Kraków is a southern Poland city near the border of the Czech Republic and it is known for its well-preserved medieval core and Jewish quarter.
Kraków old town – ringed by Planty Park and remnants of the city’s medieval walls – is centred on the stately, expansive Rynek Glówny (market square).
This plaza is the site of the Cloth Hall, a Renaissance-era trading outpost, and St. Mary’s Basilica, a 14th-century Gothic church.
On a hill above the Vistula River are Wawel Cathedral and Wawel Castle, a sprawling Gothic royal palace-turned-museum showcasing European paintings and sculpture.
Kraków’s Jewish history is on view at Oskar Schindler’s Factory and the former Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, which is now dotted with hip cafes and bars.
Visitors often take day trips to nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau, a Nazi concentration camp memorial and museum, or 327m-deep Wieliczka Salt Mine, with a vast labyrinth of tunnels, chapels and chambers open to the public for exploration.
When to visit Kraków
Peak season is summer (Jun–Aug) when the weather is warm and sunny. Key annual events include the traditional Slavic celebration of Wianki (Midsummer Solstice, Jun), when young women float herbal wreaths on the Vistula River; the Jewish Culture Festival (Jun/Jul); and the Summer Jazz Festival (Jul).
Kraków also spelt 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 was the official capital of Poland until 1596 and has traditionally been one of the leading centres of Polish academic, economic, cultural and artistic life.
Cited as one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, Krakow Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Krakow 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 in 1918 and throughout the 20th century, Kraków reaffirmed its role as a major national academic and artistic centre.
Krakow has a population of approximately 760,000, with approximately 8 million additional people living within a 100 km (62 mi) radius of its main square.
After the invasion of Poland by the Nazi Regime at the start of World War II, the newly defined Distrikt Krakau (Kraków District) became the capital of Germany’s General Government.
The Jewish population of the city was forced into a walled zone known as the Kraków Ghetto, from which they were sent to German extermination camps such as the nearby Auschwitz never to return, and the Nazi concentration camps like Płaszów.
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 Kraków’s Historic Centre.
Kraków is classified as a global city with the ranking of high sufficiency by GaWC.
Its extensive cultural heritage across the epochs of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture includes the Wawel Cathedral and the Royal Castle on the banks of the Vistula, the St. Mary’s Basilica, Saints Peter and Paul Church and the largest medieval market square in Europe, the Rynek Główny.
Kraków is home to Jagiellonian University, one of the oldest universities in the world and traditionally Poland’s most reputable institution of higher learning.
In 2000, Kraków was named European Capital of Culture and in 2013 Kraków was officially approved as a UNESCO City of Literature.
Krakow hosted the World Youth Day in July 2016.
The name of Kraków is traditionally derived from Krakus (Krak, Grakch), the legendary founder of Kraków and a ruler of the tribe of Lechitians.
In Polish, Kraków is an archaic possessive form of Krak and essentially means “Krak’s (town)”. Krakus’s name may derive from “krakula”, a Proto-Slavic word meaning a judge’s staff, or a Proto-Slavic word “krak” meaning an oak, once a sacred tree most often associated with the concept of genealogy.
The first mention of Prince Krakus (then written as Grakch) dates back to 1190, although the town existed as early as the 7th century, inhabited by the tribe of Vistulans.
The city’s full official name is Stołeczne Królewskie Miasto Kraków, which can be translated as the “Royal Capital City of Kraków”. In English, a person born or living in Kraków is a Cracovian (Polish: krakowianin).
While in the 1990s the English version of the name was often written Cracow, the most widespread modern English version is Krakow.
Kraków’s early history begins with evidence of a Stone Age settlement on the present site of the Wawel Hill.
A legend attributes Kraków’s founding to the mythical ruler Krakus, who built it above a cave occupied by a dragon, Smok Wawelski.
The first written record of the city’s name dates back to 965, when Kraków was described as a notable commercial centre controlled first by Moravia (876–879), but captured by a Bohemian duke Boleslaus I in 955.
The first acclaimed ruler of Poland, Mieszko I, took Kraków from the Bohemians and incorporated it into the holdings of the Piast dynasty towards the end of his reign.
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.
The city was sacked and burned during the Mongol invasion of 1241.
It was rebuilt practically identical, based on new location act and incorporated in 1257 by the high duke Bolesław V the Chaste who following the example of Wrocław, introduced city rights modelled on the Magdeburg law allowing for tax benefits and new trade privileges for the citizens.
In 1259, the city was again ravaged by the Mongols. The third attack in 1287 was repelled thanks in part to the newly built fortifications.
In 1335, King Casimir III of Poland (Kazimierz in Polish) declared the two western suburbs to be a new city named after him, Kazimierz (Casimiria in Latin).
