Heritage '
Katarzyna Jagodzińska
Reading time: approx. 12 minutes

Kraków’s Cultural Heritage

Kraków’s streets and squares are lined with monuments of all ages. It is a city of art and a city of museums, included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Kraków is a city of kings; it has been Poland’s spiritual capital for centuries, and today it is the centre of the country’s cultural capital. Cultural heritage is Kraków’s greatest resource driving the city’s development.

Kraków doesn’t have a single symbol; in fact, it would be difficult to whittle down the list of candidates to under ten: Wawel, the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice), the Jagiellonian University, the Kazimierz Jewish quarter, Cracovian nativity scenes, the Lajkonik, the hejnał bugle call, Wyspiański, Szymborska, Planty Garden Ring… It has myriad layers and aspects, and it can be endlessly explored through the prism of obvious and unusual locations, individuals, images, sounds, flavours…

Legendary beginnings

Kraków’s early days are shrouded in legend. The 12th-century chronicler Wincenty Kadłubek wrote about Prince Krak (or Grakch) who became ruler in the 8th century and built the city of Kraków (or Grakchovia) named after him. Krak’s settlement was plagued by a great dragon which terrorised local peasants from his den by the Vistula. But the plucky locals outfoxed the beast: they fed it a lamb skin stuffed with sulphur, and when the dragon gobbled it up, it exploded! Krak is still present in the city’s landscape with the Krak (Krakus) Mound on the Lasota Hill, said to be his burial place. A bronze statue of the Wawel Dragon, designed by Bronisław Chromy in 1969, breathes fire at the foot of Wawel Hill.

Royal city and Magdeburg rights

In 992, Bolesław Chrobry (Boleslaus the Brave, later the first king of Poland), son of the founder of the Piast dynasty Mieszko I, took the rule in Kraków. Under his reign, the city quickly grew to become one of the main strongholds in Poland. Wawel Castle was the centre of secular and ecclesiastical power and the seat of the duke and the Bishop of Kraków. The key moment in this relationship was the conflict between King Bolesław Śmiały (Boleslaus the Bold, or the Generous) and Bishop Stanisław came to a bloody end in 1079: the bishop was said to have been plotting against the king’s rule, so the king sentenced him to death by dismemberment. This marked the beginning of the cult of the bishop; his relics were laid to rest in Wawel Cathedral, and St. Stanisław has been one of the most important figures of the Polish Catholic Church since his canonisation in 1253. His intervention led to the unification of the kingdom after it was broken up into provinces by Władysław Łokietek (Ladislaus the Short) – the first king to have been crowned at Wawel in 1320.

A breakthrough point in the city’s history came in 1257, when Duke Bolesław Wstydliwy (Boleslaus the Chaste) granted it Magdeburg rights. The Main Market Square was marked out for the first time as a quadrangle of 200 metres per side, with a chequerboard of streets leading away from it. The Romanesque Church of St. Wojciech stood within its boundaries, as did the construction site of the Gothic Basilica of St. Mary. Cloth traders set up stone stalls in the centre, and the Town Hall was built soon after.

Growth of the metropolis and founding of the university

In 1333, King Casimir the Great ascended to the throne as the last ruler of the Piast dynasty. He was said to have “found Poland built of wood and left it built of brick”, and Kraków developed rapidly under his reign. In 1335, he founded the town of Kazimierz as a satellite of Kraków; its layout closely following that of its big brother’s with a large market square and proud town hall. Kazimierz soon became home to Jews who were being expelled from Kraków.


In the meantime, Kraków was one of the most important metropolises in Europe. In 1364, the city hosted a congress of monarchs and princes from all over the continent to discuss issues of political balance in Central Europe and the growing threat from Turkey. They attended a splendid feast thrown for the noble visitors by local councilman Mikołaj Wierzynek; a fine dining restaurant bearing his name in memory of the banquet now stands at the Main Market Square.

One of the most fundamental achievements of Casimir the Great was the foundation of the Kraków Academy – the second university after Prague in this part of Europe. Located in the city centre, the Collegium Maius building was for centuries the home and workplace of the academy’s professors. Today it serves as a museum, and it hosts conferences of the university’s Senate.


The university wasn’t to truly flourish until after 1400. In accordance with the last will of Queen Jadwiga, who with her husband King Władysław Jagiełło initiated the rule of the Jagiellonian dynasty, the Academy’s restoration was financed by auctioning all of her jewellery. After her death, Jagiełło issued a charter defining the institution’s structure as four faculties and setting out regulations such as the requirement that students live in dormitories. Since the 19th century, the institution has been known as the Jagiellonian University – the name commemorates its benefactors.

