Self Guided Old Town Tour
Updated: Aug 2
This tour will take around one hour and will finish in Krakow’s Main Market square.
Hello. Welcome to Krakow. On this tour you will explore the section of Krakow’s Old Town that includes the Barbican, the City Walls and some of Krakow’s most famous stories. The tour will end in the Main Market square.
To begin the tour, make your way to the Barbican, located in the North of Krakow’s Old Town, just outside the city walls, at the northern end of Florianska.
Position yourself between Krakow’s medieval Barbican fortress and St. Florian’s gate, the oldest surviving gate to Krakow.
History of Krakow
Before you start walking, let’s delve a little into the history of Krakow.
Krakow dates back at least as early as 990A.D, but the earliest human artefacts excavated in the area date back an astonishing 100,000 years and archaeological evidence suggests that the area around Krakow has been a major settlement for human activity since around 6,000 BC.
In 1241, the original city was almost completely destroyed by invading Tartar tribes, nomadic people from Mongolia, who began moving West under Genghis Khan. Before 1241, the city was based on Wawel Hill where the Castle now stands. After the invasion, King Bolesław- ‘the shy’, made the Main Market square the new centre of the city.
Turn to face the City Walls and St. Florian’s gate
After the invasion of 1241 had seen most of Krakow destroyed by Tartar tribes, Krakow had to be rebuilt and protected. Construction began on the city's defensive walls in the early 14th century, with a second wall constructed from the early 15th century. Additional brick sections were added in the 17th century. Seven main gates allowed entrance to the city and 47 towers, spread across both walls and spaced 60 metres apart, surrounded the city.
Nowadays only the northern section of the wall survives. The white tower in the centre is St. Florian's gate, the only surviving gate to the city. St. Florian's gate would have been destroyed too, were it not for the efforts of a local senator called Feliks Radwanksi in the 19th century.
The early 19th century saw Krakow under the control of the Austro-Hungarian empire, at which point the city walls and St. Florian’s gate- were due to be demolished in an attempt to beautify the city. Centuries of invasions had taken their toll and a decision was made to tear the remaining wall down.
Radwanski was a professor of architecture as well as a senator and he argued that the walls were of significant historical value to Krakow. Unconvinced, the Austro-Hungarians proceeded with the demolition, leaving Radwanksi to claim that the northern wall acted as a wind-breaker, stopping the spread of smells. He also claimed that the wall prevented mothers and wives from having their skirts blown up by the wind! Fearing a city-wide Marilyn Monroe moment, the Austro-Hungarians amazingly agreed and Radwanksi preserved this section of wall...and the modesty of the ladies of Krakow, for generations to come.
Turn to face the Barbican Fortress
Built as an outer defence to the City's main walls in 1499, the Barbican fortress proved impenetrable against attacks. The circular fortress is one of only three surviving Gothic roundels of its style in Europe and is the best preserved. The walls of the Barbican are one metre thick and there are 7 turrets and 130 defence slots for archers or riflemen to take aim through. Soldiers defending the tower were also known to pour boiling oil onto anyone trying to breach the walls.
The Barbican was originally connected to Saint Florian's gate with a drawbridge and where you are standing was a moat that was filled with water. In 1825 the moat was filled in and the area was redeveloped as gardens called the Planty, which surround the city.
One of the Barbican's most famous stories is that of a young soldier called Marcin Oracewicz who defended the Barbican from Russian attack in 1768. On running out of ammunition, Oracewicz loaded his rifle with a coat button from his jacket and shot a Russian General through the head with it. Do you believe this story to be true?
There is a plaque commemorating Oracewicz's efforts on the wall to the right side of the building and it is thought to be true.
True or False?
Some of Krakow’s most famous stories are legends, but others are true. As you continue on your tour, see if you can guess which are true and which are false, before reading on to find out.
Turn back to face St. Florian’s gate and the City Walls.
Saint Florian's Gate
Saint Florian's Gate was constructed in 1307 as the Royal entrance to Krakow. You are about to enter where the Kings of Poland entered the city for 500 years. Inside the gate is now a chapel. Visitors can climb the city walls and enter the Barbican from April to October.
