Krakow castle – known to the locals as the Wawel – is one of the defining features of the city’s skyline. It caps off a hill – conveniently known as the Wawel Hill – on the side of the Vistula River, marking the southern end of the UNESCO Old Town district with a flurry of gorgeous medieval and Renaissance architecture.
The complex is actually among the most important historical sites in the whole of Poland. It was once the seat of the Polish kings and queens, before the court was moved to Warsaw in 1611. And it counts some seriously prestigious buildings and structures in its midst, including the Wawel Cathedral and one particularly handsome 15th-century Italianate courtyard.
We’d say that Krakow castle is a must for any first-time visitor to the city. It’s packed with museums and elaborate religious interiors, offers sweeping lookout points above the town, and is a fine introduction to Krakow’s place at the heart of the history of Poland as a whole.
This guide will run through all the ins and outs of visiting the Wawel, with info on what there is to do up on the castle hill and a whole load more. Let’s begin…
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This is just one part of our ultimate guide to things to do in Krakow
What will you find in this guide to Krakow Castle?
Where is Krakow castle?
You really can’t miss Krakow castle. It’s the largest historic complex in the whole city and it’s the highest to boot. It sits 230 meters up on the top of Wawel Hill, a limestone mound that rises right next to a big bend in the Vistula River right in the heart of the town. More specifically, the castle and the castle hill are at the southern end of the Old Town and just north of the hipster district of Kazimierz.
How to get to Krakow castle?
That’s easy. The castle’s place in the very middle of the city, right at the end of Grodzka Street – the main drag that cuts through the Old Town – means that it should be easy to walk here from any hotel in the historic district. You can also walk up from Kazimierz, a nightlife area to the south – that takes around 10 minutes. We’d say the most dramatic route in includes the approach from the Planty Park or from the Vistula Boulevards. Both reveal the castle looming high above the town in all its grandeur.
If it’s too cold or you’re simply done with walking (hey, we get it, Krakow is a demanding town to explore by foot), you can choose to hop on a tram. They are very efficient in Krakow and there’s a stop right below the Wawel castle itself, called, simply, Wawel. You can buy tickets on the tram with a contactless card these days, or use an app that you download to your phone.
The history of Krakow Castle
Here’s the big one! Krakow Castle is one of the richest historic sites in the whole city. And that’s saying something for a town that’s been around for thousands of years, eh?
Most historians agree that human activity here began long before the great castle even existed. In fact, archaeological surveys have even suggested that there was some form of early-human present on the Wawel Hill as far back as 100,000 years BC. Meanwhile, the first permanent human settlement on the hill can also be traced back more than 2,400 years.
The Krakow Castle complex itself didn’t really come into being until around the year 1018 AD, which is the date given for the construction of the first Christian cathedral on the hill. Sadly, that initial structure has entirely disappeared and not much is known about how it would have looked. What archaeologists do know is that it wasn’t alone on the hill. There’s also evidence of a series of timber-built structures that were probably smaller shrines to the Virgin Mary.
The building that we see today standing tall over the city is actually the product of many centuries of construction and extension. It really began in the 11th century and continued on until the end of the 17th century, followed by a period of decline and subsequent renovation in the modern period (18th and 19th centuries). We can roughly break the whole lot down into three distinct epochs:
- Romanesque (1100-1200 AD) – The oldest building that forms a part of today’s Wawel Castle complex is now but a series of ruins underneath the Silver Bell Tower. The Silver Bell Tower itself is also thought to date to this period, although it’s known to have been reconstructed in the 1400s.
- Gothic (1200-1500 AD) – The Gothic period is certainly the most important period for the development of the Wawel Castle. It was a time that saw the citadel become the home of Poland’s kings and queens and its political center of power. The era begins with the coronation of Władysław I the Elbow-high, who was to go on to become the first king to be buried in the Wawel Cathedral. After that, the biggest major change was the order from Casimir III the Great in the 1350s to build a fortified residence on the hill. That was later encircled by a series of bulwarks and towers.
- Renaissance (1500-1600 AD) – The Renaissance is a time of boom and bust for the Wawel. The building hits a zenith under the reign of Sigismund I the Old, the last of the Jagiellonian dynasty. He brought many Italian architects and designers to work on the complex and added the famous Renaissance courtyard that now dominates the eastern side of the hill. The 1500s also saw the addition of key landmarks such as the Sigismund Bell and Tuscan Renaissance-style Sigismund’s Chapel.