The defensive walls were erected around the central section of Kazimierz in 1362, and a plot was set aside for the Augustinian order next to Skałka.
Krakow rose to prominence in 1364, when Casimir III of Poland founded the University of Kraków, the second oldest university in central Europe after the Charles University in Prague.
King Casimir also began work on a campus for the Academy in Kazimierz, but he died in 1370 and the campus was never completed.
Krakow continued to grow under the joint Lithuanian-Polish Jagiellon dynasty.
As the capital of the Kingdom of Poland and a member of the Hanseatic League, the city attracted many craftsmen, businesses, and guilds as science and the arts began to flourish.
The royal chancery and the University ensured the first flourishing of Polish literary culture in Krakow.
The 15th and 16th centuries were known as Poland’s Złoty Wiek or Golden Age.
Many works of Polish Renaissance art and architecture were created, including ancient synagogues in Kraków’s Jewish quarter located in the north-eastern part of Kazimierz, such as the Old Synagogue.
During the reign of Casimir IV, various artists came to work and live in Kraków, and Johann Haller established a printing press in the city after Kasper Straube had printed the Calendarium Cracoviense, the first work printed in Poland, in 1473.
In 1495, King John I Albert expelled the Jews from the city walls of Kraków; they moved to Kazimierz (now a district of Kraków).
However, they were still allowed to trade on the Main Square.
In 1520, the most famous church bell in Poland, named Zygmunt after Sigismund I of Poland, was cast by Hans Behem.
At that time, Hans Dürer, a younger brother of artist and thinker Albrecht Dürer, was Sigismund’s court painter.
Hans von Kulmbach made altarpieces for several churches.
In 1553, the Kazimierz district council gave the Jewish Qahal a licence for the right to build their own interior walls across the western section of the already existing defensive walls.
The walls were expanded again in 1608 due to the growth of the community and the influx of Jews from Bohemia.
In 1572, King Sigismund II, the last of the Jagiellons, died childless.
The Polish throne passed to Henry III of France and then to other foreign-based rulers in rapid succession, causing a decline in the city’s importance that was worsened by pillaging during the Swedish invasion and by an outbreak of bubonic plague that left 20,000 of the city’s residents dead.
In 1596, Sigismund III of the House of Vasa moved the administrative capital of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth from Kraków to Warsaw.
19th Century Krakow
Already weakened during the 18th century, by the mid-1790s the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth had twice been partitioned by its neighbours: Russia, the Habsburg empire, and Prussia.
In 1791, the Austrian Emperor Joseph II changed the status of Kazimierz as a separate city and made it into a district of Kraków.
The richer Jewish families began to move out. However, because of the injunction against travel on the Sabbath, most Jewish families stayed relatively close to the historic synagogues.
In 1794, Tadeusz Kościuszko initiated an unsuccessful insurrection in the town’s Main Square which, in spite of his victorious Battle of Racławice against a numerically superior Russian army, resulted in the third and final partition of Poland.
In 1809, Napoleon Bonaparte captured former Polish territories from Austria and made the town part of the Duchy of Warsaw.
Following Napoleon’s defeat, the 1815 Congress of Vienna restored the pre-war boundaries but also created the partially independent Free City of Kraków.
An insurrection in 1846 failed, resulting in the city being annexed by Austria under the name the Grand Duchy of Cracow.
In 1866, Austria granted a degree of autonomy to Galicia after its own defeat in the Austro-Prussian War.
Politically freer Kraków became a Polish national symbol and a centre of culture and art, known frequently as the “Polish Athens” (Polskie Ateny) or “Polish Mecca”.
Many leading Polish artists of the period resided in Kraków, among them the seminal painter Jan Matejko, laid to rest at Rakowicki Cemetery, and the founder of modern Polish drama, Stanisław Wyspiański.
Fin de siècle Kraków evolved into a modern metropolis; running water and electric trams were introduced in 1901 and between 1910 and 1915,
Kraków and its surrounding suburban communities were gradually combined into a single administrative unit called Greater Kraków.
At the outbreak of World War I on 3 August 1914, Józef Piłsudski formed a small cadre military unit, the First Cadre Company—the predecessor of the Polish Legions—which set out from Kraków to fight for the liberation of Poland.
The city was briefly besieged by Russian troops in November 1914.
Austrian rule in Kraków ended in 1918 when the Polish Liquidation Committee assumed power.
With the emergence of the Second Polish Republic, Kraków resumed its role as a major academic and cultural centre, with the establishment of new universities such as the AGH University of Science and Technology and the Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts, including a number of new and essential vocational schools.