Pass through the gate and once through to the other side, pause and look back to the top of the gate.
Pictured on the colourful relief is Saint Florian, one of the patron saints of Krakow. St. Florian is also the patron saint of firefighters. In 1494 a fire broke out in this part of the city and destroyed many houses. Afterwards, Saint Florian was put in place to look over Krakow and protect the city in future.
The street behind you is Florianska. You will return to this street shortly.
Facing St. Florian’s gate, turn left and continue with the city walls on your right hand side. Follow the road, stopping in the open space on the right, just before the red brick archway.
Czartoryskich Museum of Fine Art
This beautiful building and the adjoining section connected by the bridge, is the Czartoryskich Museum of Fine Art. Izabella Czartoryska was an 18th century Polish noblewoman who travelled Europe meeting important figures of the Enlightenment such as the philosopher Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin.
She collected art from all over Europe and this museum was opened in 1878 to house her collection. The museum's most famous piece is Lady With an Ermine, by Leonardo DaVinci, making Krakow one of only 9 places in the world with an original Da Vinci painting. The painting was brought into the Czartoryski collection from Italy in 1798 by Izabela Czartoryska's son and was brought to Krakow in 1876.
During World War Two, the painting was moved for safe keeping, but was discovered by the Nazis and seized. In 1940, the painting hung in the Krakow office of Nazi General Hans Frank in Wawel Castle. At the end of the war it was discovered by Allied troops in Frank's country home in Bavaria and was returned to the museum.
Continue through the red archway that bridges the street and on the other side take your first left onto Sw. Jana, stopping outside number 30. Be sure to check for cars on this street.
House under the Peacock
At number 30 is the ‘House under the Peacock’. Many of Krakow's Old Town buildings date back to the 14th and 15th centuries. Depicted on some, is evidence of an old address system used many years ago.
Most people couldn't read or write, so when it came to finding an address, the modern system of numbers and letters wouldn't work. An ingenious solution in medieval Krakow was to have a picture or icon placed above the door of the establishment. The name of the house would correspond to the picture. Hence this was the House under the Peacock.
Continue following Sw. Jana until the next junction and then take the first left onto Sw. Marka. Follow Sw. Marka until you reach Florianska and turn right back onto Florianska.
Krakow is Poland's second largest city behind Warsaw and is home to around 760,000 people. However, Krakow was the capital city and a Royal city for over 500 years. Florianska was the start of a royal procession that led the kings of Poland through Krakow on their way to Wawel castle, to the cathedral to be crowned.
There are 120 churches in Krakow and despite the magnificent view of St. Mary's basilica from here, Florianska is actually the only street in Krakow's old town without a church.
The Polish artist Jan Matejko used to live at number 41 Florianska. His house is open to visitors and some of his paintings can be found in the Sukiennice gallery in the main square.
Continue south on Florianska, heading away from St. Florian’s gate and towards the red towers of St. Mary’s Basilica. Pause, facing the basilica when you are approaching the end of the street.
St. Mary's Basilica
Built in the 14th century, St. Mary's Basilica is one of Krakow's most important landmarks. The building's foundations date back even further into the 13th century. The original church was destroyed during the Tartar invasion of 1241.
The basilica is one of the finest surviving examples of Polish Gothic architecture. Visiting is free for worshippers during services, or you can buy a ticket from the ticket office opposite the entrance on the right side. Inside the basilica you can see the magnificent architecture of the church, as well as the greatest work of German artist Veit Stoss, who spent 12 years of his life carving by hand, the world's largest gothic, wooden altarpiece which can be found inside. Stoss used the real people of Krakow as muses for the altar's figures. You can also see beautiful stained glass windows by famed Polish artist Stanislaw Wyspianksi.
