This article was created to help newcomers navigate around Warsaw – if you have just arrived these are the spots that you simply must visit. Otherwise, you won’t be able to say that you have lived in Warsaw: every child who was born here, knows these places!
1. Palace of Culture
Yes, you recognize this building from every postcard, fridge magnet and mug that are sold in gift shops of Warsaw. Although it is one of the biggest attractions of the city and is considered its trademark, it is, simultaneously, a symbol of a very miserable period in Polish history – the communism era. The building was raised in the 1950s on the demand of Russian authorities: it was supposed to be a sign of conformity to the Soviet empire’s dominion (or, as it was narrated at the time, it was their ‘gift to Poles.’) The monumental construction that absolutely overshadowed all other buildings (remember that Warsaw was almost totally destroyed during WWII!) has also mopped up lives of many people who were working on it.
However, we got used to it, and as decades have passed, The Palace of Culture was not only incorporated into the panorama of the city: it basically became its second emblem.
Nowadays, we benefit from it in many different ways. Check out what is worth seeing there!
- Taras Widokowy – the observation deck situated on the 30th floor of the building
- Kinoteka – an independent cinema with a very interesting repertoire
- Bar Studio – a pub located on the ground floor, next to the theatre named “Studio”
- Café Kulturalna – a café/pub/restaurant (it depends on what time you arrive); “kulturalna” means “cultural/cultivated” – as it adjoins the Drama Theatre
- Teatr Dramatyczny/Teatr Studio/Teatr 6.Piętro/Teatr Lalka – these are the names of different theatres; you may be more interested in the last one: it is a Puppet Theatre!
- Muzeum Ewolucji – the Museum of Evolution: not only for the kids!
You can definitely go there more than once – it unfolds many new opportunities these days – and it functions very well in our XXI century reality!
*Pro-tip I: if you wanna taste the PRL (a.k.a.) communist era in Poland), you can grab a bite in a bar downstairs, on level -1 (#jokingnotjoking)
**Pro-tip II: you can actually enter the Palace of Culture from Marszałkowska street, and following the corridors on level -1, exit on Emilii Plater street, in front of Złote Tarasy. A very useful piece of information to keep in mind during frosty days of Polish winter!
2. Łazienki Królewskie – Royal Baths Park
Łazienki Park, or simply Łazienki, is one of the oldest parks in Warsaw – dated for XVIII century. The name of this place is strictly related to its function– the buildings of Royal Baths were located here.Nowadays, the park’s main attractions areits gardens – and there are a lot if different ones: The Royal Garden, The Romantic Garden, The Chinese Garden and The Modernist Garden. The best idea is to explore them all! Łazienki is a great park for a walk, for jogging, for a picnic, for a romantic date, and for a hangout with friends; perfect spot to sit and read or think. It is equally beautiful during the spring, summer, fall, and winter – always a great destination for taking a stroll (and meeting some peacocks!) Apart from gardens, don’t forget to take a look at:
- Zamek na Wyspie – The Palace on the Isle was originally the building of the baths. This classicistic palace was built in the XVII century and then redesigned in the XIII century. Why should you bother? Among others, amazing view on the pond!
- Oranżeria (Pomarańczarnia) – from French Orangerie it means basically a quilted building where you can raise plants that belong to a different climate, such as oranges (think about Polish weather conditions!) Now it functions as a gallery of sculptures.
- Pomnik Chopina – yes, he takes a very important place on the pantheon of Polish classical music composers and is hugely celebrated in our country; that’s why Chopin’s Monument is such important. The sculpture was first introduced to Warsaw’s public in 1926; then, blasted by Nazis during WWII’s occupation, it had to restored and unveiled again in 1958. Since then, from May to September, outdoor live concerts of Chopin’s music are organized around the monument every Sunday. You need to participate at least once – listing to his concerts while communing with nature is an unforgettable experience!
- Most i Pomnik Jan III Sobieskiego – the Statue of Jan III Sobieski, situated next to the bridge named after him, was erected to honour the Polish king who led us through the victorious Battle of Vienna in 1683, an encounter between the Ottoman Empire and the forces of Holy League (here represented mostly by Polish armies and Habsburg Monarchy) that took place during the Great Turkish War.
- Pałac Myślewicki – Myślewicki Palace was primarily indwelled by the courtiers, and later on by the Prince Joseph Poniatowski himself. Nowadays, as the Palace is opened to the visitors, you can take a tour around the rococo-neoclassical mansion and for an hour breathe the atmosphere of royalty!
- Biały Dom – it is one of very few and unique examples of residential architecture from XVIII century: this small villa used to be a royal summer residence. Luckily, it wasn’t destroyed during the war, and most of the interiors remained the original outlook.
- Pałac Belwederski – the name of this classicistic edifice, which was built in the proximity of Łazienki Park, comes from Italian: <belvedere> meaning ‘beautiful view.’ The construction of this complex, which was a huge undertaking, started in the XVII century – but the building has been remodelled many times since then. The Palace, in which Frederick Chopin was giving concerts in the first half of XIX century, became the headquarters of the Nazis during the war, which is probably the only reason why it survived and can, up to this day, please our eyes and serve our Presidents.
