Cracow's Historic Centre (1978)

Back to index

The historic centre of Cracow, the former capital of Poland, is situated at the foot of the Royal Wawel Castle. The 13th-century merchants' town has Europe's largest market square and numerous historical houses, palaces and churches with their magnificent interiors. Further evidence of the town's fascinating history is provided by the remnants of the 14th-century fortifications and the medieval site of Kazimierz with its ancient synagogues in the southern part of town, Jagellonian University and the Gothic cathedral where the kings of Poland were buried. 

Poland 2000. Souvenir sheet. Panoramic view of Cracow.
  • Poland 2000. Panoramic view of Krakow, with the Wavel Castle in the background. The sheet was issued for Craków being European Cultural City. The sheet is engraved by Czeslaw Slania, see his signature in the selvedge bottom right. The sheet exists also imperforate. 

  • Poland 1982. Souvenir sheet showing Cracow's Historic Center with a city map. The sheet bears the UNESCO-logo. 

Poland 1982. Souvenir sheet. Cracow's Historic Center.

In the early Middle Ages, the city existed as a fortified castle on the Wavel Heights above the river, on the spot where the royal palace now stands. The first written mention of the city was in 965 when it was documented as being an important trading center. By the year 1000 it had become a cathedral town, and in 1038 Wawel Castle became the seat of the Polish kings. The steady development of Cracow was halted twice (1241 and 1242) by Tartar invasions from the east.  

Poland 1993. King Boleslaw V Wstydliwy (The Pious).

In 1257, under the duke and later king Boleslaw V Wstydliwy [The Shy], the settlement was expanded and came under the municial law of Magdeburg. 

About 100 years later, the two new cities of Kazimierz and Kleparz were established in the vicinity. Today, they are separate districts of Cracow. You can see the place names Clepardia [Kleparz] on the above sheet (right), below right in the image, and Casmirus [Kazimierz] in the left part of the stamp, just below the mountain peaks.  

  • Poland 1993. King Boleslaw V Wstydliwy (The Shy). Engraved after a painting by Jan Matejko. 
By the 15th century, Cracow had become a sizeable town of some 30,000 inhabitants, surrounded by fortified walls and turrets. 

One of the oldest universities of Central Europe, the Jagiellonian University, had been established by King Kazimierz III Wielki in 1384, so giving the town additional splendour and importance.  

  • Poland 1995. King Kazimierz III Wielki (The Great). Engraved after a painting by Jan Matejko. 

But the Cracow of the Middle Ages was not totally ruled by the academics; trade and handicrafts flourished as well. The was situated at the junction of trade routes from western Europe to Byzantium and southern Europe to the Baltic. 

Poland 1995. King Kazimierz III Wielki (The Great).

There were as many as 60 registered guilds and it was their fat profits, together with the hefty sponsorship of the citizenry and nobility, that secured lucrative contracts and a carefree existence for a multitude of master builders, painters and artisans, who flocked in from all over Europe. The unmistakable countenance of this world culture city was created during this epoch. 

Poland 1998. King Zygmunt III Wasa.

When King Zygmunt III Wasa shifted the capital to Warsaw in 1609. Cracow lost much of its importance and suffered again through the wars that ravaged Poland in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

From 1815-46 Cracow was a free city and the capital of a mini-republic. In 1846 it was incorporated into the province of Galicia and so became a part of the Austrian Habsburg Empire. 

  • Poland 1998. King Zygmunt III Wasa. Engraved after a painting by Jan Matejko. 
The relatively liberal attitude of the Austrian authorities enabled Polish culture and science to progress, and even the activities of the independence movement were tolerated. 

It was in this period that the painters Jan Matejko, Jacek Malczewski and Leonn Wyczólkowski created their masterpieces, and the forerunners of Polish Art Nouveau, Stanislaw Wyspianski and Josef Mehofer found the right environment for their work in Cracow. Jozef Pilsudski, who later became Poland's head of state, also organised his legions from Cracow. 

  • Poland 1992. Jozef Pilsudski. 

