Wawel Cathedral - or Katedra Wawelska - has witnessed most of the coronations, funerals and entombments of Poland's monarchs and strongmen over the centuries, and wandering around the grandiose funerary monuments and royal sarcophagi is like a fast-forward tour through Polish history. The cathedral is both an extraordinary artistic achievement and Poland's spiritual sanctuary. The building you see is the third church on this site, consecrated in 1364. The original cathedral was founded sometime after the turn of the first millennium by King Bolesław Chrobry and was replaced with a larger Romanesque construction around 1140. When it burned down in 1305, only the Crypt of St Leonard survived.
The present-day Katedra Wawelska is basically a Gothic structure but chapels in different styles were built around it later. Before you enter, note the massive iron door and, hanging on a chain to the left, huge prehistoric animal bones. They are believed to have magical powers; as long as they are here, the cathedral will remain too. Once inside, you'll get lost in a maze of sarcophagi, tombstones and altarpieces scattered throughout the nave, chancel and ambulatory. Among a score of chapels, a highlight is the Holy Cross Chapel (Kaplica Świętokrzyska) with its unique 15th-century Byzantine frescoes and the red marble sarcophagus (1492). The showpiece chapel, however, is the Sigismund Chapel (Kaplica Zygmuntowska) up the aisle and on the southern wall. It is often referred to as 'the most beautiful Renaissance chapel north of the Alps' and recognized by its gilded dome from the outside. Diagonally opposite is the Tomb of St Queen Hedwig (Sarkofag Św Królowej Jadwigi), a much beloved and humble 14th-century monarch whose unpretentious wooden coronation regalia are on display nearby. In the centre of the cathedral stands the flamboyant Baroque Shrine of St Stanislaus, the bishop of Kraków, who was canonized in 1253 and is now the patron saint of Poland.