The castle that now stands here dates from the early 16th century, when the Romanesque residence that stood on this site was destroyed by fire. King Sigismund the Old brought artists and craftsmen from Italy to create his castle, and despite baroque reconstruction after another fire in the late 16th century, several parts of the Renaissance castle remain, including the beautiful arcaded courtyard. After the transfer of the capital to Warsaw at the beginning of the 17th century, the castle was stripped of its fine furnishings, and later in the century it was devastated by the Swedish wars. In 1905, a voluntary Polish society purchased the castle from the Austrian authorities and began restoration. It narrowly escaped destruction in 1945, when the Nazis almost demolished it as a parting shot. Today you can visit the royal chambers, furnished in the style of the 16th and 17th centuries and hung with the 16th-century Arras-style tapestries from the Low Countries. Counted among the most valuable
treasures of the Polish people, the tapestries were evacuated to Canada by Jan Polkowski (who had been appointed their guardian) during World War II in order to protect them against the invaders, and returned to Poland in 1961. The Royal Treasury on the ground floor contains a somewhat depleted collection of Polish crown jewels; the most fascinating item displayed here is the Szczerbiec, the jagged sword used from the early 14th century onward at the coronation of Polish kings. The Royal Armory houses a collection of Polish and Eastern arms and armor. The west wing holds an imposing collection of Turkish embroidered tents.
For many Poles, the castle's importance extends beyond its history. Hindu esoteric thinkers claim it is one of the world's mystic energy centers, a chakhra. Some believers—and there have been many over the last few decades—think that by rubbing up against the castle wall in the courtyard they will absorb vital energy.
To reach the castle, go to the end of Grodzka or Kanonicza streets, and then walk up Wawel Hill.
The number of visitors to the royal chambers is limited, and entry tickets are timed; therefore, you should always try to book your tickets in advance to avoid disappointment. Phone to make the reservation, and then collect your tickets from the Visitor Centre located across the outer coutyard, in the direction of Wisła river.
Smocza Jama. Every Polish child knows the legend of the fire-breathing dragon that once terrorized residents from his Smocza Jama, a cave at the foot of Wawel Hill. Follow the signs to the ticket office opposite the castle, in the direction of the river. The dragon threatened to destroy the town unless he was fed a damsel a week. The king promised half his kingdom and his daughter's hand in marriage to any man who could slay the dragon. The usual quota of knights tried and failed. But finally a crafty cobbler named Skuba tricked the dragon into eating a lambskin filled with salt and sulfur. The dragon went wild with thirst, rushed into the Vistula River, and drank until it exploded. The Dragon's Den is still there, however, and in warmer months smoke and flame belch out of it every 15 minutes to thrill young visitors. A bronze statue of the dragon itself stands guard at the entrance. Wawel Hill, Stare Miasto. 3 zł. Early Apr.–late Oct., daily 10–5.