If you only have one day in Kraków, one of the best ways to enjoy the city is by taking a tour of Kraków’s Old Town and Royal Road. When Kraków was the royal capital of Poland from the 14th to 16th centuries, this historic street was used for many important events including coronation processions, royal funerals, weddings, and for foreign envoys.
The route runs from the old Medieval walls near St. Florian’s Gate in the north, through the Old Town, and finally to Wawel Cathedral in the south. Most of Kraków’s must see sights can be found by walking along the Royal Road, making it perfect for those with only 24 hours in Kraków.
1 – Planty
By the early 19th century, the old defensive walls surrounding the city were in disrepair as Kraków began to expand and modernize. Emperor Franz I of Austro-Hungary ordered the medieval city walls to be dismantled, the towers to be removed, and the moats to be filled in. Fortunately, the Barbican and Florian’s Gate were spared destruction.
The defensive walls were replaced with gardens, fountains, walkways, and statues, part of an urban development project. Today, this green belt is known as the Planty, a 4 milometer (2.5 mile) park which encircles the entire Old Town of Kraków. The world Planty comes from the Polish word plantovac which means “flat.”
If you have the time, a great way to enjoy Kraków is by walking the entire park which circles the entire Old Town. This pleasant walk, which takes at least two hours to fully appreciate, will take you through some of the quieter parts of Kraków. While you will encounter some tourists with guidebook and camera in hand, you are more likely to encounter street musicians, locals walking their dogs, and couples holding hands.
2 – Kraków Barbican and the Old City Walls
The imposing Kraków Barbican (Barbakan Krakowski) is located just north of Old Town (Stare Miasto). This round fortified defensive outpost provided extra security along the city walls and protected weaker points along the wall, for example, where there were gates. This Barbican is one of only three remaining defensive outposts in Europe with Kraków Barbican being the best preserved.
Kraków Barbican was built in a Gothic-style at the end of the 15th century. The red brick and stone tower has a diameter of 25 meters (82 feet) with walls that are 3 meters (9.8 feet) wide at its base and 0.5 meters (1.6 feet) wide at the top. Its walls feature 130 narrow defensive slots known as embrasures which were used by archers or gunners to attack invaders.
3 – Grunwald Monument
The Grunwald Monument (Pomnik Grunwaldzki) is an equestrian statue monument located in the center of Matejko Square just north of the Barbican. Matejko Square honors the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald. The Battle of Grumwald, which occurred on July 15, 1410, was one of the most important battles in Poland’s history. During the battle, soldiers from Poland and Lithuania fought together to defeat the Teutonic Knights, a group of German crusaders brought to Poland as mercenaries.
The bronze and granite Grunwald Monument was designed by two Polish sculptors, Antoni Wiwulski and Franciszek Black. On July 15, 1910, 500 years to the day after the Battle of Grumwald, the monument was revealed to the public. During World War II, the monument was destroyed by German soldiers. It was not until 1976 that the monument was reconstructed based on original plans.
The Grunwald Monument is 24 meters (78.7 feet) tall. At the top is an equestrian statue of King Władysław Jagiełło, the King of Poland from 1377 to 1381. The king holds a bridle in his left hand and his sword in his right hand. Standing just below the king is a statue of Vytautas the Great, the Grand Duke of Lithuania. Just below Vytautas is a statue depicting a slain Ulrich von Jungingen, the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights. On the back of the monument is a statue of a peasant removing his shackles. On the left side is a Lithuanian warrior blowing a horn while walking with a captured Teutonic knight. And, on the right side, is a Polish knight and page collecting Teutonic banners.
4 – St. Florian’s Gate (Brama Floriańska)
This impressive rectangular gate, named after Saint Florian, is known as St. Florian’s Gate (Brama Floriańska). It is one of the most notable and iconic Gothic towers in all of Poland and an important cultural icon of Kraków’s Old Town. The tower measures in at 33.5 meters (109.9 feet) tall.
St. Florian’s Gate was built in 1307. The gate was part of the new city defenses which surrounded Kraków. At its height of existence, the city wall featured 17 towers, 47 watchtowers, and eight gates including this one.
This was the main entryway into the Old Town. Those who wished to enter the Old Town would first have to pass through the Barbican, walk across a drawbridge over the town moat, then finally pass through St. Florian’s Gate.
