There are many cities such as Paris, Budapest and New York where individual districts are known for specific traits, and these play a major role in defining the city's character. Warsaw was once the same (and it may well be again) but at the moment the city's districts are in the process of renewal and modernization. How they will end up is anyone's guess, but the pace of development and change has been rapid and shows no signs of slowing.
Warsaw's districts suffered along with the rest of the city's inhabitants during the dark days of the Second World War. Completely flattened, most of the city was rebuilt at about the same speed and at roughly the same time, with architectural styles and trends appearing in every district simultaneously.
Starting from the north, on the left, and predominant side of the river, Warsaw has three main districts. They are Zoliborz (the most northerly), Centrum and Mokotow. The other side of the river (the east side) is referred to in its entirety as Praga. Within these areas, there are numerous smaller districts, whose nooks and crannies are usually only known by long-time locals. Some of these smaller areas are worth a specific mention though, and will be pointed out later.
Zoliborz, often called green Zoliborz, suffered less than the other districts during the war. In fact, this is where many of the participants of the failed Warsaw Uprising escaped to (using the sewer system) once they realized all hope was lost. In certain parts it retains a peaceful suburban atmosphere, with interesting-looking houses and groups of flats surrounding parks and open spaces. Zoliborz is also home to the grave of the now world-famous priest, Jerzy Popieluszko, who was murdered by the secret police in 1984 for his opposition to the communist regime. Old Zoliborz meets new Zoliborz at plac Wilsona, named for President Woodrow Wilson, which under Soviet rule following World War II was officially renamed the Square of the Paris Commune. However, none of the locals ever called it that: to taxi drivers and residents it always remained Wilson Square. Zoliborz is an extremely pleasant neighborhood with its large parks and leafy tree-lined streets.
Sródmiescie is the main area of interest for visitors to Warsaw as it includes the central business district, the fashionable shopping of
Marszalkowska Street, built in 1757, meets Jerozolimskie, at what could be called Poland's main crossroads. From there, the opera, theaters, shops and restaurants can all be reached by hopping on one of the many red and yellow trams that criss-cross the busy downtown boulevards. Further to the north, you will find
Continuing south, the next district is Mokotow. This large area has several different feels to it: some beautiful pre-war mansions still remain standing (now occupied by businesses or embassies), as well as some typically Socialist rows of dull gray apartment blocks. Five of Warsaw's institutes of higher education are found in this district, including the Warsaw Polytechnic University and the School of Economics. There are also large areas of green, including large parks that interconnect. Access to the city's single subway line is also here.
To the west of these three districts, still on the left side of the Vistula, you will find Wola. This district is predominantly the site of corporate office parks and emerging housing developments, but amidst these campuses you will find many historical sites worth visiting. Wola is primarily an industrial area that is seeing some revival. Amidst the old factories, you can find several museums such as the
The other side of the river (the east side) is commonly referred to as Praga, infamous as the place where the Soviet Red Army was stationed and stood in wait as the Germans crushed the 63-day Warsaw Uprising and Hitler vowed to erase the city off the map in retribution just before the end of the Second World War. It was only after the Germans were defeated that the Soviets crossed over to reclaim Warsaw. For this reason, Praga was spared much of the war's destruction and a historical tension developed between the right and left banks of the river.
Praga has a slightly dubious reputation among locals for crime, dangerous streets, the Mafia, car theft and so on. Although this is true in large part in only a few specific areas, they have seen dramatic improvement in the last few years. Popular among artists for the low rent available in this district, Praga has become home to many studios and workshops for the new avant-garde. Cafes, pubs and clubs are popping up to cater to Warsaw's bohemian crowd. Saska Kepa is an upper-class haven running down to the riverbanks. Its narrow tree-lined streets are wonderful to walk through and admire the villas that were once home to Tsarist ministers. Now these structures instead belong to private owner, embassies and international schools.
