Kraków Ghetto and Wawel Hill

I didn’t have any big plans for my second day in Kraków, so I allowed myself a leisurely morning before setting out to investigate the random collection of things I had on my “to see” list. Mostly, I was tired of chaotic, ambitious days and wanted to leave the day somewhat unplanned so that I could go with the flow and make game-time decisions.

My first move was to the former location of the Kraków Ghetto. In Kraków, the ghetto was placed on the fringes of the city (at the time), and 15,000 Jews were crowded into an area previously occupied by 3,000 people. I took a tram there from my hostel and started at Ghetto Heroes Square where a memorial commemorates the ghetto victims. When the ghetto was operating, this square was where people were gathered before being sent to various concentration camps. There is a memorial there now, a series of empty metal chairs scattered across the square. A nearby sign explains that when the first Jews were being deported, they were told to bring things with them to start a new life. A lot of them brought chairs so that they would have somewhere to sit in their new homes. Reading that… it hit me pretty hard.

Ghetto Heroes Square with the Empty Chairs Memorial

A pharmacy located by the square was the only one that continued operating after the establishment of the ghetto. The owner, Tadeusz Pankiewicz, declined the offer to move his pharmacy to another part of the city. He lived onsite and was the only non-Jewish resident of the ghetto. He and his staff did what they could to help the ghetto residents, providing things like medicine, smuggled groceries, information from the outside, and even hair dye for those plotting escapes. Today, the pharmacy is home to a small museum.

Only a few blocks from the square is the Schindler enamel factory. Many of the Jews who weren’t immediately deported were kept in Kraków for labor purposes, forced to work in a couple Nazi-established factories and others supporting the war efforts. Oskar Schindler, whose story is told in the film Schindler’s List, is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews, shielding them with the help of his factories and endless bribes. The building is a museum now.

Schindler’s factory

The plaque

A few portions of the ghetto wall are still standing, so I went to visit those as well. The one is marked with a plaque that says (in Hebrew and Polish), “Here they lived, suffered, and perished at the hands of Hitler’s torturers. From here they began their final journey to the death camps.” The top of the wall looks like a series of tombstones… I’m not sure if that was intentional or not, but it’s another one of those things that makes your heart hurt because it’s just not right.

Ghetto wall. You can see how the shape of the top of the wall looks like gravestones. Eerie.

Ghetto wall + children’s playground

Near there, I spotted a marker on google maps for a fortress! (Mom, skip this paragraph.) A few reviews said that while it’s closed, there are a few places where you can sneak inside, a prospect that clearly appealed to me. I walked around the building a few times but, much to my dismay, couldn’t find a reasonable way in. I found one spot that looked like it had been recently patched. Maybe that’s what they were talking about. In my assessment, you’d have to be either a child or a contortionist to squeeze inside now. It’s too bad… I peeked through the windows, and it looked like an interesting place, plus there’s supposed to be a great view from the roof!

The fortress

So, I settled for walking around the outside and then continued on my way to the Krakus Mound. What is this, you ask? Well, honestly I’m not really sure, and it seems like no one else is either. This is one of two mysterious prehistoric mounds in Kraków. No one knows when exactly they were built or why. This one has a solid wooden core, covered with soil and grass. Like… what????? IT IS SO WEIRD. It looks like a pimple on the surface of the earth. Legend says that it was built to honor the mythical city founder, King Krakus, and the other was to honor his daughter. But, no one knows. I just went for the view.

The Krakus Earth Pimple.

The view of Kraków from Krakus (hehe)

From the top of Krakus Mound, I spotted this building and was curious about what it was. Turns out, it used to be part of a limestone quarry that no longer operates because the limestone is gone. It was also a concentration camp for Polish prisoners during WWII and was used as part of the set of Schindler’s List. If I’d had more time or an adventure buddy, I would have tried to figure out how to get there to explore. Next time! (Yup, I guess I need to go back!)

My last major stop was Wawel Hill. I was coming from the outskirts of the city, so I took another tram in an effort to keep myself from walking into exhaustion.

