as Jagiellonian University, Eastern Europe's second oldest academy. Meanwhile Kazimierz, Krakow's resurgent Jewish Quarter, is also a required visiting for its silent synagogues and cemeteries, crumbling facades, cool cafes and nightspots (head to the nightlife page for more on the latter).

Further afield from the city itself you'll also find plenty to explore, particularly the limestone cliffs and castles of Ojcow National Park, the spectacular Wielicka Salt Mines and the uncompromising reminders of Auschwitz and Birkenau.