Ursynow is another area that has gained a degree of infamy. A massive and sprawling example of Socialist planning, it emerged as block after characterless block of gray, dull flats. However, this area too is changing with the times. New shops and services are opening up, cinemas and entertainment complexes have arrived, restaurants and community centers are active and busy, and there are plenty new schools. This once depressingly gray and dull area is finally coming to life, and its future looks bright, especially since the metro cuts right through it.
Running alongside Ursynow, beside the river, is Wilanow. Most visitors to Warsaw will want to come out here to visit the renowned
In a sense you really have to be a local to appreciate the subtleties that distinguish many of Warsaw's districts. With time, they are slowly taking on new character. However, Warsaw's original districts were a casualty of the Second World War. As the city continues the rapid development that began soon after the fall of communism and was accelerated by Poland's joining the European Union, its districts are coming back to life with a vitality that is evident to any visitor. Being able to witness the transformation is part of what makes Warsaw such an interesting place.
Warsaw has a lot to offer in terms of entertainment choices. There is something for everyone.
Those seeking opera and classical music will not want to miss the Teatr Wielki, the national opera. It is massive and beautiful and the standards of performance are very high. Also an excellent choice is Roma, or the popular Warsaw Chamber Opera. The Philharmonic is home to performers from around the world, as is the Lutoslawski Concert Studio of the Polish Radio.
More intimate classical performances can be seen at the delightful Moniuszko Warsaw Music Society in the Szuster Palace or in the Frederic Chopin Music Academy. The concert hall at the Royal Castle is a charming location to see great performances. It's also worth keeping an eye out for performances in some of the acoustically ideal churches.
Another wonderful venue to see and hear classical music is in Lazienki Park, at the open-air Chopin piano recitals in the Rose Garden. Pianists from around the world come to play here during the summer months.
If you're after jazz, blues or rock and roll, there are many local clubs that feature different acts on a regular basis. Try Proxima, Lolek or Tam Tam and see what's on.
One of the city's best-kept secrets is the so-called Dom Kultury (House of Culture) or Osrodek Kultury (Cultural Center) that can be found in every neighborhood. Often, these places are hives of artistic and creative activity and put on regular performances by well-known entertainers. Some particularly active ones are Imielin, Bielanski Osrodek Kultury, Warszawski Osrodek Kultury and Lowicka.
There are plenty of movie theaters in Warsaw. These range from huge Socialist old-timers, to brand new high-tech cineplexes. Some of the favorite cinemas are Capitol, a former Soviet cultural center, Muranow, which often shows alternative films, Femina, a central multiplex, and Atlantic, also right downtown.
Warsaw has a very active and diverse theatre scene. Performances of everything from puppets to classics can be seen here. The National Theatre (opened in 1765) is where the grandest productions take place. Ateneum offers modern favorites, Dramatyczny covers Shakespeare to Beckett, Guliwer has puppets and live actors, Komedia offers comic plays and Zydowski puts on Jewish performances. There are also many more theatres such as Rampa, Staromiejski, Studio and Syrena.
For those looking to dance until the small hours, Warsaw has an ever-growing selection of venues. Ground Zero, a massive central club in a former nuclear bomb shelter (really!) is an enduring favorite. Harenda has a mellower, more bar-like mood and Barbados is for the trendy set. Piekarnia is small and jam-packed with dancers. Tam Tam is very hip, Riviera Remont hosts lots of live acts and is popular with students. Proxima is a great place for dancing and live music with a young crowd, while Loch is the only nightclub in the Old Town.
For those who like sports, there are swimming pools such as the new Wodny Park or the outdoor Moczydlo. Evening ice-skating is on offer at Tor Stegny and Torwar II.
The city also has some great museums. These range from the traditional —like the National Museum—to the less conventional such as the Warsaw Gasworks Museum. The Museum of Measurement is unique and very interesting while the Chopin Museum is also a favorite.
Another source of entertainment are the cultural centers and institutes of other countries. Places like the Goethe Institute often sponsor events, the French Institute also has a busy schedule and the British Council and the Austrian Institute also have excellent options. The Cervantes Institute offers some fairly eclectic and interesting entertainment.
