While wandering around Krakow, you will inevitably find yourself in the Old Town. It’s also an easy place to spot on a map of the city as it’s surrounded by a green border formed by Planty Park. A fascinating mix of the past and the present, the Old Town perfectly encapsulates the rich history of both the city and the local people. This outstanding place of huge historical value finally received its due recognition in 1978, when the Old Town, together with the Kazimierz district, was included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Krakow Old Town - History
The history of the city dates back to the 7th and 8th centuries, when the strongholds of the Vistulan tribe were being established in the area (the Vistulan culture was one of the progenitors of the later Kingdom of Poland). Before Wawel Castle was built, there was a settlement called Okół located on the hill where St Mary Magdalene Square is situated today. A valuable treasure found there in the second half of the 20th century has been traced back to this time – a huge box containing over 4,000 iron bars which were used as a form of currency to pay people for their labour. To the north of Okół, in the area of today’s Main Square, there was freestanding houses and artisan buildings (known as the pre-charter settlement). At that time, the Vistula River used to create flood waters in this area, and the settlements that were located there (Okół, and later also Kazimierz) were then surrounded by a river bed that formed a moat.
The Tatar invasion in 1241 resulted in the total destruction of the settlement that had built up there, with the pre-charter settlement being essentially burned to the ground since most of the buildings were made out of wood. A period of recovery followed, however, and in 1257 Krakow was granted city rights by Prince Bolesław the Chaste under the Magdeburg Law. That led to the establishment of the Main Square in its current form, as well as the characteristic checked pattern of the streets diverging from it.
The following centuries saw the city develop gradually, with the expansion of the city walls, the construction of new churches and the incorporation of the parts around the Main Square with the settlement of Okół. In 1364, King Casimir the Great founded the Jagiellonian University, which was only the second university to be established in Central Europe and remains one of the oldest such institutions in the world.
Over successive epochs, but particularly during the Renaissance, increasing numbers of brick buildings sprang up and gradually replaced the wooden structures that had dominated to that point. The tenement houses on Kanonicza Street are excellent examples of these buildings, and they perfectly capture the atmosphere of that time even to this day.
After Poland’s, and Krakow’s, golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries, the city experienced something of a slow decline. Krakow was besieged and sacked several times (including during the Swedish Deluge). In 1794, the national hero Tadeusz Kościuszko took an oath in the Main Square, thereby becoming the Supreme Commander of the National Armed Forces and leader of the insurrection taking place at that time. After that uprising failed, Krakow was assigned to Austria during the Third Partition of Poland.
The 19th century brought significant changes to the Old Town. Many buildings were demolished (including the town hall) and not even the churches were spared. Following a decision of the City Council, the medieval city walls were pulled down and the moat was backfilled, with Planty Park being established in their place. New investments such as the Princes Czartoryski Museum and the Słowacki Theatre confirmed the development of the cultural and artistic life of the city.
When German troops appeared in Krakow on 6 September 1939, it marked the beginning of an occupation that would last until 18 January 1945. During this time, many buildings located in the area of the Old Town were looted and schools and universities remained closed.
The Krakow Old Town - today
Krakow’s Old Town is one of the most beautiful examples of a medieval urban landscape to have survived to modern times. Its well-preserved architecture spanning many eras, along with the unique atmosphere of the city itself, not only made Krakow extremely popular with tourists, but also led to it being recognised by UNESCO and named as one of the first 15 World Heritage Sites in 1978.
Tourism in Krakow, as well as the city’s cultural life and entertainment offer, is concentrated within the Main Square and the surrounding streets (Floriańska, Szewska and Grodzka). This largest preserved square from medieval Europe boasts many interesting buildings, such as the Cloth Hall and St Mary’s Basilica, as well as the iconic street carts where you can buy the classic Krakow snack – the obwarzanek.
Krakow Old Town - Famous places
The Main Square – a historic square that is the largest of its kind in Europe.
Jama Michalika – an artistic cafe where the Zielony Balonik cabaret was
founded at the start of the 20th century. Its most characteristic features are its perfectly preserved art nouveau interiors.
Wierzynek – a restaurant in the Main Square which, legend has it, was the site of a feast for King Casimir the Great and several specially invited European royals.
Collegium Maius – the oldest building of the Jagiellonian University. The museum there is well worth a visit, as is the beautiful arcaded courtyard.
St Mary’s Basilica – a church adjacent to the Main Square that dates back to the 13th century; inside are wonderful baroque interiors, beautiful polychromes and the largest wooden gothic altar in Europe.
Cellar Under the Rams – one of the most famous Polish literary cabarets, founded in 1956 by Piotr Skrzynecki.
The Cloth Hall – these old textile stalls are now a great place to buy handicrafts, jewellery and souvenirs. The first floor houses a branch of the
National Museum in Krakow – the Gallery of 19th-Century Polish Art – while the underground section has an interactive museum showing how life looked in medieval Krakow.
Florian Gate and the Barbican – the remains of the city walls, with the superb example of an entry gate, are a unique monument of military architecture.
Franciszkańska 3 – the “papal window” in the Bishop’s Palace is the window from which John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis have all addressed large crowds gathered outside.
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Discover Kraków quickly and comfortably in an eco-friendly electric car. Learn about the city’s most important landmarks and its history. Take advantage of ending the tour at the famous Schindler's Factory or returning to the starting point.
Learn the history and functions of individual buildings of the Wawel Castle and the surrounding area during a pleasant walk with a professionally prepared audio guide.
Visit selected parts of Kraków with a licenced city guide at your exclusive disposal. Explore the most important monuments and walk around the Old Town, Wawel Hill or Kazimierz. Learn about their history in the company of an expert who will answer all of your questions.
Learn about the history of the most important sites of Krakow's Old Town during an enjoyable walk with a professionally prepared audio guide. While strolling around Krakow's Main Square and its surrounding areas, listen to a recording rich in important facts, but also trivia and legends.