The Planty, a 2.5-mile green belt, cinches the Old Town of Kraków, Poland. Established in the 19th century to replace the demolished city defense walls, it’s a lovely reprieve from all the buildings and a pleasant place to snack on an obwarzanek krakówski, a local pretzel. When you’re ready to venture back into the heart of this fascinating city, make sure you go to the Main Square and historic Wawel Castle. But don’t forget the utterly glorious churches, most of which are in easy walking distance from one another. These are my favorites.
#1 Wawel Cathedral (Katedra Wawelska)
I spent the majority of a sunny day on the grounds of Wawel Hill, the most popular destination for travelers in Kraków, and one of the most important places in all of Poland. Polish kings resided in the castle for centuries. Now one of the finest art museums in the country, the castle was the very first UNESCO World Heritage Site. Along with the castle, Wawel Cathedral occupies the grounds sprawling atop a limestone outcrop 748 feet above the banks of the Vistula River. Officially called the Wawel Royal Cathedral of St. Stanislaus and St. Wenceslaus, Wawel Cathedral traces its origins back to the 11th century, but that original wood church was destroyed by fire not long after that. Fire also claimed the second church in 1305. The current structure dates from shortly after that. Since 1320, every Polish king (save two) was coronated here, and the cathedral was the scene for the most important state ceremonies of Polish monarchs for centuries — baptisms, marriages, coronations, and funerals. I was struck by the complexity of the Gothic cathedral’s exterior, a hodgepodge of shapes, colors, forms, and heights — from its red-brick, white-stone, and putty walls, to its trio of unique towers, to its parade of side chapels on the south side, all built in different styles — that make this the most visually engaging church in the city.
The tallest tower, the Clock Tower, took nearly 200 years to construct (thanks to a lengthy halt in construction midway) and was completed in 1522. The face of the first clock installed showed all 24 hours; the current clock is a 12-hour dial with a single hand for the hours centered on a radiating sun. The tower’s two clock bells strike every 15 minutes, drawing one’s attention to the elaborate top, with its verdigris statues and gold urns. The Silver Bells’ Tower, containing four bells, is the oldest tower, with its lower stone section constructed in the first half of the 12th century. Additions were made in the 1300s, 1530, and 1769, when it received its pyramidical roof. Five large bells hang in the third tower, Sigismund Tower, originally a defense tower that was converted to a belfry in the 1400s and didn’t receive its eye-catching dome until 1899.
The side chapels kept me entertained for quite some time, as I lingered over their similarities and differences amid their mélange of styles. There’s a brick chapel with blind windows and white scrolls, a limestone chapel with statues and stained-glass ocular windows, and a third with a black domed roof with dormer windows. The most renowned, the Sigismund Chapel, features circular windows and a gold dome topped with a lantern, topped by what appears to be a gold crown, topped by a spire and ball, topped by a cherub, topped by another crown, topped by a cross; it’s often referred to as the purest Renaissance chapel north of the Alps.
As I ambled around inside, I was treated to a treasure trove of fine wood sculpture, marble sarcophagi, gilded altars, black marble canopies, Russian murals, Byzantine frescoes, and 18 flamboyant chapels, knowing very well that under the floor lied the crypts that hold the tombs of Polish kings, heroes, generals, a prime minister, and a president. I circled around the grand tomb of the 11th-century bishop after whom the cathedral is dedicated, and I checked out the over-the-top baroque Shrine of St. Stanislaus, a Kraków bishop who was canonized in 1253 and is Poland’s patron saint, with its ornamented canopy and silver sarcophagus decorated with a dozen reliefs scenes from his life.
On my way out, I took notice of something I had missed on the way in. A collection of bones hangs beside the huge iron doors. Supposedly the osteo remains of Wawel’s great dragon (sorry, fantasy lovers: they’re actually whale and mammoth bones), they’re also believed to hold magical powers that protect the city. Perhaps that’s true: During World War II, Kraków was spared the wholesale destruction of other Polish cities — thanks in no small part to Wawel Castle serving as the residence of a Nazi governor general.