Poland 1992. Jozef Pilsudski.

Poland 2000. Stationery. St. Stanislaus, Patron Saint of Poland.

Present-day Cracow, the third largest city in Poland, consists of an inner town and several suburbs; the inner town was surrounded by walls during the Middle Ages, but is now encircled by promenades. The city contains a large number of historic buildings. The most notable is the Gothic cathedral, consecrated in 1359 and dedicated to the memory of Saint Stanislaus, the patron saint of Poland, who had been slain in 1079 by order of Boleslaw II, the Polish king. His tomb is in the cathedral. 

  • Poland 2000. St. Stanislaus, issued on Polish stationery. The stamp is unlisted in the catalogues. 

The cathedral was long the site of the coronation ceremonies of the kings of Poland and is the burial place of famous people in Polish history, including King Jan III Sobieski, the revolutionary patriot Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the poet Adam Mickiewicz, and the statesman Józef Pilsudski. 

Poland 1999. King Jan III Sobieski.

Poland 1975. The revolutionary patriot Tadeusz Kosciuszko.

Poland 1998. A bust of the poet Adam Iickiewicz.

Poland 2005. The statesman Jozef Pilsudski.

Other notable buildings are the Church of Saint Mary, a Gothic edifice dating from 1223, containing a celebrated altar executed by the German sculptor Veit Stoss, an outstanding artist of 14th-century Europe; and the Wawel Royal Castle, built in the early 16th century and established as a museum in 1930. A Gothic tower is all that remains of the medieval town hall. 

Among the important educational and cultural institutions in the city are Jagiellonian University (founded in 1364), Kraków Technical University (1945), several scientific institutes, and the National Museum (1862). 

  • Poland 2004. The Holy Mary Church in Cracow, and in the background a graphic theme connected with the door of the Wawel Cathedral. 

Poland 2004. The Holy Mary Church in Cracow.

Poland 2002. The cathedral of the castle of Wawel and the cafe "Lajkonik".

The heart of the city is the large Market Square, dominated by the Cloth Hall, which has remained a market hall in today's terms. Small shops have been installed in this large early-Renaissance building, and upstaires on the first floor there is a branch of the National Museum which houses a collection of Polish painting, including several works by Jan Matejko. 

Painstakingly-restored houses and palazzi surround the market square. Many of them now house shops, lively cafés and restaurants. When the sun shines, the market square is full of animation. It is the setting for a number of Cracow's cultural events, including the "Lajkonik", the investiture of the champion marksman of the city, and the annual exhibition of Christmas cribs. 

  • Poland 2002. The cathedral of the castle of Wawel and the cafe "Lajkonik".  

A Brief Overview of Cracow's History. 
The origin of Kraków is unknown, but the city is believed to be one of the oldest in Poland. According to tradition, Kraków was founded as a fortress about 700 AD. In the 12th century it became the capital of the kingdom of Poland and an important commercial center. Tatar invaders of Europe sacked Kraków in 1241; German colonists later revived the city. In 1430 the city became a member of the Hanseatic League. During the early part of the 17th century the capital of Poland was moved from Kraków to Warsaw. In 1794, during the French Revolution, Kraków was the center of a revolutionary uprising led by Tadeusz Kosciuszko, and in 1795 it was seized by Austria. Fourteen years later, Napoleon incorporated the city into the duchy of Warsaw. Following Napoleon's downfall, the Congress of Vienna in 1815 made Kraków the capital of the independent republic of Kraków. This republic was incorporated into Austria in 1846. In 1914, during World War I, the city was the scene of heavy fighting between Austro-German and Russian forces. After the war Kraków once more became a Polish city. During World War II it was occupied by the Germans from 1939 until 1945, when it was taken by Soviet troops. 

Sources and links:

Other World Heritage Sites in Poland (on this website). Inactive links are not described on stamps. Please refer to the UNESCO-listing (Poland-Section) for further information on such properties. 

Back to index

Revised 27 jun 2007  
Copyright © 1999 Heindorffhus 
All Rights Reserved