One of the advantages of living in the capital city is that there are many celebrations and holidays which you can participate in. Warsaw hosts parades, concerts and special events on a regular basis. There are also some excellent annual festivals, such as the Warsaw Summer Jazz Days, the Mozart Festival, the TPSA Music and Film Festival and many others.
Another excellent option is to stroll through one of the wonderful and majestic parks, such as Lazienki or Wilanow. These peaceful green spaces are self-contained entertainment complexes, with museums, sculptured gardens, concert stages, cafés and restaurants. Above all, these offer the visitor the perfect opportunity to relax and unwind.
Warsaw is a pleasant city to explore. The fabulous Old Town is instantly rewarding and two of the city's parks are absolute must-see destinations. Most of the main sights can be covered in two or three days.
The city is split in two by the Wisla (also known as the Vistula). The eastern side of the river is known as Praga. Most of the destinations of interest to tourists and visitors are on the western side, in the Centrum or downtown district.
The Old Town- UNESCO Heritage Site
The natural place to start discovering Warsaw is in the Old Town. Begin at plac Zamkowy (Castle Square). This large cobblestoned square, home to King Sigismund's Column and the Castle (more a palace, actually) is instantly intriguing. You may wish to explore the castle which could take several hours.
Take a walk down Swietojanska, a beautiful pedestrian street. On your right you will pass St. John's Cathedral and the Jesuit Church. These two buildings are excellent examples of the varying architectural styles which are so prevalent in Warsaw.
Following along the same path (leaving the narrow alleyways for later) you will soon reach the Old Town Square. This is one of the most beautiful market squares in Europe. While gazing around at its near perfect presentation, it's a good time to consider that the square, the churches, in fact every building in the Old Town was completely rebuilt, brick by brick and stone by stone, at the end of the Second World War. The reconstruction was an astounding feat, and the whole area is now on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.
The square is an excellent place to stop for a drink. If you're hungry, some of the restaurants here are very famous. Fukier is the oldest restaurant in the city (it opened in 1610) and the nearby Gessler is popular for its stylish Polish food.
The New Town
When you're ready to leave this charming square, continue along Nowomiejska. You will eventually reach the Barbikan. This is the fortified gate of the outer wall of the Old Town. In 1408, the city officially expanded beyond these walls, taking in and developing what is now called the New Town (Nowy Miasto). At 600 years old, it is one of the most ancient "new towns" in the world!
Continue walking, and on the left you will pass the Pauline Church of the Holy Spirit which was completed in 1717. A yearly pilgrimage to the city of Czestochowa starts from here. On the right is the popular coffee shop Pozegnanie z Afryka, where you may want to stop off for a break. The street now becomes Freta. On the right you will see a Dominican Church (St. Jacek's) which is a baroque building completed in 1639 after a construction period of thirty five years.
Just past this church is the house where the Nobel prize winner Marie Sklodowska was born. This woman was later known as Marie Curie. She actually won the Nobel Prize twice—in 1903 and 1911—and was the only person ever to have done so. The house (Number 16) is now a museum dedicated to the woman and her work.
Continuing along you will reach the peaceful and quiet New Town Square. The beautifully proportioned white church is the Church of St. Casimir. It was built by Queen Sobieska to honor her husband. He was the victor in the famous battle against the Turks in Vienna in 1683—a decisive moment for all of Europe which ended the Turkish advances once and for all. This church was also destroyed at the end of the war, with rebuilding ending only in 1955.
Anyone who appreciates style and innovative décor will want to visit the Nowe Miasto restaurant. It is one of the most elegant vegetarian restaurants anywhere in the world. There is a wonderful sun-soaked patio which is open during the warmer months.
Returning to plac Zamkowy where the tour began could be something of an adventure. Go back through the Barbikan, and then why not wander down any of the appealing small side streets and cobblestone alleys? You may come across small churches, the Kamienne Schodki (Stone Steps) that lead down to the river or Zapiecek Square with its beautiful alcoves and entrances. The side streets of the Old Town can be very quiet, and there is a palpable feeling of having stepped back in time.
The Royal Way
The Royal Way is the ceremonial name given to the road that runs, more or less in a straight line from the Old Town through the city to the Wilanow Palace. It is made up of five different streets and is some ten kilometers long.
