Kraków also Cracow, or Krakow, is the second largest and one of the oldest cities in Poland. Situated on the Vistula River in the Lesser Poland region, the city dates back to the 7th century. Kraków has traditionally been one of the leading centres of Polish academic, cultural, and artistic life and is one of Poland's most important economic hubs. It was the capital of Poland from 1038 to 1569; the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth from 1569 to 1596; the Grand Duchy of Kraków from 1846 to 1918; and Kraków Voivodeship from the 14th century to 1999. It is now the capital of the Lesser Poland Voivodeship.
The city has grown from a Stone Age settlement to Poland's second most important city. It began as a hamlet on Wawel Hill and was already being reported as a busy trading centre of Slavonic Europe in 965. With the establishment of new universities and cultural venues at the emergence of the Second Polish Republic and throughout the 20th century, Kraków reaffirmed its role as a major national academic and artistic centre.
In 1038, Kraków became the seat of the Polish government. By the end of the 10th century, the city was a leading centre of trade. Brick buildings were constructed, including the Royal Wawel Castle with St. Felix and Adaukt Rotunda, Romanesque churches such as St. Adalbert's, a cathedral, and a basilica.
In 1978, Karol Wojtyła, archbishop of Kraków, was elevated to the papacy as Pope John Paul II – the first Slavic pope ever, and the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. Also that year, UNESCO approved the first ever sites for its new World Heritage List, including the entire Old Town in inscribing Cracow's Historic Centre.
The centre of 'stare miasto' is 'rynek glowny (main square) with the focal point being Sukiennice (the old Cloth Hall), where all the souvenir shopping action happens. Walking through the cobbled centre will show you exactly what trinkets you can buy on your visit - leather, wooden goods, nice glass, crystal, lots and lots of silver. The stalls in Sukiennice can be more expensive, so either try the side road shops or haggle like you’ve never haggled before.
Polish cakes are pretty delicious. The main ones to look out for are 'szarlotka' (apple cake), 'sernik' (cheesecake), 'piernik' (honey cake), 'makowiec' (poppy seed cake) and of course 'paczki' (donuts). 'Szarlotka' is often filled to the brim with apples, with a crumbly dough on top, and if you're lucky to find a traditional one - it'll have a lovely egg maringue layer on top too.
'Piernik' is a lovely warming cake, and the interesting thing about it is that you can keep it around for weeks and it actually gets nicer. 'Makowiec' is a popular polish cake for New Year's Eve, as the poppy seeds are meant to signify money in the New Year! So the more poppy seeds at New Year's, the more prosperous the year will be.
'Paczki' are different to English donuts in that they're larger, crispy, covered in glaze and with real strawberry inside (less sweet than English). You can now also get them with custard inside and various other jams. They're a lovely snack and of course a must on shrove Tuesday.
- The Wawel Cathedral or by full name Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Stanislaus and Wenceslaus, is a Roman Catholic church located on Wawel Hill. More than 900 years old Polish national sanctuary traditionally has served as coronation site of the Polish monarchs and as well as the Cathedral of the Archdiocese of Kraków. Pope John Paul II offered his first Mass as a priest in the Crypt of the Cathedral on 2 November 1946. The current, Gothic cathedral, is the third edifice on this site: the first was constructed and destroyed in the 11th century; the second one, constructed in the 12th century, was destroyed by a fire in 1305. The construction of the current one begun in the 14th century on the orders of bishop Nanker. The Cathedral has been the main burial site for Polish monarchs since the 14th century. As such, it has been significantly extended and altered over time as individual rulers have added multiple burial chapels.
- Wawel Castle. The Gothic Wawel Castle was built at the behest of Casimir III the Great and consists of a number of structures situated around the central courtyard. In the 14th century it was rebuilt by Jogaila and Jadwiga of Poland. Their reign saw the addition of the tower called the Hen's Foot (Kurza Stopka) and the Danish Tower. The Jadwiga and Jogaila Chamber, in which the sword Szczerbiec, was used in coronation ceremonies, is exhibited today and is another remnant of this period. Other structures were developed on the hill during that time as well, in order to serve as quarters for the numerous clergy, royal clerks and craftsmen. Defensive walls and towers such as Jordanka, Lubranka, Sandomierska, Tęczyńska, Szlachecka, Złodziejska and Panieńska were erected in the same period.
- St. Florian's Gate or Florian Gate, is one of the best-known Polish Gothic towers, and a focal point of Kraków's Old Town. It was built about the 14th century as a rectangular Gothic tower of "wild stone", part of the city fortifications against Turkish attack. Until the 19th century, Kraków had massive medieval city walls. The inner wall was some 2.4 meters wide and 6–7 meters high. Ten meters outside the inner wall was an outer, lower one. The walls were punctuated by defensive towers 10 metres high. In the 19th century — just before they were demolished by the Austrian authorities — there were 47 towers still standing. Now there are only three Gothic towers left in all Kraków: the Carpenters', Haberdashers' and Joiners' Towers, connected to St. Florian's Gate by walls several dozen meters long.
- St. Mary's Basilica also known as the Mariacki Church is a Brick Gothic church re-built in the 14th century (originally built in the early 13th century), adjacent to the Main Market Square. Standing 80 m (262 ft) tall, it is particularly famous for its wooden altarpiece carved by Veit Stoss (Wit Stwosz). On every hour, a trumpet signal—called the Hejnał mariacki—is played from the top of the taller of St. Mary's two towers. The plaintive tune breaks off in mid-stream, to commemorate the famous 13th century trumpeter, who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before the Mongol attack on the city. St. Mary's Basilica also served as an architectural model for many of the churches that were built by the Polish diaspora abroad, particularly those like St. Michael's and St. John Cantius in Chicago, designed in the so-called Polish Cathedral style.
- Sukiennice. The Renaissance Sukiennice (Cloth Hall, Drapers' Hall), is one of the city's most recognizable icons. It is the central feature of the Main Market Square in the Kraków Old Town. It was once a major centre of international trade. Traveling merchants met there to discuss business and to barter. During its golden age in the 15th century, Sukiennice was the source of a variety of exotic imports from the East – spices, silk, leather and wax – while Kraków itself exported textiles, lead, and salt from the Wieliczka Salt Mine.