The Wawel Hill is to Krakow what the Acropolis was to ancient Athens or the Capitoline Hill to Rome. The rocky outcropping towering over the banks of the Vistula has been the seat of secular and ecclesiastical power since the early Middle Ages, but in fact there is evidence of human habitation on the site dating as far back as the Paleolithic era. Mieszko I (r. ca. 960–992), the first historical ruler and creator of the Polish state, chose the hill as the site of one of his residences. His baptism in 966 brought Poland into the orbit of Western culture. The bishopric of Krakow was established in 1000 and the first cathedral on Wawel Hill was built.
Wawel experienced its golden age from the 14th through the 16th centuries under the last Piast kings and the Jagiellon dynasty. The Jagiellonian kings Alexander I (r. 1501–1506), Sigismund I the Old (r. 1506–1548), and Sigismund II Augustus (r. 1548–1572) transformed the now too small medieval castle into one of the finest Italianate Renaissance palaces in Central Europe. Sigismund I and his son presided over a great flowering of the arts and humanities.
Wawel’s significance began to wane when Sigismund III Vasa (r. 1587–1632) moved his court to Warsaw in 1609–1611. It remained a royal residence and the cathedral continued to be the site of the coronations and burials of Poland’s kings. The ensuing years brought a slow but steady decline. The castle was sacked and looted during the Swedish Deluge that swept through the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at mid-century. The final blow came in the 18th century with the partitions of Poland; in 1796 the castle was converted to barracks for the Austrian army.
A monumental restoration project was undertaken in the early years of the 20th century and when Poland regained her independence, the castle was converted into a residential museum.