Museums of Kraków

The centre of old Kraków
The centre of old Kraków

Time for another museum review! We recently spent a few days in Kraków, Poland, and in the drizzly March weather (sun in the above photo was a rare sight!) we dedicated most of our time rolling from one museum to the next. This post will include:

  • Wawel Royal Castle
  • Oscar Schindler’s Enamel Factory
  • Rynek Underground
  • Tempel & Remuh Synagogues
  • Czartoryski Museum

We did not get around to visiting: Sukiennice Museum (an art gallery on the upper floor of the central Cloth Hall, with work by famous 19th century Polish artists), the Museum of Contemporary Art (next to Schindler’s factory; the only reason we did not visit is because B does not like modern art), Galicia Jewish Museum (because we felt like the other museums already gave us a pretty good overview of Jewish Kraków), the Stained Glass Workshop (bit out of the centre; this is meant to be quite good but we are not especially interested in stained glass), the Archaeological Museum (likewise, because we felt the other museums gave a pretty good impression of the archaeology of Kraków already) and the Pinball Museum (because somehow I am actually quite familiar with pinball machines – my parents own several and my dad has actually produced a pinball documentary – so I did not think I would learn that much more there).

Wawel Cathedral
Wawel Cathedral

Wawel Royal Castle / ‘The Lost Wawel’

Different sections of the castle have different entrance fees. They are meant to have timed slots as well, but since it was not busy when we were there, this was not the case. We only visited the ‘Lost Wawel’ exhibition, which was 10 PLN (7 PLN for students) (winter 2020).

The other sections are State Rooms (20 PLN, reduced 12 PLN), Royal Private Apartments (23 PLN, reduced 18 PLN), and the Crown Treasury and Armoury (20 PLN, reduced 12 PLN). The reason we went for ‘Lost Wawel’ is because we got incredibly unlucky, and it turned out they had just shut the state rooms and private apartments for upkeep/renovation, for all of March. Ah well, a reason to come back some time.

In a surprising twist of faith, we ran into friends from Cheshire at the ticket office. They actually opted not to buy any entrance tickets at all, and just explore the freely accessible areas. It is possible to see quite a lot without actually going in anywhere, and the Cathedral is free to visit (the ticket queue there is only if you also want to go into e.g. the crypts!). Wawel Cathedral, or the Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus, is a Gothic structure – its current rendition dating to the 14th century. Its fascinating exterior testifies to the many reconstructions and additions it has seen over the centuries including three beautiful towers (Sigismund Tower, Clock Tower, and Silver Bell Tower). Inside, there is a collection of fascinating tapestries – not something you often find in a cathedral. No photos allowed though!

Inside Wawel Castle
Inside Wawel Castle

‘The Lost Wawel’ is the castle’s archaeological exhibition. It is small, but beautifully designed. I can really recommend it. It is centred around the 10th or 11th century Rotunda of Felix and Adauctus / the Blessed Virgin Mary (also labelled ‘Kraków’s first church’). This interesting ancient church (pre-Romanesque!) was built directly into the limestone bedrock of the hill. It is not possible to go inside (on a regular visit anyway), but it is possible to follow a path across it, and also to see some of the excavation stratigraphy including remains of renaissance kitchens and a coach house. There are artefacts from the excavation on display as well, and also lots of lovely stonework from the castle.

There is lots more to Wawel Castle of course. A friend described it as the Polish equivalent of the seat of the Windsors, because it served as residence for the royal family of Poland for centuries. It sits on top of a strategic hill, over 200m high, on the left bank of the Vistula River – which means that it saw millennia of human occupation before that. I have to say, it is a little disappointing that this history is not directly visible: a lot of the buildings on the hill are Renaissance period or later. A 20th century addition is actually a rather scary looking sculpture of a dragon at the foot of the hill – which can spit fire. While Wawel Castle is not the most impressive or imposing castle I have ever visited (do not tell my friend this) it certainly has something for everyone.

Underneath Wawel Castle
Underneath Wawel Castle
Archaeological Exhibit
Archaeological Exhibit
Beautiful exhibit design
Beautiful exhibit design

Oscar Schindler’s Enamel Factory

We went on a walking tour along the river and past the Ghetto Heroes Square, then the US Consulate, and the Museum of Modern Art, to find… a queue? This was around 11 or 12 on a weekday morning in March. It was just starting to rain so we did not want to walk all the way back to the town centre, and we decided to brave the queue. It only took around 15 or 20 minutes, and we were granted students tickets without anyone having time to actually check our IDs. The tickets cost 22 PLN each. There were also combination tickets with other sites, but we decided to stick to just the one for the time being.

Having seen Schindler’s List, I expected the museum to cover some of the historical details of those events. It didn’t quite do that. Right at the beginning there was a – long! – documentary screening showing interviews with people who knew the guy, and about 3/4 of the way through the – many! – exhibits, there was a single room displaying information related to Schindler. The entire rest of the museum is actually about WWII in Krakow and the German occupation. I mean, very related topic obviously – and of course very important, and interesting.

All the exhibits are designed beautifully. There is an old tram, including tracks; and re-created WW II bunkers. There was a lot of information to read, and a couple of interactive screens dotted around the place for additional details. We spent around 2 hours there but I imagine it is easy to do 3 or more. Some details were very shocking, such as photographs of people who were hanged. There were also several modern art installations incorporated into the museum, including one at the end – the “Hall of Choices” – symbolising the various ethical dilemmas and attitudes one could encounter during the war.