Church of St. Bernardino of Siena. It’s near Wawel so while I was walking past, I decided I might as well pop my head in.

Inside. I like the ceiling!


Wawel Cathedral is one of the most prominent sights on the hill today. The first church on the site can be traced back to the early 1000s, soon after Poland became a Christian country. The current structure, however, was built in the 1300s and is actually the third iteration. The first was destroyed, and the second burned down – a common theme on Wawel Hill.

Today’s cathedral is quite the architectural hodge-podge. The 1300s cathedral was built in the gothic style, but portions of the previous Romanesque cathedral survived the fire intact and were retained in the new design. Later on, various chapels were added on to the side, and those are in the Renaissance and Baroque styles. Much of the interior was redone when baroque was all the rage, so it doesn’t even resemble what it would have looked like originally.

This is a great vantage point to see the many architectural layers of Wawel. The white limestone, like the bottom half of the tower, is from the old structure, built in the Romanesque style. The rest of the tower and the other brick area you can see are part of the 14c. Gothic church. The chapel with the gold dome is in the Renaissance style from the 16c. (and the dome was painted black during WWII to protect it. It’s 54kg of gold!). The chapel to the left with the black dome is Baroque from the 17c. So there you have it! Architectural collage.

The front of Wawel Cathedral

The castle has had plenty of its own struggles throughout the years. It fell victim to multiple fires, was occupied by the Austrian army during the partitions of Poland, and was further damaged and plundered during WWII. Kraków didn’t see nearly the destruction that Warsaw faced during the war, however, so Wawel and other landmark buildings did manage to survive. Today, the palace buildings house various museums.

A model of Wawel. You can see the cathedral in the back middle. To the left, there’s a gate into the castle compound, and the cathedral museum is in the building to the left of that. The U-shaped building in front of the cathedral is the royal kitchens, and the building behind that with the arches is the castle. The tower next to the kitchen has rounded corners which were supposed to help deflect cannonball fire.

Inside the castle compound with the cathedral up ahead to the left and the royal kitchens to the right.

There used to be other buildings here as well, as you can see by the foundation remnants in the lawn.

I skipped the castle museums and only bought a cathedral ticket because I wasn’t really feeling up to a big museum experience. With my ticket, I could go up the bell tower (which was all I really wanted), see the crypt, visit the cathedral museum, and walk around the inside of the church like a VIP. All that for just $4! Ha!

The cathedral is beautiful, but like so many others, there’s almost too much going on. It’s completely overwhelming to the point where you can’t appreciate anything inside. “Geez, ya think they have enough fantastic marble statues in here? Who’s this? Another dead guy?” “Ugh, there’s so much shiny gold in here that it’s making my head hurt!” I call it the “Vatican Museum Effect”. If you’ve ever been to the Vatican Museums in Rome, you know what I mean. There’s so much amazing art around you that it all seems “normal”, and instead of looking at each thing individually, you try to take it all in at once and completely lose your mind.

In the bell tower, there are a few different MASSIVE bells. I don’t know much about bells, but they were big. That seems like the most important takeaway. The biggest weights 12,600kg (13.9 tons), is only rung a couple times each year (and requires 12 bell ringers), and can be heard 30km (18.6 miles) away. I suppose that’s all impressive in the bell world. I mean, it sounds absolutely insane to me. Why make a bell that’s clearly a huge pain to handle?? I’m sorry, I’m probably being incredibly offensive to bell-lovers everywhere. Bells aren’t really my thing.

The great bell, Zygmunt

The bell tower was fun to explore…. there are little gaps like this one that you have to squeeze/duck through.


The crypt is filled with dead kings and queens and national heroes. I was excited because it’s the only fully-intact part of the Romanesque church. The cathedral museum has mostly Pope John Paul II paraphernalia. Did you know that he was the first non-Italian pope in almost 500 years? He also has a crazy life story (it’s worth a read!), could speak 12 languages, and is a Polish hero. There is a case of gifts he received during his time as pope, and the coolest was a cross that American astronaut Buzz Aldrin took with him to the moon! I just kept looking at it and thinking, “That cross has been to the moon and back!” Whoa!!

