Warsaw is a large European capital with a population of a couple million depending on how you define its limits. Unless you have come to live here, most of the sights are within walking distance.
Situated on the mighty Vistula River, Warsaw had a slow start but when the commonwealth between Poland and Lithuania were looking for a more centrally located joint capital Warsaw grabbed the opportunity. From the late 1500s Warsaw took over as capital and Krakow further south on the same river, lost the title.
For a visitor to Warsaw much evolves around the parks and palaces built from that time right up until the first decades of the 20th century. The historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Second World War was yet a turning point for Warsaw. By the end of the war 85% of the centre had been destroyed by the Germans, hundreds of thousands of the capital’s inhabitants had been killed – and the liberating Soviet Red Army became another menace for the troubled population for the next half century.
This means that the other half of a visit to Warsaw is about looking up what happened during and after WW2, dealing with restoration efforts and commemorating monuments.
My visit to Warsaw was short, only two days in the week before Christmas, 2013. This article is about what I found walking the streets of Warsaw. The article is part of a series, read the introduction.
Stalin’s tower in Warsaw aka The Palace of Culture and Science
The Palace of Culture and Science looks very much alike the Seven Sisters, the famous skyscrapers which Stalin built in Moscow. As a matter of fact, after the Second World War, Stalin had several similar works constructed in his newly expanded zone of influence, more precisely in Kiev, Warsaw, Bucharest, Prague and Riga. To the Polish people this astonishing building has always been viewed as an embarassing gift. They had to pay for it themselves, and it reminded them of the dominating power of their eastern neighbour.
Unless you’re an architecture buff, or fancy the view from the top of tower, you will have the opportunity to dive into the very large, fancy and modern shopping mall (called Zlote Tarasy or Golden Terraces) right next to it. You will find all the large Western brands represented here.
Sights dating back to before WW2
Not far from Stalin’s tower you will find the large and splendid Saxon Garden, the oldest public park in Warsaw. Here you will also pass the The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before entering the The Royal Route (Trakt Królewski). The long and straight street was originally linking the Royal Castle to the Royal Palace.
There is much to see along the street, daily life, palaces, the old university. The Nicolaus Copernicus Monument is located in front of a palace housing the Polish Academy of Sciences. This great astronomer developed in the early 1500s the outrageous theory that the sun was the centre of the universe, not the earth.
The moon caught inside Copernicus’ instrument
Further along the road we pass the White House. It was built in 1774 as a temporary residence for the king until the palace was finished. For a royal home, it is quite small and has kept much of its original 18th-century interior.
Continuing for another couple of hundred metres we arrive at the indisputable centre of town, the Castle Square (or Plac Zamkowy in Polish). Look at the monument in the middle and climb the tower on the edge for a very good view of the square. From the top you get an overview of the Royal Castle, but also of the very fascinating layout of the Copper-Roof Palace next to it.
The Royal Castle is a must-see place to enter. It has been totally restored after the Second World War, housing gilded rooms, artwork and furniture as it used to be before the war.
The Castle Square (Plac Zamkowy) facing the Old Town with the Royal Castle to the right
Zamkowy Square forms one end of the famous Old Town. This part of Warsaw is an incredibly exciting district to explore. Walk the streets inside, walk along the outer city walls and enjoy life on the central market, called the Market Square. On the opposite side of the Old Town from the Zamkowy, there is a Barbican. Here the old town’s fortified wall is particularly impressive.
If you continue your walk through the Barbican you reach the New Town. It is not that new, dating back to the 14th century as a separate town from Warsaw. In any case there are some nice squares and buildings to enjoy, like the baroque St. Kazimierz Church on the New Town Market Square. Much of this area too was destroyed during the WW2.
Amber is the gift to buy in Warsaw
Memories of World War 2
In the New Town I came across a metal plaque on a pavement marking where one of perimeter walls of the Warsaw Ghetto once stood. This was the largest Jewish ghetto the Germans built during the war, housing up to 400,000 on an area no larger than 3.4 km2. During the summer of 1942 more than 250,000 of the Jews here were sent to the Treblinka extermination camp. In early 1943 the remaining population staged a futile uprising that was crushed by the Nazis in the course of a month. More than 50,000 Jews were either killed in the Uprising or later in extermination camps.
The Jewish uprising was by no means the only uprising during the war. In August 1944 the Polish resistance realised that the fortunes of war had turned against the Germans and that the Russian forces were in hot pursuit of the occupants. 24,000 poorly armed Polish forces staged what became known as the Warsaw Uprising, they were joined by more troops, and for a short period of two months managed to secure some leverage on the central parts of Warsaw. Their gamble had been to hold the line until the Red Army could come to their rescue.
The Warsaw Uprising monument
The Red Army never came to the rescue of the Warsaw Uprising. They stopped their advances right outside the city’s limit, some of the troops even right across the river. There Stalin’s forces witnessed a devastating retaliatory attack by the Germans, quelling the uprising, killing or wounding 40,000 troops and 180,000 civilians, in addition to 25,000 of their own soldiers – according to a poster on the Monument to the Warsaw Uprising Fighters. Moreover, most of Warsaw was bombed and burned to ashes and the rest of the population sent away.
The bitterness of seeing the “liberating” Red Army holding back on the other side of the river left a deep scar in the consciousness of the Polish people. In the last days of the war Stalin even ordered the removal of the last remains of the Polish military and civilian leaders, intelligentsia and so on, either by killing them or by sending them to labour camps in Siberia.
Therefore, in 1995, after Poland finally had gained its independence, another monument was erected further up the road from the Uprising monument: The Monument for the Fallen and Murdered in the East looks like an open train carriage with piles of Christian crosses as well as Muslim and Jewish symbols.
From here it is not far to another WW2 monument, this one commemorating the deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp. The Umschlagplatz (or Collection Point) was at the time a railway terminus. Now there is a set of plain marble walls with a number of Jewish names enscribed and this text: “Along this path of suffering and death over 300,000 Jews were driven in 1942–43 from the Warsaw Ghetto to the gas chambers of the Nazi extermination camps”.
The next in line of WW2 monuments are placed at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. At the time of my visit the museum was in the process of building its exhibition area and there was little to see inside the building.
Exhibition at the Royal Castle showing what the city looked like after the war, in 1947
After the war the Polish people put up a tremendous effort to rebuild their capital. They pulled the debris out, cleared the ruins and started to restore everything. The Old Town was finished in 1953, and 20 years later the Royal Palace opened its doors to the public. The Polish authorities had a clear idea of what the restoration effort would give: A perfect copy of what the buildings looked like before the war. It was a success, and for this reason the UNESCO put the historic centre on its World Heritage List.
Eat and sleep
The single night I had in Warsaw was spent at the Castle Inn. This is my review on Tripadvisor under the heading of “The perfect place in Warsaw” (4 out of 5 points): Situated on the central square next to the castle at the entrance to the Old Town, this is the place to stay for a tourist in Warsaw. Fascinating interior decorations, good breakfast and very helpful staff add even more on the bonus side. Beware there are no lifts.
Two restaurants up the Old Town street next to the hotel is worth mentioning for their genuine Polish cuisine. The first is called Polka and the second Zapiecek. You should try the pierogies (dumplings) of the latter. They are both frequented by locals, a usual sign of quality.
The week before Christmas 2013 I went on a fast moving road trip between four Eastern European capitals all with old towns inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Read the introduction and the individual entries about Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. You may also want to have a look at my entry about Warsaw as a World Heritage Site.
More images from Warsaw