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Warsaw

Perhaps the only constant quality of Warsaw is change. It is remarkable how often—and how quickly—Poland’s capital rebuilds and reinvents itself over time. Though in the past this reinvention was involuntary, the city having been invaded and destroyed several times over the ages, Warsaw now continues to metamorphose quite well on its own. To today’s young Varsovians—and visitors alike—World War II may seem like ancient history, but it is impossible to forget that some 85% of the city was utterly destroyed in the war. The “phoenix from the ashes” label fits no other modern European city more than Warsaw.

In decades immediately after World War II, Poland’s capital was often—and rather unjustly—dismissed as “concrete jungle” or “a life-size model of a city.” Now well into the 21st century, both these phrases simply no longer apply. Warsaw will consistently surprise you: you may find yourself in a beautiful park wondering whether you are in a city at all; but go just a bit farther, and you will be confronted by a brand-new, tech-and-chic skyscraper you would not necessarily envisage in the country from the former Soviet bloc. Warsaw is a modern, thriving metropolis, with everything you’d expect in a bustling urban environment: plush five-star hotels, a thriving arts scene, top-notch contemporary architecture, gourmet restaurants, and upmarket shops. It’s worthy of the label “European capital” as much as Berlin, Paris, or Rome.

And yet it is more than a fashionable modern city: it is a city with a memory—or rather with multiple, carefully preserved memories. Within today’s Warsaw, you will find the city of Chopin’s youth; and the city that resisted the Nazis in 1944 during the heroic, tragic Warsaw Uprising. Fragments of the city that survived the war acquire a special poignancy in their isolation: odd rows of Art Nouveau tenements, such as those on the south side of the great square around the Pałac Kultury i Nauki (Palace of Culture and Science) and on ulica Wilcza; the elegant Aleje Ujazdowskie, now the Diplomatic Quarter, leading to the Belvedere Palace and the Łazienki Palace and Park. The reconstructed areas of the Polish capital—the historic Old Town area, rebuilt brick by brick in the 1950s; the Royal Castle; the Ujazdowski Castle—are moving tributes to the Poles’ ability to survive and preserve their history.

There are many areas where the city slows down its pace. The right-bank district of Praga, until recently regarded as an “off-limits” area, is now a fashionable bohemian hang-out. The wild, unregulated Vistula River is lined with surprisingly nice city beaches. The city’s abundant green space will allow you to walk the length and breadth of town practically from park to park. Warsaw is a city that deserves to be loved; it’s definitely a city to enjoy.

POINTS OF INTEREST

KOŚCIÓŁ ŚWIĘTEGO ALEKSANDRA

Built in the early 19th century as a replica of the Roman pantheon, St. Alexander’s stands on an island in the middle of plac Trzech Krzyży, a name that is notoriously difficult for foreigners to pronounce and means “Three Crosses Square.” One of the crosses is on the church itself.

FORMER HEADQUARTERS OF THE POLISH COMMUNIST PARTY

Anti-Communists love the irony of this once-despised symbol of oppression; for a decade after the Communist fall, until 2001, it was the seat of the Warsaw Stock Exchange (today, it’s the Centrum Bankowo-Finansowe). This is not a tourist sight in a strict sense, but it is worth a peek for its monumental—even oppressive—architecture, a remainder of what the fallen system was like. It was declared a historic monument in 2010.

UNIWERSYTET WARSZAWSKI

The high wrought-iron gates of Warsaw University lead into a leafy campus with some beautiful buildings. The Pałac Kazimierzowski (Kazimierzowski Palace), which currently houses the university administration, is among the more historic campus buildings but also a focal point for the university. In the 18th century it was the Military Cadet School where Tadeusz Kościuszko studied.

MUZEUM WOJSKA POLSKIEGO

If you’re interested in all things military, you might want to visit this museum’s exhibits of weaponry, armor, and uniforms, which trace Polish military history for the past 10 centuries. Heavy armaments are displayed outside. In a few years, the museum will move to the new building, now under construction—but until then, it remains open in the old location.