Inside the Romanesque-style crypt

Flowers at Wawel

More Wawel flowers

The final thing on my list was visiting the stained glass museum. I am obsessed with stained glass, so it sounded wonderful! The only problem was that their tour minimum is two people, and I am obviously only one person. You’ll be shocked to hear that it’s apparently NOT the hottest destination in Kraków. No one else turned up, so I was out of luck. That was a bit of a bummer, but it did mean that I had some extra time to relax back at the hostel. A dull silver lining, but a silver lining nonetheless.

This looks like the home of a woodland creature…. but it’s actually just part of the Wawel wall

Kraków Old Town

My next stop after Warsaw was Kraków (kra-kohv) in southern Poland. I was sad to leave Warsaw behind, but at least I still had more time ahead in Poland. I wasn’t ready to move on just yet. I took a train (the cheapest and most inconveniently timed train, of course) and bonded with some other tourists as we attempted to navigate the Warsaw train station.

Kraków flowers, for your viewing pleasure 🙂

The ride to Kraków was my first experience in a compartment train, and it was strange. Since I didn’t have a travel buddy to share the weirdness with, I wrote about it in my journal.

The compartment is too quiet, no one is talking and it would be weird if they were. I almost feel like my typing is too loud, THAT’S how quiet it is. Shouldn’t the train be making more noise?? What is this? Some newfangled electric train or something?

Also, am I allowed to eat in here? I think that if the answer was no, there would be signs making that clear. But it’s not like they’d put up a “yes, you can eat” sign… that doesn’t make any sense. At least then I’d be sure, though. If we were in rows, I would just go for it because you can kind of hide yourself. Since we’re in a compartment, I feel like there are 4 people here who would judge me really hard if I’m doing something wrong. One is a nun so maybe she wouldn’t judge me, but at least the other three would.

Supposedly eight people can fit in this compartment, but I think that would be a mess. There are just 5 of us now, and I think that’s enough. Maybe 6 would be okay. But 8?? Eek!

A couple minutes later: AH! The nun just started eating a sandwich. I assume she wouldn’t break the rules, so eating must be allowed. Okay, first I’m going to eat something because my stomach is empty, and then I’m going to get to work on my to-do list.

This one is so pretty!!

The train took about 3.5 hours, and despite the compartment weirdness, I was sad to get off because I was being incredibly productive… probably because I felt like I had to stay busy or else risk making awkward eye contact with one of my co-passengers. Eye contact means someone might start talking to me, leading to the weird “oh, sorry, I don’t speak Polish” thing and totally ruining my camouflage.

The train arrived in Kraków around 3PM, and my goal was to make it to a 4PM walking tour. Doable. I had 1 hour to figure out the trams, get myself to the hostel to drop my stuff, and sprint back out again to the meeting point. I made it with seconds to spare and only mildly sweaty from my brisk walk across the city.

While we were waiting for the tour to start, the guide asked where everyone was from. There was one other group visiting from the US – two couples, plus a girl around my age – and I started a conversation with the girl, asking what part (Florida). She ended up being super cool, and I felt good about myself for being outgoing and making a friend.

Whoa!!

Soon enough, the tour started, and the guide seemed determined to make us all Kraków history experts by the time he was finished.

Kraków as a settlement began as early as 50,000 BC, but not much is known about it beyond what archaeology has revealed until 966AD when the first written mention of Kraków appeared. By then, it was already a bustling commercial center. The Kingdom of Poland came soon after in 996AD, and Kraków was named as its capital in 1038.

The earliest settlements were on Wawel Hill, a rocky outcropping near the Vistula River (the same one that runs through Warsaw) that later became the site of Wawel Castle, the royal residence of the Kingdom of Poland until the capital city was moved to Warsaw. As the town grew, it expanded off of the hill and to the north where the heart of modern-day Kraków is now located.

View of the Vistula River from Wawel Hill

Kraków Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, as is Warsaw’s Old Town. The difference is that Kraków’s is actually old. Unlike Warsaw, Kraków was not a major battleground during WWII, and much of the city, including many of its historical and cultural monuments, survived without too much damage.

