Churches are the cornerstone of Kraków, as you can see every year during Cracovia Sacra, the Kraków edition of the Night of Churches, when monks’ residences, inaccessible on a daily basis, open to residents of Kraków and tourists, who now have the opportunity to follow the routes of several dozen historic buildings.
There are over 140 churches in the city, most of them Catholic, with 50 chapels – many of them free-standing and larger than a small church. When walking only around the Old Town, you will come across a sacred building every 200-300 meters.
Where do all these numbers come from?
More than half of Krakow’s churches were located within the city’s borders in the 20th and 21st century – at a time when it significantly expanded its administrative boundaries, absorbing former suburban areas with their churches. This was the case, for example, with the St. Florian’s Church, located at Matejko Square (from which the Florian Gate and the street took its name), and which, together with Kleparz, where it stands, was incorporated into Kraków in 1792 – this may come as a surprise, as it is only 800 meters away from the main square.
As Kraków grew, it absorbed not only young, parish churches, but also, for example, the Cistercian Monastery located in Nowa Huta, which was a village called Mogiła in the 13th century. This monastic complex monastic together with the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Wenceslaus as well as the picturesque wooden (made of larch) church of St. Bartholomew from the 14th century, is located almost 10 km from the city centre.
In the heart of Kraków
The real conglomeration of the oldest and most beautiful churches is the very city centre, i.e. the Old Town with the adjacent surroundings. Only a short walk down a section of Grodzka Street, which leads from the Market Square to the Wawel Royal Castle, will allow you to see 10 such buildings. Firstly, on both sides of the street, there are large Gothic church and monastery complexes: the Franciscans (with the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi) and the Dominicans (with the Church of the Holy Trinity). In the side street Poselska, you can see the Monastery of the Bernardine Sisters with the baroque church of St. Joseph. Then, standing almost side-by-side: the majestic church of St. Peter and Paul, which was the first church in Kraków built in the Baroque style, the Church of St. Andrew, the only one that has retained the original Romanesque body, and right next to it, the baroque church of St. Martin.
Inaccessible green enclaves
If you reach the end of Grodzka Street, and stand in front of the Gothic Church of St. Giles, which is one of the first brick buildings in Kraków, you will enjoy a captivating view: on the right the Wawel Royal Castle with the Cathedral Basilica of St. Stanislaus and St. Wenceslas, which is the place of coronation and burial of the kings of Poland; opposite, you will see the early Baroque church of St. Bernardine, and on the left, the late baroque church of the Conversion of St. Paul, colloquially known as Stradomski. The latter hides one of its greatest attractions from the eyes of passers-by. The back of the church, in the quarter between Stradomska, św. Gertrudy, św. Sebastiana and J. Dietla streets, tightly surrounded by facades of tenement houses, hides an over 3-hectare Garden of Missionaries, which can be admired only from above or inside. It was built in the 17th century right next to the old riverbed of the Old Vistula (which now is Dietla Street), and is divided into a park and an orchard with about 500 fruit trees – all of this almost at the foot of the Wawel Royal Castle. The garden can be visited only once a year, during the mentioned Cracovia Sacra Night, or if invited by the monks who take care of it.
The key to exploring
Those who want to get to know and admire Krakow’s churches can choose from various ready-made trails and routes: the typical ones that follow the footsteps of the oldest or highest churches or routes that lead through objects selected by the architectural style (e.g. Renaissance and Baroque churches) or their location (by quarters or districts). Moreover, they can take advantage of more sophisticated routes that do not focus only on architecture, e.g. a route leading in the footsteps of religious music, as Kraków is a real treasury of musical monuments. It is here that the oldest manuscript of Bogurodzica (the Mother of God) is kept, it is here that one of the first anthem-like songs in the history of Poland, i.e. “Gaude Mater Polonia”, was performed, and finally, it is here that the oldest and most popular church songbook by Fr. Jan Siedlecki was printed in 1878, and since then has been published over 40 times.