Kraków's precise origins are unclear, but the city first rose to prominence at the turn of the first millennium as a thriving market town. The enormous size of the Rynek attests to Kraków's early importance, even if the city's early history is more than a little bit cloudy.
As befitting any medieval metropolis, Kraków suffered the usual ups and downs related to religious strife, wars, natural disasters, plagues, and the occasional raid from Mongol hordes coming from the East. In the 13th century, the city was razed to the ground by Tatars sweeping in from Central Asia, but it was quickly rebuilt (and parts remain remarkably unchanged to this day). Kraków's heyday came arguably in the mid-14th century, when King Kazimierz the Great commissioned many of the city's finest buildings and established Jagiellonian University, the second university to be founded in central Europe after Prague's Charles University. For more than 5 centuries, Kraków served as the seat of the Polish kingdom (it only lost out to the usurper Warsaw in 1596 after a political union with Lithuania made the new Polish-Lithuanian kingdom so large that it became difficult for noblemen from the north to travel here).
Kraków began a long, slow decline around this time. Following the Polish partitions at the end of the 18th century, Kraków eventually fell under the domination of Austria-Hungary and was ruled from Vienna. It became the main city in the new Austrian province of Galicia, but had to share some of the administrative duties with the eastern city of Lwów (which must have been quite a climb-down for a former Polish capital!).
Viennese rule proved to be a boon in its own right. The Habsburgs were far more liberal in their views than either the Prussians or tsarist Russia (which ruled over the other parts of Poland), and the relative tolerance here fostered a Polish cultural renaissance that lasted well into the 20th century. Kraków was the base of the late-19th- and early-20th-century Moda Polska (Young Poland) movement encompassing a revival of literature, art, and architecture (often likened to "Art Nouveau") that is fondly remembered to this day.
Kraków had traditionally been viewed as a haven for Jews ever since the 14th century, when King Kazimierz first opened Poland to Jewish settlement. The Kraków district named for the king, Kazimierz, began life as a separate Polish town but, through the centuries, slowly acquired the characteristics of a traditional Jewish quarter. By the 19th and early 20th centuries, Kazimierz was one of the leading Jewish settlements in central Europe, lending Kraków a unique dimension as a center of both Catholic and Jewish scholarship.
World War II drastically altered the religious composition of the city and, for all intents and purposes, ended this Jewish cultural legacy. The Nazis made Kraków the nominal capital of their rump Polish state: the "General Gouvernement." The Nazi governor, and war criminal, Hans Frank, ruled brutally from atop Wawel Castle. One of the first Nazi atrocities was to arrest and eventually execute the Polish faculty of Jagiellonian University. Not long after the start of the war the Nazis expelled the Jews from Kazimierz, first forcing them into a confined ghetto space at Podgórze, about a half-mile south of Kazimierz across the river, and later deporting nearly all of them to death camps. (As an historical aside: Frank was prosecuted at the Nuremburg trials and executed in 1946.)
Kraków's architecture luckily escaped major destruction at the end of the war but fared poorly in the postwar decades under Poland's Communist leadership. The Communists never liked the city, probably because of its royal roots, and intellectual and Catholic pretensions. For whatever reason, they decided to place their biggest postwar industrial project, the enormous Nowa Huta Steelworks, just a couple of miles upwind from the Old Town. Many argue the intention was to win over the skeptical Kraków intellectuals to the Communist side, but the noise, dirt, and smoke from the mills, not surprisingly, had the opposite effect. The new workers were slow to embrace Communism, and during those wretched days of the 1970s, when a series of food price hikes galvanized workers around the country, the city was transformed into a hotbed of anti-Communist activism.
Kraków will be forever linked with its most famous favorite son, Pope John Paul II. The pope, Karol Woytya, was born not far from Kraków, in the town of Wadowice, and rose up through the church hierarchy here, serving for many years as the archbishop of the Kraków diocese before being elevated to pope in 1978. If Gdansk and the Solidarity trade union provided the industrial might of the anti-Communist movement, then Kraków and Pope John Paul II were the movement's spiritual heart. The pope's landmark trip to Poland in 1979, shortly after he was elected pontiff, ignited a long-dormant Polish spirit and united the country in opposition to the Soviet-imposed government.
Kraków's charms are multidimensional. In addition to the beautifully restored Old Town, complete with its fairytale castle, there's the former Jewish quarter of Kazimierz. If you've seen Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning movie Schindler's List, you'll recognize some of the film locations as you walk around Kazimierz. For anyone unfamiliar with the film (or the book on which it was based, Thomas Keneally's Schindler's List [Simon & Schuster]), Oskar Schindler was a German industrialist who operated an enamel factory across the river from Kazimierz during World War II. By employing Jews from the nearby ghetto, he managed to spare the lives of around 1,100 people who otherwise would have gone to the death camps at Auschwitz. After years of neglect, Schindler's factory reopened in 2010, though this time around, as a museum of the city's history during the Second World War.