Wawel Hill, a 15-acre rocky limestone outcropping on the banks of the Vistula, dominates the old part of the city. The hill was a natural point for fortification on the flat Vistula Plain. During the 8th century it was topped with a tribal stronghold and since the 10th century has held a royal residence and served as the seat of the bishops of Kraków. Construction on the present Wawel Cathedral—the third cathedral in this very place—was begun in 1320, and the structure was consecrated in 1364. Little room for expansion on the hill has meant the preservation of the original austere structure, although a few Renaissance and baroque chapels have been crowded around it. The most notable of these is the Kaplica Zygmuntowska (Sigismund Chapel), built in the 1520s by the Florentine architect Bartolomeo Berrecci and widely considered to be the finest Renaissance chapel north of the Alps.
From 1037, when Kraków became the capital of Poland, Polish kings were crowned and buried in
the Wawel Cathedral. This tradition continued up to the time of the partitions, even after the capital had been moved to Warsaw. During the 19th century, only great national heroes were honored by a Wawel entombment: Tadeusz Kościuszko was buried here in 1817; Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Słowacki, both great romantic poets, were also brought back from exile to the Wawel after their deaths; and Marshal Józef Piłsudski, the hero of independent Poland between the two world wars, was interred in the cathedral crypt in 1935.
The cathedral also has a treasury, archives, library, and museum. Among the showpieces in the library, one of the earliest in Poland, is the 12th-century Emmeram Gospel from Regensburg. After touring at ground level, you can climb the wooden staircase of the Sigismund Tower, entering through the sacristy. The tower holds the famous Sigismund Bell, which was commissioned in 1520 by King Sigismund the Old and is still tolled on all solemn state and church occasions. Pick up an audioguide for 7 złoty per person.