Do you tend to avoid religious sites when you travel? It’s hard enough to try to figure out the customs to avoid offending worshippers. Then add the safety concerns with which we’re now forced to live. Synagogues, mosques, and cathedrals suddenly fall even lower on your list. But some of these places double as historic sites. So you might have to make an exception in Kraków.
Poland’s second-largest city is one of the most exciting places in Europe. It’s an academic and economic hub. It’s an artistic and cultural center. It’s more beautiful—at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains and along the Vistula river—than you ever expected. Plus it’s full of history. The center of Kraków, Old Town, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ghettos and nearby extermination camps from World War II are now museums. While the steeples of more than 200 churches are sprinkled among Baroque, Gothic, and Renaissance buildings.
There are so many churches in Kraków that the city earned the nickname “Northern Rome.” They display the city’s gorgeous architecture and priceless artwork. They’re home to the tombs of saints and blessed people. Plus they protect the city’s history in a way that would be difficult to replicate in a museum. Best of all: the Route of Saints links 16 of these must-visit churches.
Your tour of Kraków begins on Wawel Hill, a 15-acre rocky outcrop along the bank of the Vistula. The fortress is home to the Wawel Castle, though you’re here to see the Wawel Cathedral. The cathedral was first built in the 11th century. Fires destroyed it twice. It became the coronation—and later the burial—site for Polish monarchs. St. Stanislaus, the country’s patron saint, is buried here as well. But you’re most fascinated by Kmita’s Chasuble, a 500-year-old embroidered robe, and the gold-domed Sigismund’s Chapel.
At the Church of Anne, one of the best classical Baroque buildings in Poland, you find academic history. The 17th-century university church is where the academic year is inaugurated, doctoral promotions are granted, and professors are eventually laid to rest. Royal funeral processions, leading to the Wawel Cathedral, begin at St. Florian’s Church in the medieval suburb of Kleparz. Like the cathedral, it too was rebuilt numerous times after being destroyed by fires, though it somehow survived a city-wide blaze during a 1528 Swedish siege. While red-brick St. Mary’s Church, on Market Square, is home to the largest Gothic altarpiece in the world and an hourly trumpet call (the Hejnał Mariacki) from its main tower.
The Franciscan Church (with its Art Nouveau windows), the Corpus Christi Basilica (the headquarters of King Charles Gustavus of Sweden during the 1655 Siege of Kraków), and the Church on the Rock (where well-known Polish artists and writers are laid to rest) are still to come. But you’re slowly unraveling Kraków’s—make that Poland’s—history along the way. The Route of Saints is teaching you more than a museum ever could.