PAŁAC KULTURY I NAUKI

This massive Stalinist-Gothic structure looks like a wedding cake and is the main landmark in the city. Some hate it, some love it but it’s been a national monument since 2007. From the 30th floor you can get a panoramic view. The old joke runs that this is Warsaw’s best view because it is the only place from which you can’t see the palace. To view all of urban Warsaw from 700 feet up, buy tickets at the booth near the east entrance. But do see the interiors as well, and try to see beauty in them. The building houses a number of facilities, including a swimming pool and the Museum of Science and Technology, with a display that hasn’t changed for several decades, making it charmingly vintage, and not at all high-tech. Curiously, the Palace is also home to several species of animals: cats live in the second level underground, peregrine falcons on the 43rd floor, and, since 2015, there are even beehives.

KOŚCIÓŁ ŚWIĘTEGO KRZYŻA

The heart of Poland’s most famous composer, Frédéric Chopin, is immured in a pillar inside this baroque church. Atop the church steps is a massive, sculpted crucifix. Across from the church is the statue of Nicolaus Copernicus, standing in front of the neoclassical Staszic Palace, the headquarters of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Like many other notable Warsaw monuments, this statue is the work of the 19th-century Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen.

MUZEUM NARODOWE

In a functional 1930s building, the National Museum has an impressive collection of contemporary Polish and European paintings, Gothic icons, and works from antiquity.

PAŁAC CZAPSKICH

Now the home of the Academy of Fine Arts, the Czapski Palace dates from the late 17th century but was rebuilt in 1740 in the rococo style. Zygmunt Krasiński, the Polish romantic poet, was born here in 1812, and Chopin once lived in the palace mews.

MUZEUM CHOPINA

The Chopin Museum occupies the 17th-century Pałac Ostrogskich, which towers above Tamka. The best approach is via the steps from Tamka. In the 19th century the Warsaw Conservatory was housed here (Ignacy Paderewski was one of its students). In 2010, on the occasion of Chopin’s Year celebrations, a modest collection of mementos, including the last piano played by the composer, was turned into an exciting, interactive, state-of-the-art display across four floors of the Palace. Many programs and events are running here throughout the year, including piano recitals and museum lessons for children. The museum’s motto is for the visitor to “Experience Chopin.” The works of Chopin (1810–49) took their roots from folk rhythms and melodies of exclusively Polish invention. Thanks to this composer, Poland can fairly claim to have been the fountainhead of popular music in Europe in the mid-19th century, when the Chopin’s polonaises and mazurkas whirled their way around the continent.

PARK ŁAZIENKOWSKI

The 180 acres of this park, commissioned during the late 18th century by King Słanisław August Poniatowski, run along the Vistula escarpment, parallel to the Royal Route. It’s focus is the magificent neoclassical Pałac Łazienki, but there are many other attractions. Look for the peacocks that wander through the park and the delicate red squirrels that in Poland answer to the name “Basia,” a diminutive of Barbara. Of course, the best way to entice a squirrel to come near is to have some nuts in your hand. One of the most beloved sights in Łazienki Park is the Pomnik Fryderyka Chopina (Chopin Memorial), a sculpture under a streaming willow tree that shows the composer in a typical romantic pose. In summer, outdoor concerts of Chopin’s piano music are held here every Sunday afternoon.

PAŁAC WILANÓW

A baroque gateway and false moat lead to the wide courtyard that stretches along the front of Wilanów Palace, built between 1681 and 1696 by King Jan III Sobieski. After his death, the palace passed through various hands before it was bought at the end of the 18th century by Stanisław Kostka Potocki, who amassed a major art collection, laid out the gardens, and opened the first public museum here in 1805. Potocki’s neo-Gothic tomb can be seen to the left of the driveway as you approach the palace. The palace interiors still hold much of the original furniture; there’s also a striking display of 16th- to 18th-century Polish portraits on the first floor. English-speaking guides and audio-guides are available.

Outside of the Pałac Wilanów, to the left of the main entrance, is a romantic park with pagodas, summer houses, and bridges as well as a lake. Behind the palace is a formal Italian garden from which you can admire the magnificent gilt decoration on the palace walls. There’s also a gallery of contemporary Polish art on the grounds. Stables to the right of the entrance now house a poster gallery, the Muzeum Plakatu that is well worth visiting—this is a branch of art in which Poles have historically excelled.

