Kraków (Cracow), Poland

Reference work entry


Kraków, on the River Vistula, is Poland’s third largest city and rivals Warsaw as a cultural centre. The national capital for 300 years until the early seventeenth century, it was briefly a free city within the Republic of Kraków in the nineteenth century. Though its population was decimated during the Nazi occupation, many of its oldest and most significant buildings were unscathed.


There is evidence of human habitation surrounding Kraków dating back 50,000 years. It was a major settlement for the Vistulanian tribe and the Great Moravian Empire between the sixth and tenth centuries. Around 1,000 the Polish king Bolesław I established the Kraków bishopric. Having suffered during Tatar incursions in the early part of the thirteenth century, Kraków achieved city status in 1257.

Wladyslaw I appointed Kraków capital of the recently re-united Polish state in the early fourteenth century. It blossomed culturally and economically. The town of Kazimierz was founded in 1335 and Casimir III established the academy of Kraków (now the Jagiellonian University) in 1364. The Jewish population was moved to Kazimierz in 1495 and by the end of the sixteenth century Kraków was in steep decline. After the Jagiellonian ancestral line ended, the city was devastated by fire in 1596 and Sigismund III transferred his court to Warsaw.

Kraków’s stature was further diminished as a result of the Swedish occupation in the 1650s. Austrians took control of the city in 1776 before authority went to Russia. General Tadeusz Kosciuszko led an unsuccessful rebellion against Russia in 1794 and, in the third partition of Poland the following year, Kraków once again fell under Austrian jurisdiction.

From 1809–15 Kraków was part of the Duchy of Warsaw and from 1815 to 1846 it was part of the autonomous Kraków Republic. It then returned to Austro-Hungarian rule and experienced a period of growth that saw it regain prestige. The city came under Polish control when the Polish state was re-established in 1918. In Sept. 1939 the city fell to German invading forces. By 1940 plans were in place to establish the Auschwitz concentration camp and Birkenau death camp nearby. The city’s population was terrorised throughout the war, with 55,000 Jews among the murder victims. Despite the elimination of huge swathes of the population, the city’s structure largely survived as Wawel Castle was the base of the German governor. Soviet forces were quick to liberate the city in 1945.

Under communist rule Kraków’s industrial base was greatly expanded but the area has become dangerously polluted. The city’s workers’ movement was influential in securing the overthrow of the communist regime in 1989.

Modern City

While retaining its industrial base, tourism has increased in importance in the post-communist era. In 2000 Kraków was a European City of Culture. Other important industries include metalwork (there are massive steel works in the purpose built Nova Huta area), chemicals, textiles and food processing.

Kraków is on several major rail routes with links to Warsaw, Vienna, Prague, Berlin and Budapest. Kraków-Balice (John Paul II) International Airport is 14 km from the city centre. Transport within the city includes buses and trams.

Places of Interest

Rynek Glówny (the Main Square) dates from the thirteenth century and is among the largest and most impressive in Europe. It is home to the fourteenth century Sukiennice (Cloth Hall) and Town Hall Tower, the tenth century St Adalbert’s church and the twin-towered St Mary’s. The Royal Way leads to Wawel Castle, via the turreted Barbican and the Florian Gate, the only surviving part of the original city walls. The Jewish quarter, Kazmierz, gives an insight into Kraków’s troubled history, and Auschwitz-Birkenau is within distance of the city.

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Limited 2019

Personalised recommendations