Want a gorgeous European city, with tons of historic charm and beautiful architecture- without the sky high pricetag most European cities carry? Krakow and southern Poland are what you’re looking for! Today I’m sharing our experience Touring Krakow- Wawel Castle and Cathedral – the castle that sits tall over Krakow’s old town and the river Wisla below.
Insider’s tip: w’s in polish sound like v’s. So it’s pronounced “Vavel”, not “wawel”.
The first leg of my recent Epic European Journey with my husband ahead of his brother’s wedding in the Republic of Georgia was to Krakow and Southern Poland. Our trip was way too short for this fabulous city- but we loved every single second of it. Krakow has so much to offer- and in the late spring (we were there April 17-22) it was still pretty free of tourists.
It was still a bit cold and rainy (which I love), and outside of the city a lot of the trees were still bare. If you prefer warmer weather and lots of green, I might wait until after May to visit- but I thought this was the perfect time as you could hike all over and not get too hot!
As you first walk up Wawel Hill, you are treated to an immensely beautiful view over the city’s Jewish District. The gorgeous old buildings dot the skyline in every direction- it’s amazing! The hill is a bit steep, but an easy walk (take it easy if you need to- it is a long, smooth road).
When you get up the hill, you’ll be greeted with a lot of options. You can buy tickets to tour the Art Museum which now inhabits the castle- including an important collection of Italian Renaissance paintings, prints, sculpture, textiles, a tapestry collection, goldsmith’s work, arms and armor, ceramics, Meissen porcelain, and period furniture. We opted to just walk around on our own, but I would definitely go back to view the different collections.
You can also visit the Cathedral, the Pope John Paul II Cathedral Museum, and the Cathedral Basement (where Kings and heads of state are buried). We didn’t climb up the cathedral stairs (we were still a bit jet lagged and totally forgot), but I desperately wish we had!
We chose to visit the Cathedral, Cathedral Basement, and the Pope John Paul II museum. First, we walked through the massive courtyard and castle grounds, and photographed just about everything we could. The castle and cathedral buildings were built in different phases with a variety of materials- it is really interesting to see the changes in colors, patterns, decorations and materials all over the castle and the castle grounds.
Unfortunately, photographs are not allowed in Wawel Cathedral- but it is a truly stunning space that is not to be missed if you’re in Krakow! There are churches literally everywhere you turn in the city, but the Wawel Cathedral is incredibly ornate and beautiful. It is also full of religious and historic artifacts, and it’s own living museum (although there is also a museum just across the courtyard, which we thoroughly enjoyed). Touring the Cathedral is free- but you do have to pay a small fee to climb up the bell tower and visit the basement museum. The museum is closed on Sundays, and the Cathedral is closed to visitors on major Church holidays- so check their website ahead of touring. (The website link is in Polish- if you open it in Chrome, it will auto-translate for you).
If you’re Catholic (or grew up Catholic, like me), visiting the Cathedral Museum (which was around $5 per person at the time we visited) is especially significant. They hold numerous objects from Pope John Paul II (who was Archbishop of Krakow and has a very moving personal story during WWII and his time in seminary, as well as his fight to end communism in Poland) and his time in the Papacy- his robes, mitre, orb- even a coin Buzz aldrin sent to him that had been on the moon.
Back outside, we toured around the rest of the Castle grounds- as much as we could on our own without a guide or paid tour. The courtyard is beyond gorgeous. I could have spent hours just photographing all of the lines here!
As you walk around Wawel Castle, you’ll see this flower pattern repeating in archways and around windows. I absolutely love this archway!
Some gardener was very, very creative!
You’ll see this in my future posts about Krakow- but door design is definitely alive and well in Southern Poland. Everywhere we looked around Wawel we saw gorgeous, intricate doorways.
I just about died with all the details! Everywhere you look there was something beautiful. When building Wawel (and so much of Krakow) they really took time to add significant touches.
While a lot of Poland was destroyed during WWII, Krakow was spared from most of the physical damage (we did not tour Auschwitz on this tour, but it is worth noting that much of Krakow was emptied and you can still see or hear of scars from WWII and communist rule, even though the buildings are well preserved from Krakow’s royal days) and I am so glad. This city is so beautiful- and Wawel Castle and Cathedral were just the start of our love affair with Krakow!