The Wawel Cathedral, with its millennial history and unique architecture that blends styles from over six centuries of events, closely intertwined with those of Krakow and all of Poland, stands as a symbol of the profound connection between the Polish people and Christianity, as well as their cultural heritage.
Having served as the venue for the coronations of the Kings of Poland, the Royal Cathedral now stands as a magnificent example of Gothic architecture, adorning the Wawel Castle like a precious gem and serving as a sanctuary for Poland’s proud national history. Inside its walls, visitors can explore chapels and mausoleums exquisitely adorned by masters of the Italian Renaissance, while the crypts hold the mortal remains of kings, queens, saints, poets, and heroes, shrouded in ancient mystery.
What you can find in this guide to Krakow’s Wawel Cathedral:
- Wawel Cathedral: History and Curious Facts
- Wawel Cathedral: Things to See and Visit Guide
- Wawel Cathedral Tours and Tickets
- How to get to the Wawel Cathedral
Wawel Cathedral: History and Curious Facts
The Wawel Cathedral, also known as the Royal Archcathedral Basilica, holds significant importance as the Polish national sanctuary, commemorating the nation’s history, national identity, and the deep roots of Polish Christianity. What stands today is the magnificent Gothic Cathedral, the third edifice erected on this site. The original cathedral was built in the 11th century under the patronage of King Boleslaw I Chrobry. However, it was later replaced in 1140 by a Romanesque cathedral, which unfortunately succumbed to a fire in 1305.
Nonetheless, visitors can still explore St. Leonard’s Crypt, the sole remnant of the original 11th-century church. Another surviving structure is the Silver Bell Tower, which dates back to the 12th century Romanesque cathedral, making it the oldest tower at Wawel Castle.
Following the fire in 1305, King Władysław I the Elbow-high was crowned here in 1320, and he initiated the construction of the current Gothic Cathedral, which was eventually consecrated in 1364. The Cathedral, particularly the Sigismund’s Chapel dating back to the early 1500s, showcases the brilliance of the Italian Renaissance, owing to the efforts of several Italian artists. Among them were Bartolomeo Berrecci, a Florentine Renaissance architect, who played a significant role in designing much of the Royal Palace of Wawel Castle, and Giovanni Battista Gisleni and Giovanni Battista Trevano, prominent artists who served at the Polish kings’ court.
Throughout the centuries, all Polish kings were crowned here, and following their passing, they were laid to rest in the chapels and crypts of Wawel Cathedral. In addition to its historical significance, the cathedral holds personal connections to remarkable individuals. In 1942, Karol Wojtyla, who would later become Pope John Paul II in 1978, celebrated his first mass as a priest in one of the chapels in the crypt. Moreover, he was ordained as an auxiliary bishop of Krakow in 1958 at the same sacred place.
Wawel Cathedral: Things to See and Visit Guide
Wawel Cathedral is not merely a church; it is a captivating museum that offers a glimpse into the rich history and culture of Krakow. As you step inside Wawel Cathedral, you are immediately greeted by the alleged bones of the Wawel Dragon, a legendary creature said to have once terrorized the inhabitants of Krakow from its home on Wawel Hill. Locals believe these bones possess magical powers and safeguard the cathedral, but they are, in fact, fossilized mammalian bones, possibly from a whale.
Continuing your visit, you will come across the awe-inspiring Baroque Sarcophagus of St. Stanislaus, the patron saint of Poland. This silver masterpiece, created in the 17th century in Gdansk, is adorned with inscriptions and engravings that narrate the life of the revered saint. The central nave leads to several splendid chapels, including the Chapel of the Holy Cross (Kaplica Świętokrzyska na Wawelu), home to magnificent Byzantine frescoes dating back to the 15th century.
Another significant site within the cathedral is the Tomb of St. Jadwiga, the first queen of Poland, who passed away at the young age of 25. She was buried with only a wooden crown and scepter, as she had sold her jewels to save the declining Jagiellonian University. A true masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance, dating back to the 16th century, is the Sigismund’s Chapel. Originally built as a funeral chapel for the last members of the Jagiellonian Dynasty, it stands as a testament to exquisite craftsmanship.
However, the true highlights of Wawel Cathedral lie in its crypts. Descending into the ancient St. Leonard’s Crypt, dating back to the 11th century, offers a glimpse into the distant past. From there, visitors can explore the Royal Crypts, the final resting place of kings, royal family members, heroes, poets, and distinguished national leaders, such as Tadeusz Kościuszko and Józef Piłsudski.
For a remarkable experience, make sure to visit Sigismund’s Tower. Climbing 70 steps rewards you with the sight of the famous Royal Sigismund Bell, an impressive bell commissioned by King Sigismund I of Poland in 1520. Weighing around 13 tons, it requires 12 bell-ringers to swing it. The bell tolls on special occasions, like national or religious holidays, filling the air with its resounding chime. Additionally, from the tower’s top, you can relish a breathtaking view of Wawel Castle and the charming Krakow Old Town.
Wawel Cathedral Tours and Tickets
When visiting Wawel Castle, it’s essential to note that Wawel Cathedral requires a separate ticket, distinct from the tickets for other attractions within the castle. However, this ticket provides access to the cathedral, the crypts, and the tower with the bell.
Booking your tickets, along with an audio guide (offered in several languages), can be conveniently done online. Alternatively, you have the option to visit Wawel Cathedral as part of a Wawel Castle Tour, which come with skip-the-line tickets and a multilingual expert guide. These tours grant you the opportunity to unravel all the fascinating secrets of the Cathedral and Wawel Castle.
How to get to the Wawel Cathedral
The Wawel Cathedral is located within the walls of the Wawel Castle, between the Vistula and Grodzka Street. You can reach it with an easy 10-minute walk from the Main Market Square. For more info you can check the official website of the Wawel Cathedral.
Things to see and do around Wawel Cathedral
Check out our must-read list of the Best Things to Do and See in Krakow.
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