CENTRUM SZTUKI WSPÓŁCZESNEJ ZAMEK UJAZDOWSKI

If you are interested in modern art, you will find it in the somewhat unlikely setting of the 18th-century Zamek Ujazdowski, reconstructed in the 1980s. The castle hosts a variety of temporary exhibitions by artists from Poland and all over the world. It is home to the most comprehensive permanent collection of Polish contemporary art found anywhere in the country (still growing, by its very nature). You can easily spend a day there, catching a lecture, a movie (in the summer outdoor cinema), or lunch (at a cafeteria or a more fancy restaurant within the castle gates). The bookshop is well stocked with art publications and souvenirs.

POLIN MUSEUM OF THE HISTORY OF POLISH JEWS

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews is housed in a building—by Finnish architekt Rainer Mahlamäki—charged with symbolism, drawing attention, even from a distance, by offering a literal bridge over a painful rift in Polish history. Inside, you find yourself in a soft, beautiful concrete canyon, which seems to fill with light even on a gray day. In the permanent exhibition, the historical display is meticulously researched and curated (its development involved as many as 130 scientists), focusing on the evidence from real people of different eras—from the Middle Ages to the present—who are given the voice to tell their own stories. The amount of material is impressive, though not overwhelming: you can easily spend a half-day at the museum with or without the navigation help of an audio-guide. In addition to permanent and temporary exhibitions, the museum has a lovely play-education area for young children, a café, a bookshop, an information center (a great resource when searching for your family roots, for instance), and a large auditorium that is used for concerts, movie screenings, and other events.

FRAGMENT OF GHETTO WALL

In the courtyard of this building on Sienna Street, through the archway on the left, and just a little farther east, on Złota Street, are the only two surviving fragments of the infamous wall built by the Nazis to close off the Warsaw Ghetto in November 1940. Warsaw’s was the largest Jewish ghetto established by the Germans during World War II. Between 300,000 and 400,000 people perished during the three years of its existence, from starvation, diseases (mostly typhoid), and deportation to Nazi death caps. It was the scene of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, led by Mordechaj Anielewicz, who died there at the age of 24. Among the hostages of history in the Warsaw Ghetto we find such memorable figures as Władysław Szpilman, “The Pianist” from Polański’s movie, and Doctor Janusz Korczak, a pediatrician, teacher, and writer who ran an orphanage for Jewish children—who decided to accompany them all the way to the gas chambers of Treblinka. A tourist and cultural information kiosk can be found in the courtyard between Złota 60 and Sienna 55; it’s open only on weekdays.

POWĄZKI CEMETERY

Dating from 1790, Warsaw’s oldest cemetery is worth a visit if you are in a reflective mood. Many well-known Polish names appear on the often elaborate headstones and tombs. There is also a recent memorial to the victims of the Katyń Massacre, when 4,000 Polish servicemen, who had been taken prisoner when the Soviets were still aligned with the Nazis, were murdered by the Soviet army on orders from Stalin in 1940 in the Katyń Forest. Enter from ulica Powązkowska.

UMSCHLAGPLATZ

This plaza was the rail terminus from which tens of thousands of the ghetto’s inhabitants were shipped in cattle cars to the extermination camp of Treblinka, about 100 km (60 miles) northeast of Warsaw. The school building to the right of the square was used to detain those who had to wait overnight for transport; the beginning of the rail tracks survives on the right. At the entrance to the square is a memorial gateway, erected in 1988 on the 45th anniversary of the uprising.

WARSAW RISING MUSEUM

One of the youngest and certainly one of the best museums in Poland tells the story of the 1944 Rising by means of interactive displays. The museum features a life-size plane, cobblestone streets, reconstructed sewers (vital transportation and evacuation lines during the battles), real objects, photographs, and also video footage and audio recordings. It is a day-by-day account of the heroic struggle of the insurgents, most of them twentysomething years old—often told in their own words. It is impossible not to be involved and moved by it. Allow a minimum of 2½ hours to see the exhibition with a guide. English-language guides are available, but to ensure that you have a guide, you should make a tour reservation on the museum website by emailing a request to the museum, especially in summer. It is possible to wander around on your own as well. Large groups (11-plus persons) must book their entry in advance.

