Europe’s Largest Medieval Market Square
Kraków remained in a dismal Rip Van Winkle sleep during forty-four years of Communism. When it awoke in the early 1900s, a new vitality quickly resuscitated its core, the Rynek Glowny, the largest and most authentic medieval market square on the continent.
All roads lead to it, and all of Kraków sooner or later passes, shops, or congregates here. Ringed by Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque facades that belie its 1257 origin, the center is dominated by the Sukiennice, an arcaded pale yellow “cloth hall” (a clearinghouse and marketplace for textiles) built in the 14th century and updated during the Renaissance. It still serves as a commercial hub, its bottom floor taken over by stalls selling kitsch items relating to Pope John Paul II (once archbishop of Kraków), folk art, and Eastern European crafts.
In the square’s northeast corner is St. Mary’s, one of the most magnificent Gothic churches in Europe, founded in 1222 and rebuilt in 1355. Every Polish child knows the story behind the bell tower’s trumpeteer, who sounds each hour with a simple broken-off solo, reenacting the fate of the 13th-century hero who received an arrow in his throat mid-note while warning of a Tatar invasion.
Within Old Town’s traffic-free district and just two blocks from the square is arguably the city’s finest historical hotel, the Hotel Francuski, first opened in 1912. Though fully refurbished, it still offers old-world charm and original Art Nouveau atmosphere and decor.
Also on the square is the historic restaurant Wierzvnek, the best place to enjoy courtly European service and traditional Polish specialties. Said to be the oldest operating restaurant in all of Europe, its history goes back to 1364, when innkeeper Mikolaj Wierzynek created a banquet served on gold and silver plates for the guests of King Casimir the Great, including Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV.
Wierzynek restaurant has hosted every visiting head of state ever since. Experience 500 years of history at the elegant café downstairs or the venerable upstairs salon, where seasonal game, mountain trout, and mushroom-sauced delights are served amid decorative reminders of the establishment’s storied past.