Wawel Castle, Museums, and Random Fun in Krakow

Whenever we travel, we make it a point to see the local art. We like seeing what’s important to the country as far as artists and meaningful images are concerned. We were lucky enough to see Andrezej Wroblewski’s work in the Reina Sofia Gallery in Madrid over Christmas, and we were looking forward to seeing more of his work or similar masterpieces. While we never saw more work from Mr. Wroblewski, we did see lots of other pieces that caught our eye.

One of the first things to note, the national museums are spread all throughout Krakow. They are not bunched together or even all in the same building. So, if you’re trying to plan a “museum day,” do keep this in mind. Another thing to remember when planning your “museum day” is that they are free on Sundays. While some of these galleries would not be worth the price of admission (in our opinion), it is a good thing to know if you have time on a Sunday in Krakow.

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The National Museum of Krakow.

We first walked along the Wista River by way of the fire-breathing dragon toward the National Museum of Krakow. The space is three floors, and all of the artwork is hidden down hallways and behind walls. When you walk in, the space is not very inviting. The walls are blank and a dull white, and there is not a lot pointing you in attractive directions. Tall pillars in the foyer block entrances and walkways making it rather awkward as we pondered which way to go.

We started at the top and came down and saw a fraction of what we normally see in a national museum. We figured there may be more to see in Warsaw, the capital of the country, but what we saw were still masterpieces in their own right. There was not just an over-saturation of them. I know we have complained in the past about the over-saturation of works in these galleries, but now with our wish granted, it was unfulfilling.

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1700 Calories Still Life: This is a photograph of what rations looked like for Auschwitz prisoners during their internment. They were only given between 1300 and 1700 calories per day. “An increasing deficiency of calories was contributive to development of the hunger disease…”

We walked through the three floors seeing beautiful paintings, some extreme modern art, and impressive collections of armor and then headed back toward town to see the Muzeum XX. Czartoryskich w Krakowie or the Princes Museum of Krakow. This gallery is famous for housing The Lady with an Ermine portrait by Da Vinci, but when we were there, the museum was closed for restoration, and the famous Da Vinci was held in the Wawel Castle. [If you want to see this famous work, buy your tickets in advance. We were unable since everything was sold out. More on that below.]

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Exterior for the closed museum with The Lady with an Ermine advertisement mounted on the door.

The sign on the closed doors pushed us around the corner to the Museum of Ancient Art. This was a gallery that could be skipped. It’s literally just a single room full of ancient Greek and Egypt relics. So unless you are a fanatic about that sort of history and those artifacts, I recommend saving the time.

In the heart of the Old Town, on the second floor of the famous Cloth Hall (a long and decorated hallways full of vendors selling souvenirs and knick-knacks), there is the Sukiennice Museum.

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The interior of the Cloth Hall.

This was the kind of art we were looking for: massive and overwhelming canvases, old art, and precious pieces. It was still quite small for a museum, but in the heart of the city, this one was worth the time.

On the northeast side of the Old Town is the incredibly beautiful St. Mary’s Basilica. I was immediately taken by the Gothic and uneven towers. We saw these same styles in Prague (the architect is actually from Prague), and I thought they were so unique and otherworldly. Straight out of dark and fantastic imaginations, these towers could be seen from most vantage points around the city.

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The gorgeous St. Marys Basilica at night.

St. Mary’s Basilica did have a small entrance fee of 10 zloty, but I would also highly recommend paying the extra 5 zloty to be able to take photographs. The ceiling is a rich and beautiful blue painted with gold stars, and that alone makes this place unique and worth the extra payment. You can also pay an extra 15 zloty to climb the massive tower, but it is closed during the winter, so we were unable to climb.

From the outside, the church looks massive, but once you step inside, you see just how small it is. It also feels quite claustrophobic. But that does not take away from its beauty. Originally built in the 13th century but destroyed by the Mongol invasion, what stands today is the re-built an restored version from the 14th century from Casimir III the Great.

It truly is a beautiful church that is worth a visit. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in stained glass, artwork, and gold leaf.

* * * * *

After making the museum rounds in the city, Jeff and I found our way to Wawel Castle. We have seen several castles over the last couple years, so making our way there was sort of an afterthought. We didn’t think to book anything in advance, and we certainly didn’t know anything about it.

Wawel Castle from the Dragons Den below.

The castle was built for Casimier III The Great who reigned in the 1300s. High on a strategic hill, it’s a massive fortress with a cathedral, crown treasury, armoury, galleries, and living quarters for bishops. Over the centuries, the fortress was added to and formed into what stands today. It is the oldest structure in Krakow and is incredibly important to its history, and it sees thousands of tourists each year.

The entrance to the castle compound.

Today, it is primarily an art museum. We had no idea when we walked in, which is why The Lady and the Ermine rest there while its original home is being remodeled. It’s also home to an Oriental Art gallery, preserved and restored royal private apartments, and state rooms.

Wawel Castle Cathedral.

These areas of the compound all have different hours and caps on how many people can go inside. Most of everything is closed on Mondays and hours are shortened on Sundays, so make sure you plan accordingly to see this beautiful site.

Inside the courtyard and the entrances to the various galleries.

Wawel Castle was the primary home for royalty since the 1300s, but in 1595, the northeast portion burned down. King Sigismund III Vasa rebuilt it but eventually moved the capital of Poland to Warsaw in 1609. This began the degradation of the castle and the failing of the economy. The Swedish invasion in 1655 only added to the destruction of the compound. In 1794, the Prussian Army occupied the strategic point, and then was mostly destroyed when they left. The Austrians took over the following year and modernized it, which they continued to do through the 19th century.

The ancient grounds and original outlines for the castle that stood on the hill before.

In 1921, the Polish President was given the castle as a residence, but it was after WWII that the castle became the current museum and gallery.

This structure is a beautiful and important piece of Polish history, but I do wish we had pre-planned that part of our trip better to see the inside of certain rooms and explore the depths of the estate.

Check times and days for visiting the Wawel Castle. Also book any tickets online and ahead of time.

* * * * *

Most of the museums and galleries all close early on Sundays. It was our last night in town, and with most of everything closing up shop for the final hours of the weekend, we were scratching our heads to find something to do. We found that just around the corner, in the heart of the hip and trendy neighborhood of Kazimierz, there is an underground bowling alley.

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Bowling in the underground!

Reservations are encouraged because there are only seven lanes, so we booked ours for 75 PLN and headed to Plac Nowy. They had a huge selection of local and craft beers along with liquors and wine. As we waited for our lane to free up, we loosened our fingers and our inhibitions. The stark red lights gave an eerie glow, but by the time we got started, we instantly fell in a groove.

There were some locals who were obvious pros, or at least frequenters, while we just had a blast hurtling the heavy ball down the lane to see how many pins we could knock down and how many There Will Be Blood jokes we could mutter. I managed to beat Jeff in the first two games, but I was winding down just as he was warming up, and he kicked my butt in the third round.

It was great fun and a little something different to enjoy in the heart of Krakow.

* * * * *

Next week, I’ll share our experiences and photos from Auschwitz.


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