Warsaw often called “the phoenix city”, is a city that rebuilt itself from the flames of WWII and is one that deserves to be explored. While most people will tell you that Krakow is the city to visit for beauty and charm, to dismiss Warsaw is a mistake that you will live to regret. Warsaw is a city that has had the worst of everything thrown at it and has not only survived but come back stronger for it.
The story of Warsaw is a tumultuous one but one that proves that you can’t keep a good thing down.
Warsaw, which stands on the Vistula River lies in the East-Central area of Poland.It’s first mention in history was in 1313. At that time Krakow was the capital city of Poland. All that changed in 1596 when King Sigismund III Vasa, moved his court to Warsaw from Krakow after a major fire and therefore making Warsaw the capital.
Warsaw saw some changes over the years but none were as drastic as what happened to the city during WWII. From 1st September 1939, Warsaw was to live through hell for a further six years, changing almost unrecognisably in that time. German troops invaded Poland and entered Warsaw on 9th September.
The city surrendered in just under three weeks and then endured years of anguish and destruction at the hands of the Nazi’s. During their reign of occupation, the people did try to uprise against their captors, during April 1943 a doomed uprising broke out in the Jewish ghetto and then on 1st August 1944, the Warsaw Rising began. The unequal battle against the Germans raged for 63 days but was to bring failure again, this time on a much larger scale, with 200’000 dead and 84% of the city razed to the ground, with many pieces of art and historical buildings destroyed.
Though liberated on 17th January 1945, this was not the end of the struggle for Warsaw as it then fell into communist hands.
Over the next 15 years, Warsaw was rebuilt, it was to be a time of intense reconstruction and rebirth for the city that had endured so much. The Royal Castle and Old Town that were completely destroyed were rebuilt with meticulous detail. This was hard work and was rewarded in 1980 when Warsaw was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Freedom finally came for Poland and Warsaw in 1989 during the Roundtable Talks when the firstt partially free elections were held. In the last quarter of a century, Warsaw has emerged from its political shackles to become a cultural hub with a thriving nightlife and music scene a major tourist destination and a city that ranks as one of the most livable in Europe.
Whilst walking around Warsaw, the varied architecture that you will see reflects the City’s long, turbulent, violent history. Gothic churches are mixed alongside modern skyscrapers and neo-classical buildings against Soviet era modern concrete blocks. This is a city that has its history for all to see, scars and all, and its a city that likes to party and have fun and show its visitors a good time. A trip to Warsaw will leave you wanting more and there is plenty to be had in this vibrant, modern cultural city.
What to Do and See in Warsaw
The massive red brick structure that you now see at Plac Zamkowy 4 is a copy of the original Palace that was destroyed by the Germans during WWII. The Castle started modestly as a wooden structure in the 14th Century, during this time it was a stronghold of the dukes of Mazovia. During the mid 17th Century, it was one of the most amazing Royal Residences in Europe. It was also to later become home to Russian Tsars and then later still the residence of the President. Now however, it is open to the public to view the beautiful works of art and furniture that lie within the famous walls.
Whilst touring the Palace, some of the highlights that you will see are the stunning Great Assembly Hall, which has been fully restored to its breathtaking best, with the 18th Century decor an amazing display of dazzling gold columns and stunning stucco work. When you look up to the ceiling and see the huge painting “The Disentanglement of Chaos”, it’s staggering to think that this was a post-war re-creation so beautifully done.
Walk through the National Hall, viewing canvases depicting pivotal points of Poland’s rich history and in into the Marble Room, where even more works of art are on display. Going through the Throne Room and into The King’s Apartment will lead you into a room full of more stunning works of art, the Canaletto Room. Canaletto’s work fully captures the splendour of Poland’s high period in history, the mid 18th Century.
Old Town Square
Warsaw’s Old Town Square is not what it seems on first views. Completely destroyed during the war, only two buildings remained after the ferocious bombing, the rest was painstakingly rebuilt using Bellotto’s paintings from the 18th Century as its plan.
The hard work that was put in has paid off and it is a very picturesque old town square with narrow cobbled streets to walk down and tenant houses with rich colourful facades, some of which were rebuilt using bricks reclaimed from the damaged original buildings.
The charm of the Old Town Square is that although it is actually newer than the New Town Square in Warsaw, the spirit and determination that rebuilt it has left a wonderful place to walk around and reflect on what has taken place there.
The partially walled old town is lined with an eclectic mix of fine, tall buildings that are built with a mix of architectural styles from Gothic, Renaissance, Neo-classical and Baroque. Climb up to the top of the tower of St Anne’s Church and you will get an even better view in which to admire the Old Town Square.
Some 25% of Warsaw is made up of green spaces and one of the largest is Łazienki Park which covers 76 hectares of the city center. The park is a place of real beauty with stunning impeccably manicured gardens, wild spaces and well-kept green areas.
The park is used by the whole of Polish society, from families and music lovers, there is something for everyone in the park. On Sunday’s if you are around in the park, there are free Chopin concerts on in the afternoon during the Summer months, a fabulous way to hear his music sitting in the warm sun in a beautiful alfresco environment.
The park is made up of much more than just green spaces, there is a palace, amphitheatre and other follies to be seen whilst walking around. This is a place to spend some time in. Take a picnic and sit and relax, or hire a pedalo and enjoy a trip on the lake. There are some lovely gift shops to pick up some souvenirs of your visit to Warsaw as well as cafes to sit and have a coffee.
Palace on the Water
On of the highlights of Łazienki Park is the Palace on the Water. This is the centerpiece of the park and is a stunning neoclassical palace and was the former home of the Polish King Stanisław August Poniatowski. Sitting on top of an ornamental lake, the Palace is open for guided tours where you will be able to see amongst other things the ornate ballroom and some 17th Century ornate reliefs which depict scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
This is a wonderful place to take some superb photos, with the stunning building seeming to float on top of the ornamental lake. The beauty of the Palace and the Garden’s really stand out and it is wonderful to see a place that was spared from the atrocious bombing that went on in the rest of the city.
Visit a Museum
Warsaw has some amazing and varied museums to see and it is definitely worth going to some during your visit. They reflect both the good and bad of what has happened in the city and they are a great place to understand more about the history of Warsaw.
From the Chopin Museum in ul Okólnik 1, that showcases the work of the countries most famous composer Frédéric Chopin to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews that charts the 1000 year history of Jews in Poland from their earliest accounts to destruction in WWII.
The Warsaw Rising Museum is one of the best in the city and retells the doomed uprising in the city during the war. There are three levels of interactive displays and plenty to keep you occupied and informed, with photographs, archives and personal accounts of the time. It is a sobering museum and leaves you with an understanding of what life was like living in Warsaw during those dark, harrowing
Warsaw – What to Do and See Final Words
Warsaw will be a place that will no doubt surprise and delight you. Seen as inferior to Krakow in its attractiveness, it is actually a city that is full of charm and splendor.
It is a city that has come through the hardest of times to be a real draw to visitors, offering them wonderful food and entertainment, beautiful parks and green spaces, wonderful, informative museums and will leave you with the belief that even when the worst has happened in life there is always a wonderful, new beginning waiting around the corner.