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St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow: History & Visit Guide

    The St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow, nestled in the picturesque Market Square, is one of the city’s symbols and a veritable treasure trove of artistic gems. With its imposing red brick facade and its two asymmetrical towers, it is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Polish Gothic architecture. Inside, it houses remarkable works of art, among which the famous Altarpiece by Veit Stoss stands out, reaching the height of a four-story building.

    Climb its towers to enjoy an unparalleled view of the city and the fabulous Market Square, then admire its artistic masterpieces: frescoes, stained glass windows, and finely decorated vaults bear witness to the skill of the greatest masters of Polish neo-Gothic art, including prominent names such as Jan Matejko, Stanisław Wyspiański, and Józef Mehoffer.

    A true masterpiece, to the point that Picasso once called it “the eighth wonder of the world”, a prelude to the prestigious recognition of UNESCO World Heritage status, shared with the rest of Krakow’s historic center. And don’t miss the chance to come here on the stroke of the hour, when the centuries-old tradition of the Hejnał Mariacki is celebrated, the trumpet sound that marks the passing of time and has become one of the symbols of Polish national pride, almost on par with the national anthem.

    St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow: History, Curiosities and Legends

    The St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow, known as Kościół Mariacki in Polish, is an emblematic symbol of the city and one of its most important churches, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With its asymmetric towers, it dominates the Rynek Główny, the city’s captivating Market Square. The current church is a Gothic masterpiece built on the site of a previous 13th-century church, which in turn was situated on a Christian site dating back even before the city’s foundation.

    After being destroyed by Tatar invasions, the church was rebuilt in the 14th century, concurrently with most of the new medieval city that today constitutes the Stare Miasto, Krakow’s historic center. The new church quickly became majestic and important and, despite being more modest than the Wawel Cathedral, which was the royal cathedral and episcopal seat, located within the walls of Wawel Castle, it was constantly embellished with remarkable works of art, paintings, and stained glass windows over the subsequent centuries.

    St Mary's Basilica Krakow Church

    This process led to a layering of styles spanning 800 years of history: the Renaissance exteriors conceal splendid Gothic and Baroque art masterpieces that decorate the interiors, culminating in the wonderful Art Nouveau stained glass windows that overlook the organ.

    However, despite being one of the most important churches in the city, St. Mary’s Basilica maintained a distinct role from the Wawel Cathedral. The latter was the most prestigious and symbolized the close relationship between the clergy and the monarchy, also serving as the place of coronations and burials of Polish monarchs. On the other hand, St. Mary’s Basilica was a church for the people, accessible to everyone.

    The construction of the St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow, with its red brick facade, was financed by some of Krakow’s bourgeois families, often wealthy merchants who played a central role in the city’s social, political, and economic life. This is why within the church, you can find the tombs of some of them, such as Mikołaj Wierzynek the Elder, who is considered one of the main founders of the church. Around the presbytery and the three naves that constitute the core of the basilica, several side chapels rise, further expanded in the 18th century with the addition of a portico according to the canons of late Italian Baroque.

    The facade is dominated by two asymmetric towers. The taller one – the left one looking from the square – reaches a height of 81 meters and is called the Bugle Tower (Hejnalica Kościoła Mariackiego). Topped by a beautiful Renaissance-style dome, it is famous for the Hejnał Mariacki ceremony, the trumpet call that marks the striking of each hour. The right tower – 69 meters high – houses a complex of five bells, the oldest of which is called Pół-Zygmunt and dates back to 1438.

    It is said that the church was originally planned to have two identical towers, but evidently something went awry and the plans changed. The reason why one of the towers is shorter than the other today remains a mystery. A fascinating local legend, whose origins are lost in the mists of time, might explain it: according to this legend, the construction of the towers was entrusted to two brothers, each working independently of the other. As a result, one of the brothers managed to build a tower that was taller and more beautiful than the other, which sparked anger and envy in the younger brother.