The two iconic towers give the basilica its unique look, the tallest of which stands at 82 metres tall. This tower is a great spot to get a view of the city and is open to visitors from Spring until Autumn. Every hour on the hour, a bugle call is played in four different directions, from the 9th storey glass windows of the red brick section of the tower. If you can time it right to be there on the hour mark, position yourself either in the main square close to the glass pyramid, or on the left hand side of Florianska, to see the trumpeter play.
St. Mary’s Trumpeter
One of Krakow's most famous stories tells that in 1241 when Krakow came under invasion from Tartar tribes, a young trumpeter was keeping watch over the city from St. Mary's basilica. As the invasion approached he tried to warn the people below with a bugle call, but he was hit with an arrow through the throat and killed. To honour the trumpeter’s death, the bugle call or ‘Hejnał’, is always cut short mid-way through.
The tradition has continued for centuries and used to sound when the city gates were opened or when an invasion was imminent. Nowadays the trumpeter plays every hour just for the delight of tourists below.
The cupola at the top of the tower was added in 1478, complete with eight separate turrets and the golden crown symbolises Krakow's status as a Royal City.
Continue into Krakow’s Main Market Square towards the building in the centre and stop at the glass Pyramid fountain.
Rynek Underground Museum
This glass pyramid in Krakow's main square is a sky light for the Rynek Underground museum. It's an interactive museum containing the foundations of old buildings. The result of excavations in 2010, it shows visitors how the level of the city is higher now than centuries ago.
Capacity is limited to 300 people at a time and entry is free on Tuesdays. If you visit, be sure to set a little time aside at the end to watch fascinating videos depicting important events in Krakow's history. These include footage of the Nazi invasion of 1939, when the main square was renamed Adolf Hitler platz.
Right now you are in Krakow’s Main Market square and the centre of the city. This is the largest medieval market square in Europe and dates back to 1257.
Turn back to face the basilica and pause to look at the building’s two distinctive towers.
Two Towers of St. Mary's Basilica
There is a story that the towers were each built by two brothers and were intended to be the same height. The smaller tower was completed first by the younger brother, much to the dismay of the older one. To get revenge, the older brother built his own tower taller. When the younger sibling realised, a violent fight broke out, resulting in the death of the older brother.
Despite winning the fight, the younger brother was so wracked with remorse afterwards, that on the day the church was to be consecrated in 1320, he pierced his heart with the same knife he used to kill his brother and dropped from the top of his tower to the ground below! Pretty gruesome, right?! Do you believe this story is true? Continue on to find out.
With the Basilica at your back, walk left towards the statue of Adam Mickiewicz, positioned between the basilica and the Cloth Hall building in the centre of the square.
Statue of Adam Mickiewicz
This statue is of Adam Mickiewicz, the greatest Polish Romantic poet of the 19th century. Mickiewicz was born in what is now modern day Lithuania, but along with Zygmunt Krasiński and Julius Słowacki, he was one of a trilogy of prolific writers that became collectively known as the three Polish ‘bards’. All three were Romantic poets who were politically active in times of unrest in the 19th century.
Mickiewicz, the most famous of the three, has a statue in Krakow’s main square, despite having never visited the city. However, 35 years after his death, his remains were brought to Krakow from Paris and ceremoniously laid to rest in Wawel Cathedral.
This statue was destroyed by the Nazis in 1940 in order to discredit Polish heroes, but after the war, amazingly it was found in a scrap metal yard in Hamburg, Germany and restored in 1955.
Facing the statue of Adam Mickiewicz, walk directly behind the statue towards the Cloth Hall building in the centre of the square. Head for the central archway, which is the entrance to the building and pause outside.
The building in front of you is the Cloth Hall, Krakow's oldest market place.
Standing at the entrance to the market, do you see a knife on the right hand side of the entrance hanging from a hook on the wall, close to the security camera?
Some say this is the legendary knife from the story of the two towers of St. Mary’s Basilica and the feuding brothers. As gruesome a story as it might be, this one is not thought to be true. The real reason for one tower being taller, is it gave watchmen a perfect view of any threats approaching the city, without their view being blocked by the second tower. In fact the original St. Mary's church was destroyed in the invasion of 1241, so they were right to be cautious!