Stand in front of the gate on its northern side and look halfway up the tower. It is here where you will find a crowned white eagle. This eagle, a historic symbol of Poland, represents the courage and freedom of the Poles.
Inside the gate is a small chapel with a replica of Black Madonna of Częstochowa (Czarna Madonna or Matka Boska Częstochowska), the “Queen Protector of Poland.” Polish Catholics consider this to be their most important religious symbol. The original statue is located 112 kilometers (70 miles) to the north in Czestochowska.
About halfway up the tower, on its southern side, is a statue of Saint Florian who was adopted as patron saint of Poland in 1184. He is also the patron saint of the fire brigade as fire was a big concern in medieval Kraków when buildings were constructed of wood.
5 – Floriańska Street (Ulica Floriańska)
One of the most famous streets in Old Town Kraków is Floriańska Street (Ulica Floriańska) or St. Florian’s Street. Floriańska Street, which dates back to 1257, runs for 335 meters (1,099 feet) from St. Florian’s Gate to Main Market Square.
There are currently 51 numbered buildings lining Floriańska Street. Here you will find an odd mix of historic kamienica-style buildings (brick or stone residential buildings), international fast food chains, shops, restaurants, hotels, and museums.
At #45 is Kawiarnia Jama Michalika (Jama Michalika Cafe). At the turn of the 20th century, this dark cafe was a local hangout of the Młoda Polska (Young Poland) movement, which popularized Art Nouveau in Poland.
A block further at #20 is Staropolskie Trunki, one of the best spots in town to sample affordable Polish vodka and mulled wine. While the amount of local vodkas and liquors behind the bar can be overwhelming for first time visitors to Poland, the friendly and knowledgeable lady behind the bar will explain everything to help you find that perfect drink.
Hungry? Well, then you are in luck. You can find it all here. Polish restaurants, international fast food chains, pizza shops, and kebab windows. Some of these shops sell zapiekanka, an open-face sandwich topped with a wide variety of ingredients. I think of it as a Polish-French pizza. Another local specialty is obwarzanek krakowski, a ring-shaped bread that is boiled then baked until the crust is golden brown and crunchy while the inside is moist. The old fashioned blue carts selling fresh obwarzanek krakowski are easy to spot on Floriańska Street.
6 – Main Market Square (Rynek Główny)
You are now standing in one of world’s most magnificent squares. This is the Main Market Square (Rynek Główny), the heart of Kraków since the 13th century. At 40,000 square metres (430,556 square feet), this is the largest medieval town square in all of Europe. Main Market Square has changed little over the centuries which is surrounded by historic townhouses, churches, restaurants, and sights of interests. Dominating this square are many points of interest including St. Mary’s Basilica, the Cloth Hall, and the Town Hall Tower.
In the past, the square has been used for special events, markets, celebrations, festivals, and public executions. At any time of the year, you are bound to find something going on. During World War II, much of Kraków including the square were saved from destruction. Kraków, with its Germanic roots, was considered a sacred city. While the Germans destroyed any symbol of Polish culture, they decided to save the city of Kraków from total destruction.
In between St. Mary’s Basilica and the Cloth Hall is a modern fountain and glass pyramid. Located beneath this spot is the Rynek Underground Museum which opened in September, 2010 after a major excavation of the area behind the square. Visitors to this popular museum can learn the complete history of Kraków from its first inhabitants until the death of Pope John Paul II.
Not far from the fountain, in the middle of the square in front of the Cloth Hall, is a statue of Adam Mickiewicz. Mickiewicz (1798-1855) is considered to be Poland’s greatest poet. He is best known for Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve) and Pan Tadeusz, considered to be one of the greatest works of Polish literature. He is burried in Wawel Cathedral.
If you are in the mood for a drink, then you could always take a seat at one of the restaurants or cafes lining the square where you can try Polish beer (pivo), vodka (wódka), or coffee. The views can’t be beat. If you are worried about the prices, no need to worry. For the location, the prices are very affordable compared to other European cities.
7 – St. Mary’s Basilica (Kościół Mariacki)
One of the most iconic sights in all of Poland is St. Mary’s Basilica (Kościół Mariacki), with its two towers, located on the Main Market Square in the heart of Old Town Kraków. Technically, St. Mary’s Basilica only has one tower. The shorter tower on the right is part of the church. The taller tower on the left is a watchtower.
