Krakow Old Town - A World Heritage Site
Krakow's Old Town has been the intersection of kings, merchants, monks and merrymakers for nigh on a thousand years now, with each subsequent generation adding their own treasures and legends to this magnificent city. Today the centre of Poland's cultural capital, with the Rynek as its showpiece, is more vivacious than perhaps ever before in its history - and there has been no better time to visit than now.
Newcomers arriving at the train station will instantly be drawn, perhaps unconsciously, toward the magnetism of Krakow's centre square (or 'Rynek'). Ironically retracing the 'Royal Way' once tread by Polish kings, today 'the tourist way' from the train station to the Rynek has become its own sort of coronation for visitors of the city. Crossing the Planty's tree-filled ring, Krakow's impressive Barbakan (the largest in Central Europe) looms. This late-Gothic masterpiece of the medieval fortifications that once protected the city from invasion is one of the only structures of its kind remaining anywhere in Europe. Behind the Barbakan, the Florianska Gate is the only original gate to the city still open, and draws the crowds through it, funneling them down bustling Florianska street where the uneven towers of Mariacki Church (St. Mary's) rise over the Rynek.
The largest medieval square in Europe, Krakow's Rynek represents the pulse of the city that visitors will be keen to keep their finger on. Lined on all sides by tall townhouses whose centuries-old smut has been scrubbed off, horse-drawn carriages take rank outside the Mariacki Church. Hardly a museum-piece, the medieval Market Square is today crowded with cafes, couples, college students, street performers and tourists. A full calendar of cultural events, a palace of souvenir stalls in the Cloth Hall, flower markets, trinket stands, kielbasa grills and hot wine vendors all ensure that the proverbial big tent of Krakow's market square circus never comes down. From the windows of Mariacki Church, as the hejnal bugle bellow's across the Rynek, surely the barker is barking?
The curious side-streets of Krakow radiate out from the Rynek at right-angles, three to a side, with the exception being ul. Grodzka, which takes the place of two streets. This ancient thoroughfare stays crowded all hours of the day and night, ushering citizens and tourists past designer clothing stores and jewelry galleries, milk bars, cafes and kebab stands, to the Royal Wawel Castle or onward to the Old Jewish Quarter. Perched above the Wisla River - if the Rynek is the pulse of Krakow, its heart lies on Wawel Hill. The castle, a fascinating mish-mash of architectural styles, houses the royal treasures of Poland in its State Rooms. It's crypts contain the tombs of Polish monarchs, bards and heroes. The Wawel Cathedral was the shrine of monarchs and the noblemen of their courts, and is the spiritual seat of the country to this day.
Visitors to Krakow will enjoy wandering its side-streets as much admiring its official attractions, exploring the architecture and atmosphere of the city, as well as enjoying the vibe of its incomparable cafe culture and nightlife. Extremely walkable in its size, this is the best way to enjoy the city and discover its delightfully eccentric details - on foot, head up, eyes wide. Heading out with no itinerary can often be the most gratifying way to explore the many churches, monuments, parks, galleries, shops and bars - each one seeming to be an inexplicably unheralded destination. The relative safety of the city also makes it a relaxing reward and a place you aren't likely to want to leave.