#2 St. Mary’s Basilica (Bazylika Mariacka)
Anchoring a corner of Kraków’s massive Main Square, St. Mary’s Basilica seemed to draw me to it every day. This UNESCO World Heritage Site dates back to the 14th century and has lost none of its grandeur since. At 262’ tall, it’s also hard to miss, and with its strategic location on the open square, it’s easy to appreciate from a distance. Although largely completed by 1397, the brick basilica has seen extensive additions and alterations ever since, including a major Baroque restyling of the interior in the 18th century, although the main altar, a late Gothic pentaptych carved from oak, larch, and linden that was then painted and gilded, was untouched. It took the sculptor a dozen years to complete, with the main scene depicting the Assumption of the Virgin as she is surrounded by the Apostles. At 42’ high and 36’ wide when fully opened, it’s the largest and most important piece of medieval art in Poland, allegedly declared the eighth wonder of the world by Pablo Picasso. As if that wasn’t enough to impress me, the blue star ceiling of the nave is unforgettable, and fantastic stained-glass windows illuminate the ornately decorated interior. Clearly, the concept of white space was ignored, as paintings, carvings, frescoes, tiles, drapery, and other decorations, all in vibrant polychromatic colors, cover just about every inch. You can pick your favorite chapel from among more than a dozen. Perhaps it would be the Chapel of St. Anthony, where convicts sentenced to death were held before heading out to their execution the next morning, or the Chapel of St. John of Nepomuk, under which lies the graves of the church’s founders.
Outside, I walked around the entire church, noting the wall sculptures, bronze plaques, and the stone Crucifixion scene. Above the main entrance, a baroque porch was added in 1752, a verdigris-green decorative structure with arches and columns, obelisks, a dome, and gold balls. But, really, it’s all about the two iconic towers. For the most part, the towers look similar, starting from the ground up, but things take a dramatically different turn toward the top. The taller tower shifts from a square plan to an octagon, with pointed arch recesses and a couple of stories of windows. Above, eight steeples surround the taller central steeple, which wears a gilded crown. The shorter tower, which houses the basilica’s bells, maintains its square plan to the top and is capped by a main cupola with an openwork lighthouse, cornered by four smaller ones. Why so different? Brotherly rivalry. Legend holds that two brothers were hired to build the towers — the older brother assigned to the south tower, the younger to the north. Everything was progressing smoothly during the contemporaneous construction until the younger brother discovered that his sibling’s tower was going to be taller. Consumed by baneful jealousy, he killed his brother with a knife and capped the south tower with the cupola, freeing himself to build his tower taller and more ornately. But fratricide doesn’t put an end to the story. Burdened by his guilt, the surviving brother went to the top of his tower on the day of consecration, carrying the murder weapon. He confessed his crime to the public and jumped off. (You can see that knife in the square’s Cloth Hall today.) The legend gets an unsettling tweak in a second apocryphal version, which proposes that the taller tower was completed by supernatural forces, and the spooked younger brother lost his balance on the scaffolding in fear and fell to his death.
While I was inspecting these fraternal twin towers, I waited patiently for the daily bugle call. During the Middle Ages, the taller tower functioned as Kraków’s watchtower. A bugle call was played to announce the opening and closing of the city gates as well as any outbreaks of fire or enemy attacks. One day, the bugler on duty spied an army of Tatars making an anabasis on the city. He sounded the alarm with his instrument, only to be shot through the throat by an arrow from the invaders. Today, a trumpeter plays a plangent tune called the hejnał mariacki (“St. Mary’s bugle call”) that abruptly cuts off in mid-stream to commemorate the moment of the bugler’s death — a plaintive melody with a tragic denouement that you’re unlikely to forget.
