Cracow is located in the south of Poland, on the Vistula, the largest Polish river, between the Cracow and Częstochowa Upland, the Basin of the Nida, the Cracow Gate and the Sandomierz Valley. Former capital of Poland and the seat of Polish monarchs. In the Middle Ages, one of the major European administration and trade centres. An important religious, cultural, academic and crafts centre in the 15th and the 16th centuries.
Cracow is a city with a history of more than a thousand years. The first written mention about the city dates back to 965 AD, to a travel relation by Ibrahim, an Arab merchant. Legend has it that the name Cracow comes from the name of Prince Krak who established his castle at Wawel Hill towering over the city.
For several centuries, it was the capital of Poland, with the Wawel Royal Castle playing the role of the seat of the monarchs of Poland until the end of the 16th century. Today, the castle is a museum establishment with 71 exhibition rooms, including the royal chambers, the treasury and the armoury. The castle cathedral saw 37 coronation ceremonies and holds the remains of Polish monarchs, heroes and poets.
Contemporary Cracow is the capital of the Malopolska region, a major cultural and academic centre in Poland and an important European metropolis. It is one of the most recognisable Polish cities in the world and an important place on the tourist map of Europe with over 8 million visitors from Poland and abroad every year. Nowadays it is an important European metropolis. Being the second city in Poland in terms of size and population, Cracow is divided into 18 districts.
The 1257 founding charter based on the Magdeburg Law specified the city’s new urban plan, with a centrally located Main Square and a regular chequered pattern of streets running from it. The Main Square was the largest in medieval Europe: each of its sides is 200 m long. It has been preserved in an unmodified shape and is still the heart of the city. In 1978, the Main Square and the surrounding chequered pattern of streets were included on the first UNESCO World Heritage List, and in 2005 came first in the World’s Best Squares ranking held by the Project for Public Spaces.
In 2010, a tourist route located 4 metres below the surface of the Main Square employing state-of-the-art multimedia technologies was opened. It presents, among other things, the remains of a medieval settlement, elements of buildings dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries and over 700 objects of everyday use.
The Cloth Hall (a medieval trading hall, one of most readily recognized Polish historical monuments and Cracow’s most popular shopping arcade) situated in the centre of the Main Square, the Romanesque church of St. Adalbert, the lone tower of the town hall demolished in the 19th century and St. Mary’s Basilica with two towers dominating over the city (for 600 years now, a bugle call that resounds to the four parts of the world from the higher of the towers) have also been preserved until today. At present, there are several hundred cafes, pubs and restaurants around the Main Square.
The tourists are always amazed by the Royal Route, a historical route leading from the main entrance gate (St. Florian’s Gate) to the Royal Wawel Castle at Wawel Hill. The Route was taken by the Polish monarchs when ceremonially entering the city and during coronations and funerals. Thanks to the Royal Route for Disabled Tourists project, the Route may also be discovered by people with visual impairments and the disabled. Under the project, 12 bronze models offering a tactile experience of the most popular Cracow sights (the Barbican, St. Mary’s Basilica, the Cloth Hall, St. Andrew’s and St. Peter and Paul’s churches and Wawel Hill) have been produced. The models have inscriptions in Braille (in Polish and in English) and the plinths of the models are designed in such a way so as to enable persons in wheelchairs to come as close as possible.
Kazimierz, once a separate town, today a district of Cracow, offers the unique atmosphere of a centuries-old coexistence of two cultures: Jewish and Christian. A space full of Judaist historical monuments of world importance, but primarily an area vibrant with life: antiques and works of art, fairs, live music in local pubs and restaurants. Nowa Huta, the fullest and most interesting realisation of social realism architects’ plans, is an intriguing district, as well. Podgorze, full of greenery, mystery, a cosy atmosphere and modern museums, also draws attention and is easily accessible from Kazimierz through the Father Laetus Bernatek footbridge.
In 2004, the oldest part of the Nowa Huta district was entered into the Cracow register of historical artefacts. City authorities are currently trying to have it entered on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The historical centre of Cracow was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site under criterion IV as an outstanding example of an urban and architectural complex. The Cracow Old Town is a unique treasury of works of arts, historical buildings and historical souvenirs. The most important and the oldest of the Cracow’s over one hundred churches are located there, together with numerous mansions and tenements. Over 1,150 of Cracow historical monuments representing almost all periods and architectural styles (from the Middle Ages until today) have been entered into the register of historical artefacts.