There is more to Kraków than wonderful sights such as Wawel, St. Mary’s Church, the Sukiennice cloth halls or elegant townhouses. Kraków is also full of historic traditions and symbols. It’s worth walking along the city streets and experiencing things that cannot be found anywhere else, that don’t cost much, and are a kind of “hidden beauty” that it would be easy to miss.
Below you can read more about Cracovian idiosyncrasies and traditions that cost little or nothing at all.
St. Mary's Trumpet Call; price: 0 zł
When you’re on the Market Square, take a look at your watch – on the hour (and every hour, even at night!) the hejnał Mariacki, or St. Mary’s trumpet call, is played from the tower of St. Mary’s Church to the north, west, east and south. Where does this tradition come from? In the XIII century, Kraków – the capital of the Polish duchy – was not yet fortified and was an easy target for mongol hordes which were rampaging throughout central eastern Europe at the time. A trumpeter would stand on the tower of the aforementioned church and, when he saw a threat, would sound his trumpet as a warning that the Mongols were approaching. On one occasion, one of the attackers shot an arrow and hit the trumpeter in the chest, stopping his trumpeting once and for all. The hejnał trumpet call is one of the best known symbols of Kraków. From 1927, it has been live broadcast by Polish Radio at noon. It’s worth climbing the tower to see how the trumpeter does his job (it’s always a handsome Polish fireman!), and to count the steps he has to climb every day on his way to work.
Gas lamps in the Sukiennice; price: 0 zł
When in the Sukiennice cloth halls on the Market Square, don’t just focus on the stalls bursting with souvenirs. A tourist with a well-trained eye will also see the coats of arms of Polish cities and names of trades on the inside walls, and the knife hanging at the centre of the Sukiennice, which, according to legend, the builder of the higher tower of St. Mary’s Church used to kill his brother, the builder of the lower tower, to prevent him from constructing a higher tower than his. And when you’re already facing upwards, notice a form of city lighting that has become rare – some of the lamps in the arcades are gas lamps! See if you can find them – it’s one of only two places in Kraków where you can see this kind of lighting.
Gas lighting was introduced in Kraków in 1856 and in this way, Kraków became one of the first cities to boast of using it in all the former Polish territories – which were then divided among Prussia, Russia and Austro-Hungary. Gas lighting was invented by a Scot, William Murdoch, in 1792, and turned out to be a great success: since that time, gas lights have illuminated many cities in Europe and in both Americas. It was only towards the end of the XIX century that electricity, and glass bulbs, began to replace gas lamps. The gas lamps in the Sukiennice arcades are a remnant of the great technological changes of the XIX century. It’s worth seeing with your own eyes!
The Krakus Mound; price: 0 zł
Do you have to be a romantic to like sunsets? Not at all – it’s simply about aesthetics and there is nothing more lovely than Kraków at sunset! The best place for sights like this is the Krakus (or Krak) mound, which is always free to enter. It is in Podgórze, which is a district not too far from the centre of town – a great place to walk to.
Definitely remember to take a camera with you. The location of the mound means that you can admire a panorama that takes in all of the royal city, with Wawel towering over the historic buildings. And when all of this is bathed in the light of the setting sun …. it can’t be missed!
The Dragon's Lair; price: 3 zł
Do you think the legend of the Wawel Dragon is just a fairy story? Perhaps you’ll change your mind if you visit the dragon’s cave under the castle yourself.
The dragon’s lair is another symbol of Kraków. The cave is open in the summer months. The entrance is in the castle, on the Wisła river side, next to Baszta Złodziejska, or The Thieves’ Tower. From there, you go down a spiral staircase to a few chambers inside the rock and then leave the walls of Wawel right above the Wisła river, through the cave’s opening. Just about 80 metres of the route are open to visitors, but the corridors that are not open to the public are far longer – over 200m. Right outside the cave you can see the dragon’s monument. Every 4 minutes or so, the dragon breaths real fire. Beware!
Open: from 30th April to 31st October, tickets can be bought in the ticket office located at the Wawel hill, and from a ticket machine near the upper entrance to the cave.
Cracovian ring-shaped bread and sheep's cheese; price: 1,5 zł + 2 zł
A visit to Kraków without eating an obwarzanek (or traditional Cracovian braided ring-shaped bread) does not count! This bread, made from dough that is braided and formed into a circle, is enjoyed by Cracovians and visitors alike. It has an average width of 20cm and is most often sprinkled with poppyseeds, salt, sesame seeds, or these days also cheese, cumin and linseeds. It is one of the best known symbols of Kraków and the name comes from the old Polish word “obwarzać”, meaning to pre-boil something. It is estimated that several tens of thousands are sold every day in Kraków.
Its history dates back to the XIV century, when the royal accounts show that obrzanky were bought for Queen Jadwiga. At first, they could not be baked by just anybody or at anytime (e.g. specially designated bakers made them, and only during Lent), but as time went by, the Kraków obwarzanek became increasingly popular and accessible. Today they are sold on perhaps every street of the Old Town from mobile stalls (or carts), and in many local bakeries. The low price (about 1,50 złoty) means that the obwarzanek is a favourite meal among imporverished Cracovian students. The European Union has put it on the List of traditional products of the Kraków region (województwo małopolskie).
It should not be confused with the bagel, a bread with a similar shape, but made from different ingredients, and with a different history (Jewish immigrants brought the bagel to the USA at the beginning of the XX century). Although it is to be noted that bagel was also devised in Krakow! The pretzel has similar ingredients but a different shape, and is also not the same thing as the traditional Kraków obwarzanek.
Another well-known regional product is oscypek – traditional sheep’s cheese from the Tatra mountains. It can be found in various forms – can be smoked or plain, small or large. Everybody seems to love it, because it can be eaten hot or cold, from the grill, with cranberry sauce. In Kraków, oscypki are sold on the street, and also in shops with obwarzanki. A small one costs about 2 złoty, and a large one – over 10 złoty. The name “oscypek” is protected by the European Union, which means that very imaginative substitute names can be found on the streets when the cheese does not meet EU standards.
A ride in a horse-drawn carriage; price: from 100 zł
And suddenly – just like in the telegram:
in front of the Sukiennice itself
AN ENCHANTED CARRIAGE
AN ENCHANTED DRIVER
AN ENCHANTED HORSE
Light was swirling like snow from St. Mary’s Church
And the horse, believe it or not, had real ears.
In these words, the Polish XX century poet Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński described the magic of Cracovian horse-drawn carriages, pulled by a pair of horses, known as dorożki. These attractive carriages have been a familiar sight in Kraków since the beginning of the XIX century, when they were bought from the aristocracy to transport ordinary people, just like today’s taxis. In the middle of that century, there were 29 registered carriages, whereas in the year that the second world war broke out (1939) there were as many as 235! The dorożka can be seen as the precursor of the tram. At first, it competed with the horse-drawn tram and then with electric trams.
A dorożka (or cab) can have a roof or be roofless. Prices depend on the route: from the Rynek (Main Square) to Wawel castle costs 100 złoty and to Kazimierz district costs 150 zloty. The carriages wait for clients on the Market Square near the Sukiennice. When admiring the royal city from the carriage, anybody can feel like royalty.