Krakow’s Wawel Castle was the home of Polish kings for centuries, and is considered one of the most important symbols of Poland’s culture and national identity.
Wawel Royal Castle dominates the city of Krakow with its beautiful churches, sumptuous palaces and wonderful gardens overlooking the Vistula. No visit to Krakow is complete without seeing Wawel Castle, the heart of Polish history and legends.
What you will find in this Guide to Wawel Castle in Krakow:
- Wawel Castle in Krakow: the castle of the kings of Poland
- What to see at Wawel Castle
- How to visit the Wawel Castle in Krakow: Tickets and Tours
- How to get to Wawel Castle
Wawel Castle in Krakow: the Castle of the Kings of Poland
Wawel Castle stands on Wawel Hill, overlooking the city and the Vistula River. Wawel Hill has been home to fortifications and legends since the 8th century, as Krakow gradually became more important.
In the year 1000 Krakow was already an important city for the Roman Catholic Church, which had decided to build a cathedral here to house the bishop’s seat.
In the year 1038 Duke Casimir I the Restorer decided to establish the royal residence in Krakow and transform the city into the capital of Poland.
In those years, the first Wawel Cathedral and St. Leonard’s Crypt were built. Still today the St. Leonard’s Crypt houses the remains of Polish heroes and kings.
At the beginning of the 14th century, after a fire that completely destroyed the old cathedral, the present Wawel Cathedral was built. At the same time the Gothic castle and most of the towers were built.
During the Gothic period, King Władysław II Jagiełło gave Wawel Castle much of the shape and size that we can see today. He built a dozen buildings to house troops, royal clerks, craftsmen and servants. Mighty fortifications were erected to defend the Royal Castle and the city.
In 1499 the royal residences were destroyed by a fire. This event was what transformed Wawel Castle into the marvelous royal palace that we can see today: King Sigismund I the Old, decided to hire the best Italian and German artists of the time to reconstruct the royal residences in the Italian Renaissance style.
In this period, the wonderful large rooms of the Wawel Royal Castle were built, which open onto tiered arcades lining a courtyard. The halls were decorated with a collection of over 350 tapestries from Flanders.
Many of the original decorations have been lost in fires and damage in subsequent years. Wawel Castle increasingly assumed a fortress role.
In 1609 King Sigismund III permanently moved the capital to Warsaw, decreeing the decline of Krakow and Wawel Castle. The Swedish, Prussian and Austrian occupations that occurred in the following years ended up devastating the castle and its heritage.
The Austrians transformed it into a border fortress, little more than a barracks for soldiers and a military hospital. It was only in the early 1900s that the Austrians at the behest of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria left Wawel Castle.
The citizens of Krakow decided to restore it and turn it into the residence of the President of Poland. During the Nazi occupation it was used as the residence of the Nazi generals.
After the war the citizens of Krakow resumed the restoration work, to allow the Krakow Castle to become what it is today, the main tourist attraction in Krakow and probably the most important monument in Poland.
What to see at Wawel Castle
Krakow’s Wawel Castle is a complex of palaces, churches and courtyards, in different architectural styles that reflect its history.
Even if you are not a fan of art and museums, a stroll through the courtyard and gardens of the Royal Castle is absolutely worthwhile.
Wawel Cathedral with its towers, chapels and crypts is one of the most important buildings of the Wawel Royal Castle. It was first built in the 11th century, but has been destroyed and rebuilt twice. What you can see today is the third version, in the Gothic style, dating back to the 14th century.
Its Silver Bells’ Tower is the oldest surviving building of Wawel Royal Castle, dating back to the 12th century. In the basement of the Wawel Cathedral are the crypts where poets, national heroes and kings are buried. The most important is St. Leonard’s Crypt, also called the Royal Crypt, which was built in the 11th century.
John Paul II Cathedral Museum
It is one of the main museums of the Wawel Royal Castle, inaugurated in 1978 by Karol Wojtyła, at the time Archbishop of Cracow and prospective Pope John Paul II. It preserves a valuable collection of art and objects of religious cult: paintings, sculptures, clothes and artifacts.
