Krakow History Facts and Timeline

(Krakow, Malopolskie, Poland)

The history of Krakow reads rather like a manual for the evolution of European civilisation. From its very beginnings, this Polish city was a centre of religion, art, scholarship and economy.

It boomed during the Hanseatic period, birthed the avant-garde movement of Young Poland before there even was a modern-day Poland, and suffered horribly under Nazi occupation during WWII. A bit of luck, however, allowed its magnificent historic core to remain when most other Polish cities were levelled during the war.

Poland's First City

Krakow had been a trading town since the 7th century, although the earliest official note of this bustling city was not made until the year of 966 AD, by a visiting Jewish merchant from Cordoba (Spain). It had its first bishopric in 1000 AD and almost four decades later, the town became the Piast kingdom's capital. The 11th century was a great time in Krakow's history, with Wawel Castle, the Adaukt Rotunda and numerous churches like St. Adalbert's all being built.

Razed and Rebuilt

The Mongols literally burned Krakow to the ground in 1241, forcing the city to rebuild from scratch. Just 15 years later, the new layout was implemented, with a large market square in the centre and a grid street pattern spreading outwards.

This marked the beginning of a long period of enlightenment in the history of Krakow. It started with the establishment of the Krakow Academy in 1364, which would later become Jagiellonian University, Europe's second-ever university. Being the capital of the Polish kingdom and a leading member of the Hanseatic League, the city was a hotspot for craft guilds, merchants and patrons of the arts and science.

The Golden Years

The 15th and 16th centuries were a period of remarkable prosperity, peace and enlightenment for Krakow. Men such as famed astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus studied at the university in the late 15th century, and the Polish Renaissance of architecture and art ascended over the city. The city's fascinating Kazimierz Jewish quarter was formed during this era, building its stellar highlights such as the Old Synagogue.

All good things must come to an end, and this certainly happened during the period of Krakow's history when the Polish throne was passed to French King Henry III. After Henry, the throne went to other foreign royalty who drained the star power from the city. A Swedish invasion and the Black Plague devastated the population. In 1596, the Swedes moved the administration of Poland from Krakow to Warsaw, marking the end of a regal era.

The Austrians

Though the power moved to Warsaw, Krakow continued to be the city of royal coronations and burials. However, the city itself suffered a long slump that culminated with it being handed to Austria in the late 18th century. Things actually improved under the Austrians, as they gave the residents the freedom to pursue their native culture and politics.

Although Poland no longer existed as a nation, the city was actually the birthplace of the Young Poland movement in the 1890s. This avant-garde revival of Polish art and literature evolved into a national independence movement that eventually led to the creation of the Polish Legions.

WWII and the Germans

When WWII began, nearly a quarter of Krakow's population was Jewish. The Nazis herded them into ghettos or took them to concentration camps, from which few returned.

Though the Nazis looted Krakow with a vengeance, the city managed to avoid being bombed or to be the site of any major battles. As a result, Krakow is a very rare place. In fact, it is the only Polish city of its size that has managed to retain its historic appearance and period architecture.