Symbol of the Nation’s Identity
The majestic complex of Gothic and Renaissance buildings that make up Wawel Hill – the Royal Palace and Cathedral – preside over the city from a high rocky hill above the Vistula River. This was the Polish royal residence for more than 500 years, until the end of the 16th century, when Warsaw became Poland’s capital.
Wawel Hill is a symbol of the Polish kingdom: though it was ransacked by the Nazis when they used it as their local headquarters during WWII, room after room is still filled with rare, enormous tapestries (the largest collection of its kind in Europe), gilded and painted ceiling scenes, and lavish Baroque furniture. You’ll likely be surrounded by groups of reverent Polish schoolchildren being instructed about their glorious past, when Kraków – totius Poloniae urbs celeberrima, “the most celebrated Polish city” – was the envy of Europe.
The famous 1364 cathedral, called “the sanctuary of the nation,” was the seat formerly held by Archbishop Karol Wojtyla from 1963 until his election as Pope John Paul II in 1978. For centuries the Polish kings were crowned and buried here; heroes and martyrs were also entombed here, amid its endless chapels and artworks.
Unlike Warsaw, Kraków was spared destruction during WWII and its grand history and remarkable concentration of architecture are evident everywhere. From the castle (and, particularly, the cathedral’s Sigismund Tower) you can see much of the Old Town (Stare Miasto), about 4 square miles of preserved streets and centuries-old buildings and monuments that are some of Europe’s most graceful and authentic.