Kraków Old Town streets

The city used to be surrounded by city walls (because what medieval city wasn’t??) with 47 towers, plus a 4km moat. Most of the fortifications were dismantled during the Austrian occupation during the partitions, and today, a ring of green space stands in their place, encircling the oldest part of the city. Only a small portion of the formerly extensive fortifications was saved from destruction – Floriańska (St. Florian’s) Gate, one of the major entry points into the city, and the Kraków Barbican. The Barbican was a defensive structure that was connected by a drawbridge, over the city’s moat, to St. Florian’s Gate.

St. Florian’s Gate

The Kraków Barbican. You can see the former location of the drawbridge shown by the pavings stones.

The Barbican from the front

A pretty church just inside of the park ring surrounding Old Town

St. Anne’s Church, located on the square. There’s a legend that during the Mongol invasion, a trumpeter warned the people of the approaching invaders in time for the city gates to be closed. Unfortunately for him, however, he was shot in the throat and killed before he could finish playing the song. In reference to this legend, the traditional trumpet call is played (by a live trumpeter) from the tower every hour on the hour and stops abruptly before the end.

In the 1200s, before the city walls were built, Kraków was invaded by the Mongols. The city wasn’t defended, and the invaders massacred everyone and burned everything that wasn’t behind fortifications. The people of Kraków used this opportunity to rebuild the city with a better layout, and the new design included a HUGE town square. It is now the largest medieval square in Europe, with 200m long sides.

One of the reasons for Kraków’s rapid growth and great wealth was its location. By law, merchants weren’t allowed to cross Poland with their goods. Instead, they were forced to sell their wares in Kraków to then be sold on the other side of the country for a profit. Kraków was also fortunate to have access to the valuable resources of salt and lead. A trade agreement with Hungary gave Kraków a near monopoly on copper as they traded Polish lead for Hungarian copper.

The large medieval square was put to good use as a market, and it also became one of the most disgusting parts of the city. The ground was covered with garbage and human waste, and when things got out of hand, a soil layer was added. The ground level is now 3m above its original level. When the government decided to redo the cobblestones in the early 2000s, they gave archaeologists permission to dig in the square for 4 months. Instead, they ended up staying for 5 YEARS, still only managed to explore about 10% of the square, and unearthed hundreds of burials and thousands of artifacts. (There’s an archaeology museum under the square that I didn’t visit, but it’s at the top of my list if I ever go back!)

Market Square!

The Cloth Hall in the center of Market Square

Bustling square!

Old Town is also home to the second oldest university in Europe, Jagiellonian University (aka University of Kraków), founded in 1364. Copernicus attended from about 1491-95, and Karol Wojtyła, the future Pope John Paul II, attended until it was shut down in 1939 when over 180 professors and intellectuals were arrested at the start of WWII. Some of these professors were later released, and they returned to operate the university as part of the underground education efforts until it was reopened officially in 1945.

University of Kraków

A glimpse of Kraków outside of the Old Town center

Town Hall Tower in Market Square

At some point during the tour, much to my dismay, my Floridian friends vanished. Then, at the very end, the girl popped up again and said that they ducked out for a bit to get some ice cream. That made me like them even more. She came back to ask for my number so we could hang out! And then they vanished again.

Later, she invited me to join them for dinner! I was thrilled to have made some new friends! Dinner was so much fun. The girl, Annika, had just finished a master’s degree in Sweden, and her parents came to meet her and do some sightseeing with another couple before they all went back to the States. They’re all the kind of people who make you feel immediately at ease, and they asked me about a million questions about my time in Armenia. They had a tour planned for the following day, but they said that they were considering going hiking the day after, and if I was interested in joining, they’d keep me posted. Of course I said yes! By the time we parted ways, I felt like I had been adopted and had known them for my entire life. I didn’t know if the hiking thing would actually come through, but I hoped it would because I had so much fun hanging out with them. I walked back to the hostel that night with a big smile on my face and a warm feeling inside.