Golden age

Wawel Castle and the Main Market Square were both symbolic locations in the rapidly growing city and settings of some of the most important events in Poland’s history. Albert of Prussia, the last Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, pledged a personal oath to King Sigismund I at the Main Market Square in 1525. Kraków was home to acclaimed architects and artists: the Nuremberg master Veit Stoss designed and built the altarpiece at the Basilica of St. Mary (1477–1489), the Cloth Hall was rebuilt in the second half of the 16th century in a Renaissance style with loggias designed by Giovanni Maria Padovano from Italy, while Wawel Cathedral and Castle were regularly expanded; they owe their Renaissance style to the Florentine architect Bartolomeo Berrecci. Wawel Royal Court was a centre of Renaissance culture with Italian traditions, mainly thanks to the efforts of Queen Bona Sforza. In any case, monarchs didn’t just turn their attention to the south: King Sigismund II Augustus commissioned a cycle of 160 arrases to decorate the castle in Brussels.

The 16th century was the period of Kraków’s greatest prosperity: the city was a crossroads of major international trading routes, partly due to its association with the Hansa since the late 14th century; it was also an important industrial and political centre and a hub of academia and the humanities. Great fortunes were made by burghers who made their homes in the imposing tenement houses lining the Main Market Square. The city was a melting pot of Renaissance and later on Baroque styles. Architectural designs of Kraków’s buildings, such as the arcaded courtyard and the Sigismund Chapel on Wawel Hill and the attics of the Cloth Hall, were later copied in other cities.

Former glory

The golden age came to an end when the royal court moved to Warsaw at the turn of the 17th century, even though Kraków remained the seat of coronations until the 18th century. The Swedish deluge (1655–1657) swept through the city, with the invaders bringing sacking and devastation. Many priceless artworks and antique fittings were lost or destroyed, with further destruction coming with the Swedish occupation of Kraków in the early 18th century, during which Wawel Caste was ravaged by fire. Many wealthy Cracovians abandoned the city in the wake of the first partition of Poland in 1772. The city found itself under Prussian occupation, and following the third and last partition it fell under Austrian rule, becoming the second city of the Galicia province whose capital was Lwów. The Austrian occupation left its mark on Wawel, which was partly rebuild in order to house army barracks and hospital.

National symbols

During the partitions and occupation, Kraków served as Poland’s spiritual capital. Wawel Cathedral was a powerful reminder of Poland’s former glory and became a symbol of the nation’s infallibility. In his drama “Liberation” (1902), Stanisław Wyspiański wrote: “here everything is Poland; each stone and crumb, and anyone who steps in here becomes a part of Poland, a part of its construction”. The cathedral, which had previously been the site of burial of Poland’s monarchs, became a necropolis to national heroes, including Prince Józef Poniatowski and Tadeusz Kościuszko, and the bards Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Słowacki.

The role played by the National Museum in sustaining the nation’s spirit cannot be understated. It was created on the first floor of the restored Cloth Hall in 1879.

The first donor was Henryk Siemiradzki, presenting the new gallery with his monumental “Nero’s Torches”, and other artists soon followed his example.


A few years earlier, in 1876, the princes Czartoryski opened their private museum to the public, continuing the tradition of the Temple of the Sybil in Puławy whose collection is a treasure trove of Polish spirit and history. The jewel in the collection is Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” – the most valuable painting in Poland. The collection became the property of the nation in 2016.

Grand masters of the late 19th century

The turn of the 20th century saw a flourishing in historical painting and the birth of the Young Poland movement. The boom in Kraków’s culture around 1900 can be compared to that of the 16th century. Jan Matejko brought Polish history to the canvas by creating monumental, histotrophic presentations of the nation’s past greatness and unfulfilled dreams; his paintings show the core of the reasons, course and outcomes of past events. Between 1889 and 1891, Matejko also worked on the major repainting of the interiors of the Basilica of St. Mary, starting by removing deposits of paint dating back to the Baroque period. He was assisted in his work on the polychromies and stained-glass windows by Stanisław Wyspiański and Józef Mehoffer, students at the School of Fine Arts in Kraków of which he was rector.

Wyspiański’s short yet extensive, versatile career is a perfect example of the intertwining different aspects of the arts. He created thoughtful landscapes of the city and symbolic stained-glass windows, prepared a vision of rebuilding Wawel Hill to transform it into Poland’s version of the Acropolis with buildings serving public and state functions, and penned dramas which earned him the title of the fourth bard, alongside Adam Mickiewicz, Zygmunt Krasiński and Juliusz Słowacki.

New shape of the city

The 19th century brought major changes to Kraków’s historic centre following the decision to demolish the Town Hall, fill in the moat and pull down the city walls marking the boundary of the strict centre; the latter two were replaced by the Planty Garden Ring (1822–1830). At around the same time (1820–1823), work was conducted on building a new mound commemorating Tadeusz Kościuszko, hero of Poland’s struggles for freedom and independence, on Św. Bronisławy Hill.


