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Krakow is an ancient city, according to myth, founded by King Krakus at the site of a dragon’s cave on Wawel Hill. Dating from the 7th century, it was the capital of Poland for five centuries in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
When Casimir III founded Krakow University in 1364 – the second oldest University in Europe – arts in the city flourished. The 15th and 16th centuries marked a Polish golden age when scholars and artists arrived en-masse. Many fine architectural works were completed and Krakow has been an important hub of cultural and intellectual endeavour ever since, despite concerted efforts to suppress it. During the Nazi era, the city’s Jews and intellectuals were persecuted and sent to concentration camps. During the Soviet era, a vast steel factory and working class suburb called Nowa Huta were established to undermine Krakow’s bourgeois inclinations.Read more
Today, Krakow is a bright, lively place with a youthful student and art scene. It has an abundance of fine architecture, most of it focussed on the city’s pastel-shaded Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The spiritual and aesthetic heart of the city is Rynek Glowny, the largest Medieval square in Europe and formerly a great market. Today it is flanked by elegant town houses, terraced cafes and historic structures like the Town Hall, St Mary’s Basilica and the old Cloth Hall. For a glimpse of regal Polish splendour, head to Wawel Hill, home to a vast castle complex that boasts a heady blend of Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance architecture – the accumulated work of a millennia.
Historically, Krakow was home to a vibrant Jewish population and its Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, has gentrified in recent years. It is now home to some of the city’s finest restored buildings, interesting town squares, old taverns, bars and swanky restaurants. Travellers with an interest in Jewish history can also visit the sombre memorial of Auschwitz-Birkenau, a short journey from the city.