Art installation at the Schindler Museum
Art installation at the Schindler Museum
War exhibit
War exhibit

Rynek Underground

This museum is right underneath the Cloth Hall in the central market square. Our student tickets cost 20 PLN each – which was well worth it, considering the exhibition design.

This was a very exciting museum for me as an archaeologist, because the entire space was designed around the original excavations of the cloth hall: stratigraphy all around, original floors, loads of chunks of beautiful ancient wood. Plus, it was all explained! There were signs showing what the different layers of the excavation showed and meant, and there were many digital and interactive displays – including one where you could hold up your museum information booklet, and it would show a 3D representation of the building on the page. There was a school group there at the same time as us, and there were lots of ways for the children to interact with the exhibits. There was some reconstruction, but not too much – and what was there, was so well done. For example, there was a section they had excavated which showed burnt structures… so in the background was a display of a crackling fire to bring it to ‘life’.

Rynek Museum
Rynek Museum
Exploring beneath the central square
Exploring beneath the central square

The main square was excavated from 2005-2019 (the museum displays incredibly impressive photographs of this massive undertaking) and revealed many amazing objects, such as medieval clothes and jewelry, as well as workshops and burial sites. A particularly interesting thing I learned, was that there were ‘anti-vampire‘ burials. Archaeologists had apparently previously assumed that there was a correlation between ‘vampires’ and physical issues that could explain their anomalous burial treatment – but in Krakow, they did not find these. Fascinating.

At the end of the exhibition there were also five rooms with documentaries on different themes. These were actually rather good and informative, but very long. We watched three and then decided it was way past lunch-time. I wonder if they are also available online somewhere?

Wow look at the wood!
Wow look at the wood!
Excavation photos
Excavation photos

Tempel and Remuh Synagogues

We designed our own walking tour through the Jewish quarter of Kraków (Kazimierz). We learned a lot about this in Schindler’s Enamel Factory Museum – during WWII Jews who lives in Kazimierz were forced to move to the ghetto in Podgórze, just across the river. However, the Jews of Kraków have played much happier parts in history too, beginning in the Middle Ages at a time when Jews had freedom to travel, trade and worship. During the 17th century the so-called Oppidum Judaeorum, or just Oppidum, developed in what is now the Kazimierz district. Kazimierz had many famous Jewish inhabitants, and beautiful synagogues were constructed there.

We were planning to visit all the synagogues, amongst other sights, but quickly ran into some issues: most of them were closed / being renovated, it cost money to enter all of them (not a lot, and I am sure it is used for upkeep/renovation, but still a hurdle if you want to see more than one), plus we could not quite decide what other sights to see. I would say that a visit to this district would definitely benefit from guidance by a local. Someone who knows what happened where; someone who has stories. We received a couple of leaflets here and there, but overall information was very scarce.

Nevertheless, we did see a couple of things of course! We made it into the Remuh synagogue (or New Synagogue), originally built in the mid-16th century (but much renovated and restored since). Attached to it is the (confusingly) Old Cemetery, where a lot of important people are buried – e.g. Rabbi Moses Isserles himself (RMI). This synagogue is still active (while many others are not), and services regularly take place there. We also managed to see the Tempel synagogue, which is a bit newer and more grand. This one dates to the 19th century, and it was constructed in a Moorish Revival + neo-Romanesque style drawing inspiration from e.g. Medieval Spain as well as its contemporary Tempel synagogue in Vienna (Kraków was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at this time). The whole interior is decorated with wood, colour and gold, and the ceiling is stunning. Both of these synagogues survived WWII became the invaders used them for e.g. storage or stables rather than destroying them (although many precious objects went missing).

Remuh Synagogue
Remuh Synagogue
Tempel Synagogue
Tempel Synagogue

Czartoryski Museum

At the end of our trip, we realised we had not yet seen any art – while there are so many amazing artists who hail from Poland! There are a couple of good choices in Kraków, but I was very unwell at the time (Poland only had one COVID19 case at the time, and the NHS did not want to test me on my return, so that is all I can say about that) (I did not touch anything), so we settled for the gallery closest to our AirBnB. Financially an excellent choice, because with our student discount it was practically free. (N.b. there was a rather confusing compulsory locker system, for personal belonging such as coats.)

The Czartoryski Museum is in the beautiful historic heart of the city, and its pieces were originally gathered together by Princess Izabela Czartoryska Flemming starting at the end of the 18th century (the museum opened at the end of the 19th century). She is actually a really interesting figure from history: despite having had access to only limited education she wrote about her travels, she composed poems, and she had a keen sense for artistic talent – the Czartoryski Museum could be called Poland’s first museum. She’s said to have had several daring affairs, and did not shy away from politics either. These things are all, thankfully, normal in Poland today – but at the time this was quite difficult and brave.

The absolute highlight of the present-day collection is Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Lady with an Ermine’ (1452-1519), but there is also a gallery with Dutch masters including Jan van Kessel (1626-1679) and Hendrik van Steenwijk (1580–1640). Some of these are really worth seeing. That said, there’s also a load of weapons (does not interest me), random Egyptian bits of course, and for some reason several rooms with etchings (has to be your thing I guess). There was also a cartography section, with fascinating old books and maps of Poland (and all the Empires etc. it was before).

Czartoryski Museum
Czartoryski Museum
Around the corner from the Czartoryski Museum
Around the corner from the Czartoryski Museum

Author: Zen

Archaeologist & adventurer. Interested in vegetarian street-food, avoiding tourists and road-trips into the unknown. Originally from Holland - then Durham, Cambridge, Würzburg, Istanbul, Erbil - now London. Always learning a new language.

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