Like so much of the city, large parts of this magnificent stretch of road (especially the sections closest to the Old Town) were completely destroyed in the Second World War. Unsure how to rebuild, the architects and engineers used paintings by Canaletto. His faithful rendering on canvas of what the street looked like (albeit much earlier than at the end of the war) is partially responsible for how it looks today.
The street was home to many families of the Polish nobility. The president, for example, today lives in the Radziwill Palace which was at one time a residence of the famous Radziwill family. There are many other famous sites along this street including the Copernicus statue, the monument to Adam Mickiewicz, the Academy of Fine Arts, the Carmelite Church (a rare war survivor) and the Le Royal Meridien Bristol. The best thing to do is to simply stroll along it at your leisure. For night owls staying at the Royal Meridien, the clubbing option of choice is the nearby Riviera-Remont.
Lazienki Park and Wilanow Palace
If you continue walking you will arrive at Nowy Swiat Street (the street changes name with no visible indication). Nowy Swiat means "New World" and appropriately enough, this is now the city's chic shopping street. Many big names such as Estee Lauder have flagship stores here. Recently made more pedestrian friendly, the street is open only to buses and taxis. There are many cafés and restaurants here as well as shops. Blikle — Warsaw's oldest café — is nationally famous and the Viennese-style Nowy Swiat Café is definitely worth a visit. More restaurants and cafés are opening up here all the time.
Nowy Swiat continues until the picturesque plac Trzech Krzyzy, after which it becomes Aleje Ujazdowski. Trzech Krzyzy, (or Three Crosses Square) has the delightful and perfectly proportioned St. Alexander's Church at its center. This is also where the Sheraton Hotel is located. Some trendy bars and cafés have sprung up here recently as well.
Aleje Ujazdowski has many fine buildings, but if you've walked this far, you may now want to catch a bus to Lazienki Park, as the sights become less interesting in a block or so. Buses 116 or 195 will take you there in just a few minutes.
Lazienki Park is one of Europe's classic palace and garden complexes. It offers everything from museums to boat trips on the lake and Chopin concerts in a picturesque rose garden. There are busts of Roman emperors, an Orangery and pleasant walkways in every direction. The open-air concert stage is a popular venue and there are plenty of cafés to be found here as well as the famous Belvedere restaurant. You could easily spend anything from an hour up to a whole day out here.
When you're ready to continue, you will need to take a bus (180, 519 or 522) or taxi for the final six kilometers to Wilanow.
Sculpted gardens and vast areas of parkland surround this magnificent palace. There is a Chinese-style pagoda, a footbridge built on the Roman model and weeping willows that dip down into the lazy waters that run through the park.
The palace itself is stunning. If you look at its very center you can see how it began as a small one-story home. Section by section was added until it finally looked the way it looks today. The work was undertaken in stages from 1677 until the mid 1800s. Fortunately, the palace was not destroyed during the war, making it all the more precious. Taking a tour is highly recommended.
Also on the premises is the lovely St. Anne's Church, a popular place for special Sunday services, as well as the world-renowned Poster Museum.
It would be easy to spend an entire day in either Lazienki or Wilanow, but at this point you may wish to return back to the busier sections of the Royal Way. Shopping, cafés, culture and restaurants all await you...if you still have the energy!
Warsaw lies at the crossroads of Europe. The city sits, peering over the Vistula, halfway between Paris and Moscow.
At the moment this central location is helping to build the capital up again—Warsaw is developing at breakneck speed. Skyscrapers seem to appear virtually overnight and the signs of renovation, modernization and renewal are evident everywhere.
However, being at Europe's crossroads has not always been an advantage. Warsaw has often paid a heavy price for its location. Its reasons for being a great city are also what caused it to be completely destroyed in the recent past.
Taking the neighboring suburban areas into account, the current population is around 2.6 million people. However, at the end of the Second World War—the largest single contributing factor to the city's current appearance—the capital was practically a ghost town.