JEWISH CEMETERY

Behind a high brick wall on ulica Okopowa you will find Warsaw’s Jewish Cemetery, an island of continuity amid so much destruction of the city’s Jewish heritage. The cemetery, which is still in use, survived the war, and although it was neglected and became badly overgrown during the postwar period, it is gradually being restored. Here you will find 19th-century headstones and much that testifies to the Jewish community’s role in Polish history and culture. Ludwik Zamenhof, the creator of the artificial language Esperanto, is buried here, as are Henryk Wohl, minister of the treasury in the national government during the 1864 uprising against Russian rule; Szymon Askenazy, the historian and diplomat; Hipolit Wawelberg, the cofounder of Warsaw Polytechnic; and poet Bolesław Leśmian. To reach the cemetery, you can take a bus (nos. 107, 111, 180) or a tram (nos. 1, 22, 27).

JEWISH HISTORICAL INSTITUTE

You’ll find the institute behind a glittering new office block on the southeast corner of plac Bankowy—the site of what had been the largest temple in Warsaw, the Tłomackie Synagogue. For those seeking to investigate their family history, the institute houses the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation Genealogy Project, which acts as a clearinghouse of information on available archival resources and on the history of towns and villages in which Polish Jews resided. English-speaking staff members are available. The institute also houses a museum that displays a permanent collection of mementos and artifacts and periodically organizes special exhibitions.

ULICA PRÓŻNA

This is the only street in Jewish Warsaw where tenement buildings have been preserved on both sides of the street. It’s a melancholy sight, reflecting a world that has all but disappeared. The Lauder Foundation has instigated a plan to restore the street to its original state. No. 9 belonged to Zelman Nożyk, founder of the ghetto synagogue. Since 2004, ulica Próżna and the neighbouring square, Plac Grzybowski, become a stage for the “Singer’s Warsaw” Jewish Culture Festival in the summer.

CENTRUM NAUKI KOPERNIK

A recent addition to Warsaw’s attractions, the Center is something between a museum, an amusement park, and an educational institution. It made news when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was visiting Warsaw on the occasion of NATO summit with his son—some say, specifically to see the Copernicus. Many parents do just the same, and they probably enjoy it at least as much as their children. The fun, interactive displays take you through different realms of science, from biology to optics to astrophysics to psychology. There are labs and shows for children of all ages, and there is even a planetarium. A word of warning: if you are sensitive to the sound that hundreds of excited children can make, bring earplugs.

BIBLIOTEKA UNIWERSYTETU WARSZAWSKIEGO

A 10-minute walk toward the river from the main campus of Warsaw University is the relatively new (1999) Warsaw University Library, a sight not to be missed, even if you’re not on a research trip. You’ll find some shops and cafés on the ground floor, but it’s the building’s roof and its rooftop garden that are truly special and definitely worth the trip. The garden, open to the general public, is both vast and intimate, not to mention one of the most beautiful rooftop spaces in all of Europe. With its nooks, crannies, brooks, paths, lawns, and benches where you can hide with or without a book, the garden provides a perfect space for thought and inspiration. It is also full of surprises: look for various “reinterpretations” of Einstein’s theory of relativity. In addition, you’ll find a kaleidoscope of vistas of both the city and the library’s interior. If you dare, cross the footbridge over the glass library roof—with the sky reflected under your feet, you literally walk in the clouds.

MUZEUM MARII SKŁODOWSKIEJ-CURIE

The house in which Marie Curie Skłodowska was born has a small museum inside dedicated to the great physicist, chemist, winner of two Nobel Prizes, and discoverer of radium.

MUZEUM ETNOGRAFICZNE

On display here you’ll find an interesting collection of Polish folk art, crafts, and costumes from all parts of the country as well as ethnographic collections from the world over. The museum organizes an impressive program of temporary, thematic exhibitions (for example, football culture or modern religious folklore) as well as events, concerts, movies, and educational programs for children.

ZAMEK KRÓLEWSKI

Warsaw’s Royal Castle stands on the east side of Castle Square. The princes of Mazovia first built a residence on this spot overlooking the Vistula in the 14th century. Its present Renaissance form dates from the reign of King Zygmunt III Waza, who needed a magnificent palace for his new capital. Reconstructed in the 1970s, it now gleams as it did in its earliest years, with gilt, marble, and wall paintings. It also houses impressive collections of art—including the famous views of Warsaw that were painted by Canaletto’s nephew Bernardo Bellotto (also known as Canaletto), which were used to rebuild the city after the war. Tours in English are available.