Joanna Oparek

Reading the city Kraków is a poem written with gusto

Reading time: approx. 7 minutes

Magical Kraków. UNESCO City of Literature. European Capital of Culture. A city of poets, authors, artists, academics. Kraków is home to major international festivals, and its unique atmosphere is shaped by its intimate, independent bookshops. Kraków is a personality influenced by personalities, which in turn are influenced by extraordinary meetings held in extraordinary locations.

Just like a poem, which is far more than the sum of all its verses, Kraków cannot be reduced to a list of cultural monuments, attractions and events. Kraków is a poem written with gusto. It is a city of symbols and a space of metaphors. It is a free verse, written with courage. It is an avantgarde poem, one which remembers all other poems. It preserves former meanings while creating fresh ones. It is a dynamic, bold city whose dynamics stem from sensing the exact moment to stop and pause.


Wisława Szymborska once said, “I live in Kraków, so I don’t go sightseeing”. But today you can see Kraków through Szymborska: you can walk in her footsteps, take a peek in her apartment or explore her poetry by admiring its details, asking questions and finding beauty in the city’s hidden corners, in café bookshops where the pensive barista is pondering the verses of her next poem…

You can search for traces of Miłosz, discover a metaphysical city and its loftiness, rooted in history and tradition. If you dream of returning to the past, finding a time machine to explore past Kraków of the Belle Epoque, this is no place for you. Instead, epochs travel here, through people. They endure in favourite places, in distinctive poses, by engaging in discussion with the here-and-now and the future.


Modernism and decadence, in their unique, Young Poland movement style, have left an indelible mark on Kraków’s atmosphere and the design and architecture of its tenement houses, churches and interiors. The dramatist Stanisław Przybyszewski delivered his grand, passionate speeches here. Stanisław Wyspiański, author of great national dramas, artist and designer of stunning stained-glass windows, was born and lived here. In contrast with many other European cities, Kraków never turned into a caricature of itself. It doesn’t disappear in a puff of smoke; it doesn’t turn into a museum or a flea market. The city’s poem is sensitive to kitsch; it is uncompromising and has a sense of irony. And it is constantly being written, even right now. It wants to be written forever – to become a complete book.

Kraków has always been an expectation; the wealth of its past is rooted in myriad visions, diverse cultures and ideas.

A city of inspiration

The city owes its unique atmosphere to its beauty and history and the intertwining of art, thoughts and emotions. It is shaped by its friendly, welcoming people. The City of Literature is a city of extraordinary encounters, and a city of Poland’s Nobel laureates. Henryk Sienkiewicz published his historical novel “With Fire and Sword” in instalments in the Cracovian daily “Czas”, while Władysław Reymont’s novellas were published in the quarterly “Myśl”. It is a city of Miłosz and Szymborska, and of their friends Adam Zagajewski, Ewa Lipska and Ryszard Krynicki. It was home of Sławomir Lem, Tadeusz Kantor and Sławomir Mrożek. Kraków is Poland’s most important theatre hub with stages with centuries-old traditions and courage to experiment; it is where Helena Modrzejewska, star of two continents, took her first steps on the stage. Our encounter with authors starts at the Planty Garden Ring encircling the Old Town. The green belt is dotted with benches dedicated to writers, both dead and alive. Let’s take an afternoon stroll discovering literary City Codes and listen to its voices.

Bohemian city

Kraków’s cafés, galleries and bookshops all form the literary heart of the city. Authors from all over the globe come here in search of this mystical environment. All meetings, both the deliberate and the incidental, offer perfect opportunities for discussion. Kraków is filled with conversations about literature, right here and right now in the 21st century: just step onto Bracka Street and take a seat at Nowa Prowincja café. In the evening take a stroll to Kazimierz and take a peek into Piękny Pies. Literary cafés come and go, and new ones spring up all the time. The former mecca of the bohemian circles of the Young Poland movement, Jama Michalika, is almost a museum now, but Baza – also at Floriańska Street – comes to life with poets several times every month.

A city of festivals

Meetings focusing on literature shape its history, with festivals providing the most spectacular setting. A city-poem requires sufficient space for creative dialogue, and Kraków is in constant dialogue with the entire world.


Spring brings the Miłosz Festival, with some of the greatest stars of literature flocking to Kraków from all over the globe. As well as major international events, Kraków also hosts myriad low-key, intimate meetings. Poetry speaks to us from palace halls and courtyards, from nooks and crannies, from basements and cellars, in all languages.

