Historic Centre of Kraków
The urban layout of Cracow, an outstanding example of medieval architecture, is based on four core areas: the centre, around the market square; the Wawel, the hill inhabited since the Palaeolithic and the site of the imperial palace; the urban district of Kazimierz; and the Stradom quarter.
The historic centre of Cracow, the former capital of Poland, is situated at the foot of the Royal Wawel Castle. The 13th-century merchants' town has Europe's largest market square and numerous historical houses, palaces and churches with magnificent interiors. Further evidence of the town's fascinating history is provided by the remnants of the 14th-century fortifications and the medieval site of Kazimierz with its ancient synagogues in the southern part of town, the Jagellonian University, and the Gothic cathedral where the kings of Poland were buried.
Stare Miasto is the old city, characterized by the rigid grid of perfectly orthogonal streets, the layout ordered by Boloslaw the Chaste in 1257 when he decided to unify the various peoples scattered around the hill of the Wawel. All that remains now of the medieval enclosure walls is the gate and the little wall that was built in 1499 near the main city gate.
The old city is separated from the old district of Kazimierz. Until the 1880 Diet Kazimierz was an island, forming the Jewish quarter of Cracow. As in every city, Jewish culture enriched Cracow, until in the Second World War the entire Jewish community of 64,000 individuals was deported to the nearby concentration camps at Auschwitz; only 6,000 returning at the end of the war.
The university quarter is the oldest in Poland and among the oldest in Europe. Students here have included Copernicus and Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II). Within the historic centre there are many churches and monasteries. The limestone hill of the Wawel is the site of a complex that houses some of the most important buildings. These include the Royal Palace, seat of the king in the period when the boundaries of Poland extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Today the palace accommodates a museum that displays splendid tapestries, the Royal Treasury (unfortunately depleted in periods of difficulty), royal standards, and antique furniture. Within the Wawel is the Gothic cathedral of St Wenceslas. Its exterior illustrates the complex history of this building. The cathedral was for centuries the scene of the main events of the Polish royal families - coronations, weddings, and funerals.
In the part of the castle accessible on the Wisla, there is a small park at the base of the hill with the cave of the legendary Krak, prince and head of a Slav tribe. At the entrance to the Wawel the ancient Royal Way of monuments and remarkable historical buildings begins. Then comes the heart of the old city: the Market Square (Rynek Głowny). This is one of the largest medieval public squares in Europe, 200 m on each side. The building in the centre of the square is the Skiennice, the ancient cloth market. One side is dominated by the Gothic church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.