#3 Church of Saints Peter and Paul (Kościół pw. Św. Piotr I Paweł)
I had the opportunity to visit this church twice while I was in Kraków. The first time was during the day, as a traveler curious to learn about its history, architecture, and curiosities. A short walk from St. Mary’s Basilica, this was the first Baroque building completed in the city, in 1619. Built as a house of worship for Jesuits by an Italian architect, the Church of Saints Peter and Paul eventually became an Orthodox church before changing once again, to a Catholic church in 1842. The first thing to catch your eye is the row of larger-than-life-size statues of the apostles standing atop plinths between the entrance fence. Added in 1722, the original limestone statues were severely damaged by acid rain later on; today, these copies make it fun to try to figure out who’s who.
Passing through the gate, I admired the dolomite façade on the front of the church that is said to have cost so much money that the sides of the church had to be given over to less expensive brick. Statues of such Jesuit saints as Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier stand in niches. Above the main portal, I gazed up at the emblem of the order of Jesuits and, at the very top, the coat of arms of the Vasa dynasty (King Sigismund III Vasa was the church’s founder).
Inside, I noted the differences between the flamboyant St. Mary’s and this much more restrained church. I made my way down the broad nave to the transept below the great skylit dome with gilded figures of the four evangelists, and then along the semicircular apse around the chancel and down the two side aisles lined with chapels. Although the interior is understated, there’s plenty to see along the way: stucco decorations; statues of Poland’s patron saints, St. Wojciech and St. Stanislaus; scenes from the lives of saints Peter and Paul; the pulpit with the quite tall canopy; the fantastic organ adorned with putti playing musical instruments; and the grand gold-inlaid high altar beneath a beautifully hand-carved stucco half dome.
Totally unexpected, the church has been housing the longest Foucault pendulum in Poland since 1949. This mechanism that reveals the earth’s rotation is demonstrated to the public once a week; if you have an hour to kill, you’ll be able to see the change in the pendulum’s path as our planet rotates. Not as surprising is the church’s role as one of only four national pantheons in Poland (Wawel Cathedral is another). These pantheons are burial places for the most distinguished Poles in the arts, science, and culture. Those interred here include chemists, cryptologists, mathematicians, noblemen, and a cartoonist.
The second time I came to the church was at night, as a music lover. In 1638, the Jesuits formed a musical ensemble here. With about 90 singers, it was the largest ensemble in contemporary Poland, and it’s a tradition that continues today. The church’s remarkable acoustics make it the ideal setting for concerts. Its generous seating capacity makes it the largest of Kraków’s historic churches, but now, as part of an intimate audience of only about 40, it takes on a completely different feel, more spiritual and soulful, the perfect place to enjoy an hour-long performance of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, along with a generous sampling of, of course, Chopin, as well as Mozart, Bach, and Strauss.
#4 Church of St. Bernardine of Siena (Kościół pw. Św. Bernardyna ze Sieny)
I strolled along the banks of the Vistula River, on the opposite side of Wawel Hill, for terrific views of this national landmark. When I crossed the bridge back over to the base of the hill, I happened to stumble upon the Church of St. Bernardine of Siena, a fortuitous stroke of luck, because this is one terrific church, and one that I had just about all to myself, with most of Kraków’s visitors being draw to nearby Wawel Cathedral. Completed in 1680, the Baroque church features a broad front façade with five bays occupied by statues of saints in niches, some capped with a pediment. Only one statue gets her own balcony: Mary, standing on the world. Crosses top the central pediment and the twin spires.
Upon entering, a docent handed me a free audio guide to help me understand and appreciate the majestic interior, which has seen multiple updates over the past three centuries. Quite a few chapels and altars boast a tremendous amount of gilding — picture frames, salómonicas, statues. The Chapel of St. Ann is particularly noteworthy, as it holds The Dance of Death. In this painting, women from all strata, from empress to peasant, dance hand-in-hand with skeletons in a circle above and below depictions of heaven and hell, the Crucifixion, and Adam and Eve committing the Original Sin. Around the edges of the painting, a dozen medallions contain skeletons dancing with men — a king, a cardinal, a duke, and so on down the line. At the very top, a clock rests atop a sand timer atop a skull and crossbones — reminders of the brevity of life.
