Frankly, this is not a city of monuments of this magnitude, as those in Paris, Rome or London. In a city ravaged by war very few original building has survived. And though they can hardly compete with the Louvre Museum, the Tower of London or Spanish Escorial, Warsaw in the period of its greatest prosperity was called the Paris of the North. But Polish capital has many other qualities which might attract you.
This is primarily a unique example in the world of the city leveled to the ground, which was, in a pioneering way, rebuilt. To a large extent 18th century paintings of an Italian landscapist Bernardo Belotto “Canaletto” were used for this purpose. His beautiful paintings showing Warsaw in the second half of the 18th century can be seen in the special room in the Royal Castle.
Bernardo Belotto: Krakowskie Przedmieście.
The old Warsaw is not only elegant, with classical, baroque palaces (I personally like much this very characteristic appearance of the city), the Royal Route and beautiful parks. It is also famous for a specific, plebeian urban culture with a characteristic urban songs and ballads. Those who will have some luck can have a pleasure to listen one of the Warsaw’s backyard bands. (Those who do not meet, may go to Prague suburbia for a monument of such a band – having paid, they can listen to one of famous street ballads.) See also: Polish songbook.
The Polish capital is also a city that very intensively demonstrates its memory of the painful events of the Polish history. Such commemorative plaques and monuments, honoring victims of Nazi and Russian persecution, can be seen almost on every street or a square. One of them is situated even in front of our hotel.
Monument commemorating Poles murdered by Russian in the east.
But Warsaw 2012 is primarily a rapidly developing city, where modern glass buildings spring up like mushrooms, growing literally in every available place. And this is, unfortunately, the grim aspect of this development. Architecture is a very chaotic, where the historic, baroque and neoclassical buildings meet solid houses from the 50s, shoddy constructions of 70s and glass office buildings of modern time.
Grzybowski Square and the Church of All Saints / Photo: Marek Angiel.
A bit of history
According to a popular legend, the city’s name derives from the names of a fisherman Wars and his wife Sawa, who heartily gave room to a stranger – it appeared to be a prince Ziemowit, who in gratitude founded a city in a place of fisherman’s house. Most likely however the name derives from the male’s name of Warsz and Warsaw was built in place of commercial settlements, the earliest of which came from the 10th century. At the beginning of the 14th century Warsaw was one of the seats of the princes of Mazovia, and since 1413 – the capital of this region. At that time this was a separate principality, which only in 1526, after the childless death of the last princes of Mazovia, brothers Janusz and Stanisław, has been incorporated into Poland. This meant a big promotion for the city in which the Parliament sessions were held. The rapid development of Warsaw started in the 17th century, after making the town the residence of Polish kings. It was king Sigismund III Vasa (on the picture) who in the years 1596-1611 moved the capital from Krakow to Warsaw. His statue, so called Sigismund’s column (kolumna Zygmunta), is one of the most characteristic features of the city. (He was not, however, a popular king in Poland for his strong Catholicism while Poland was at this moment a country of big religious tolerance, with strong influences of Reformism. He also wanted introduce absolutism.)
The enormous development of the city took place during a reign of King John III Sobieski. In the years 1674-1696 many magnificent palaces and churches have been built here (its worth to mention that one of the most significant architects of this period was Dutch designer Tielman van Gameren). Further development occurred in the second half of the 18th century, during the reign of Stanislaw August Poniatowski, the great patron of the arts. After partition Warsaw was finally incorporated in Russia, becoming the 3rd largest metropolis of the tsarist empire. In the period of Second Republic (1918 – 1939) became again the Polish capital and its population increased to a million. During World War II, as a result of the Warsaw Uprising (1 August – 3 October 1944), about 84% of the city buildings were destroyed (total human population war losses amounted to 700 000 people). The scale of destruction was so great that it was even considered moving the capital to the other cities. Ultimately Polish authorities decided to rebuild the town, with the Old Town in its pre-war shape. Quite faithfully rebuilt Old Town has been since 1980 placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Since 1990 Warsaw experiences an extensive building boom, and the newest facility – the big pride of Poles – is the National Stadium, built for Euro 2012, the European Football Championship.
And… since June 2012, thanks to a completed highway A2, Warsaw is finally connected by highway with the rest of Europe!
Our goal was not reckoning of everything possible in the shortest time, but slowly savoring Warsaw, including its most representative buildings – historic and contemporary. (Running through the city was rather hard in extreme heat, with a temperature over 30 C!) We started from the Old Town and a representative Royal Route, having planned 2 days for this purpose. The following descriptions are very brief – more relevant information can be found in numerous guidebooks. Our advice is, if possible, to explore the city by car in a weekend – usually blocked by a traffic Warsaw streets are empty and parking easily available and for free.
