Visiting Wawel Castle is one of the top things to do in Krakow, Poland and should not be skipped on any visit to the city. One of the most famous castles in Poland, it’s located on a hill high above the city, its beautifully restored buildings are a delight to behold. Featuring historic architecture from different eras, one of the best art galleries in Poland, and a magnificent cathedral, visitors can spend anywhere from a few hours to a whole day on the castle site.
What to see at Wawel Castle
Wawel Castle is located in old town Krakow, just a few minutes away from the iconic Rynek Glowny area. It’s on top of a hill, so there is a bit of a climb whether you go up the main entrance closer to the Rynek Glowny (north) or what I’ve deemed the back entrance closer to the river. I like the entrance on the north side for its view of the old town area and statues. A long sloping ramp and/or some stairs will take you up into the heart of the castle.
Wawel Castle has a fascinating history and architecture enthusiasts will love seeing the different sections bearing characteristics of the eras in which they were built. I particularly like the large Italian Renaissance style courtyard where the entry to the State Rooms located. It feels like stepping into Italy for a few moments. It contrasts sharply with the bland construction style used when constructing buildings to be used as military barracks a few centuries later.
You can buy individual tickets for the various exhibitions at Wawel Castle, so you can spend as little or as much time and money as you want there. It does get busy during the summer months so get there early. Online tickets for Wawel Castle are not currently available. On my first visit, we went as part of a guided tour, but on my second time back we were too late in the day to join one. We also elected to skip the audio guide, which I regretted. There is very little information inside the exhibits, so had I not visited previously, I would’ve felt like I missed out on a lot of interesting information. Also, my little brother and I may have gotten separated from the rest of our family because we were trying to eavesdrop on a tour guide in the throne room.
The royal cathedral was built for kings and queens to attend mass right at the castle. Admission here is free, though its popularity means that visits can only be made in one direction as you’re asked to follow the set path through the ornately decorated cathedral. Those wishing to use it for prayer have a bit more leeway to visit some of its chapels.
The Wawel Cathedral has incredibly ornate décor and looking around at its many gilded surfaces, it’s easy to imagine royal families coming here to worship. Photography is not allowed though, so you’ll only be able to take your memories with you. (Or do what I did and pick up a pretty postcard in the gift shop.) You’re expected to cover your shoulders when you enter, so my first visit was made bundled up in the fleece jacket my friend was inexplicably carrying around in hot summer weather.
There is also an underground crypt that’s home to several notable graves. The most recent additions are the Polish President Kaczynski and his wife, Maria, who were killed in a plane crash in 2010.
The Wawel State Rooms
This is my favorite of the galleries to tour, as it takes you into the ornately decorated royal quarters. Much of Wawel Castle was destroyed due to occupation by the Austrian army and years of neglect, so some of the rooms are plainly decorated while others have been restored as closely as possible to their former splendor. Most of them contain elaborate artwork depicting religious stories and notable moments in Polish history. Make sure you look up as you explore because the intricately-carved ceilings are one of the architectural highlights of Wawel Castle.
I love the Envoys Room because like the preceding rooms, it contains masterfully carved ceilings, but in addition to that, there are semi-creepy disembodied head carvings looking down from above. Apparently all of the ceiling nooks used to contain similar heads, but they were lost over the years and only the ones present were recovered. The idea was for the different men and women represented to be looking down on the king.
The final room on the Royal tour is the Senate Hall, which resembles a large ballroom. It’s not on the scale of Versailles or the Doge’s Palace in Venice, but it’s pretty and features a gallery on the second level. It’s easy to picture fancy dresses and old-fashioned suits whirling around the dance floor here.
Other things to see at Wawel Castle
- The Royal Apartments on Wawel Hill were the private rooms for the royal family and guests of state.
- The Royal Treasury and Armory contains treasures and old pieces of armor.
- The Lost Wawel exhibit is perfect for visitors interested in the history of the castle as you can learn about the earliest days of this castle in Krakow.
- The Oriental Exhibit features art and artifacts from places in the Middle East.
- The Dragon’s Den is a large cave in Wawel Hill that is open seasonally.
- Before you leave Wawel Castle, make sure you head over to the area along the Vistula River. The view from there is spectacular, and is a great place to catch the sunset if you’re there at the end of the day.
Getting to Wawel Castle
The castle is located at 31-001 Kraków, Wawel 5. The nearest public transit stop is only a few hundred feet away. It’s a short 15-minute walk from the Rynek Glowny if you’re coming from that area, and only a couple minutes from the Kazmierez area.
Wawel Castle tickets
Ticket prices vary based on the exhibits that you want to see. I would recommend visiting their official website to price out your desired selections.
Visiting hours and seasons
Hours of operation vary by season and are more limited during the winter. Wawel Castle is typically closed on Mondays during the winter. Check the official site for detailed hours.
Security is present at the galleries and food and drinks are not allowed. Expect to walk through a metal detector and put your bag through an x-ray machine upon entering.