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The Old Town & Rynek Gówny

Kraków's Old Town is a pedestrian's paradise, and you could (and should) spend hours wandering the back alleys, arcades, and cellars, jammed with every manner of pub, club, cafe, and restaurant. It's hard to imagine a more attractive town core. It's a powerful argument for historical preservation and the value of vital urban centers. The Rynek Gówny, by all accounts, is a remarkable public space. Measuring some 200m (656 ft.) square and ringed by stately buildings, it creates a natural arena for public performances of all stripes. The square is bordered on all sides by wonderfully restored noblemen's houses, many of which go back nearly 800 years, though they've been remodeled and refurbished throughout the centuries, depending on the style of the day.

The most striking building on the square is the beautiful Gothic cathedral of St. Mary's -- its uneven towers evoking for Poles the very essence of the city. You can go inside to see an intricately carved wooden altar from the 15th century. Be sure to stop here at some point precisely on the hour to hear a lone bugler play from the open window of the highest tower.

At the center of the square is the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice), which dates from the 14th century and served as the stalls of the town's original merchants. The original Cloth Hall burned down in the 16th century, and what you see today is a mostly Renaissance building, with neo-Gothic flourishes added in the 19th century (the exterior was being spruced-up and a given a fresh coat of paint at press time). Today, it's still filled with marketers, hawking good-value Polish souvenirs to throngs of visitors.

Just near the Cloth Hall stands the enormous Town Hall Tower. It's the last surviving piece of Kraków's original town hall, which was demolished in the early 19th century in an apparent bid to clean up the square. Today, the tower houses a branch of the tourist information office, and you can climb to the top for a view over the Old Town.

Streets and alleys lead off the square in all directions. Of these the most important are Florianska and Grodzka, both part of the famed Royal Route of Polish kings. Florianska leads to the Florianska Gate, dating back to the start of the 14th century. The gate was once the main entryway to the Old Town and part of the original medieval fortification system. Grodzka flows out of the square at the square's southern end and leads to ancient Wawel Castle.

Wawel Castle

Wawel Castle (www.wawel.krakow.pl) is Poland's pride and joy. With Warsaw having been flattened by the Nazis, this ancient castle and former capital, rising 45m (148 ft.) above the Vistula, has become something of a symbol of the survival of the Polish nation. Understandably, for non-Poles, Wawel has less significance, but it's still a handsome castle in its own right and worth an extended visit.

The original castle dates from around the 10th century, when the area was first chosen as the seat of Polish kings. For more than 5 centuries, the castle stood as the home of Polish royalty. The original castle was built in Romanesque style and subsequently remodeled over the centuries, depending on the architectural fashions of the day. What you see today is a mix of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and baroque.

The castle fell into disrepair after the Polish capital was moved to Warsaw at the end of the 16th century, but its darkest days came during World War II, when it was occupied by Hans Frank, the Nazi governor of the wartime rump Polish state, and came to symbolize the humiliation of the Polish nation. On the plus side, the castle escaped serious damage during the war and, despite languishing under the Communist government, has now made a remarkable comeback, looking as beautiful and impressive as ever.

Aside from the castle, the complex comprises the Royal Cathedral, including the Royal Tombs and the Cathedral Museum; the State Rooms, with their impressive collection of tapestries; the Royal Private Apartments; and the Crown Treasury and Armory. (There are several other attractions, but these are the highlights.) It's a lot to see, and the tourist office will recommend putting in a whole day. But this is likely to be too much time if your knowledge of Polish history leaves something to be desired or castles aren't really your thing. Two to three hours, depending on the crowds, is usually enough to see the main castle attractions and the cathedral complex.

The grounds are open to the public free of charge, but entry to the individual sites, including the Cathedral and Royal Crypts, Royal Private Apartments, and the Crown Treasury and Armory, requires queuing at the castle visitor center and buying separate tickets for each. During the high season in mid-summer, the number of visitors is restricted, so you're best off calling ahead to the main ticket office (tel. 12/422-16-97; www.wawel.krakow.pl) a day in advance to reserve tickets. Individual guides are also available if you're particularly interested in one or more of the attractions and want more in-depth knowledge. Contact the Guide Office (Biuro Przewodnickie; (tel. 12/429-33-36; www.przewodnicy.krakow.pl) to ask about availability and prices. Guides are priced by attraction and start at around 70 z for one attraction to up to 230 z for five.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.