THE OLD TOWN – OLD MARKET SQUARE (day 1)
First walk to the Old Town we made on foot, despite the heat, which was quite en effort. Although this is in some distance from IBIS hotel, we did not want to use a car as the entrance to the Old Town is prohibited. The first interesting object in our way appears a modern building of the Palace of Justice, built in 1996-1999 in Krasinski Square.
Palace of Justice – left wing / Photo: Marek Angiel.
This building (44 700 m²) is nothing like the typical raw judicial house. Its main features are a clear green glass panels and the colonnade with quotes from the Roman law and clumps of green at the top. (The legal-administrative complex was in 2000 awarded with the Platinum Drill.) An additional soothing element is pink Pegasus, merrily grazing on the lawn. Palace of Justice – left wing.
There are more of them in front of the neighboring Baroque Krasinski palace, which houses the National Library. This is one of the most beautiful baroque palaces in Warsaw, designed by Tielman van Gameren (read also: Architect from Utrecht).
Krasinski palace – National Library/ Photo: Marek Angiel.
Turning to the Old Town it is impossible to neglect the Monument of Warsaw Uprising, consisting of two groups of sculptures. One shows insurgents setting off to the battle, the other one – the insurgents stepping down into the channels in the final-stage of the uprising.
Monuments for the Warsaw Uprising.
Not far from there you can see quite clearly marked place of the entrance into the canal of the group of 1500 Polish soldiers.
We enter the Old Town area from the Zapiecek – a small square with cafés and the renowned contemporary art gallery “Zapiecek”. And we admire the rebuilt houses around, which make the illusion of being 200 years old originals.
Old Town Market Square / Photo: Marek Angiel.
In The Old Town Market Square we can see a statue of the mermaid. It is believed that the lovely siren once lived in the Vistula River, at the foot of the Old Town. Its inhabitants, delighted with her singing, placed her in the city coat of arms.
Mermaid, photo: Marek Angiel.
The origins of the Old Town dates back to the 13th century, and although the houses were built in the 17th and 18th centuries, medieval town structure (12-13 century) has been preserved. The same concerns remains of the defensive wall (14-16 century) and the Barbican, partially rebuilt.
Warsaw’s Old Town was rebuilt with the use of the surviving fragments of buildings and its ornaments, but it has to be said that – unfortunately – many preserved buildings from the 19th and 20th centuries were demolished, which gave rise to considerable controversy. Anyway, today it is the only one in the world (on this scale) example of a planned reconstruction of the total damages.
Photo: Marek Angiel (click to enlarge).
And it exists and is full of life, because like any old town, also in this is filled with restaurants and dining terraces. What’s more, in the summer Saturdays jazz concerts are held here. Strolling around the market, we pass restaurant “U Fukiera” (At Fukier), which few years ago replaced the popular winery, operating since 1810 (!). The restaurant serves delicious Polish cuisine, like many other restaurants here.
Restaurants serving Polish food: pierogi and kluski (noodles) / photo: Marek Angiel (click to enlarge).
We are walking a little more around the Old Market Square, admiring among others a statue of basilisk. Yes, not only Cracow has a dragon! The Warsaw one once lived in the basement of one of the houses, killing people by a glance. An effective way of destroying it turned out to be … a mirror.
At a New Town Market Square (not so new, by the way, as it is only a 100 years younger then Old Town) our attention is drawn to another building designed by Tielman van Gameren – St. Casmir Church, erected to commemorate the victory of Vienna. Destroyed in 80% during WW II, has been rebuilt.
Dutch accents on the New Town Market Square: “Dutch” sirene Euro 2012 and St. Casimir Church designed by Tielman of Gameren.
We made a pic of the church in the warm light of the setting sun, and having looked once again on the lit and bustling Old Town Market Square, we go back to the hotel (by taxi).
The Old Town Market by night.
THE ROYAL CASTLE AND THE ROYAL ROUTE (day 2)
The Royal Castle is located on the Castle Square, which is situated in the Old Town area. Once the square was surrounded by defending walls, what separated the old Warsaw from the road leading to the south (Cracow direction). Currently the road is called the Royal Route and – being 11 km long – leads up to Wilanow (where is another famous Warsaw palace, a former residence of king John III Sobieski). Along the passageway there are numerous relics, including the Presidential Palace.
Castle Square / photo: Marek Angiel
We limited our route only to visiting the Royal Castle and a walk along the suburbs of Krakowskie Przedmieście, the first stage of the Royal Route.
The Royal Castle
It was built on the site of the former seat of the dukes of Mazovia from the 14th century. After moving the capital of Poland to Warsaw the castle became the residence of kings and the place of the parliament sessions. Within a few hundred years of existence has been repeatedly rebuilt and during WW II lied in ruins. The castle was first bombed (September 1939), and then blown up by Germans (September 1944). Fortunately, many pieces of equipment had been successively rescued by Poles, and after the reconstruction, which took place in the 70s, returned to their former seat. The current shape of the castle refers to the state of the 18th century.