A church has stood on this spot since the early 13th century. The original St. Mary’s Basilica was founded here around 1220. During the Tatar invasion of Poland in 1241, the basilica was destroyed. The Gothic church as seen today was rebuilt on its foundations starting around the 14th century. The church was consecrated in 1320.
According to legend, during the Tatar invasion a soldier standing guard inside the watchtower alerted the city of the invading Mongols by playing his trumpet. Before the sentry could finish his tune, he was shot in throat by an arrow. Today, every hour, on the hour, a trumpeter plays the same tune known as Hejnał Mariacki or St. Mary’s Trumpet Call from the same tower. The noon performance is even played on national Polish radio.
8 – Cloth Hall (Sukiennice)
Located at the center of Kraków’s main square is the iconic Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) which has been an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978.
A trading hall has been located here since the 13th century during the Middle Ages, making it one of the oldest shopping halls in the world. During this period, cloth sellers would meet here to sell their goods. In the 14th century, Kazimierz the Great turned the hall into a permanent structure. During the golden age of the 15th century, merchants sold not only cloth but exotic imports from the east including spices, silk, and leather.
In 1555, the market hall was destroyed by a fire. Not long after, reconstruction on a new hall began. The new Cloth Hall was designed in an Italian Renaissance style, a vision of King Sigismund the Old and his wife Queen Bona Sforza. During this period, many Italian architects and artists arrived in Poland. If you look on the gable high above the entryway, you will notice a large letter S which stands for Sigismund. In the late 19th century, the hall went through a restoration bringing it back to its former glory.
Today, the Cloth Hall is still a functioning market hall selling mostly Polish souvenirs including wood carvings, jewelry, rugs, painted boxes, and trinkets. While most shops cater towards tourists, prices are affordable for the location compared to other European cities.
On the second floor of the Cloth Hall is the Gallery of 19th Century Polish Art for those interested in Polish art.
9 – Church of St. Adalbert
This small, copper-domed church located in the southeast corner of Main Market Square is the Church of St. Adalbert, also known as the Church of St. Wojciech (Kościół św. Wojciecha). The oldest parts of this church date back to the 11th century, making it one of the oldest stone churches in Poland.
The Church of St. Adalbert predates the Main Market Square. When built, the church was aligned east to west, which was custom at the time. So while the church looks crooked, in reality, the square is crooked. Any other “crooked” building you encounter walking around the Old Town probably predates the rebuilding of Kraków after it was destroyed by the Mongols in 1241.
The oldest Romanesque parts of the church were constructed in the 11th and 12th centuries. Between 1611 and 1618, the church was reconstructed in a Baroque style which included the addition of the dome.
If visit in the summer when the interior is open, peak inside to view the Baroque architecture which dates back to the 18th century.
10 – Town Hall Tower (Wieża ratuszowa w Krakowie)
This lonely tower located on the Main Market Square next to the Cloth Market is known as the Town Hall Tower (Wieża ratuszowa w Krakowie). It is all that remains of Kraków’s old Town Hall.
The Town Hall was first built on this location in 1316. Over the centuries, the hall was expanded, rebuilt, and renovated. By the early 19th century, Kraków’s importance had declined and in 1820, its Town Hall was demolished. All that remained was this 70 meter (229 foot) Gothic tower built of brick and stone.
Visitors to the tower will find a small, unimpressive museum inside. Those who wish to climb to the top of the tower will be disappointed in the underwhelming views of the city below.
11 – Eros Bendato Sculpture (The Head)
Located near the base of the Town Hall Tower is a hard to miss sculpture of a gigantic empty head wrapped in cloth. While this well known Igor Mitoraj sculpture is officially known as Eros Bendato, it is usually referred to as “The Head.” The sculpture, which was completed in 1999, was designed by Igor Mitoraj (1944-2014), a Polish contemporary artist and sculptor who studied at the Kraków Academy of Art.
In 2003, Mitoraj gifted the Eros Bendato sculpture to the city of Kraków. The original plan was to place the sculpture in the square in front of Galeria Krakowska near Kraków Główny Station. Mitoraj insisted that the sculpture be placed in the Main Market Square. Despite protests from locals and historians who claimed the modern sculpture clashed with the old town charm, the sculpture found a home in the western corner of the square near the Town Hall Tower.
