Touring Kraków With A Local

Touring a foreign city with a local allows you to not only see the sites but delve further into its history, its culture and begin to understand its personality. We were able to do just that recently as we toured Kraków, Poland’s famous historical city.

Monkey’s Tale photographer, Richard, grew up in Poland and spent his university years in Kraków. He ‘volunteered’ to be a tour guide on our recent trip to his hometown sharing with Maggie its history, myths and legends.

Stare Miasto (Old Town)

Kraków was the capital of Poland from 1038 until 1596 when it was relocated to Warsaw by a Swedish king. Its Old Town was not destroyed during WWII therefore its historic centre is filled with original architecture. It’s so impressive that the entire historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Of course all of that history is also draped in fascinating stories.

Like many cities of its time, a 13th century defensive wall surrounded Krakow’s Old Town. In its 4 km (2 1/2 mile) length there were 47 towers and 8 gates. Due to maintenance costs and lack of need, in the 19th century most of the wall was dismantled. In its place, the city turned it into a park that wraps around Old Town. Planty Park has a walking/biking path filled with trees and is a really lovely use of the land.

Today only Floriańska Gate remains and its tall white tower makes it one of the most popular and most photographed streets. On the other side of the gate is the large Barbican which provided another level of protection. These two remaining historical features allow you to imagine how the fortified city once looked.

Rynek Główny (Central Square)

Set in the middle of Old Town, Central Square is the largest medieval square in Europe. Around its edge are 3 and 4 story heritage row houses with ornate decorations over their windows, doorways and roofs. Today these buildings are mostly restaurants with patios that extend out onto the square.

On each corner, small kiosks sell pretzels, which to North American Maggie, is the quintessential Polish site. Richard noticed on this trip that most of the pretzels sellers are Ukrainian; likely newly relocated due to the Russian invasion.

Taking centre stage in the large square is the Sukiennice or Cloth Market. Built in 1257, its name tells what used to be its primary good for sale but in the Middle Ages this international trading centre sold a variety of items including spices and salt as well as fabrics. Today though, its stalls sell mostly tourist trinkets. It is a fabulous building, both day and night.

The city of Kraków has many legends and folklore that go with its historic buildings. The most famous belongs to the main church, St. Mary’s Basilica. As soon as you set foot on Rynek Główny (Central Square), you notice the large church with two towers. Upon closer look, you’ll realize that the two towers are quite different. One is tall with Gothic spires the other is short with round Renaissance cupolas. The unusual, mismatched towers give the church a distinctive look and of course they come with a great story.

As the legend goes, when the church was being built in the 13th century, two brothers were hired to build the towers. A competition ensued to see who could build the taller tower. Partway into the build, the younger brother realized that the broad base of his brother’s tower would allow it to be built much higher. In a fit of jealous rage, the younger one killed his brother and instructed that his brother’s tower will not be built any higher and should be covered by rounded cupolas. He then continued to build his own tower and when completed he topped it with pointed spires. Then, the younger brother became consumed by guilt. He confessed to the murder and stabbed himself with the same knife before jumping off his tower to his death. That knife now hangs in the Sukiennice. 

The shorter tower is a bell tower which is still used to this day. The taller tower has a more interesting use and is accompanied by another legend. After construction was completed, the tallest tower was used as a watchtower. If the citizens needed to be warned of fire or enemy attack, a bugle call (Hejnał mariacki) was played out of four different windows at the top of the tower. The legend says that in the 12th century a watchman saw a Tatar army approaching the city wall. As he was playing the warning song, the bugler was shot in the neck with a Tatar arrow and the song was cut short. Today to commemorate this, the same song is played by a bugler in the tower who cuts off the song mid note as if he were shot by an arrow. You can hear him play every day, on the hour.

It’s possible to climb to the top of the Watchtower to see the city from above. Tickets can only be purchased on the day of your visit for Zł 20 ($4.80 USD). The ticket office is across from St. Mary’s Church and opens at 10am. They only sell 160 tickets per day so you should arrive early as there is often a line-up.  It’s not well marked, but the tower is entered opposite of Floriańska Street. You can also visit the church sanctuary. Tickets are sold in the same office.

At the other end of Central Square is the smallest and oldest church in the city. Church of St. Adalbert was built in the 11th century and so it predates the square. That explains why it sits on an angle to the rest of he buildings. Between the oddball angle, its small size and green dome roof, this church is one of our favourite sites in the square. 

On the other side of the Sukiennice is a lone, brick clock tower. It is all that remains of the 14th century Town Hall; the rest of the building was demolished in 1820. We climbed to the top to take pictures of the city, but it was disappointing. The windows are covered in glass that is smudged with fingerprints so it’s not great for taking pictures. Entrance is free on Monday and would be the only day we recommend to go. Every other day it’s zł 15.00 ($3.60 USD), but it’s not even worth that entry fee.

Zamek Wawel (Wawel Castle) 

Standing on top of Wawel Hill, along the side of the Vistula River, is the majestic Wawel Castle. Home to three dynasties of monarchs, the first buildings of the castle were built in the 11th century. It continued to grow with new additions over the next few centuries. The castle that stands today is in fantastic shape and is an imposing image along the river. Inside are courtyards, palaces, halls, a church, residences and even a dragon’s den.

There are many different tour options to visit the inside of the castle.

