Even a person who does not know too much about geography should hear at least about two Polish cities, Polish capital Warsaw and Kraków, a city with many historical objects and the previous residence of cardinal Wojtyla (now pope John Paul II). What is about these cities which makes them so different?
Warsaw and Kraków - two main Polish cities look very different, have different history and different atmosphere.
Kraków is full of history, old churches and narrow streets. In Kraków's historic downtown (old city) everything is reachable in the walking distance. There are always crowds of people - residents and tourists on the streets. The town has a cozy atmosphere with many cafeterias and street musicians.
Warsaw has a real metropolitan atmosphere with couple of skyscrapers, huge expensive hotels, big department stores in the very center, governmental buildings and wide streets. Warsaw has an old town, but this part of the city is not the real heart of the Warsaw. Probably for the average tourist from the USA Warsaw looks more like an American city than Krakow.
The contrast between Kraków and Warsaw is a result of different historical functions of these cities during the centuries. Kraków was a capital of Poland during late Middle Ages and the Renaissance when Poland was a powerful country. Kings have enough money to beautify Poland's capital city. Krakow's Royal Castle is one of the most magnificent Polish monuments. One of the oldest Universities (Jagiellonian University) in Europe was established also in Kraków. Through the centuries Kraków was full of students and monks.
First Warsaw was a capital of the Polish region called Mazowsze. King Sigismund III moved officially the capital from Kraków to Warsaw in 1596. He did this because he wanted to be closer to his home country Sweden!
Warsaw was a capital in time of Polish struggle for independence. It is a place of the establishment of the first democratic Polish Constitution (1791) just before Poland lost its independence for over 100 years after three partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793 and 1795 between Russia, Prussia and Austria. Warsaw was also a center of the Polish resistance movement during the WW II. It was a place of two uprisings against fascists; Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, and Warsaw Uprising in 1944. In the result of Warsaw Uprising in 1944 - German fascists deliberately and systematically eradicated the house after the house and the street after the street almost until the day of liberation, January 17, 1945. Over 90% of the city was destroyed completely. You can see Warsaw's ruins on the photograph.
Kraków remained almost intact during the war. It was liberated by the Russian Koniev's Division. Russians surrounded the occupants and forced to leave before they would attempt to mine the city. This fast maneuver saved Kraków's historical object whereas Warsaw has to be rebuilt since scratch after the war.
Kraków was considered by the Communistic regime as a place of an enemy because its residents were resistant towards communistic propaganda. To change this situation the Polish government decided to build the biggest Polish steelwork (Huta im. Lenina) near Krakow. The government hoped that the influx of blue collar workers into the steelwork will change the ratio of conservatives to communists. But this solution was good only for a short period of time because Krakow (and Warsaw) was a center of students' opposition movement in 1968. Krakow was also a stronghold against communistic rulers in eighties.
But I am sure that without towns like Kraków (cradle of Polish heritage) and Warsaw (cradle of Polish heroic independent movements) Poland could not exist in the present shape.
Eyewitness Travel Guide to Warsaw
by Magorzata Omilanowska (Editor), Jerzy S. Majewski, Deni Bown
Lonely Planet Krakow (Lonely Planet Krakow) by Krzysztof Dydynski