It became an important cultural centre for the Polish Jews with a Zionist youth movement relatively strong among the city’s Jewish population.
Kraków was also an influential centre of Jewish spiritual life, with all its manifestations of religious observance from Orthodox, to Chasidic and Reform flourishing side by side.
Following the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany in September 1939, the city of Kraków became part of the General Government, a separate administrative region of the Third Reich.
On 26 October 1939, the Nazi Regime constructed Distrikt Krakau, one of four total districts within the General Government. On the same day, the city of Kraków also became the capital of the administration.
The General Government was ruled by Hans Frank who was based in the city’s Wawel Castle.
The Nazis envisioned turning Kraków into a completely Germanised city; after removal of all the Jews and Poles, renaming of locations and streets into the German language, and sponsorship of propaganda trying to portray it as a historically German city.
On 28 November 1939 Hans Frank created Judenräte (Jewish Councils) which were to be run by Jewish citizens for the purpose of carrying out orders for the Nazis.
These orders included registration of all Jewish people living in the area, the collection of taxes, and forced labour groups.
At the start of the Nazi Occupation, approximately 200,000 Jews lived within the Kraków District. This totalled 5% of its population.
During an operation called “Sonderaktion Krakau”, more than 180 university professors and academics were arrested and sent to Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps, though the survivors were later released on the request of prominent Italians.
The formation of ghettos began in the District in December 1939.
Before the forced transport of the Jews to the ghettos, they were encouraged to flee the city.
Shortly thereafter in March 1941, the Jewish population was confined to a ghetto within the city of Kraków in which many died of illness or starvation.
Initially, a majority of the ghettos were open and Jews were allowed to enter and exit freely. However, as the Nazi Regime became more powerful, many of these ghettos were closed and security became tighter.
Those in the ghetto were later murdered or sent to concentration camps, including Bełżec, Płaszów and Auschwitz.
The largest deportations within the District occurred from June to September 1942. More specifically, the Kraków ghetto deportation occurred from 1 to 8 June 1942.
Roman Polanski, the film director, is a survivor of the Kraków Ghetto, while Oskar Schindler selected employees from the ghetto to work in his enamelware factory, Deutsche Emailwaren Fabrik (Emalia for short) saving them from the camps.
Similarly, many men capable of physical labour were saved from the deportations to extermination camps and instead set to labour camps across the General Government.
By September 1943, the last of the Jews from the Kraków ghetto were deported.
Although looted by occupational authorities, Kraków remained relatively undamaged at the end of World War II, sparing most of the city’s historical and architectural legacy.
Soviet forces entered the city on 18 January 1945 and began arresting Poles loyal to the Polish government-in-exile or those who had served in the Home Army.
After the war, under the Polish People’s Republic, the intellectual and academic community of Kraków was put under complete political control.
The universities were soon deprived of printing rights and autonomy.
The Stalinist government ordered the construction of the country’s largest steel mill in the newly created suburb of Nowa Huta.
The creation of the giant Lenin Steelworks (now Sendzimir Steelworks owned by Mittal) sealed Kraków’s transformation from a university city, into an industrial centre.
The new working class, drawn by the industrialization of Kraków, contributed to rapid population growth.
In an effort that spanned two decades, Karol Wojtyła, cardinal archbishop of Kraków, successfully lobbied for permission to build the first churches in the new industrial suburbs.
In 1978, Wojtyła was elevated to the papacy as John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. In the same year, UNESCO placed Kraków Old Town on the first-ever list of World Heritage Sites.
Kraków has a humid continental climate according to the Köppen climate classification system, which can be classified as an oceanic climate (Cfb) using the −3.0 °C (27 °F) isotherm.
The Kraków climate is influenced by its far inland position, with significant temperature differences between seasons.
Average temperatures in summer range from 17.0 to 19.2 °C (63 to 67 °F) and in winter from −2.0 to −0.6 °C (28 to 31 °F).
The average annual temperature is 8.7 °C (48 °F). In summer temperatures often exceed 25 °C (77 °F), and even 30 °C (86 °F), while winter drops to −5 °C (23 °F) at night and about 0 °C (32 °F) at day; during very cold nights the temperature can drop to −15 °C (5 °F).
Since Kraków lies near the Tatra Mountains, there are often occurrences of halny blowing (a foehn wind), causing temperatures to rise rapidly, and even in winter reach up to 20 °C (68 °F).
Attractions in Krakow
You can discover the best attractions in Kraków including Wieliczka Salt Mine, Wawel Royal Castle, Schindler’s Factory, Main Market Square, Historic Old Town , St. Mary’s Basilica, Lost Souls Alley , Polish Aviation Museum and Kazimierz The Former Jewish District to mention just a few.