Malopolska or Lesser Poland, has the highest temperatures in the country and includes Bledow, the only desert area in Poland and in Europe. Summer has Poland at its warmest in this province, especially during July and August. Tarnow city has the warmest weather, with summer temps usually at 30 °C, and winter temps reaching 4 °C. In the Błędów Desert, summer temps can reach as much as 38 °C. Curiously, though, the country’s top winter destination, Zakopane in the Tatra Mountains, is also in this province.
Another geographical attraction of Malopolska are the salt mines at Wieliczka and Europe’s oldest one at Bochnia, their subterranean caves containing chapels from the 14th to 15th centuries. Malopolska’s most famous areas include the town of Wadowice, the birthplace of Pope John Paul II, and the infamous Nazi concentration camps in Oświęcim, or Auschwitz. A few interesting open-air museums in Malopolska offer first-hand experience of traditional rural life, such as in Zubrzyca Górna, Nowy Sącz and Wygiełzów.
Lesser Poland also has a rich collection of historical wooden architecture in villages such as Sękowa, Binarowa, Lipnica Murowana and Dębno Podhalańskie, from churches to mills, and cottages to manors. Malopolska’s capital city is Cracow, the capital of Poland until the ruling monarch moved to Warsaw in the early 16th century.
Long famed as Poland’s cultural capital, Cracow has benefited from having suffered little or no damage since at least the 13th century. Some of the oldest buildings in the country are St Andrew's Church in Ulica Grodzka and the quaint Church of St Adalbert in Rynek Glowny, or the Main Market Square, in the Old Town (Stare Miasto).
Rynek Glowny is the most famous area in Krakow. As the biggest living marketplace in Europe that dates from the Middle Ages, the 200-square-metre square stands as a very old, intact and well-kept witness to the commercial and cultural life of the city over the past thousand years.
Rynek’s 16th century Cloth Hall continues to be a trade centre, thronged by stalls selling souvenirs, flowers, crafts and jewelry. The few residential town houses here are neighbours to antique shops, art galleries, museums, restaurants and pubs. Cracow’s Old Town is also a lively place for enjoying local specialties such as pretzels, sausages and vodka, but in a unique way: by going underground. That’s because the pubs, cafés and restaurants are in the cellars of the Old Town’s buildings. During summer, however, outdoor dining and drinking are a pleasure at Rynek.
Despite its historical grandeur, Cracow exudes a youthful atmosphere, especially at night, due to the hundred thousand or so students who enjoy the city’s excellent higher education. The 14th-century Jagiellonian University, formerly known as the University of Cracow, is among Europe’s oldest academic institutions. The students fill the city’s pubs and night clubs till the wee hours of the morning.
As the Polish capital for about 300 years, Cracow was the home of its royal rulers, who resided in Wawel Castle, which continues to overlook the city atop Wawel Hill. It has the world’s largest display of tapestries from the Renaissance. Nearby is the Gothic Cathedral, the burial place of Polish kings and heroes. Cracow’s finest art collection is in the Czartoryski Palace, whose museum includes works by Rembrandt and da Vinci.
Emphasizing the diverse cultural life in Cracow is the distinctive Jewish district of Kazimierz, with its old synagogues, tiny streets and small homes. Sometimes it feels like time has stood still here, except for the presence of luxury hotels.
Cracow possesses about a fourth of Poland’s museums. It also has many well-known theatres, such as the Krakow Opera, the Groteska Theatre of Puppetry, the Ludowy Theatre, Bagatela Theatre, Juliusz Słowacki Theatre and National Stary Theatre. The city has become the regular venue of several international events, including the Misteria Paschalia and the Jewish Culture Festival.
The city also has its outdoor charms, such as the park Planty, surrounding the Old Town, with its gardens done in different styles over 21 hectares. Sports lovers enjoy the playgrounds, running tracks, swimming pools, and rowing pond in Jordan Park in Blonia.