The four evangelists are portrayed in the pendentives of the dome, which is embellished by depictions of eight saints. I was most impressed by the two anomalies in the Stations of the Cross. Twelve of them are small and fairly simple, with just a handful of figures in relief on a flat background depicting buildings or the hillside. Two, however, get spectacular treatment as massive paintings flanked by pairs of peach-colored columns with Corinthian capitals. In Jesus Falls for the First Time (III), Jesus is surrounded by a tumultuous scene with soldiers, turbaned horseback riders, sad women, and a curiously calm Mary. In Station XII, Jesus Dies on the Cross, a sour-wine-soaked sponge is offered to Him on the tip of a spear while cherubs gather in the sky and those who would miss Him most — his mother, Mary Magdalene, and St. John the Apostle — cluster by His feet. Look for them at the ends of the transept before the fantastic altar.
#5 Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi (Bazylika św. Franciszka z Asyżu)
I approached the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi from the rear, attracted by the wonderful mosaic of St. Francis of Assisi, flanked by two angels and a couple of thorny bushes, below one of the apse windows. I followed the curve around, down the side, to the main entrance, with a lawn directly across the street from the green belt that circles the Old Town. I was greeted by a largely unassuming brick structure with one large window wedged between an even plainer sandstone façade on the left and a longer and equally plain monastery to the right, enhanced by a series of buttress. That first impression rendered me totally unprepared for the explosion of color inside. If I thought St. Mary’s made generous use of the spectrum, St. Francis seriously outdoes it. Traces of the church date as far back as the 13th century, not long after Franciscans settled in Kraków in 1237, although major changes, expansions, and alterations have taken place over the years. Like St. Mary’s, the ceiling of the nave is painted blue, with gold stars. A broad polychromatic palette is liberally strewn everywhere else: in the soffits of the arches and in the spandrels, and in the statues and in the chapels, on the walls and in the frescoes and the Stations of the Cross, and in the vibrant rainbow that arches over the main altar. Geometric designs and patterns of lilies, poppies, pansies, and other flowers pop with pastel colors.
An added bonus can be found in the Chapel of the Passion, which houses a replica of the Shroud of Turin, consecrated by Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in 2003. The burial linen measures just over 14’ long, with the reverse image of a man, thought to be the deceased Christ, complete with His face, arms, and crossed hands. For all these reasons, this Franciscan basilica is not only a favorite of locals and visitors alike, but also of those maybe a little closer to the man upstairs, including Pope John Paul II, who was a frequent visitor here, mostly before but twice after he ascended to the papacy.
For all of this, we’re grateful for the work of Stanisław Wyspiański, a Kraków polyhistor well-versed in poetry, interior design, playwrighting, painting, illustration, and furniture design. Wyspiański used the plants in his herbarium as models for his floral artwork here, grouping them in vertical stripes to emphasize the architecture of the church. He’s also the man responsible for creating the Gothic basilica’s eight Art Nouveau stained-glass windows. Made in Innsbruck and installed between 1899 and 1904, the windows brought the 20th century to a largely 15th-century church. They’re all striking, none so much as God the Father, with the heavily bearded Creator (with a head of hair most aging men would kill for) in the sky controlling the air, fire, and water beneath him with dynamic hands and arms reminiscent of a masterful puppeteer. Wyspiański was so admired that, when he died from syphilis in 1907 at age 38, his funeral day was declared a national day of mourning.
- Church of Sts. Michael and Stanislaus (Kościół pw. Św. Michał I Stanisław, 1751)
- Church of St. Barbara (Kościół św Barbary, 1338)
- Church of the Transfiguration (Kościół Przemienienia Pańskiego; 1720s)
- Corpus Christi Basilica (Bazylika Bożego Ciała; 1450s)
- St. Anne’s Church (Kościół św Anny, 1705)
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