The heartbeat of Krakow is the Main Square or Rynek Glowny. This Square is considered to be the largest medieval square in Europe and first time visitors are often taken aback at the sheer size of the area.Daytimes and evenings the Rynek Glowny is a focal point for both tourists and locals. You can listen to the music of the street entertainers (many of whom are accomplished musicians), drink a Zywiec (a Polish beer) at one of the many cafes or simply watch the world go by to the backing track of horses hooves hitting the pavements and the hourly Hejnal bugle call.
In the middle of the square is the 16th Century Cloth Hall or Sukiennice. Said to be the oldest shopping mall in the world this used to be the town’s centre for cloth and textile merchants. These days you will find it houses souvenir and craft stalls and it’s also one of the best places to buy amber in Krakow. The Sukiennice is over 700 years old and has been refurbished several times since.
On the upper floor is the National Museum of Krakow where you can find an impressive array of paintings by famous Polish artists.
The Town Hall Tower (Clock Tower) stands by the side of the Cloth Hall and is all that remains of the 15th Century Town Hall which was demolished almost 200 years ago. In the summer it is open to visitors and you can enjoy a great view if you’re willing to climb the 100+ steps to the top. The tower is actually leaning by about 55 cms (caused by a strong wind in 1703). Underneath the tower used to be the city dungeon and torture chamber but now houses a cafe and theatre. The tower also houses a museum dedicated to the history to Krakow.
In one corner of the square is the unmissable St. Mary’s Church (Kosciol Mariacki). The church is something of an oddity in that it’s towers are assymetrical. The story goes that two brothers were commissioned to build the towers and that they decided to each build one of the towers. What should have been a collaboration of talent soon became a competition with one brother demonstrating his superior speed by completing his tower early whilst the other one diligently and methodically built at his own pace. When completed the younger brother was so jealous of his brother’s superior work that he murdered him before committing suicide himself.
Once inside the church, you will see that the interior is not austere but is instead a kaleidoscope of colours. The ceiling is painted in aquamarine blue studded with gold stars, stained glass windows filter coloured light onto the floors and at the alter stands the sight that most visitors come here to see…….the astounding wooden altar piece by Veit Stoss. At 42 feet high this is the largest Gothic sculpture in the world. The sculpture is created on 3 panels resembling an open book and is opened just before 12pm each work day. The alter-piece is opened just before noon each working day. Also be prepared to pay a few zloty if you wish to take photos inside the church.
If you spend any length of time in the square then you will be certain to hear a bugle being played every hour on the hour. This bugle call is known as the Hejnal and is sounded by a bugle player from the highest tower of St.Mary’s Church (Kosciol Mariacki). The Hejnal is sounded every hour on the hour and is played from each of the four windows of the tower. You may notice that the Hejnal seems to end rather abruptly and this is intentional. Legend has it that centuries ago when a warning bugle was sounded from the church tower to warn of an incoming attack, a tartar arrow pierced the throat of the player in mid-note and so to this day the Hejnal ends at the same note. The Hejnal is also used to symbolise Polish patriotism and has been sounded on the battlefield and also appears on Polish National Radio.