Wawel Castle is one of Krakow’s must-see sights and an important Polish landmark. As Polish castle complexes go, Wawel is large and significant. This enclosed fortification, which includes palaces and a cathedral, overlooks the Vistula river on a raised rock outcropping.
Like most castles in Eastern Europe, the sight of Wawel Castle was identified by early people as a location that could offer strategic defensive benefits. With the river on one side, and the rise of the hill providing views into the distance, inhabitants of Wawel Hill could see intruders before they arrived and protect themselves with the river at their back.
Also like other fortresses in Poland and throughout Europe, the Wawel Castle that stands today is made up of buildings from different eras, and original structures have been replaced by more permanent, decorative structures. Archaeological evidence points to Wawel Hill having been used as a settlement since the 7th century A.D., and it proceeded to be a headquarters for Poland’s rulers and nobility from that time until major European events necessitated a change in its role. These rulers added to the Wawel Castle complex to suit changing styles and their own tastes, and when Poland was in a position to conduct restoration on Wawel Castle, damaged or dilapidated structures began to be returned to their former glory.
What to See
Visitors first ascend Wawel Hill via a ramp and enter the grounds through a gate. The grounds themselves are interesting to explore—you’ll be able to take in the view over the Vistula River, examine architecture, identify the outlines of structures no longer extant, and picture how Wawel Castle must have looked hundreds of years ago.
Some of Wawel’s state rooms and private royal chambers are open to the public and include some original interior design, Renaissance paintings, and rich furnishings. Some rooms, such as the Planet Room, are named for their decorations; others are named for their intended purpose. Private rooms include guest bedrooms and rooms of unknown purpose, the Hen’s Foot rooms, offering panoramic views of Krakow.
The crown treasury and armory exhibitions contain some interesting objects from the time of Polish kings, including original rooms, a coronation sword, jewelry, and of course weapons used throughout the ages for defensive, ceremonial, and tournament purposes.
If you like archaeology, descend into Wawel’s basement to view items unearthed by excavations of Wawel Hill. The exhibition reveals various objects from everyday life at the castle and architectural fragments from deteriorated structures.
Other points of interest at Wawel Castle include the so-called Dragon’s Den, a medieval tower, and the royal garden.
Wawel Cathedral is a must-see Wawel Castle sight. This cathedral was the sight of royal coronations and also acts as a burial site for Polish kings. Richly decorated chapels, some dedicated to past rulers, contain examples of elaborate art pieces and relics.
Wawel Castle is crowded with tourists during the summer season, but is pleasant to explore on the off season. A limited number of visitors may enter the castle during the day due to the delicate nature of the architecture and artifacts there, so it’s important to visit the castle early in the day during the high season before tickets run out. April is a good time to go, as the weather tends to be mild.
Separate tickets to the exhibitions must be purchased at the visitor center on the castle grounds. It helps to visit the castle website to look at a map of Wawel and to decide which exhibitions are most interesting to you. Some exhibitions require a tour guide, whose service is included with the purchase of a ticket.
It’s also important to visit the castle website for information about admission times, prices and seasons. Some exhibitions are closed during the winter months; others are open year round. Some exhibitions have a free day of admission; others have no such day. Exhibition hours of operation also change with the season.
Note that even on days of free admission, a special free admission ticket is required for entrance into the exhibitions. This helps those responsible for the conservation of the castle to limit the number of visitors to the fragile, historic architecture.