    However, things took a tragic turn: the envious brother killed his sibling by stabbing him, then, overwhelmed by remorse, he climbed to the top of the tower, stabbed himself in the heart with the same knife, and then threw himself down. When you visit the Sukiennice, the magnificent medieval Cloth Hall located directly opposite St. Mary’s Basilica, don’t miss the chance to look for the knife that still hangs from the wall of one of its portals. It is believed to be the very knife mentioned in the legend.

    Another intriguing detail can be observed right next to the entrance of the church: a few iron chains, known as kuny, bear witness to the ancient punishments prevalent in the Middle Ages, a time when the Church held significant power in city administration and justice affairs.

    Until the end of the 18th century, these chains were used to restrain those guilty of adultery or minor offenses, as well as those guilty of drunkenness and certain violations of Christian traditions. These violations included acts contrary to the sacred bond of marriage, failure to observe fasting on prescribed occasions, and neglecting to rest on Sundays or during religious holidays. Any transgression could result in public humiliation, with the guilty party exposed to the mockery and insults of the people entering the church for mass.

    Architecture and Artistic Treasures of St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow

    While the exterior of St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow is certainly captivating, it’s worth taking a look at its interior as well. Despite its Gothic appearance, the church’s interior is beautifully and richly decorated. A Baroque portal, added in the 18th century, serves as the main entrance to the church: from here, one can enter only for prayer, while tourists can enter from a side entrance.

    The reason for this is simple: the church is internally divided into two parts, one half is dedicated to worship, with some side chapels reserved for worshippers. The other half can be visited with a ticket, and it is the most beautiful part, where the most important masterpieces are located. Naturally, you can peek inside the church for free from a grate at the entrance for worshippers, but you won’t see much. During mass times, the entire church is reserved for worship and visits are suspended. However, you could still join the mass, free of charge.

    Upon entering St. Mary’s Basilica, you will be enveloped by the soft light filtering through the beautiful stained glass windows that illuminate the presbytery, dating back to the end of the 14th century, and those above the organ balcony, which are a late 19th-century Art Nouveau masterpiece created by the Polish artists Stanisław Wyspiański and Józef Mehoffer.

    The church underwent a major restoration at the end of the 19th century, which shaped its current appearance: part of the Baroque decorations were lost, and were replaced by neo-Gothic elements created by some of the best local artists of the time. Overall, this has made it even more beautiful and interesting.

    One of the most striking and enchanting elements is the starry polychrome of the vault, a masterpiece by Jan Matejko, who was one of the most important Polish artists of the 19th century, as well as a teacher of Wyspiański and Mehoffer. Matejko’s starry sky dialogues with the decorations that continue along the walls, with floral motifs and emblems of the main corporations of the trades of medieval Krakow.

    Wooden Altarpiece by Veit Stoss

    Once inside, your gaze is immediately drawn not only to the starry vault, but also to the imposing altar piece: the Wooden Altarpiece by Veit Stoss is the most important work housed in St. Mary’s Basilica and one of the greatest masterpieces of Polish sacred art. It is a magnificent polyptych that adorns the main altar of the basilica, composed of five panels of precious linden, oak, and larch wood, finely carved, painted, and finished in gold.

    The Wooden Altarpiece by Veit Stoss is a colossal work: it stands approximately 13 meters high and 11 meters wide when the panels of the triptych are fully opened. To give you an idea of its size, it’s about as tall as a four-story building!

    Composed of a central panel with two side panels that can close over the central one, the polyptych displays different scenes depending on whether it is closed or open. The main scene is depicted on the central panel and represents the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, with various scenes ranging from the death of Mary surrounded by the twelve Apostles to her coronation in the presence of saints Stanislaus, patron of Krakow and Poland, and Adalbert of Prague, patron of Bohemia, Poland, Hungary, and Prussia.

    The side panels display six carved scenes from the lives of Jesus and Mary, while an additional 12 scenes become visible when the polyptych is closed. The panels are hinged like a door, so when they close, they reveal another six scenes previously hidden by the open panels, while the back of the rotating panel will display another six scenes, overlapping the central scene and hiding it from view.