According to a famous local legend, Wawel Hill was once inhabited by a ferocious dragon that terrorized the inhabitants of the town founded by King Krakus, the legendary founder of Krakow.
The dragon demanded constant offerings of cattle, otherwise humans would be devoured. According to the legend, the inhabitants of Krakow managed to defeat the dragon by feeding him sheep filled with sulfur. Some legends say it was Krakus who defeated the dragon, others say it was a shoemaker named Skuba.
In any case, you can still visit the caves where the Wawel Dragon (Smok Wawelski) lived. In front of the Dragon’s Den you can see a modern fire-breathing metal statue of the dragon. Nothing special, but nice for those traveling with kids.
The Royal Palace of Wawel Castle
The Royal Palace was the first and most important residence of the Polish kings. It is the heart of Wawel Castle and boasts beautiful Renaissance-style rooms, a wonderful tiered arcades courtyard, and several chambers and exhibitions that you can visit:
Royal Private Apartments
The magnificent royal apartments once housed the royal family and their most important guests. Even today you can see the beautiful decorated rooms, the private chapels and the fine collection of Flemish tapestries, dating back to the 16th century. The royal apartments can only be visited with a guide.
The State Rooms are undoubtedly the most interesting attraction of the Wawel Royal Castle. The rooms are elegantly decorated in the Italian Renaissance style. Paintings, tapestries, weapons and stuccos decorate these wonderful rooms that once served to welcome the most important guests and for court ceremonies, such as royal weddings.
Crown Treasury and Armory
This wing of the Wawel Royal Castle houses the most precious things that once belonged to the royal family and their army. Here is preserved the most valuable piece: the Szczerbiec, the coronation sword of Polish kings, used from 1320 to 1764. You can also see the crown jewels, artifacts and precious stones belonging to the royal families, and a large collection of weapons, such as halberds, crossbows, rifles and cannons belonging to the arsenal of the Castle.
The Lost Wawel
To discover the origins of Wawel Castle you can visit the permanent exhibition The Lost Wawel, located in the basement of the castle. Here you can see the oldest remains of the castle, dating from the 10th century and earlier. It is one of the few places where you can admire what the gothic castle was like.
Art of the Orient – Ottoman Turkish Tents
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which had Krakow as its capital, was a vast and powerful kingdom, which had many contacts with Eastern and Islamic countries. Through centuries of trade contacts and military conflicts, the Polish royal court has amassed an impressive collection of oriental art treasures, carpets, weapons, Chinese and Japanese vases, and other goods from Turkey, Crimea, Caucasus and Iran.
How to visit the Wawel Castle in Krakow: Tickets and Tours
Wawel Castle is a complex of historic buildings and permanent exhibitions, each requiring a separate ticket. It is also highly recommended to visit it with a guide.
You can book a guided tour of Wawel Castle, with priority tickets included. The tours are led by an expert guide (with a special license for Wawel) and allow you to visit the castle in depth. There are tours in several languages (e.g. english, german, french, spanish, italian, and polish, of course).
Otherwise you can book only the group guided tour, buying the tickets separately.
The total price of the various separate tickets is around 110 PLN (around 25 €). Ticket availability is limited and there are also limits on the number of visitors admitted to the exhibitions at the same time. Imho, the best solution is to buy the complete guided tour (the first one), with skip-the-line tickets included. The price is almost the same.
The courtyard and outdoor areas of Wawel Castle, like most of the gardens, can be visited for free.
How to Get to Wawel Castle
Wawel Castle is located on Wawel Hill in the heart of Krakow’s Old Town. You can reach it with an easy walk of about 10 minutes from the Main Market Square, just follow the Grodzka Street towards the Vistula.
You can also reach Wawel Castle by tram: the Wawel stop is located right at the foot of the Wawel Hill and trams 8, 10, 13 and 18 stop there. More info can be found on the official website of the Wawel Royal Castle.
Things to see and do around Wawel Castle
Wawel Castle is located in the heart of Krakow’s Old Town and within walking distance of the Main Market Square. You can also easily reach the Kazimierz Jewish Quarter on foot.
Check out our must-read list of the Best Things to Do and See in Krakow.
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