Wawel Castle is the historic, Romantic royal fortress of the medieval Kingdom of Poland. It looms large in the memory of all Poles as the capital of a mighty empire that once stretched across much of northeastern Europe. Renovated on numerous occasions, and still in official use between the two world wars, Wawel Castle has been home to one of Poland’s great museums since the 1940s. It remains to this day one of Eastern Europe’s most storied castles, a national symbol and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Poland.
The founding of Wawel Castle is shrouded in myth. According to tradition, a dragon lived on Wawel Hill in ancient times, and was slain by the warrior Krakus, for whom the city was later named. The earliest fortifications on the site were erected sometime around the 10th century. During the Middle Ages Wawel Hill became a part-time royal residence, and by the 1100s a fortress and cathedral stood on the site.
Wawel Castle has had a colorful history almost from the outset. In 1138, the kingdom was divided, with Krakow going to the oldest son. By this time the castle was the defacto royal residence. In the late 13th century Krakow was seized by neighboring Bohemia, and several Czech kings were coronated here. The city was retaken by the Poles in the early 1300s, and the first Polish king was crowned here in 1320.
From the 14th to the 16th centuries, Wawel Castle was expanded and renovated into what was arguably the most magnificent royal residence in Eastern Europe. Top Renaissance artists and architects from Italy contributed to the castle’s transformation. Unfortunately, the castle suffered a series of setbacks, beginning with a fire that destroyed much of the place in 1595. A few years later the royal capital was moved to Warsaw, and Wawel Castle began to be neglected.
From the 1650s to the 1900s Wawel suffered from a series of foreign invaders and occupiers, including the Swedes, the Prussians, the Austrians, the Nazis and the Soviets. The castle served as a residence to the Polish presidency during the country’s brief period of independence between the two world wars. After World War II, Wawel was restored and re-established as one of Poland’s pre-eminent museums.
Wawel Castle has been around since the Middle Ages, but most of the present structure dates from reconstructions in the 16th century. Its appearance today looks like a somewhat harmonious mishmash of late medieval and renaissance buildings enclosed by gunpowder-era outer wall. Crowning a small hill near the city center, the red-brick earth-backed walls form a star-like pattern rising from steep grass-covered slope.
Towering above the wall are the grand structures of the royal residence and Wawel Cathedral. The immense residence was almost completely rebuilt in the 16th and 17th centuries by Italian architects and other foreign craftsman in the best of Renaissance fashion. It now houses a substantial museum with exhibits, including a superb collection of armor and weapons from Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Next door is Wawel Cathedral, where coronations and other state events took place for centuries.
Wawel Castle is located on the south side of the Stare Miasto district in central Krakow, approximately 250 miles south of Warsaw. It is open daily except Mondays from 10:00am-5:00pm (closed New Years Day, Easter Weekend, Christmas Eve & Day, and for a few weeks every winter). Admission is ZL18.00. Web: www.wawel.krakow.pl (official website).
Many of Poland’s best castles are clustered in the south of the country around Krakow. Probably the most popular after Wawel is the historic Bedzin Castle. Pieskowa Castle is located within the green, forested domain of Ojcow National Park just north of the city.