Kraków also started to rapidly expand its territory: between 1910 and 1915, Mayor of Kraków Juliusz Leo started development plans involving incorporating neighbouring villages into the city and

dedicating disused and some agricultural land for housing. Podgórze was the last suburb to become part of Kraków in 1915.


The Mickiewicza, Słowackiego and Krasińskiego avenues were marked out in the 1920s and 1930s, and the imposing, Modernist buildings of the National Museum, the Jagiellonian Library, the University of Mining and Metallurgy and residential homes were erected alongside them.


Although Kraków’s ancient buildings and monuments survived the ravages of the Second World War, the conflict made its dark mark on the city. Wawel was the residence of the Governor General of the Third Reich, the Main Market Square was renamed Adolf-Hitler-Platz, the building of the National Museum was converted into a casino, while the Podgórze district became the Jewish ghetto. The vast majority of Jews were murdered in concentration camps, although a thousand were saved by Oskar Schindler by employing them in his Deutsche Emailwarenfabrik in Zabłocie. Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster “Schindler’s List” (1993) brought the German industrialist to public attention. In 2010, the site of the former enamel factory became home to the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków (today: Museum of Krakow) and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow (MOCAK).

In the era of communism: Nowa Huta, cultural life, UNESCO World Heritage List

In 1949, construction started on Nowa Huta – the largest steelworks plan in communist Poland with an adjoining independent city. Nowa Huta was designed around concepts of a utopian ideal city and a garden city, and it became a district of Kraków in 1951.


In spite of difficulties and limitations imposed by the regime, Kraków’s cultural life flourished: the cabaret in the cellars of the Pod Baranami Palace was the focal point of the city’s bohemian circles, Tadeusz Kantor founded his avantgarde theatre Cricot 2, and Kraków was home to authors Wisława Szymborska and Stanisław Lem and artists working as part of the Second Kraków Group. In 1979, the National Museum presented the exhibition “Self-Portrait of Poles” – visiting it was seen as an expression of patriotism.

In 1978, the historic centre of Kraków covering the Old Town as marked out by the former city walls, Wawel Hill and the Kazimierz district with Stradom was one of the first twelve locations around the globe added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. The selected sites represent “cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity”. According to the listing, “it is one of the most outstanding examples of European urban planning, characterised by the harmonious development and accumulation of features representing all architectural styles from the early Romanesque to the Modernist periods.” The listing means that UNESCO recognises the Old Town’s authentic integrity.


The Wieliczka Salt Mine was added to the list the same year.

Heritage as a driver of development

1989 marked the start of a long period of transformation. The development of the city ran hand in hand with respect for the past, although maintaining the balance has frequently been a challenge. An interesting case was the Kazimierz district, which had just two hundred Jewish residents in the mid-1980s. Since then, Kazimierz’s popularity has skyrocketed thanks to efforts to revitalise the run-down district and to explore its Jewish heritage. In fact, it is becoming something of a victim of its own success, with the progressing gentrification carrying negative consequences. Podgórze is Kraków’s latest creative hub and home to many active cultural institutions.

Kraków’s historic spirit has gradually been revitalised. Of course being included on UNESCO’s list is highly prestigious, but it remains the city authorities’ duty to protect and maintain the Old Town

The centre is regulated by the Old Town Cultural Park, protecting the cultural landscape and monuments, and there are plans to introduce similar measures in other parts of the city. In recent years, Kraków has gained several new architectural gems, such as the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology designed by the architect Arata Isozaki and the Centre for the Documentation of the Art of Tadeusz Kantor Cricoteka, created by Cracovian architects from the Wizja and nsMoonStudio ateliers. Following a “rediscovery” of Modernist architecture, buildings from the period have rightly gained new protection.

Kraków was awarded the title of European City of Culture in 2000 and it has been taking pride in it ever since. The year also marks the beginning of the tradition of major festivals of classical and contemporary music. UNESCO has also recognised Kraków’s non-material heritage: Kraków bears the title of the City of Literature as part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network (2013), and the local festive tradition of making beautiful nativity scenes was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2018. One of Kraków’s unique features is the hejnał bugle call, played every hour on the hour from the taller tower of the Basilica of St. Mary; another is the Lajkonik parade on the Thursday after Corpus Christi.

Kraków is also home to more than twenty universities, educating around 150,000 students each year. They stimulate the city’s cultural life and social and economic development. Cultural heritage is an important factor for employers, from creative start-ups to multinational corporations. Kraków’s long, rich history makes the entire city into a museum, but it is also constantly changing and evolving in response to the latest needs and challenges. The very concept of cultural heritage – which shapes Kraków’s identity – is fluid, since it means using the past to reach contemporary goals.

Katarzyna Jagodzińska

Assistant Professor at the Institute for European Studies at the Jagiellonian University and member of the editorial board of the “Architecture & Business” monthly. She spent 15 years working at the International Cultural Centre. Art historian and journalist, she specialises in museum studies and cultural heritage.

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