Kraków: The historic beauty of Poland’s second city

A main street in Krakow. (Shutterstock)
Updated 29 October 2018

Kraków: The historic beauty of Poland’s second city

  • To visit Kraków is to step back in time
  • The city space is a melange of colorful, teetering townhouses, towering Gothic spires and spacious cobbled plazas

LONDON: To visit Kraków is to step back in time — forget all the headlines about populist politics and increasing intolerance, and stroll straight into Poland’s regal past.

First settled in the 7th Century, Kraków served as the center of Polish political life from 1038 to 1596, when King Sigismund III Vasa shifted the action to current capital Warsaw. But the delightful city space he turned his back on still stands today — a magnificent mélange of colorful, teetering townhouses, towering Gothic spires and spacious cobbled plazas.

Vistula River. (Shutterstock)

UNESCO agrees. The entire 370-acre Kraków Old Town was one of the very first sites to earn the tourist gold of a World Heritage stamp back in 1978, and we may have the world’s largest cultural organization to thank for its upkeep; the congestion-free cobbled streets remain both easily and pleasantly navigable on foot today.

Explorations should begin, naturally, at Rynek Główny — the largest medieval town square in Europe — a 9.4-acre sprawl which has served as the common man’s gathering spot since the Middle Ages. Sitting at its heart is the stately drama of the Cloth Hall, a long, thin slice of Renaissance-style decadence built in 1555, such majesty at seeming odds with its historic role as a gathering place for textile traders.

At the Eastern edge sits the 14th century St. Mary’s Basilica — the most magnificent of many places of worship littering the square’s surrounds — while the Western corner houses the looming, 70-meter Gothic-style Town Hall Tower.

Town Hall . (Shutterstock)

The dozens of cafés spilling out into this sweeping space offer an ideal people-watching vantage and lingering-lunch spot. Local specialties include the obwarzanek krakowski, a pretzel-esque pastry swirl, but you’ll find no trouble dining on a diversity of European flavors in this well-furrowed tourist thoroughfare.

Some of those calories can be breezily burned off by walking south toward the Vistula river and ascending a modest incline to arrive at Wawel Castle, the royal residence built in a stately Italian style by King Casimir III the Great, and the older Wawel Cathedral. With calming vistas, stately charms and a historic museum within the grounds, exploring the pair could easily fill an afternoon.

Wawel Cathedral. (Shutterstock)

For after-dark entertainment, head back toward town and check the listings at the excellent Strefa (, a subterranean local’s hangout programming eclectic live acts a cut above the various jazz-themed tourist spots.

Meanwhile for a dose of daytime culture, cross the Vistula to reach the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow (MOCAK), a vibrant world-class exhibition space with a compelling permanent collection of Polish and international voices. Highlights include the Insta-ready “Live Factory 2: Warhol by Lupa,” a life-sized recreation of Andy Warhol’s infamous artist hangout The Factory, a leftover from Polish theater director Krystian Lupa’s award-winning play of the same name.

MOCAK also serves as a chilling reminder of Krakow’s more recent history – sitting on a demolished part of the factory once run by Oskar Schindler. The German industrialist and Nazi party member’s efforts to shield his native employees from the ravages of the Holocaust were famously commemorated in Steven Spielberg’s seven-Oscar-winning “Schindler’s List.” Today, the factory is open to visitors as Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory, a sobering space with some moving exhibits and valuable historical perspectives.

MOCAK . (Shutterstock)

How deeply visitors to Kraków choose to engage with the greatest tragedy of the modern age may depend on the kind of holiday they’re after, but it’s impossible to avoid mentioning that the Nazis’ largest concentration camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, sits just 66km west of Krakow and can easily be visited as a daytrip by train.

This writer chose to make that journey, but it’s impossible to recommend, or discourage, the experience to anyone else. I can’t say I knew what to expect, or expected to feel, or — despite being left profoundly shaken for days — that I felt enough. Because, I realized, it could never be enough. There’s not enough pain or perspective in the world to engage with such unfathomable sorrow, or process such untethered evil.


‘Colors of Saudi Arabia’ forum kicks off in Riyadh

The forum includes seminars on the latest technology in the fields of photography and filmmaking. (Photos/Supplied)
Updated 12 December 2018

‘Colors of Saudi Arabia’ forum kicks off in Riyadh

  • Increased number of categories and awards will motivate local filmmakers
  • The efforts made by the SCTH to enhance the contest will help strengthen national tourism and inspire youth to take part in introducing the Kingdom’s many fascinating sites

JEDDAH: A forum highlighting the Kingdom’s cultural and natural heritage will be held between Dec. 12 and 16 at Riyadh’s International Convention and Exhibition Center.
The ‘Colors of Saudi Arabia’ forum, now in its 5th edition, will be held under the patronage of Prince Sultan bin Salman, president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH).
The forum spans 15,000 square meters and is expected to attract over 30,000 visitors, including celebrities and innovators.
Awards will be handed to the winners of the forum’s photography and short film competitions, as well as the Prince Sultan bin Salman Award for Photography, during the opening ceremony by Prince Sultan himself.
“The forum has been given a makeover with the aim of increasing visitor numbers and interaction,” said Abdullah Al-Murshid, SCTH vice president, adding that the commission recently increased the number of categories and awards given during the contest in an attempt to motivate local filmmakers to shed light on the Kingdom.
“The move only inspired more people, even from neighboring Gulf countries, to enter into the photography contest, which will garner three finalists in each category (with the exception of the tourism film contest, in which only one winner will be selected per category). There will also be an additional voting contest held exclusively for Saudi photographers.”
Forum committee and jury members had received hundreds of photographs and video clips from both amateurs and professionals hoping to enter into the competition.
“The efforts made by the SCTH to enhance the contest will help strengthen national tourism and inspire youth to take part in introducing the Kingdom’s many fascinating sites, monuments and scenery,” added Al-Murshid. “This may, in turn, inspire regional heritage cultivation and documentation efforts.”
This year, the Saudi Film Council (SFC) partnered with the SCTH to offer a group of intensive photography and filmmaking training courses held by American and Australian trainers.
The forum, which will be held every day between 4 and 10 p.m., includes seminars on the latest technology in the fields of photography and filmmaking, specialized programs, a daily short film theater, and an educational program of workshops and daily lectures.
The forum’s educational agenda also includes discussion sessions focused on filmmaking and film production, which are conducted by 30 local and international experts.
Al-Murshid explained that the SCTH would hold mobile exhibitions throughout the year in various cities across Saudi Arabia.
Photographers and visitors can register online and find more information at