In the interest of expediency, here are some excerpts from the Lonely Planet - Poland chapter on Kraków:
If you believe the legends, Kraków was founded upon the defeat of a dragon, and it’s true a mythical atmosphere permeates its attractive streets and squares.
Poland’s former royal capital has a suitably long back-story to match its beautiful historic appearance.
The first traces of the city’s existence date from the 7th century, and the earliest written record of the town dates from 966, when a Jewish merchant from Cordova called Abraham ben Jacob visited and referred to a trade centre called Krakwa.
Greatness was just around the corner; having been made a bishopric in 1000, Kraków became the capital of Poland in 1038, assuming the role from Poznań. This honour was the beginning of a rise in prestige and power. Wawel Castle and several churches were built in the 11th century and the town, originally centered on Wawel Hill, grew in size.
Setbacks were inevitable though, and in 1241 the Tatars burned Kraków almost to the ground. Spotting the silver lining, however, the townsfolk used the opportunity to redefine its layout, and by 1257 the new town’s centre had been set on a grid pattern, with a large market square in the middle.
Kraków became a member of the far-flung trading association the Hanseatic League, which attracted craftspeople and boosted trade. Nicolaus Copernicus, who would later develop his heliocentric view of the universe, studied here in the 1490s, symbolizing the city’s status as a centre of learning.
It was a fairytale story of progress and prosperity, and like all such tales had to come to an end. Kraków’s status slipped in 1596 when the capital was moved to Warsaw, though the city remained the site of coronations and burials. A series of Swedish invasions, beginning in 1655, accelerated the decline; and by the end of the following century the city’s population had been reduced by a third to 10,000.
In the Third Partition of Poland (1795), Kraków was sundered from most of Poland, becoming part of the Austrian province of Galicia. As the city enjoyed a measure of cultural and political freedom within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, by the end of the 19th century it had become the major cultural centre and spiritual capital of the vanished Poland.
Back within a united Poland after WWI, Kraków grew to a population of 260,000 inhabitants, 65,000 of whom were Jews. Tragedy was about to doubly strike the city; the German occupation of 1939 led both to the arrest and imprisonment of Kraków’s academic elite, and the herding of its Jewish citizens into a ghetto. Transported to Nazi work and extermination camps, most of them would never be seen again.
During WWII the city was thoroughly looted by the occupiers, but avoided being the scene of any major battles or bombings. As such, Kraków is virtually the only large Polish city that has retained its pre-war architecture and appearance intact.
After the war, the newly installed communist government established a huge steelworks, in an attempt to mould a more working-class city. The social engineering proved less potent than its un-anticipated by-product – ecological disaster. Monuments that had managed to survive invasions by Tatars, Swedes and Germans began gradually to be eroded by acid rain and toxic gas.
In 1978 the Archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyła, became Pope John Paul II, an elevation which remains a great source of pride for the city’s citizens. In the same year, the city’s Old Town was included in Unesco’s World Heritage list.