When the mythical ruler, King Krakus, lived on Wawel Hill a fierce dragon lived in a den below and terrorized the people of Kraków. No knight was able to slay this dragon until Skuba, a shoemaker, tricked the dragon into eating a fake ram stuffed with sulphur. The dragon’s throat burned from the sulphur, so he drank from the Vistula River. The water mixed with the sulphur and caused the dragon’s stomach to explode, killing him instantly and the city was saved.  You can visit the dragon’s den below the castle.

Old Town Kraków is said to have at least 42 historic churches. One of the most interesting is St Andrew’s Church. It was built in the 11th century with impenetrable walls and high windows. This design allowed it to be used to protect Kraków citizens during invasions. The two most famous are when the Tatars invaded in the mid 13th century. On these attacks the Tatars burned the city to the ground, but the citizens who were inside the church remained safe. After each raid, these citizens rebuilt the city.

Immediately beside St. Andrew’s is St. Paul’s and St. Peter’s Church. The church is relatively young compared to others in the city, but its ornate baroque exterior makes it stand out. In addition to it, we came across many more of the 42 historical churches in Old Town.

Wierzynek Restaurant 1364

The restaurant is famous, not just for being the oldest restaurant in Poland, but it also has an interesting beginning. In 1364 Kraków merchant Mikołaj Wierzynek hosted a 20 day lavish feast for Polish King Casimir The Great and many European leaders who had arrived to negotiate a Peace Treaty. The restaurant can be found in Central Square.  

Jagiellonian University

Not far from the main square is the oldest university in Poland. Jagiellonian University was founded by Casimir III The Great in 1364. It had illustrious students including Copernicus.

Outside of the walled city the fabulous historic buildings continue. We walked by a beautiful theatre, train station and many more architectural stand-outs.


Jews arrived to the city in the mid 14th century and settled in the neighbourhood of Kazimierz. The community grew in population until the beginning of the 19th century. Before World War II, Kraków had over 64,000 Jews, a quarter of the city’s population. Today Kazimierz is a popular place to see the historic homes, shops and museums as well as visit one of the many restaurants.

At the heart of Kazimierz is the oldest synagogue in Poland, built in the 1400s.  This neighbourhood is one of the places where the movie Schindler’s List took place.

Kopiec Kościuszko (Kościuszko Mound)

From the top of the Watchtower in St Mary’s Basilica we could see a small grassy knoll on top of Sikornik Hill. Kościuszko Mound is a man-made 34 m (111 ft) tall grassy knoll. It was erected in the 1800s as a tribute to the beloved Polish hero, Tadeusz Kościuszko. He was a national leader and general of both the Polish and American armies fighting for independence. From the top of the mound, we were treated to panoramic views of Kraków and on a clear day you can see the Carpathian Mountains in the distance.

Australian readers may recognize the name. When Polish explorer Paweł Strzelecki first saw Australia’s highest peak in 1840 he named it Mt. Kościuszko because it reminded him of Kościuszko Mound.

You can reach Kościuszko Mound by car or by public bus or tram.

There are three similar mounds on the edge of the city. One is said to be the burial site of Princess Wanda, daughter of mythical King Krakus. She was said to be very beautiful and attracted attention from German Prince Rytygier. The Prince said if she didn’t marry him he would invade Kraków. Wanda didn’t share his love and didn’t want to marry him. To save the city, she killed herself by drowning in the Vistula River. Another mound is said to be the burial site of her father King Krakus.

The final mound is for Józef Piłsudski. a statesman who fought for Polish independence and with whom Richard has a connection. Richard’s grandfather served under Piłsudski in WWI, and Richard’s father was one of many men who brought a wheelbarrow of earth up to the top of the hill to make the mound. 

Wieliczka (Salt Mine)

Not far from Kraków are the salt mines of Wieliczka. Prehistoric tribes living in the area found briny water in the springs. They developed techniques to harvest the salt from the water but didn’t know about the salt below the earth. Mining of the salt rocks began over 700 years ago. The legend of the mine tells of Hungarian Princess Kinga who was to marry the Polish king and wanted to bring salt to the people of Poland. Her father gave her a salt mine in Transylvania, but this didn’t help Poland. When visiting her mine in Transylvania, she threw her engagement into a mine shaft and when she arrived in Poland, they found her ring in a block of salt in Wieliczka.

As early as the 14th century the salt mines became very important to the king and became the largest source of income for many generations. It’s said that at that time a block of salt could buy an entire village. The mine grew over the centuries and at its largest, the mine had over 250 km of corridors and was 327 m deep. Today the mines are almost completely closed, but part of the mine is open for tours. Our tour took us down to 135 m  where we walked through the old salt corridors and saw examples of old tools, equipment and even horses.

As with most mines, the miners were very superstitious in their dangerous work environment. They erected chapels and carved statues of saints from salt rocks. Some were very elaborate with salt chandeliers and large sanctuaries.

The mine tour begins in Daniłowicz Shaft on the edge of the town and after touring the mine, we walked along mining corridors 135 m deep for 15 minutes to reach Regis Shaft elevator. When we got off the elevator we realized we were in the middle of downtown meaning we had just walked underneath half of the town.

Wieliczka Salt Mine is 14 km from Kraków city centre. It can be reached by car or by train on the Wieliczka Rynek-Kopalnia line which leaves from Kraków Glowny or the airport every 30 minutes.

Coming Next – A Visit to Warsaw

For pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at

To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.

If you like what you read, please comment or share (with credit) using the links below,


Submit a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s