The more plausible explanation than the fighting brothers, for why there is a knife hanging in the doorway of the cloth hall, is it acted as a deterrent to thieves, much like the modern day security camera beside it. If a thief was caught, they would have their fingers cut off, or sometimes even their ears or nose!
Dating back to the 13th century, the Cloth Hall was originally two lines of stalls, with a cobbled alleyway running between. King Casimer the Great built a permanent market in the 14th century, making the Cloth Hall effectively Poland's first shopping arcade.
In the 16th century King Sigismund the Old married the Italian queen Bona Sforza. When fire destroyed the original Cloth Hall building in 1555, it was rebuilt in the queen's favourite Italian renaissance style.
The last renovation took place in the 19th century, when gargoyle faces were added to the top, and like with Veit Stoss’s altarpiece, these are also supposedly inspired by the faces of real people in Krakow. One of the architects working on the renovation was Jan Matejko, Poland's most famous artist. There is a gallery on the upper floor, which houses some of Matejko’s paintings- entry is free on a Sunday.
Nowadays the stalls inside the market sell souvenirs and crafts, but years ago traders sold expensive fabrics, giving the building the name ‘Cloth Hall.’ Salt from the nearby Salt Mines was also traded here. Salt was valuable in medieval Krakow, costing half the value of gold. It was needed to preserve meat and workers could even get paid in salt, leading to use of the term salary.
There is a public toilet on the North West corner of the Cloth Hall building should you require one.
Facing away from the statue of Adam Mickiewicz, head past the knife through the Cloth Hall building and emerge on the other side of the square.
Town Hall Tower
On the left as you emerge from the Cloth Hall building, is the surviving tower of Krakow’s Town Hall. Built in the 14th century, this tower was originally attached to the town hall, but the building was demolished in 1820. A scale model in front, shows how it once looked. Similar models are present around Krakow showing how buildings have changed, but also allowing the visually impaired to feel how the buildings around them are laid out.
The tower was damaged during a storm in 1703 and actually leans 55cm towards the Cloth Hall, although not enough to make it as famous as the tower in Pisa.
Visitors can climb this tower between March and December, although the view isn't quite as impressive as from St. Mary's Basilica on the other side of the square.
Continue on the right side of the Town Hall Tower towards the corner of the Main square and stop in front of the statue of a giant head.
This work of art is called Eros Bendato. ‘Eros’ the Greek god of love and ‘bendato’ meaning bound. It is the work of Polish artist Igor Mitoraj, who once studied at the Krakow school of arts.
Mitoraj actually found more success as an artist in Paris than in Poland and in 2003, he held an exhibition placing 14 similar works of art in different locations across Krakow, albeit temporarily.
In 2004 Mitoraj gifted this piece permanently to the city and plans were made to display it outside the Galeria Krakowska shopping mall close to the train station. Mitoraj objected that his work might be associated with a consumerist building and so despite complaints by locals and historians alike, ‘the Head’, as it is commonly known, eventually found its way here into Krakow's market square. Leaving some locals to joke that gifting the head to the city was Mitoraj's revenge for having never made it as an artist while living in Krakow.
Despite the jokes, the head has become a popular photo spot for tourists, who climb inside and poke their own heads out of the eyes, or hang off the nose of the statue. There are actually several similar heads by Mitoraj dotted around the globe and another similar piece in Krakow.
That’s the end of your tour. If you enjoyed this free tour, please leave City Walks Krakow a review on TripAdvisor.
This tour has covered only a small amount of what there is to see in Krakow. If you can, we recommend you join us on one of our free walking tours, which really is the best and most cost effetcive way to see Krakow. Visit the rest of the Old Town and Wawel Castle with us, or alternatively join our free tour of Krakow’s Jewish Quarter- to learn about the city’s World War Two history.
For info on all of our tours, or for blog posts on great places to eat and drink- head to www.citywalkskrakow.com, or look out for our guides with the blue City Walks Krakow umbrellas.
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