Today, the Eros Bendato sculpture is a popular meeting point and accidental tourist attraction. During the day, you can usually find children or tourists climbing in and around the hollow head. It makes for a unique photo.
12 – Jagiellonian University (Uniwersytet Jagielloński) and Great College (Collegium Maius)
Founded in 1364 by Kazimierz the Great, Jagiellonian University (Uniwersytet Jagielloński) is the oldest university in Poland and the second oldest university in Central Europe after Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. With around 150,000 students, Jagiellonian University plays an important role in the character of Kraków.
Many of the university buildings can be found in the area west of the Old Town. One of these buildings is Great College (Collegium Maius), the oldest building at Jagiellonian University. Dating back to the 14th century, Collegium Maius is the historic heart of Kraków’s university culture. In the 15th century, Collegium Maius was rebuilt. The late-Gothic structure with its large courtyard featured arcades and two levels. In 1517, the well in the center of the courtyard was added.
During the Middle Ages, lectures were held on the lower level while professors lived, worked, slept, and ate on the upper level. These unmarried professors devoted their entire lives to their profession similar to a monk living at a monastery. In a way, this building resembles a monastery more so than a university.
13 – Bishop’s Palace (Pałac Biskupi w Krakowie)
This yellow building is known as the Bishop’s Palace (Pałac Biskupi w Krakowie). It is the second largest palace in Kraków after Wawel Castle.
Since the late 14th century, this palace has been a residence of Kraków’s bishops. The most famous resident of Bishop’s Palace was Karol Józef Wojtyła, who lived here from 1958 until 1978 when he became Pope John Paul II, head of the Catholic Church.
Even after becoming pope, Pope John Paul II would return to the Bishop’s Palace on his visits to Kraków from Rome. During these visits, the pope would often appear in the evening in the Papal Window found just above the entryway. It was here where the pope would address his followers, sometimes chatting for hours about a variety of topics including religion, current events, and sports. A mosaic image of Pope John Paul II designed by Magdalena Czeska is now on display in the Papal Window.
14 – Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi (Bazylika Franciszkanów w Krakowie)
This Roman Catholic Gothic Church, possibly the most colorful in Kraków, is the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi (Bazylika Franciszkanów w Krakowie). The colorful church, located just across the street from the Bishop’s Palace, was the home church of Karol Wojtyła when he was archbishop of Kraków. When he returned from Rome for city visits, Pope John Paul II would also make visits to the church.
When the original church was built here in the 13th century, it was one of the first brick and sandstone buildings in the city. Throughout the centuries, the church was expanded until it was destroyed by the Kraków Fire of 1850. During this fire, about 10% of the city was destroyed.
Shortly after the fire, the church was rebuilt with the help of Young Poland (Młoda Polska) members Stanisław Wyspiański and Józef Mehoffer. Thanks to their efforts, the church is now the finest example of Art Nouveau in Poland.
Once inside the church, walk down the nave and find the third pew on the left where you will find a silver plate labeled “Jan Pawell II.” This was the spot where Pope John Paul II would come to pray when he lived across the street at the Bishop’s Palace.
Continue a few more feet down the nave and turn around. You are now looking at one of Wyspiański’s finest masterpieces. This magnificent stained-glass window, inspired by the Sistine Chapel, is titled God the Father Let It Be. As light changes during the day, the yellow and orange, symbolizing fire, changes to blue, symbolizing water. You can view more of Wyspiański’s stained-glass windows at the Wyspiański Pavilion described later in this guide.
In the small chapel to the left of the nave is a replica of the Shroud of Turin. This replica is consider a holy relic because it touched the original shroud. It is believed that the Shroud of Turin was the burial shroud which Jesus of Nazareth was wrapped in after crucifixion.
15 – Grodzka Street (Ulica Grodzka)
This part of the Royal Way you are currently on is Grodzka Street (Ulica Grodzka), one of the oldest streets in Kraków. Grodzka Street, which passes by many important churches and palaces, is about 650 meters (2,130 feet) long.
The copper-colored building on the corner of Franciszkańska and Grodzka, just behind the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, is the Wyspiański Pavilion. This building displays three stained-glass windows based on Wyspiański’s designs he created for Wawel Cathedral. It’s free to step inside and you can find the entrance just to the left of the small TI.
