The Lost Fort

My Travel and History Blog, Focussing mostly on Roman and Mediaeval Times

2 Mar 2020
  A Virtual Tour through Kraków’s Old Town

It was Palm Sunday when I visited Kraków, an important day for Catholics in Poland, and the weather was fine to boot, so the town was rather crowded, not only with - mostly Polish - tourists, but with pretty much all inhabitants of the city and surroundings. Many women and children were carrying bouquets made of evergreen and spring flowers. The festive atmosphere was a nice addition to my visit.

Kraków, Easter market on the Market Square, seen from the balcony of the Cloth Merchants' Hall (St.Mary's Basilica in the background)

Since there were services and prayers going on all day, I didn't have a chance to seen any of the churches from the inside, but I didn't mind ‒ I got plenty of church photos in my collection. There was much else to see, after all. So let me give you a virtual walk through Krakow’s Old Town, the Stare Miasto.

Kraków, outer walls of Wawel Castle in the evening sun

The two defining features of the old town are the Wawel Castle and the Rynek Głowny, the Great Market with the Cloth Merchants’ Hall. A main street (today Ulica Grodska and Ulica Flórianska) runs all the way from the castle at the Vistula across the market and to the Florian’s Gate. Royal progressions once took that way from the gate to the castle, like they did in Gdańsk.

The Ulica Grodzka

Kraków has been the centre of Poland from the time the Piast king Kazimierz I moved his seat from Gniezno to Kraków in 1038 until 1596, when King Sigismund (Zygmunt) III Vasa relocated the court to Warsaw. It is still the second largest city in Poland and the one most dear to the Polish people. The Old Town was declared an UNESCO World Heritage in 1978. Architectural styles represented in the old town include Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque.

View from the town wall to the Ulica Flórianska

The Wawel Castle had been the main seat of the Kings of Poland for centuries and thus has been altered and enlarged several times, now including buildings from the Gothic to the Baroque. The inner yards are open to the public, but access to the rooms is limited to 30 people per hour, so it is a bit tricky to get tickets for the tour. Since photographing is not allowed inside, I skipped the Flemish tapestries and pretty furniture.

The Wawel, outer bailey with foundations of older buildings in the foreground and the cathedral in the background

There had been a settlement on the limestone hill at the Vistula river since prehistoric times. A Romanesque stone hall was built in the 11th century; though there may have been wooden structures predating it. The first castle and the town were destroyed during the Mongol invasion 1241, but both were rebuilt immediately. Some foundations have been discovered under newer buildings and in the outer bailey.

Wawel Castle, the Thieves' Tower

The upper castle, consisting of the main hall, the Wawel Church and other buildings, was expanded during the times of our friend Władysław Jagiełło, and Casimir the Great (who also built Ogrodzieniec Castle) in the Gothic style. Władysław Jagiełło added a Gothic pavillion to the main castle that came to be known as Danish Tower.

The Danish Tower

Casimir wanted a castle befitting a king that also offered space for a retinue and administrational staff. He also added buildings to the lower castle on the western part of the hill, like the Thieves' Tower and the Sandomierska Tower as part of the curtain walls. The Sandomierska Tower was the first artillery tower of the castle.

Sandomierska Tower

An outstanding part of the castle complex, and of great historical significance, is the 'Royal Archcathedral Basilica of St. Stanislaus and St.Wenceslaus', short Wawel Cathedral. The present building is a Gothic church dating to the 14th century, with some later additions like some Baroque chapels. The cathedral served as coronation site of Polish monarchs and is still a national sanctuary.

The Wawel Cathedral

The Wawel did not undergo any further significant changes until the great fire in 1499. After part of the castle was destroyed, King Alexander I (1501-1506) and his brother Sigismund (1506-1548) who was married to the Italian heiress Bona Sforza, had the main hall and ajacent houses rebuilt in the Renaissance style as a complex around an inner yard. They called in architects from Germany and Italy. The entire complex was finished in the 1550ies and remains almost unaltered. The rooms were furbished with Flemish tapestries some of which survived until today.

Arcades in the inner yard of the Renaissance wing

The Wawel lost its political importance after the court was moved to Warsaw. The representative halls and chambers and the cathedral were still used for weddings and coronations, though. Fires and plundering armies caused significant damage in the 18th and 19th centuries (the worst were the Austrians who turned the castle in to barracks; they occupied the Wawel several times between 1846 and 1905). Afterwards, the Wawel has been repaired and restored, a work that is still going on.