The Royal Castle / Photo: Marek Angiel.
Under its walls lie fragments of the original Sigismund column, and the new king’s statue, like in the old days, proudly dominates over the Castle Square. (Could it be otherwise?) From the rich gallery of the castle’s chambers especially attractive for us are the Ballroom, Marble Cabinet (on the photo) with portraits of Polish kings by Marcello Bacciarelli, and the Senator’s Hall, in which the Constitution of May 3 was enacted. It is a pity that with the new walls, which haven’t witnessed those significant events, a sense of the true spirit of the History is absent.
After visiting the Royal Palace we go for a walk along Krakowskie Przedmieście street (przed mieście = before-the city). This is a very picturesque street, on weekends closed to vehicular traffic (normally available for buses and taxis), full of not only relics, but also cafes and restaurants.
We choose a restaurant opposite to a Seminary Church (on the pic), formerly being the Carmelite Church. Built in the late 18th century, is one of the very few buildings that survived WW II. In the warm rays of the sunset it looks very beautiful. (Across the street, in a huge cube, a reproduction of Canaletto is placed, so you can compare the state of the 18th century and the present.)
Walking away from this place we are heading in the direction of the Presidential Palace – another building, which fortunately escaped the ravages of war (he served the Germans as a hotel and casino). Built in the 17th century, he witnessed many important events – concerts of young Frederick Chopin in early 19th century and debates of the Round Table in 1989. At the moment it is a favorite standby of “true Poles-Catholics”. In front of the palace there is a monument of Prince Joseph Poniatowski, who in 1813 drawn in Elster River near Leipzig, covering the retreat of emperor Napoleon.
Presidential Palace / Photo: Marek Angiel.
Opposite the Presidential Palace there is a baroque Potocki palace (photo below), compelling with a beautiful iron gates. This is where the ball in honor of Napoleon was held, which started his famous love affair with Maria Walewska. It is now the seat of the headquarters of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. Adjacent to the Presidential Palace in Warsaw is situated the Bristol Hotel, an Art Nouveau building which was built in 1899-1901 – a pearl among Warsaw hotels. He was then a very modern hotel, and among their visitors are Pablo Picasso, Marlene Dietrich, Arthur Rubinstein and Margaret Thatcher. Now restored, it has the brand Le Royal Meridien.
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
In this beautiful summer evening we also find a time for a walk to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is located just a few steps away, on Pilsudski Square. This place is special, because here are hold ceremonies and parades during the two most important national Polish holidays – 3 May (Polish Constitution of 3 May) and Independence Day (November 11). The tomb itself, created in 1925, bears no resemblance to the grave. It is a piece of the colonnade of the non-existing anymore Saxon Palace, which contains the tomb of an unknown soldier from World War I, the urn with the land battles of the Polish soldiers from the World War II and a torch, at which soldiers perform honor guard.
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
The Saxon palace – view from 1919
Ceremonial changing of the guard with musical takes place on every Sunday at 12.00.
Ceremonial changing of the guard
Exhausted by the heat, we find and extreme pleasure in a rest on the bank of the beautiful Saxon Garden, which is situated in the back of the Tomb. In 18th century the Saxon Garden belonged to the Saxon Palace (property of kings August II and August III the Saxon), then became the first public garden in Warsaw. A large attraction here is a huge fountain in the shape of the cup. We’ll come back here later on Sunday to see the solemn changing of the guard. Photo: the Saxon Garden.
MODERN WARSAW (day 3)
In this day we plan to see the modern Warsaw. Unfortunately, among huge numbers of the new glass buildings only a few are fully recognized by architects.
University of Warsaw Library
Such building, which gained the greatest applause, is the Warsaw University Library on the Dobra Street (Powiśle). It is rare that the library has become a real tourist attraction, but the Warsaw one, built in 1995-1999, is now one of the most interesting objects in the Polish capitol. It compiles the function of a modern library with a garden. And not just because of a large garden arranged on the roof of the glass-metal building. (It is, by the way, one of the largest and most beautiful roof gardens in Europe.) The entire architecture was in fact designed as a giant rack of green so the bronze and copper components were intentionally patinated, what made them greenish in color. It gives a feeling like a gigantic garden!
University Library – view from the inside.
The typical library features of this building are placed on the front elevation, in form of book pages with quotations in the major languages of the world culture.
Multikino & Golden Terraces
Much less recognition has gained the Golden Terraces a shopping mall, built near the Railway Central Station.
Golden Terraces shopping centre.