While the three designs were rejected at the time, these stained-glass windows were recreated on the 100th anniversary of Wyspiański’s death in 2007. On the left is Saint Stanislaus, the first saint of Poland. In the middle is a skeleton of Kazimierz the Great, King of Poland from 1333 to 1370. Finally, on the right is Henry the Pious, Duke of Kraków.
Along this lively thoroughfare you might notice fine arcades over the sidewalks. While these charming arcades appear to be Renaissance in style, they were added in 1939 after the Nazis invaded Poland. The Germans hoped to elevate the status of their Polish capital by improving the city.
Here, you can also find some of Kraków’s best restaurants and milk bars (bar mleczny). Milk bars are cheap communist era cafeterias that are today popular for their affordable yet delicious and hearty Polish food. Bar Mleczny Pod Temidą, with the blue sign at #45, is the most traditional milk bar you will find on Grodzka Street.
16 – Mary Magdalene Square (Plac Św. Marii Magdaleny)
This small square located between Grodzka Street and Kanonicza Street is known as Mary Magdalene Square (Plac Św. Marii Magdaleny).
Other than Rome, Kraków has more churches per square kilometer than any other city. Today, there are over 140 churches and monasteries in the city with 32 alone in the Old Town. From this square, you can see two of these churches.
On the left, with the white facade and row of statues out front is the Church of Saints Peter and Paul (Kościół ŚŚ Piotra i Pawła w Krakowie). Built between 1597 and 1619, this was the first Baroque church in Kraków. In front of the church are statues of Saints along with Mary Magdalene for which the square is named after.
On the right with its twin towers is St. Andrew’s Church (Kościół św. Andrzeja). This Romanesque style church was built by Polish statesman Palatine Sieciech between 1079 and 1098. This was the only church to survive the Mongol invasion of Poland between 1240 and 1241.
17 – Kanonicza Street (Ulica Kanonicza)
This historic cobbled street leading to Wawel Castle is known as Kanonicza Street (Ulica Kanonicza) or Canon Street, one of Europe’s finest streets. Kanonicza is also believed to be the oldest street in Kraków.
This picturesque street, featuring many well-preserved Baroque and Renaissance houses and mansions, was where Kraków’s noblemen lived until the 14th century. After the 14th century, these buildings housed many of Kraków’s clergy and canons. Keep an eye out for cardinal hats over the entrances at #3, #15, #18.
On the left hand side at #16 is Hotel Copernicus. This hotel, located in a 15th century building, is famous for hosting guests such as President George W. Bush, the Prince of Wales, and even Copernicus over 500 years ago. Right across the street at #17 is Erazm Ciołek Palace which houses the National Museum. The Florian Mokrski Palace located at #18 was used as a residence of Florian Mokrsk, Bishop of Kraków from 1367 to 1380. The yellow house located at #19 today houses the Archdiocesan Museum. Before becoming Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyła lived at this house for 10 years after the Second World War.
18 – Wawel Cathedral (Katedra Wawelska)
Located on the southern end of Kraków’s Royal Road is Wawel Cathedral (Katedra Wawelska), Poland’s national church. This Roman Catholic church and cathedral located on Wawel Hill has over 900 years of history and has served as the coronation site of many Polish kings. The cathedral also holds the tombs of many important rulers and historical figures.
The Gothic cathedral as seen today, the third on this site, dates back to the 14th century. The first cathedral was built and destroyed in the 11th century. The second cathedral was built in the 12th century and destroyed by a fire in the first part of the 14th century.
The cathedral holds the crypts of monarchs, saints, generals, national heroes, poets, and other historical figures. Over the centuries, individual monarchs have extended the cathedral and added new chapels. The variety of styles can be seen both inside and outside of the church. These styles include 12th century Romanesque, 14th century Gothic, 16th century Renaissance, and 18th century Neoclassical.
Scan the exterior of the cathedral for the golden dome of Sigismund’s Chapel. This chapel, which was constructed with 80 pounds of gold, was built between 1517 and 1533. The chapel holds memorials of Jagiellonian kings including Sigismund I the Old. During the 16th century, Poland was in a golden period of Renaissance and Sigismund was responsible for much of this.