Europe's largest medieval marketplace is on a par in size and grandeur with St. Mark's Square in Venice. It even has the same plague of pigeons, although legend tells us the ones here are no ordinary birds: they are allegedly the spirits of the knights of Duke Henry IV Probus, who in the 13th century were cursed and turned into birds. This great square was not always so spacious. In an earlier period it contained—in addition to the present buildings—a Gothic town hall, a Renaissance granary, a large weighing house, a foundry, a pillory, and hundreds of traders' stalls. A few flower sellers under colorful umbrellas and some portable souvenir stalls are all that remain of this bustling commercial activity. Above all, Rynek is Kraków's largest outdoor café, from spring through autumn, with more than 20 cafés scattered around the perimeter of the square.
A pageant of history has passed through this square. From 1320 on, Polish kings came here on the day after their coronation
to meet the city's burghers and receive homage and tribute in the name of all the towns of Poland. Albert Hohenzollern, the grand master of the Teutonic Knights, came here in 1525 to pay homage to Sigismund the Old, King of Poland. And in 1794 Tadeusz Kościuszko took a solemn vow to overthrow czarist Russia here.
The square is surrounded by many historic buildings. The Dom pod Jeleniami (House at the Sign of the Stag), at No. 36, was once an inn where both Goethe and Czar Nicholas I found shelter. At No. 45 is the Dom pod Orłem (House at the Sign of the Eagle), where Tadeusz Kościuszko lived as a young officer in 1777; a little farther down the square, at No. 6, is the Szara Kamienica (Gray House), which he made his staff headquarters in 1794. In the house at No. 9, the young Polish noblewoman Maryna Mniszchówna married the False Dymitri, the pretender to the Russian throne, in 1605. (These events are portrayed in Pushkin's play Boris Godunov and in Mussorgsky's operatic adaptation of it.) At No. 16 is the 14th-century house of the Wierzynek merchant family. In 1364, during a "summit" meeting attended by the Holy Roman Emperor, one of the Wierzyneks gave an elaborate feast for the visiting royal dignitaries; today the house is a restaurant.
Wieża Ratuszowa. At the southwest corner of Rynek Square, the Wieża Ratuszowa is all that remains of the 16th-century town hall, which was demolished in the early 19th century. The tower houses a branch of the Muzeum Historyczne Miasta Krakowa (Kraków History Museum) and affords a panoramic view of the old city. Although the museum and tower are closed during the winter, it's possible to organize a group visit. Rynek Główny. 012/619–23–18. zł 6. Apr.–Nov., daily 10:30–6.