Until the 16th century Kraków, and not Warsaw, was the capital of Poland. Not only does this beautiful city still retain the most note-worthy of the country’s historic architecture, but also its medieval seats of power, which reign over Kraków on Wawel Hill. The best way to reach emotive Wawel Hill is to weave your way up there on foot, via a lane that leads from the Old Town.
There are two major attractions at the top: the Gothic Wawel Cathedral and the imposing Castle. Opening times for both vary so it’s best to check ahead at the tourist office before you head up. The Wawel Castle is nothing less than the symbol of Polish identity. Although it was founded in the 11th century, what you see from the exterior today is Renaissance in style, though some of the original forms of some of interiors have been recuperated.
The Castle has been divided into five separate sections, each containing a museum. (And yes! Each with varying hours and admission fees). The most impressive collection is located in the Royal Chambers, which is packed with breathtaking pieces of decorative art, paintings and tapestries. But perhaps the most interesting from a historical perspective are the Royal Private Apartments, which give insight into how Polish kings and queens lived. Most of these monarchs are entombed a short walk away at the Wawel Cathedral.
Once you get past the structure’s imposing threshold (note the ancient animal bones hanging on your left, which legend dictates help preserve the longevity of the cathedral) you’ll come a giant nave dotted with dozens of tombs, alter pieces and sarcophagi, with the high-baroque Shrine of St. Stanislus, the patron saint of Poland, as a centrepiece.
On the way back down from Wawel Hill (and especially if you are visiting with children) take a detour to the Dragon’s Den, a cave so-called because of its former resident, the Wawel Dragon. You won’t find much fire-breathing activity these days, rather a fabulous view over the Vistula River.