A city of festivals

Autumn ushers in the Conrad Festival – one of the largest events of its kind in Europe. Its patron, Joseph Conrad, spent his youth in Kraków before emigrating and achieving huge international acclaim for his works written in English. The festival attracts artists from myriad cultures and backgrounds. Events include debates, lectures, theatre performances, film screenings and exhibitions. The festival coincides with the International Book Fair – the largest such event in Poland.


It would be simply impossible to fully describe the sheer extent of literary events in Kraków. Those of us who live and breathe culture have to make serious choices almost every day! Fortunately we have technology at hand to help us keep track of everything on offer – and the intertwining of culture and technology shapes the potential of creative cities.

A city of intellectual exchange

Kraków is home to over twenty higher education institutions, including the Jagiellonian University – Poland’s first university founded in 1364. Its alumni include the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, leading artists of the Polish Renaissance Mikołaj Rej and Jan Kochanowski, as well as Russian, Lithuanian, German, French, Italian and Tatar students. Kraków has always been a Polish city and a multicultural city. University education coexists with creative working courses, and the wide range of grants and literary residence programmes organised by the Villa Decius Association offer international exchange opportunities. Kraków awards many prestigious literary awards, including the Transatlantyk for promoting Polish literature abroad, the Wisława Szymborska Poetry Award, the Jan Długosz Award for best book in the humanities, and the Kazimierz Wyka Award. Kraków also hosts the World Congress of Translators of Polish Literature.

A city of books

Kraków is home to the Polish Book Institute whose mission is to promote Polish literature around the globe. It is also home to many prestigious publishing houses, many with long traditions; they include Wydawnictwo Literackie, Znak, Karakter, the avantgarde Ha!art Corporation and Wydawnictwo a5. The first books written in Polish were printed right here in Kraków in the early 16th century. The Jagiellonian Library holds many literary treasures, while the Princes Czartoryski Library holds a collection of some of the oldest manuscripts and early prints in Europe. The UNESCO City of Literature programme is prepared and implemented by KBF. Only a city which thinks about readers and protects niche antiquarians and second-hand book stalls is also able to build major institutions and develop culture. Today’s Kraków supports longstanding bookselling traditions.

A city of books

The tenement house at 23 Main Market Square (Rynek Główny 23) has been home to a bookshop since 1610. Regular meetings with authors are held at the Pod Globusem Bookshop (1 Długa Street), De Revolutionibus Books & Café (14 Bracka Street) and in Lokator (1 Mostowa Street). Podgórze is home to the Szafa Pełna Książek bookshop selling new and second-hand volumes, while Massolit Books (4 Felicjanek Street) specialises in English-language publications. The bookshop at the Galicia Museum (18 Dajwór Street) and Austeria at the Popper Synagogue (16 Szeroka Street) specialise in Judaist topics. When you’re in Zabłocie, don’t miss the MOCAK Bookstore at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

A city of shelter

Kraków UNESCO City of Literature is a member of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) – an independent organisation which offers shelter to writers, journalists and artists at risk of persecution. The network was co-founded by Salman Rushdie, author of “Satanic Verses”. Since 2011, Kraków has hosted Maria Amelie (penname of Madina Salamova – formerly North Ossetia, now Norway), Kareem Amer (formerly Egypt, now Norway), Mostafa Zamaninija (Iran), Lyavon Barshchewski (Belarus), Aslı Erdoğan (Turkey) and Felix Kaputu (Democratic Republic of Congo). In recent years, the city also offered shelter to the Libyan poet, historian, philosopher and political critic Monem Mahjoub and the Syrian poet, art critic and social activist Kholoud Charaf.

A city of futurism

In 2021, we will be celebrating the centenary of the birth of Stanisław Lem – the most popular Polish author of all time. The former Salt Warehouse in Zabłocie is being converted into the “Planet Lem” Literature and Language Centre – a futuristic museum and a brand-new setting for interdisciplinary events, meetings and debates on the role of culture in the contemporary world. Similar debates are also held during the Open Eyes Economy Summit – an international congress of the economy of values, held every autumn at the ICE Kraków Congress Centre.

Joanna Oparek

Author of several novels and volumes of poetry, dramatist and interdisciplinary curator of cultural projects. Together with the Otwarta Pracownia gallery she runs an independent theatre group in Kraków.

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