St.Peter and Paul Cathedral

When you leave the Wawel to make your way to the old town and the market square, you'll pass this pretty Baroque church, the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral. It is probably the first Baroque building in Poland. King Sigismund (Zygmunt) III Vasa, despite moving the government from Kraków to Warsaw, still wanted the Kraków to be a representative sight, and Baroque architecture was the latest fashion you could get at the time. The church was consecrated in 1635.

St.Andrew's Church

Not far from St.Peter and Paul is another church, St.Andrew. That one is the oldest surviving church in Kraków and one of the best preserved Romanesque buildings in Poland, dating to the 1090ies. It escaped the destruction of the Mongol raids in 1241, likely due to the fact that it was a fortress church with thick walls and small archery slits in the ground floor. The Baroque interior and the domes on the towers of the westwork have been added in 1639.

Kraków, Cloth Hall and belfry (left)

The town of Kraków was first mentioned in a document in 965. It already must have been a place worth holding. The town belonged to the territory of the Bohemian state until King Mieszko I incorporated Kraków into the budding Polish realm by defeating the Bohemians prior to his marriage with the Bohemian princess Dobrawa in 965. Mieszko was the first Christian ruler of Poland and by his connections to Christian Bohemia brought Poland into the sphere of western Christianity.

Houses at the market square

Kraków became the seat of the Polish kings / grand dukes in 1038. The town had turned into a centre of trade by the end of the 10th century. The setback caused by the Mongol invasion did not last long; the town was rebuilt immediately. It received the Magdeburg Law in 1257 by the grand duke Bolesław V the Chaste.

Kraków looked different than today; the Vistula river was divided into several arms and there may have been some man-made canals as well. One of those was running between the Wawel and the Market Square, adding to the defenses of both.

Cloth Merchants' Hall

One of the symbols of Kraków's prosperity is the Cloth Merchants' Hall. The first hall was built by the instigation of King Casimir the Great. Among the wares traded there was fine cloth from Flanders and England which gave the hall its name. The hall basically was a row of connected stores separated by a small, roofed lane. The Gothic building was destroyed by a fire in 1555 and rebuilt in the Renaissance style, with a barrel vault and a circumferential attic with arcades. A passageway was added in the middle of the long building in 1601, to ease access. Unfortunately, it was impossible to get a photo of the entire hall due to the Easter Market in front of it.

Arcades in the courtyard of the Collegium Maius of the university

Kraków has the second oldest university in central Europe (after Prague). It was founded by King Casimir the Great in 1364. He realised that the country needed an educated elite outside the church and obtained the permission to establish a university from Pope Urban V. The project stalled after his death, but was taken up again by Władysław Jagiełło and his wife Jadwiga. The early 15th century collegium maius with its arcaded courtyard is the oldest surviving part of the Jagiełłonian University and a fine example of late Gothic architecture on the verge to the Renaissance.

The Market Square at the back of the Cloth Merchants' Hall ‒
the quieter side since there was no Easter Market

The town continued to prosper under the Polish-Lithuanian Jagiełłonian dynasty; the 15th and 16th were considered Kraków's Golden Age. The town became a member of the Hanseatic League which further promoted trade. Renaissance arts and architecture bloomed, and the university attracted scholars from all over Europe.

Stephan's Square

With the death of the last Jagiełłonian king, Sigismund II, a time of elected kings, mostly of foreign origins with but vague connections to Poland, began. Not all of them were good picks. Wealth and importance of Kraków declined, furthered by an outbreak of bubonic plague.

In 1596, King Sigismund III Vasa moved the capital to Warsaw, though his interest in Baroque architecture left its traces; especially in the interior decoration of the churches but also in some buildings like St.Peter and Paul (see above).

Florian's Gate

After the Mongol invasion in 1241, the city was surrounded by defensive walls, and the next raid in 1287 successfully defeated. Over the next two hundred years, the town walls were expanded to 3 km, with 46 towers and eight gates. The part around the Florian's Gate is the only surviving piece of those curtain walls.

On the remaining town wall

The Florian's Gate was built in the late 13th century, probably commissioned by the High Duke Leszek the Black in 1285. It is made of local limestone in the early Gothic style and the only gate and tower to have survived intact until today. In the Middle Ages, it was the main entrance to the town. The gate tower is 33 metres high; the Baroque helmet was added in 1660.

