The medley of Gothic, Renaissance, Rococo and Romanesque architecture that is the great Wawel Castle can be seen towering over the whole city. It was once the home of the Polish kings and queens, and still has great museums and court rooms as a testimony to its former glory.
As the political and cultural heart of Poland through the 16th century, Wawel Castle is a potent symbol of national identity. It’s now a museum containing five separate sections: Crown Treasury & Armoury, State Rooms, Royal Private Apartments, Lost Wawel and the Exhibition of Oriental Art.
The Renaissance palace you see today dates from the 16th century. An original, smaller residence was built in the early 11th century by King Bolesław I Chrobry. Kazimierz III Wielki (Casimir III the Great) turned it into a formidable Gothic castle, but when it burned down in 1499, Zygmunt I Stary (Sigismund I the Old; 1506–48) commissioned a new residence. Within 30 years, the current Italian-inspired palace was in place. Despite further extensions and alterations, the three-storey structure, complete with a courtyard arcaded on three sides, has been preserved to this day.
Repeatedly sacked and vandalised by the Swedish and Prussian armies, the castle was occupied in the 19th century by the Austrians, who intended to make Wawel a barracks, while moving the royal tombs elsewhere. They never got that far, but they did turn the royal kitchen and coach house into a military hospital and raze two churches. They also built a new ring of massive brick walls, largely ruining the original Gothic fortifications.
After Cracow was incorporated into re-established Poland after WWI, restoration work began and continued until the outbreak of WWII. The work was resumed after the war and has been able to recover a good deal of the castle’s earlier external form and interior decoration.
Hidden behind the old walls of the Wawel Castle, arguably the most important church in all of Poland can be found looming high with its Baroque and Gothic frontispieces.
The Royal Cathedral has witnessed many coronations, funerals and burials of Poland’s monarchs and strongmen over the centuries.
The present-day cathedral is basically a Gothic structure, but chapels in different styles were built around it later. Before you enter, note the massive iron door and, hanging on a chain to the left, huge prehistoric animal bones. They are believed to have magical powers; as long as they are here, the cathedral will remain.