    Finely carved between 1477 and 1489, the Altarpiece by Veit Stoss also astonishes with its details: the figures are sculpted in such a way as to appear very realistic, and they are truly large. With the characters of the main scene standing a remarkable 2.7 meters tall, the Altar of Veit Stoss is the largest Gothic altar in the world and one of the greatest national treasures of Poland.

    The culmination of the work of the German artist Veit Stoss, who moved from Nuremberg to Krakow and lived there for over 20 years primarily to work on this piece, the altarpiece was also incredible from a cost perspective: the artist’s compensation amounted to 2808 florins, roughly equivalent to an entire annual budget of the city of Krakow.

    The fascinating story of the Altarpiece by Veit Stoss is not limited to its creation: in the immediate aftermath of the Nazi occupation of Poland in the early stages of World War II, the local population dismantled the altarpiece and hid its various parts in concealed crates scattered throughout the Polish territory. However, this was not enough to keep them out of the clutches of the Nazis: a specialized SS unit called Sonderkommando Paulsen – named after its founder and commander, the archaeologist Peter Christian Paulsen – managed to locate and loot them.

    Parts of the altarpiece were then sent to Berlin, and the remaining parts were stored, along with many other invaluable works of art, in the basements of Nuremberg Castle. It was here that they were located by some Polish prisoners who reported their presence to the Polish resistance, which facilitated their recovery at the end of the war. Despite the heavy bombing of Nuremberg Castle by the Allies, the altarpiece managed to survive almost intact and was returned to Poland in 1946. After its return, it was restored and put back in its place in St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow about 10 years later.

    Bugle Tower and Hejnał Mariacki

    The tallest tower of St. Mary’s Basilica is nicknamed the Bugle Tower, as it served as a watchtower defending the city from enemy attacks and fires for many centuries. From its peak, a guard kept watch over the city day and night, tasked with sounding an alarm when necessary.

    The bugle call from St. Mary’s Basilica was also used to order the opening and closing of the city gates – such as the Florian Gate, still visible today between Krakow’s Barbican and Florianska Street – at dawn and dusk. Starting from the 16th century, it became a real custom, as the bugle call also marked the passing of time, sounding on the stroke of each hour.

    The melody played by the trumpeter is called the Hejnał Mariacki (St. Mary’s bugle call) and over time it has become one of the symbols of Krakow. Its five notes are so popular in Poland that they are considered an element of national identity, on par with a national anthem. It is worth noting that it was played by Polish soldiers even on the most tragic battlefields, such as Montecassino in 1944. Recently, it was also played following the death of Pope John Paul II.

    Traditionally, the St. Mary’s bugle call stops abruptly. This fact is linked to another curious popular legend: it is said to be a tribute to the trumpeter who was on guard the day of the Tatar attack that destroyed the city in the 13th century. According to the legend, he sounded the Hejnał to warn the population, but while he was doing so, he was struck by an enemy arrow that pierced his throat, and his melody was thus abruptly interrupted, forever.

    You can witness the Hejnał Mariacki ceremony that is played from the highest tower of St. Mary’s Basilica every day. On the stroke of each hour, the trumpeter plays the traditional melody four times, each in a different direction: for the King (towards Wawel Hill), for the citizens (towards the Market Square), for travelers (towards the Barbican), and for the Mayor (towards the Town Hall or the Bishop’s Palace in ulica Kanonicza). After playing, the trumpeter salutes the square and it is customary to respond to the salute.

    The noon bugle call is broadcast live by Polish National Radio throughout Poland and the rest of the world. Moreover, you can also climb the tower, which is open to visitors from April to October. From the top, you can enjoy a beautiful view of the Market Square and Krakow’s Old Town. And if you happen to be there at the right time, you may be lucky enough to meet the trumpeter and witness the ceremony directly from inside the tower.