3. Royal Palace & Old Town
Everyone who lives in Warsaw recognizes the Old Town – it is one of Warsaw’s landmarks. Although it is not the original construction – remember that the whole city (especially the center) was destroyed during the WWII; all the townhouses and buildings had to be recreated in the second half of the 1940s and 1950s. Although the current shape of this district comes from the postwar period, everything was modeled after original architecture: As an example we can use the Royal Castle, one of the main attractions of our ‘Starówka,’ located at its the very entrance. Now turned into a museum; back in the days, it served as a dwelling to Polish monarchs, and, later on, remained at disposal of our government and authorities. You should go on a tour inside of the castle, but once you are there, don’t miss out on other attractions in this area!
- Kolumna Zygmunta – this column, first erected in 1644 to commemorate our king Sigmunt III Waza, is 22m high and functions as an orientation point of the Old Town!
- Pałac Branickich – on Podwale street you can see the Palace of Braniccy, built in the 1740s; it represents a mix of baroque and classicistic architecture!
- Barbakan – it is an element of fortification that separates the Old Town and the New Town. The tower itself is a great background for the photo, but the ruins of the walls that you can walk around are so much more romantic!
- Kościół Św. Anny – Saint Anna’s Church, which has often participated in important moments of Polish history, is also famous for its beautiful interiors and the bell tower with an observation deck. Check the view from there; very different from panorama seen from 30th floor of Palace of Culture!
- Ogród Krasińskich – just around the corner, there is a small but lovely park (Krasińscy’s Garden) with a few ponds – have a picnic or at least take your lunchbox there!
4. Museum of Warsaw Uprising
This museum is fairly new – it was opened on 31.07.2004; on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising. Wholly devoted to the horrendous events of the summer (and fall) of 1944, tragically inscribed in our history, it is a kind of monument of memory for all the people, who have stood up against the terror of Nazi occupation and sacrificed their lives fighting for freedom and independence. As an XXI century museum, it was built in compliance with modern principles of education: it engages, it tells a story – or rather, a multitude of personal histories that add up to a grand-narrative, and it actually takes you back in time with its design and ambience. If you visit this place, you cannot miss out on a few things:
- 3D cinema – here you can see the movie about the destruction of Poland’s capital. Did you know that 94% of all (!) architecture (including almost all residential buildings) was destroyed during 3 months of the Uprising?
- Airplane – a huge model of an American B-24 Liberator from WWII is hanging from the ceiling in one of the rooms; these were delivering supplies to occupied Warsaw.
- Contemporary exhibitions – these you will find at the end of the tour; they are quite engaging and present how the subject of Uprising is mediated in our culture.
- Notes from the calendar – actually, these you can collect throughout the whole museum. Each day of the uprising, which lasted for 3 months, is described on a small note from the calendar (with English translation) – try to find them all.
- Pomnik Serce Warszawy – “Heart of Warsaw” is the monument that stands right at the entrance to the main exhibition. You need to put your ear next to the wholes ‘left by bullets’ and you will hear different sounds (radio auditions, street sounds, songs from the period) of occupied capital!
- Walk along the walls of Jewish Ghetto – the Museum of Warsaw Uprising is located on the edge of what used to be the Jewish Ghetto – some parts of its walls have survived through the war and uprising; you can find them around Śródmieście (eg. on Złota street). At the same time, the trail of the walls leads through the whole neighbourhood.
5. Museum of Polish Jews
Jewish communities have always been an important part of Polish social landscape. This museum is devoted to the history of Polish Jews – and not only the recent, most tragic part of it (the Holocaust); it traces their history back to the X century, when first groups arrived to the Polish territory. Just like the previous Museum of Warsaw Uprising, it emerged on the map of Warsaw’s topography only recently – which is one of the reasons it is so modern and approachable – you will find many interactive multimedia content and equipment here: screens with maps, games, information; movies, charts, boards… everything is created with the objective of being interesting for the visitor.
If you come here, make sure to include these positions on your itinerary:
- WWII & Occupation – lives of Polish Jews under the Nazi occupation – which mostly meant either living in a ghetto or a life (although more often death) in a concentration camp. All the exhibitions devoted to this period are very powerful, but at the same time very strenuous and burdensome – read something about it before you go to this part of history, so you will be prepared for what is presented there.
- Ghetto Uprising: commemorating events that are especially important to the descendants of Polish-Jewish communities who live in Warsaw. The uprising in the Jewish ghetto (located in the central part of Warsaw – current Śródmieście/Muranów area) was a desperate act of its inhabitants and a direct response to the decision of Nazi authorities about the liquidation of this ‘district’ – which was a euphemism for transporting to concentration camps and murdering all its inhabitants. It ultimately led to the total destruction of the ghetto and the death of everyone who ‘lived’ in it.
- Death camps – this part of the trail is the most difficult one. Between 1,5-2 million people were slaughtered in death and concentration camps located on Polish territory.
- Yiddish language – if you need some break from the XX century, take a route that follows the footprints of Yiddish: you can find out interesting stuff about the history of the language, learn the letters and actually print some words or even sentences using the original monotype machine! So much fun!
- Restaurant with Jewish cuisine – well, let’s end on a good note – after a tour around the museum (which will take you a couple of hours at least) you should check out the slightly hidden, unpretentious restaurant on the ground floor. The food is really good there and it will taste even better once you’ll have some knowledge about Jewish culture, traditions, and customs! In general, you can try some really interesting (and quite delicious) dishes of traditional, ethnic cuisine here.