Archeologists have uncovered evidence of human settlement along the east side of the Vistula from as far back as 10,000 years ago. Nevertheless, it wasn't until 1289 that the town is first mentioned in records: at that time there was settlement on both sides of the river.
The name of the city is said to be derived from the names of two lovers—Wars and Sawa—who met and fell in love here. Another more likely story is that it comes from the name of a traditional landlord named Warsz.
In the 14th century, Warsaw is suddenly referred to as a fully-fledged city. No written document has ever been uncovered to explain this sudden transformation. The only logical supposition is that, once again, its position between north, south, east and west made it a popular choice. By 1408, it had grown enough to spill beyond the protective city walls and construction of the New Town began. In 1413, the now famous Old Town Square was created. That same year the city also became a regional capital of Mazowia.
In 1526, Warsaw was incorporated into Poland proper and in 1569 it was chosen (once again because of its central location) to be the seat of the Parliament (or Sejm) of the new Polish-Lithuanian Republic. Not much later, in 1596, King Sigismund III (whose column stands at the entrance to the Old Town) moved the capital to Warsaw from Krakow and the city became the parliamentary, financial and mercantile center of the Republic (which, besides Poland and Lithuania, also included Belarus and Ukraine).
In 1648, Warsaw officially expanded over the river, taking in what is now the Praga district into its boundaries. Over the next hundred years it would continue to grow. By the 18th century the capital had become an important cultural and artistic center: Marszalkowska street was opened (1757), the National Theatre held its first performances (1765) and the city was becoming internationally renowned.
Now however, location began to be a negative factor. Other nations more powerful than Poland began to look on it as a possible and highly desirable territorial acquisition. Thus began the period of Poland's partitioning and repartitioning. It started in 1772, and happened again in 1793 and 1795. In the meantime, the Poles themselves (in Warsaw) voted in the second democratic constitution of modern times (after that of the United States). This proved too much for the still very imperial Russians who saw this as a legitimate excuse to invade. By 1795 Poland was gone from the map; the nation no longer existed and Warsaw was no longer a capital.
It wasn't until 1815 that Poland gained back some autonomy, thanks to the Congress of Vienna. Nonetheless, Warsaw was still under the domination of the Tsar, and the official language of education, diplomacy and so on was Russian. The Poles tried several times to rise up and defeat their stronger foes (the beginnings of a long and bloody uprising tradition in Warsaw) but all attempts failed.
The end of the First World War saw Poland reinstated as an autonomous nation once again and within ten years, Warsaw was a city of one million people. The inter-war years were a time of success and growth, but it wasn't to last. In 1939 the German army invaded. Thus began what was to be a long and protracted war.
The Jewish population of some 400,000 people was systematically reduced to practically zero. By 1944 Warsaw lay in ruins, perhaps the most destroyed of any city in the war, with hardly a single building left standing. Entire sections of the once proud capital were left deserted and barren. It would take until 1956 before the population once again reached one million people. The Jewish community has never returned in any great number.
Two things happened at the end of the war which are responsible for how the city looks today: the first, and most important historically, is that the country fell under the control of the USSR. This had a major impact on Warsaw's development and especially on its architecture. Socialist Realism—the new Soviet building style—was given a ruined city to experiment with.
The second factor was the Poles' desire to rebuild the Old Town and other historic areas in an attempt to salvage at least something from their past. This resulted in one of the most amazing reconstruction projects of modern times: the Old Town, reassembled brick by brick, along with the New Town and other historic sites was to be recognized by UNESCO and added to the list of World Heritage Sites in 1980.
By 1989 it was clear that Communism was coming to an end. Warsaw was host to the now famous 'round table' talks in which the government, Solidarity, and other political groups participated. In the elections held that year, Solidarity emerged victorious and Tadeusz Mazowiecki became the first non-Communist prime minister in Eastern Europe.
Investment from the West started to trickle in, but this flow of investment soon became a flood. Warsaw began to boom—and is still booming. With its bizarre mix of historic buildings, massive Socialist Realist structures and shiny new skyscrapers, the city looks sure to become one of Europe's most eclectic and interesting.