    St. Mary’s Basilica Tickets and Prices

    Tickets for St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow cost 15 PLN (approximately €3.50), while students up to 26 years old and people over 60 can benefit from a reduced rate of 8 PLN upon presenting a valid ID. Children under 8 years old can enter for free. The ticket office is located next to the visitors’ entrance, and during the high season, there might be a bit of a queue.

    How to Visit St. Mary’s Basilica Towers

    After visiting St. Mary’s Basilica, you might consider climbing one of its two towers to enjoy an unparalleled view of the Market Square below and Krakow’s Old Town. Of the two towers, only the Bugle Tower is regularly open to visitors.

    You can visit it from April to October during the following hours:

    • Tuesday to Saturday: from 9:10 to 11:30 and from 13:10 to 17:30
    • Sunday: from 13:10 to 17:30

    Visiting the tower requires an additional ticket (adults 15 PLN / children 10 PLN). Children under 7 years old are not admitted for safety reasons. Tickets are purchased on site and availability is limited to just 10 people every 30 minutes. Those who wish to visit the bell tower can inquire at the tourist services office of St. Mary’s Basilica, which offers some tours by reservation, for groups of up to 6 people, at a cost of 15 PLN per person. More info here.

    St Mary’s Basilica Opening Hours

    St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow is open to visitors all year round according to the following schedule:

    • Monday to Saturday: from 11:30 to 18:00
    • Sunday and holidays: from 14:00 to 18:00

    The Wooden Altarpiece by Veit Stoss is opened every day from Monday to Saturday at 11:50 and the central triptych remains open until 18:00. On Sundays, it is opened at 14:10 and stays open until 18:00.

    St. Mary’s Basilica Mass Times

    The mass schedule at St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow is as follows:

    • From Monday to Saturday: 6:00, 6:30, 7:00, 7:30, 8:00, 8:30, 9:00, 9:30, 10:00 (Latin mass), 10:00, 11:00, 18:30. In the mornings of July and August, masses are held only on the hour, so for example, the 8:30 mass does not take place.
    • On Sundays and holidays: 6:00, 7:00, 8:00, 9:00, 10:00 (Latin mass), 11:15, 12:00, 13:00, 16:30 (students’ mass), 20:00.

    You can attend the masses for free, but during the mass you will not be able to visit the church, so you will not be able to wander among the chapels and admire and photograph its artistic treasures. However, nothing will obviously prevent you from taking a quick look at its interiors.

    The Sunday mass is held from the main altar, while on other days they are held in various side chapels, except for rare exceptions. An interesting experience is also the Students’ Mass, which is held on Sundays at 18:30, in Polish with Latin chants (booklets with translations in various languages are available).

    Things to Do Near St. Mary’s Basilica

    St. Mary’s Basilica is nestled in the very heart of Krakow, right on the famous Rynek Główny, the magnificent Main Market Square. In the midst of the square, you could visit the Sukiennice, also known as the Kraków Cloth Hall, which houses craft shops and souvenir stores, cafes, and even an art gallery. Right beneath the square is the new Rynek Underground Museum, which showcases the history of the square and archaeological artifacts that narrate the city’s evolution through the centuries.

    From here, you could proceed along the main pedestrian avenues of Krakow’s Old Town until you reach the beautiful Wawel Castle with its stunning Wawel Cathedral. Along the way, take a look at the St. Peter and Paul Church, one of the city’s most beautiful churches, often overlooked by tourists. In the vicinity of the old town, you could discover most of the best Museums in Krakow, almost all of which are accessible for free with the Krakow Card, the city pass that also includes unlimited public transport rides.

    Don’t miss the opportunity to join one of the excellent Krakow’s free walking tours, which take place every day starting right in front of St. Mary’s Basilica. They will allow you to discover the city’s most beautiful corners with a local guide, providing an overview of the old town and its history, as well as the most beautiful neighborhoods, like the nearby district of Kazimierz.

    Are you planning your trip to Krakow? Take a look at our guide to the Best Things to Do and See in Krakow and our Krakow Travel Guide, with all the tips on the best things to do, places to visit, and useful practical information.