The Barbican

Not far from the Florian's Gate, outside the former town walls, is the Barbican (Barbakan) that once served as additional defense . The barbican is made of brick on a limestone foundation; built in the late Gothic style in 1498. Only three such outposts remain in Europe and the one in Kraków is the best preserved. The barbican was originally connected to the Florian's Gate by a covered bridge across the moat.

Interior of the Barbican

Not many people purchased a ticket for the tour of their interior of the barbican, so I had some quiet moments doing one of my favourite things: photographing Mediaeval military architechture. *grin*

Kraków, view from the Barbican to the Florian's Gate

The Barbican is a circular tower of four storyes, with an open interior which has a diametre of 25 metres. The walls are 3 metres thick at the base and about 0.5 metres in the upper part. The building was further protected by a moat of its own (some of it remains). The barbican has an rectangular exterior gate at the outside facing wall, the Kleparz Gate.

The Plánty, the former town wall and moat

They town walls had become useless as defense against modern weapons, so the Austrian Emperor Franz I – Kraków belonged to Austria after the third partition of Poland in 1795 – ordered most of the town walls to be dismantled in 1810, and the moats to be filled in. The space was turned into a park which now surrounds the Old Town of Kraków. A very pretty place on a sunny April Sunday.

Grunwald Memorial on the Matejko Square

If you walk out of the perimetre of the old town to the Matejko Square near the Barbican, you will come across a momument celebrating the victory of the allied armies of Władysław Jagiełło of Poland and his cousin Vytautas, grand duke of Lithuania, over the host of the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Grunwald (Tannenberg) in 1410. The memorial was unveiled in 1910. The monument was destroyed by the Germans in 1939, but recrafted after WW2.

Sunset at the Vistula river

Kraków became the headquarter of the German occupants in September 1939. The town was plundered, the Jewish population isolated in a ghetto, and the concentration camp Auschwitz set up nearby, but Kraków was not destroyed liked Gdańsk or Warsaw. Therefore it retained many of its historical buildings.

Kraków, the Wawel Dragon

I leave you with the legendary fire breathing Wawel dragon which harried the town until a brave shoemaker killed it by feeding it sulphur, so that it exploded. Other version of the legend attribute the killing of the dragon to the mythical founder king Krakus and his sons.

Here's a post about the quarters outside the old town, Kazimierz and Podgórze (site of the Jewish ghetto and Schindler's Factory).

Very nice read. It provides very helpful information on Krakow. We are planning a little road trip across Poland this year and are doing a bit of research on where to go and what to see at the moment. And there is this detailed article on Krakow very helpful.
Hi Oliver,

I hope you'll enjoy the trip through Poland. Better plan two days for Krakow - I had only one day and that's not enough, or at least very stressful to put everything in.
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The Lost Fort is a travel and history blog based on my journeys in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and central / eastern Europe. It includes virtual town and castle tours with a focus on history, museum visits, hiking tours, and essays on Roman and Mediaeval history, illustrated with my own photos.

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Location: Goettingen, Germany

I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who still hasn't got an Instagram account.
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Mediaeval Porvoo



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The Curonian Spit
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A Tour of the Town

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The Legend of Alaric's Burial


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Mediaeval Art
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The Viking Treasure of Hiddensee

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Mediaeval Weapons

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The History of Feudalism
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Feudalism in the 10th Century

Privileges and Special Relationships
The Privilege of the deditio
A Note on handgenginn maðr

The Hanseatic League

The History of the Hanseatic League
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Goods and Trade
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Tallinn / Reval

The Order of the Teutonic Knights

Wars and Battles
The Conquest of Danzig
The Siege of Vilnius 1390

The Vikings

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The Nydam Ship



List of Mediaeval German Emperors

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Heinrich the Lion's Ancestors

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The Salian Dynasty
King Heinrich IV

House Welf and House Staufen
Emperor Otto IV, Introduction

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Otto the Quarrelsome of Braunschweig-Göttingen
The Dukes of Braunschweig-Grubenhagen
Otto of Northeim
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Albrecht II and Friedrich I of Thuringia

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The Counts of Everstein
The Counts of Hohnstein
The Lords of Plesse
The Counts of Reichenbach
The Counts of Winzenburg

Famous Feuds

Royal Troubles
Otto IV and Bishop Adalbert II of Magdeburg

Local Feuds
The Lüneburg Succession War
The Thuringian Succession War - Introduction
The Star Wars