We went there not to do some shopping however, but to see one of the worlds finest cinema multiplexes – Multikino, whose excellent interior is designed by Robert Majkut. It (was without a cinema ticket) possible to see the Velvet Bar and the corridors only, which gave us a small idea of the uniqueness of the whole design. Unfortunately, were we not allowed to take pictures, but happily before we were tought about it we managed to make an imperfect picture of the inside and here it is – the Velvet Bar with its all grandeur. Not bad place to have a drink with friends, isn’t it?
The Velvet Bar.
Palace of Culture and Science
The last point of the program – unrealized – was to be the Palace of Culture and Science (PKiN), another symbol of Warsaw. It is however not liked by many Warsaw inhabitants (some even suggested demolishing) for the very simple reason – PKiN recalls the period of Soviet “occupation” and the worst years of Stalinism. It was built in 1952-1955 as a gift from the Soviet Union. The huge building is a residence of the number of cultural and scientific institutions, museums and exhibitions.
Photo: Marek Angiel
For the average tourist it might be interesting to get to the viewing platform at the 30th floor (114 m high). Weary of the heat we did not get there however, contenting ourselves with watching the silhouettes of the Palace from a distance (from the Aleje Jerozolimskie). The massive body of the building sandwiched between the modern offices has created an interesting view, perfectly symbolizing the old and the new Warsaw.
WARSAW UPRISING MUSEUM & ŁAZIENKI PARK (day 4)
Warsaw Uprising Museum
It’s Sunday, so access is free. The museum is housed in a former Municipal Streetcars Power Station in the Wola district – this is one of the few surviving relics of industrial architecture in Warsaw. The museum uses the latest audiovisual technology which allows for inter-active viewings of exhibits. One can go through the reconstruction of channels (clean and also well lit, however), pick a card from the calendar, listen to stories of uprisers, watch documentaries and see the reconstruction of streets and battle fields. The route passes through three stories in chronological order, but to see the whole one has to book a long time. Photo above: a view from the street.
After these rather depressing experiences we found a great relaxation in Lazienki Park.
Embassy of the Kingdom of the Nederlands
But before immersing in its pleasantly cooling greenery, we take a look at the Dutch Embassy, situated in the Lazienki neighborhood. It was on Sunday so the embassy was closed, but still worth to be seen from the outside, because it is one of the most beautiful diplomatic resi-dences in Warsaw. Its creator, the renowned Dutch designer Erick van Egeraat, wanted to avoid a fortress kind of outlook, so instead of a wall (difficult to be breaked through) he designed a sleek metal fence in the shape of twining shoots of green. Behind them one can see two fairly simple and lightweight buildings of the embassy and ambassador’s residence, built with the use of a variety of materials – stone of varying color, texture and finish, wood, glass, metal and raw concrete.
View from Kawalerii street.
Along with a garden it creates an elegant and harmonious whole. We really regret that we could not get inside! (Read also: Embassy in the garden).
Tired with extremely heat, we found an excellent rest in the Łazienki Park (the name derives from the bath). Its values were appreciated already by King Stanislaw August Poniatowski, who builded here a lovely summer residence – the Palace on the Water.
Palace on the Water / Photo: Marek Angiel.
This beautiful park and palace complex on the water (built in the years 1774 to 1795) is one of the most valuable in Europe. It is worth noting that the palace itself, although heavily damaged, was not torn down during World War II. The palace and park complex consists of the park (76 hectares), the Palace on the Water, and pavilions, shrines, amphitheater (modeled on the Herculaneum) and Frederic Chopins monument, which is the place for the summer open-air piano concerts (on 12.00 and 16.00). We arrived there, however, too late and for the same reason we had not enough time for a longer walk (that is the favourite “sunday habit” for many inhabitants of Warsaw). Large attractions of the park are the peacocks, which – as can be seen in the picture – don’t pay enough respect for some of the statues.
The last accent of this day – on the way back to the hotel – is the drive along the waterfront of the Vistula River. It allowed us to see the excellent silhouette of the National Stadium and the beautiful Swietokrzyski bridge. We say goodbye to Warsaw while looking over the magnificent play of lights of the Silesian-Dabrowski Bridge over the Vistula, which runs her water rather lazily. Photo: Silesian-Dabrowski Bridge.
We haven’t visited, among others:
- the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, and the POLIN – Museum of the History of Polish Jews
- the Royal Palace in Wilanów – beloved residence of King Jan III Sobieski
For younger visitors we suggest to see:
- shopping mall Arkadia at Muranów district – one of the largest shopping complex in Central Europe
- numerous clubs and cafes
- Copernicus Science Centre – a fun for the whole family!
Published: August 11, 2012 / update: November 11, 2016
– Stacja Warszawa – Lady Pank, with pictures of the city
Date of the trip: 2 – 26 juli 2012
Photo: Marek Angiel, Renata Głuszek, Wikimedia Commons, www.zamek-krolewski.pl