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Kraków, also spelled Cracow, city and capital of Małopolskie województwo (province), southern Poland, lying on both sides of the upper Vistula River. One of the largest cities in Poland, it is known primarily for its grand historic architecture and cultural leadership; UNESCO designated its old town area a World Heritage site in 1978. Its marketplace, Rynek Główny (Main Square), has existed since the 13th century, and a modern landscaped area is laid out on the site of past fortifications. Pop. (2011) 757,611.
Kraków was the home of the Wiślanie tribe (Vistulans), who occupied Małopolska (Little Poland) until the 10th century. From 988 to 990 Mieszko I, prince of Poland, united the southern and northern territories to form a powerful kingdom, and his son, Bolesław I (the Brave), later made Kraków the seat of a Polish bishopric. The city expanded rapidly as a trade centre, becoming the capital of one of Poland’s major principalities in 1138. It was devastated by Tatar invasions during the 13th century but was quickly rebuilt, receiving “Magdeburg rights,” which consisted of a municipal constitution, in 1257.
When King Władysław I (the Short) reunited Poland, he made Kraków his capital in 1320, after which the kings of Poland were traditionally crowned in Wawel Castle and entombed in Wawel Cathedral. Throughout the 14th century Kraków served as Poland’s economic and political centre and as a major trading point between England and Hungary. Concurrently, it grew into the nation’s intellectual and cultural locus, as evidenced by one of its main surviving medieval structures, the Jagiellonian University. Founded as the Academy of Kraków by Casimir III (the Great) in 1364, the university gained prestige throughout the centuries, drawing scientists, artists, and scholars from across the continent; it is the second oldest university in central Europe.
Experience the night view of the city of Kraków, Poland
Time-lapse video of Kraków, Poland.
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Thousands of historic buildings and sites dot the city. Most prominent are the many churches, including St. Mary’s Church (Kościół Mariacki), the main section of which dates from 1497. It contains a stained-glass window from 1370 and a magnificent altar (1477–89) by Veit Stoss (Wit Stosz). Wawel Cathedral houses several ornate chapels and burial chambers, along with a collection of ecclesiastical art. Originally constructed in the early 11th century, the cathedral was rebuilt in 1142 and 1364, and it was renovated in 1712 in its current Gothic style. Two defensive fortifications remain from medieval times, a legacy of the city’s perpetual struggle against invaders. The Barbican, a circular bastion with brick walls that are 10 feet (3 metres) thick, was built in the 15th century adjacent to the other remaining structure, the 13th-century Florian Gate. The city’s Jewish quarter, in the district of Kazimierz, contains Remu’h Cemetery, which includes numerous well-preserved tombstones from the 16th century. Cloth Hall is a fine example of Renaissance architecture.