The legend of the Wawel Castle dragon
Aside from the long history of the Wawel Castle, the Wawel Hill is also central to one of the founding myths of Krakow (every great city has like 20 founding myths, no?). The story tells of a dragon called the Smok Wawelski, a fearsome creature who terrorized the residents of the nearby villages, who kept him at bay using by leaving herds of cattle and sheep at the entrance of his lair each week for him to feed.
That was until one day when a local cobbler came up with a cunning plan to lace the body of one of their sacrificial lambs with sulfur. They enlisted a local prince to help. He dropped the drugged sheep at the door of the cave where the dragon lived. The dragon emerges, gobbles down the sheep, and is promptly gripped with an insatiable thirst. He begins to drink from the Vistula River to quench said thirst but can’t stop. He drinks and drinks and drinks and eventually drinks himself to death.
The young prince was named Krak and is said to be the founder of the city. Today, a monument to the great Wawel Dragon stands at the southwestern base of the Wawel Castle. It’s down on the riverside boulevards, right in front of the cave where the dragon is said to have lived. It’s a pretty awesome statue – there’s an SMS number you can text that makes it breathe fire. Told you it was awesome!
Museums and exhibitions in the Wawel Castle
Today, the Wawel Castle isn’t just a place of Polish history and myth. It’s also one of the major cultural attractions of Krakow. It’s home to a whopping eight individual exhibitions, ranging from the grand state rooms to the national collection of crown jewels. You can visit one, two, or the whole lot- but bear in mind that that would be a pretty rammed-packed day out!
Here’s a look at the things that we think are the main must-sees in the Wawel Castle of Krakow…
- The State Rooms – If you only have time to do one exhibit in the Wawel, make it this one. They take you through the grand court rooms that once held the sejm (the Polish parliament) where Polish monarchs welcomed foreign envoys. Tickets: regular 35 PLN ($8), reduced 25 PLN ($5.70).
- Royal Private Apartments – Explore the rooms where the iconic Polish kings and queens actually lived. Highlights are the bedroom where Sigismund II Augustus once slept and the dining room of the ancient kings of the Jagiellonian dynasty.Tickets: regular 25 PLN ($5.70), reduced 15 PLN ($3.50).
- Treasury and Armory – You can tour both the Polish crown jewels and the royal armory in a single trip – they aren’t all that big. We think this is one of the best draws in the complex for families (kids tend to like all the swords and suits of armor, eh). Tickets are 35 PLN for the treasury and 15 PLN for the Armoury.
- The Lost Wawel – There’s a whole new exhibition that showcases the archaeological finds that have been unearthed below the Wawel Castle. It’s pretty awesome for those interested in the pre-history and the oldest years of the complex.
- The Wawel Cathedral – You must stop by the Wawel Cathedral. It’s one of the most important churches in Poland. More below…
The Wawel Cathedral
We really should make a special mention of the Wawel Cathedral. Not only was this one of the first structures to grace the site back in the 11th century, but it’s also risen to become arguably the most important church in Poland (alongside the likes of St Mary’s on the Krakow Main Square), largely because it was the site of the coronation of the Polish monarchs throughout the middle ages.
The site is also famed for its crypts. They are free to enter and host some of the most iconic Polish luminaries of all time, including 16 kings, queens, or major dukes of Poland and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and at least two fully-fledged saints. There’s also a literary crypt that hosts the tomb of Adam Mickiewicz, the national poet, and a hero’s tomb that hosts the resting places of revered generals and revolutionaries.
Other things to do in and around Krakow Castle
Before we wind up our complete guide to Krakow Castle, we should say that you don’t have to come here to visit the museums and see the church tombs. It’s actually generally a nice place to go just for a stroll. The central grounds of the complex are open to the public for free. You can walk up the grand entranceway on the north side and pass under the main gate. Or you can come up from the south, on a softer, easier slope that’s about 100m detour from the riverbanks.
The latter route will whisk you past a glorious lookout point. Stand there at sunset and you can watch the light fading over the roofs of the Debnicki district across to the west of Krakow. The former route connects straight with a central courtyard where there’s a fairly decent café. It’s got high prices but hey, you’ll be sipping a brew right in the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage Site!