Kraków, also spelled Krakow or Cracow, is the second largest and one of the oldest cities in Poland. Its historic centre was inscribed on the list of World Heritage Sites as the first of its kind in Poland. Situated on the Vistula River (Polish: Wisla) in the Lesser Poland region, the city dates back to the 7th century. Kraków has traditionally been one of the leading centres of Polish academic, cultural and artistic life and is one of Poland's most important economic centres. It was the capital of Poland from 1038 to 1596; the capital of the Grand Duchy of Kraków from 1846 to 1918; and the capital of Kraków Voivodeship from the 14th century to 1999. It is now the capital of the Lesser Poland Voivodeship.

The city has grown from a Stone Age settlement to Poland's second most important city. It began as a hamlet on Wawel Hill and was already being reported as a busy trading center of Slavonic Europe in 965. With the establishment of new universities and cultural venues at the emergence of the Second Polish Republic and throughout the 20th century, Kraków reaffirmed its role as a major national academic and artistic center.

After the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany at the start of World War II, Kraków was turned into the capital of Germany's General Government. The Jewish population of the city was moved into a walled zone known as the Kraków Ghetto, from which they were sent to extermination camps such as Auschwitz and the concentration camp at Plaszów.

In 1978-the same year UNESCO placed Kraków on the list of World Heritage Sites-Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Kraków, was elevated to the papacy as Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope in 455 years and the first ever Slavic pope.

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Attractions in &around Kraków

§ Kraków Kraków, the unofficial cultural capital of Poland, was named the official European Capital of Culture for the year 2000 by the European Union. It is a major attraction for both local and international tourists, attracting seven million visitors a year. Major landmarks include the Main Market Square with St. Mary's Basilica and the Sukiennice Cloth Hall, the Wawel Castle, the National Art Museum, the Zygmunt Bell at the Wawel Cathedral, and the medieval St Florian's Gate with the Barbican along the Royal Coronation Route. Kraków has 28 museums and public art galleries. Among them are the main branch of Poland's National Museum and the Czartoryski Museum, the latter featuring works by Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt.

§ Wawel : Wawel is an architectural complex erected over many centuries atop a limestone outcrop on the left bank of the Vistula River in Kraków, Poland, at an altitude of 228 metres above the sea level. The Royal Castle with an armoury and the Cathedral are situated on the hill. Polish Royalty and many distinguished Poles are interred in the Wawel Cathedral. Royal coronations took place there also. Wawel began to play the role of a centre of political power at the end of the first millennium AD. In the 9th century it became the principal fortified castrum of the Vistulans tribe.

Official website

§ Wieliczka salt mine: The Salt Mines of Wieliczka were on the first World Heritage List ever, which was publicized in 1978. The mines are an example of a well organized, large industrial establishment. The evolution of the mining processes since the Middle Ages is perfectly illustrated here, due to the conservation of the old galleries and the exhibition of tools used. The mine's attractions for tourists include dozens of statues and an entire chapel that has been carved out of the rock salt by the miners. About 1.2 million people visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine annually.

UNESCO website

§ Auschwitz: Auschwitz was a network of concentration and extermination camps built and operated in Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany during the Second World War. It was the largest of the German concentration camps, consisting of Auschwitz I (the Stammlager or base camp); Auschwitz II-Birkenau (the Vernichtungslager or extermination camp); Auschwitz III-Monowitz, also known as Buna-Monowitz (a labor camp); and 45 satellite camps.

In 1947, Poland founded a museum on the site of Auschwitz I and II, which by 1994 had seen 22 million visitors - 700,000 annually pass through the iron gates crowned with the infamous motto, Arbeit macht frei ("work makes you free").

Official website