The main market square of the Old Town in Krakow is a principal urban space located in the centre of the city. It dates back to the 13th century, and – with roughly 40,000 square metres – it is the largest mediaeval town square in Europe. The spacious square is surrounded by historical townhouses (called “kamienice”), palaces and churches.
The centre of the square is dominated by the Sukiennice (the Cloth Hall or Drapers’ Hall), rebuilt in 1555 in the Renaissance style, topped by a beautiful attic or Polish parapet decorated with carved masks. On one side of the Sukiennice is the Town Hall Tower (Wieża ratuszowa), on the other the 10th-century Church of St Wojciech (St Adalbert’s) and the Adam Mickiewicz Monument, erected in 1898. Rising above the square are the Gothic towers of St Mary’s Basilica (Kościół Mariacki). The Main Square is lined with restaurants and cafés. One of most renowned, Pod Palmą (Under the Palm) at Krzysztofory Palace, was opened in 1876 by Antoni Hawełka, a purveyor to the imperial court in Vienna. Above, there is the Historical Museum of Krakow. Another famous establishment is the Wierzynek restaurant, remembered for the great feast of 1364 which, according to the legend, lasted for 21 days and helped to reach a consensus between monarchs of Europe. Among the many tourism-oriented venues there’s also the International Cultural Centre. Like other notable old-town squares, Main Square in Krakow is also known for its florist stalls, gift-shops, beer-gardens, horse-drawn carriages and a large population of Rock Pigeons. In December 2005 the Project for Public Spaces, a non-profit organisation based in New York, selected Krakow’s Rynek Główny as the World’s Best Square.
The main function of the market square was commerce. After the city was destroyed by the Mongol invasion in 1241, the Main Square was rebuilt in 1257 and its commercial role expanded with the Magdeburg rights location of the city by the prince of Krakow, Bolesław V the Chaste.
Originally the square was filled with low market stalls and administrative buildings and had a ring road running around it. It was King Casimir III the Great (Kazimierz Wielki) who built the original Gothic Sukiennice and the Town Hall that filled nearly a quarter of the square. Krakow was then the capital of the Kingdom of Poland and a member of the Hanseatic League, so it flourished as an important European metropolis. In addition to its original merchant functions the Main Square witnessed many historical events, and was used to stage public executions of prisoners held in the Town Hall. It was a place of regal ceremonies as part of the Royal Road, frequented by diplomats and dignitaries travelling to the Wawel Castle. In 1364 King Casimir held the Pan-European Congress of Krakow there. On 10 April 1525, Albert I, Duke of Prussia paid the Prussian Homage to Sigismund I the Old, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, which meant that he accepted Polish kings’ suzerainty there. In 1596 King Sigismund III, of the Swedish House of Vasa, moved the capital of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from Krakow to Warszawa (Warsaw). Krakow, however, remained the place of coronations and royal funerals. On 24 March 1794, at the Main Square Tadeusz Kościuszko announced the general uprising and assumed the powers of the Commander in Chief of Polish armed forces, beginning the Kościuszko Uprising against partitions of Poland by Russia, Germany and Austria. In 1848, in the Spring of Nations, civilians clashed with the Austrian army at the Main Square. It was also where Austrian eagles were piled up as a symbol of regained independence in 1918. During the occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany the Main Square was renamed Adolf Hitler Platz and the Adam Mickiewicz Monument was destroyed along with historical commemorative plaques taken from the surrounding buildings. After the war the monument was reconstructed. In 1978 UNESCO placed the Main Square and the whole Old Town Krakow on the list of World Heritage Sites. The Main Square was also central in staging mass demonstrations of the Solidarity movement.
The Main Square is located on the Royal Road once traversed during the royal coronations at Wawel Cathedral, between the Krakow Barbican to the north, and the Wawel Castle to the south. Ever since its creation, the square has been considered the centre of the city.
The Main Square was designed with each side repeating a pattern of three, evenly spaced streets set at right angles to the square. The exception is Grodzka Street which is much older and connects the Main Square with the Wawel Castle.
The Main Square is surrounded by old brick buildings (kamienice) and palaces, almost all of them several centuries old. Most buildings have acquired a neoclassical aspect over time, but the basic structures are older and can be seen in their doorways, architectural details and interiors.
The Main Square is the focal point of many public events and festivities, such as the annual Krakow szopka Festival, Lajkonik celebrations, Festival of Military Bands, Juwenalia Student Festival, Gala Concert of the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity and the largest New Year’s Eve party in Poland.
Lajkonik is one of the unofficial symbols of Krakow. It is represented as a bearded man resembling a Tatar in a characteristic pointed hat, dressed in Mongol attire, with a wooden horse around his waist. It is the subject of the Lajkonik Festival that takes place each year on the first Thursday after the religious holiday of Corpus Christi.
The origin of the Lajkonik is uncertain, but there are some common stories associated with its popularity. Some think that it originated in pre-Christian times when it was believed that in the spring horses brought good luck and high crop yields.
Other stories are associated with the 13th-century Mongol invasion of Poland. One, likely counterfactual story, says that the people of Krakow successfully repelled the Tatar invasion. Because they killed one of the leaders, a Tatar Khan, the victorious defenders dressed up in the Khan’s clothing and triumphantly rode into the city.
Another version recalls that the Tatars arrived at the city gates at night in 1287, but chose not to attack the city until morning and instead camped along the Vistula. Some locals transporting wood on the river saw them and decided to play a joke on the city. They entered the city gates dressed up like Tatars on horses; trying to scare people into thinking the gates were breached. To the relief of the people of the city, their true identity was soon discovered and the incident’s popularity led the mayor to declare this to be an annual celebration.
Whatever the origin, the city continues the tradition with a festival that has taken place every June for the past 700 years. The Lajkonik is man dressed up as a warrior from the East. He rides a prancing white hobby horse through the city streets from the Premonstratensian (Norbertine) Convent in the historic district of Zwierzyniec to the Main Square. People in traditional Krakow dress accompany him while others are adorned by oriental garments and hold horsetail insignia in their hands. The procession winds its way through the historic streets, followed by musicians, children, and revellers.
On his way the Lajkonik touches spectators with his golden mace and collects money for the traditional ransom. Being touched by the Lajkonik’s mace supposedly brings good luck. At the Main Square, the mayor of the city awaits the Lajkonik with a pile of ransom money and a chalice with which they make a toast to the wellbeing of Krakow and its inhabitants. Music and dancing continues in front of the Old Tower Hall.