Until 1596, Kraków was the capital of Poland. Situated on the Vistula River, the city has traditionally been one of the leading centers of Polish cultural life. The current plan of the Old Town (Stare Miasto) was laid out in the 13th century and features a Main Square (Rynek Główny), which is the largest medieval town square in Europe. At the center of the square is the Renaissance Sukiennice (Cloth Hall), which houses the National Museum art gallery. Just south of the Old Town, the hilltop Wawel Royal Castle was the seat of Polish kings for 500 years.
Kraków makes a fine base for day trips, including the remarkable Wieliczka Salt Mine, the tour of which culminates in a massive underground church carved entirely from salt. The notorious Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau are also a short distance from Kraków. Visiting them is upsetting, of course, but doing so provides a visceral sense of the enormity of the Holocaust that is difficult to gain from a book or film.
Many visitors find their way to the famous Restauracja Wierzynek (Rynek Główny 16), which serves classic Polish cuisine. Additionally, the artists’ café Jama Michalika (Floriańska 45) has literary associations extending back more than a century.
Great Small Museum
Kraków also has one of the great small museums in Europe, housed in the stately Czartoryski Palace (Czartoryskich 8). Leonardo da Vinci’s stunning “Lady With an Ermine” alone is worth the price of admission.