Kraków, the capital of the Polish region of Maopolska, is one of the most beautiful cities in central Europe and a highlight on any tour of the region. The city escaped serious damage during World War II and its only real regional rival for pure drop-dead beauty is the Czech capital, Prague. The formal perfection of its enormous central square, the Rynek Gówny, as well as the charm of the surrounding streets and Wawel Castle have always been known to Poles. (In fact, Kraków remains the number-one domestic tourist destination). But now the word on Kraków has spread far and wide, and the city is firmly (and justifiably) established on the main central European tourism axis that includes Vienna, Budapest, and Prague.
That's good news for visitors. It means decent plane, rail, and bus connections from any point north, south, or west of the city (although to be honest, the rail connection from the south would be much better if you didn't have to change trains in Katowice). It also means some of the best restaurants and hotels in Poland, and a city that's fully accustomed to catering to the needs of visitors.
Kraków's precise origins are unclear, but the city first rose to prominence at the turn of the first millennium as a thriving market town. The enormous size of the Rynek attests to Kraków's early importance, even if its exact origins are unknown. One story about Kraków's founding has it that a poor man named "Krak" started the whole thing by slaying a dragon that was ravaging the early inhabitants. Krak allegedly felled the beast by filling an animal carcass with sulfur (or lye) and tricking the beast to eat it. Naturally, so the story goes, he was awarded great wealth and a city, "Krak-ów," named after him.
But frankly, I'm a bit skeptical. The city of Brno, in the Czech Republic, has a similar myth about its early days. And it's hard to imagine there were that many beasts running around, as well as clever men with bags of sulfur on hand to the job. What is clear is that by the time of the early Piast dynasty in the 11th century, Kraków was booming, and Wawel Hill, with its commanding view of the Vistula River, was a natural setting for a capital.
As befitting any medieval city, Kraków had its ups and downs. In the 13th century, the city was razed to the ground by the central Asian Tartars, but was quickly rebuilt (and parts remain remarkably unchanged to this day). Kraków's heyday was arguably the mid-14th century when King Kazimierz the Great commissioned many of the city's finest buildings and established Jagellonian University, the second university to be founded in central Europe after Prague's Charles University. For more than 5 centuries, Kraków served as the seat of the Polish kingdom (it only lost out to the usurper Warsaw in 1596 after the union with Lithuania made the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom so large that it became difficult for distant noblemen to travel here).
Kraków started to decline around this time. Following the Polish partitions at the end of the 18th century, Kraków eventually fell under the domination of Austria-Hungary, and was ruled from Vienna. It became the main city in the new Austrian province of Galicia, but had to share some of the administrative duties with the eastern city of Lwów (which must have quite a climb down for a former Polish capital!).
Viennese rule proved to be a boon in its own right. The Habsburgs were far more liberal in their views than either the Prussians or czarist Russia, and the relative tolerance here fostered a Polish cultural renaissance that lasted well into the 20th century. Kraków was the base of the late-19th and early-20th-century Moda Polska (Young Poland) movement, a revival of literature, art, and architecture (often likened to "Art Nouveau") that is still fondly remembered to this day.
Kraków had traditionally been viewed as a haven for Jews ever since the 14th century when King Kazimierz first opened Poland to Jewish settlement. The Kraków district named for the king, Kazimierz, began life as a separate Polish town, but through the centuries slowly acquired the characteristics of a traditional Jewish quarter. By the 19th and early 20th centuries Kazimierz was one of the leading Jewish settlements in central Europe, lending Kraków a unique dimension as a center of both Catholic and Jewish scholarship.
World War II drastically altered the city and for all intents and purposes ended this Jewish cultural legacy. The Nazis made Kraków the nominal capital of their rump Polish state: the "General Gouvernement." The Nazi governor, and later war criminal, Hans Frank, ruled brutally from atop Wawel Castle. One of the first Nazi atrocities was to arrest and eventually execute the Polish faculty of Jagellonian University. Not long after the start of the war, the Nazis expelled the Jews from Kazimierz, first placing them in a confined ghetto space at Podgórze, about a mile south of Kazimierz, and later deporting nearly all of them to death camps. (As a historical aside: Frank was prosecuted at the Nuremburg trials and executed in 1946.)
Kraków luckily escaped destruction at the end of the war, but fared poorly in the postwar decades under the Communist leadership. The Communists never liked the city, probably because of its royal roots and intellectual and Catholic pretensions. For whatever reason they decided to place their biggest postwar industrial project, the enormous Nowa Huta steelworks, just a couple of miles upwind from the Old Town. Many argue the intention was to win over the skeptical Kraków intellectuals to the Communist side, but the noise, dirt, and smoke from the mills, not surprisingly, had the opposite effect. The new workers were slow to embrace Communism, and during those wretched days of the 1970s, when a series of food price hikes galvanized workers around the country, the city was suddenly transformed into a hotbed of anti-Communist activism.
Kraków will be forever linked with its most famous favorite son, Pope John Paul II. The pope, Karol Woytya, was born not far from Kraków, in the town of Wadowice, and rose up through the church hierarchy here, serving for many years as the archbishop of the Kraków diocese before being elevated to pope in 1978. If Gdansk and the Solidarity trade union provided the industrial might of the anti-Communist movement, then Kraków and Pope John Paul II were the movement's spiritual heart. The pope's landmark trip to Poland in 1979, shortly after being elected pontiff, ignited a long-dormant Polish spirit and united the country in opposition to the Soviet-imposed government.
Kraków's charms are multidimensional. In addition to the beautifully restored Old Town, complete with its fairy-tale castle, there's the former Jewish quarter of Kazimierz. If you've seen Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning movie Schindler's List, you'll recognize many of the film locations as you walk around Kazimierz. For anyone unfamiliar with the film (or the book on which it was based, Thomas Keneally's Schindler's Ark), Oskar Schindler was a German industrialist who operated an enamel factory during World War II. By employing Jews from the nearby ghetto, he managed to spare the lives of 1,100 people who otherwise would have gone to the death camps at Auschwitz. Schindler's factory, now closed down, is still standing (there are plans afoot eventually to open a museum). At the moment it's derelict and perhaps all the more fascinating for that. You can poke your nose in and wander around; occasionally kids are on hand to take visitors on an impromptu tour.
Outside of central Kraków, there are several trips that merit a few hours or a full day of sightseeing. The most important of these is the former Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau (in the town of OSwiecim, about 81km/50 miles to the west of the city). Also recommended is a trip to the unusual and unforgettable Wieliczka salt mines. And if you've got time and a penchant for modern architecture, check out the Nowa Huta steelworks and the amazing Socialist-Realist housing project built around the mills.