Kings of England

King Henry IV
King Henry's Lithuanian Crusade

Normans, Britons, Angevins

Great Fiefs - The Honour of Richmond
The Dukes of Brittany and the Honour of Richmond
The Earldom of Richmond and the Duchy of Brittany

Contested Borders

King Stephen's Troubles with King David of Scots


Kings of Scots

House Dunkeld
Malcolm III and Northumbria
Struggle for the Throne: Malcolm III to David I
King David and the Civil War, Part 1
King David and the Civil War, Part 2

Houses Bruce and Stewart
Robert the Bruce and Stirling Castle
The Early Stewart Kings

Scottish Nobles and their Quarrels

Clan Feuds
MacLeans and MacDonalds
A Scottish Wedding


Welsh Princes

The Princes of Gwynedd
The Rise of House Aberffraw


A History of Rebellion
From Llywellyn ap Gruffudd to Owain Glyn Dŵr


Kings of Denmark

House of Knýtlinga
Harald Bluetooth's Flight to Pomerania

Danish Rule in the Baltic Sea

The Duchy of Estonia
Danish Kings and German Sword Brothers


Kings of Norway

Foreign Relations
King Eirik's Scottish Marriages
King Håkon V's Swedish Politics
Beginnings of the Kalmar Union

A Time of Feuds

Famous Nobles and their Feuds
Alv Erlingsson of Tønsberg


Troubles and Alliances

Scandinavian Unity
Beginnings of the Kalmar Union

(Latvia and Estonia)

The Role of the Towns in Livonia

The History of Mediaeval Riga

The History of Mediaeval Tallinn


The Northern Crusades

The Wars in Lithuania
The Siege of Vilnius 1390

Lithuanian Princes

The Geminid Dynasty
Troublesome Cousins - Jogaila and Vytautas


The Northern Crusades

The Conquest of Pomerania / Prussia
The Conquest of Danzig

Royal Dynasties

The Jagiełłonian Kings
Władysław Jagiełło and the Polish-Lithuanian Union


Royal Dynasties

The Bohemian Kings of House Luxembourg
King Sigismund and the Hussite Wars

Other Times

Prehistoric Times


Neolithic Remains
Stone Burials of the Funnelbeaker Culture

Development of Civilisation
European Bread Museum, Ebergötzen
Hutewald Project in the Solling
Open Air Museum Oerlinghausen


Neolithic Orkney
The Neolithic Landscape of Orkney
Ring of Brodgar
Skara Brae
Life in Skara Brae

Bronze Age / Iron Age
Clava Cairns
The Brochs of Gurness and Midhowe - Their Function in Iron Age Society


The Ship Setting of Gnisvärd

Post-Mediaeval History

Explorers and Discoveries

Fram Expedition to the North Pole
Fram Expedition to the South Pole

Otto von Guericke and the Magdeburg Hemispheres
Raising a Wreck, Now and Then (Vasa Museum in Stockholm)


European Nobility
Prince Wilhelm Malte of Putbus


History in Literature and Music

History and Literature

The Weimar Classicism
The Weimar Classicism - Introduction

Historical Ballads by Theodor Fontane
Short Biography of Theodor Fontane
(Some of Fontane's Ballads, translated by me)
Archibald Douglas
Gorm Grymme
Sir Walter Scott in Abbotsford
The Tragedy of Afghanistan

History in Opera

Belcanto and Historicism
Maria Padilla - Mistress Royal
The Siege of Calais in Donizetti's Opera

Not so Serious History

Building Hadrian's Wall
Playmobil Romans

Mediaeval Times
Kings Having a Bad Hair Day
The Case of the Vanished Wine Cask

Rules for Writing Scottish Romances
Tourist Kitsch in St.Petersburg


Geological Landscapes

The Baltic Sea
Geology of the Curonian Spit
Chalk Cliffs on Rugia
Flint Fields on Rugia

The Harz
Bode Valley and Rosstrappe Cliff
The 'Hübichenstein' Rock
Karst Formations in the Southern Harz
The Lonau Falls
The Rhume Springs
Sandstone Formations: Daneil's Cave
Sandstone Formations: Devil's Wall
Sandstone Formations: The Klus Rock

Meissner / Kaufunger Wald
Blue Dome near Eschwege
Diabase and Basalt Formations
Karst Formations
Salt Springs at the Werra

Raised Bog Mecklenbruch
Hannover Cliffs

The Shores of Scotland

Fossils and Other Odd Rocks

Fossilized Ammonites
The Loket Meteorite

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