Every time I’m in Kraków, I wander into a different church, just to poke around a bit. When I was in college, I took a class with a Jesuit who took it upon himself to teach us how to ‘read’ a church. Once you’ve learned how to do that, you’re never again in ‘just another church.’ Each one is unique, with its own attitude and atmosphere.
There are tons of churches in Kraków. Not only is Poland a very Catholic country, Kraków has been the epicenter of Christianity in Poland since the Middle Ages. If that’s not enough of a reason to have a bunch of Catholic churches, in 1978 the archbishop of Kraków was elected Pope John Paul II. His former seat was bound to proudly carry on the tradition of turning out fine Catholics.
Because there are so many churches in Kraków, I have not visited them all. Furthermore, because each church has its own personality, shall we say, I inevitable ended up liking some churches more than others. Here are some of my favorites, which I consider to be must-see places in Kraków.
In English, it’s St. Mary’s Basilica. When you look at Polish tourist literature, this is the church you see: two towers, one taller than the other, done in red brick in the Gothic style. It’s located in the corner of Rynek Główny, facing the Sukiennice and on an angle from everything else. There has been a church in this spot since the 13th century, but it has been rebuilt several times. During the Tartar invasions in the late 13th century, the church was ruined, and needed to be rebuilt; in the 14th century, King Kazimierz the Great had the church enlarged; it was added onto again in the 15th century.
This church was constantly changing, but the inside remains a beautiful example of medieval artwork. The main attractions inside are the gorgeously detailed stained-glass windows and the famous Mariacki Altarpiece. This altar has been to Hell and back. It was originally carved and painted by Viet Stoss between the years 1477 and 1489. During the Nazi occupation, the altar was dismantled and sent to be stored in the Nuremberg Castle (think: The Monuments Men), where it was almost obliterated. When it was recovered, it was in over 2,000 pieces. The altar underwent massive restoration work at the museum on Wawel Hill before being re-installed in the basilica in 1957. There’s a reason this church is on all the tourist propaganda – it’s worth an hour or two of your visit to Kraków.
Kościół św. Wojciecha
Once you’re finished taking in the glory of St. Mary’s, mosey on across Rynek Główny and pop into St. Adalbert’s. It’s easy to overlook this little church; it’s a tiny little white building facing the Sukiennice with a green roof and a little sandwich board outside saying “Heated Inside” (this is more enticing than you would think, especially in a Kraków December). St. Adalbert’s has been here since at least the 11th century, which is why it’s in such an odd spot, in the middle of Rynek Główny. This is also why it’s so small and low in the ground (you actually go down into the main body of the church). I know it’s easy to do, but don’t walk by this place without stopping in for a minute.
Parafia Wszystkich Świętych
The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul was originally built for the Jesuit order in the 1600s, and remained in their charge until the order was exiled from Europe in the 18th century. Having been educated by Jesuits myself, I’m rather fond of the feeling that comes from a Jesuit church. In general, the artistry is vibrant and dares the visitors not to engage with it. This particular church has been remodeled quite a bit since the 17th century, but it still retains the open and engaging feel of Jesuit churches. The altar is over-the-top gorgeous, and not even the dome is devoid of detail. In recent years, the crypt has been reopened and renovated, and a new initiative has opened it up for the interment of people of social or intellectual import, regardless of religious affiliation. Most recently, Sławomir Mrożek, a Polish satirist and writer in the Theatre of the Absurd, was interred here in 2013. This church can be visited for a donation, which allows you free access of the church, pictures (without flash), and, if you so desire, a headset with an audio guide for the church and its history.
This is one of my all-time favorite churches anywhere, let alone in Kraków. The Corpus Christi Church is located in the Kazimierz, and, like St. Adalbert’s, is rather easy to overlook. However, unlike St. Adalbert’s, it’s not because it’s small. Bożego Ciała (boh-zheh-go chee-ah-wah) is massive. Even so, it’s in the Kazimierz, which is often thought of as the solely Jewish quarter of the city, and the outside is kind of boring, as far as church architecture goes. While the Kazimierz was largely Jewish, there was also a Christian part of the city. Even today, if you visit the Kazimierz district, there are two market squares. Back in the day, one belonged to the Jewish population, and the other to the Christian population. Bożego Ciała is located on what was once the Christian market square. Work began on this church in 1335 and continued until the 15th century. The churchyard is actually about three feet lower than street level, because the church has been there for so long and the street level has risen since it was built.
To be honest, I didn’t think much of this church just walking by it. Once inside, though, I was floored. It’s gorgeous. It’s a mish-mash of medieval and Baroque designs, and the brilliant gold high altar is wonderfully juxtaposed against the old brick wall behind it. There were so many details from so many different eras that the whole place transcends classification by time period. It’s definitely worth the twenty-minute hike from the Old Town to the Kazimierz just to see this altar.
Królewska Katedra na Wawelu
Last, but certainly not least, I’ll mention the Wawel Cathedral. This church is a site for pilgrims and history buffs alike. Up until about the 18th century, all important political activities in Poland were held at least partly in the Wawel Cathedral. Even after the capital was effectively moved to Warsaw, important political events were staged intermittently at Wawel. Everything from coronations to funerals were celebrated here. Inside, the greats of the Polish state are interred, including St. Jadwiga and St. Stanisław, two saints who are very dear to the Polish people. Unfortunately for our purposes, no photography is permitted within the Wawel Cathedral – but that just means that you’ll have to go and see it for yourself.
Obviously, this is not an extensive list; it’s just my top-five list. Even so, I’d say this is a good starting point for your venturing into churches in Kraków.
Note: All of these are functioning churches; this means that masses are held in them and people come to these places to pray on a daily basis. Be mindful of that when you visit – dress appropriately (gentlemen as well as the ladies) and be respectful of the people who are there praying. While these places are wonderful works of art and great windows in the history of Kraków (or any place), they are houses of worship.
Bóg z wami!