From almost total destruction after the Second World War, Warsaw has developed into a very cosmopolitan and significant world-class city. Discover this phenomenon on a Poland vacation.
I recently had a very enjoyable second visit to Poland’s capital. My previous visit to Warsaw took place during the days of the iron curtain and communist domination. Ironically, on this visit, when I first exited the railway station in the city centre, my eyes were immediately drawn to a Soviet-style high-rise building – you know, the “wedding cake” structure. I hasten to add that this is the sole building of this nature in Warsaw, and upon checking it out, I found it to be interesting… but more on that later.
The more time I spent on this trip, the more I came to appreciate how far Warsaw has come to rival many other European cities with its numerous attractions. Warsaw suffered setbacks during the Second World War (more than 80% of the city centre was flattened) and the communist-controlled era. What I realized was how fast it “caught up” with other European capitals. What follows are details of my experiences which I thoroughly enjoyed, and which convinced me to write this article to encourage a Poland vacation.
The Old and New Towns
The old and the new towns are actually historical, old, and adjacent to each other. Warsaw’s charming Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site and no wonder. When you see this extensive historical quarter for the first time on Poland vacations, you find it hard to believe just how much of the original structures have been reconstructed and restored to their former glory, as the majority of the Old Town was destroyed during the Second World War. Everything gives you the feeling you have stepped back several centuries, the oldest part having been constructed in the 13th century. It is a place to simply stroll around and soak up the atmosphere. It is a lively place, full of medieval buildings and residences, squares, monuments, churches, galleries, museums, cafés, and restaurants. A highlight is the Royal Castle built in the 15th century which has exhibits of works of art and period furniture, that can be viewed on a Poland tour, together with its halls and salons.
Castle Square is directly located in front of the Royal Castle, where most people start their walk through the Old Town. The hub of this area is the Market Square which dates back to the 13th century. Adjacent to it is the Museum of Warsaw located in a dozen houses in which there are exhibits presenting the history of the city, right up to modern times. There are many churches here but the most prominent is St. John’s Cathedral, which was badly destroyed and is now completely rebuilt. It is the burial place of bishops, a Polish king, and prominent Polish presidents. At the back of the Old Town is the Barbican, a fortress built in 1548, featuring medieval defensive walls, most of which are the original structure. Standing on the top of the walls, you have wonderful views of both the River Vistula below and the city.
The New Town is located north of the Old Town and is really a continuation of the same trip back in time. This neighbourhood dates back to the 15th century and has its own Market Square. It also has six historic churches and several palaces built by noble families. I recommend the New Town as a good place to have dinner at one of the many restaurants which can be found here.
Royal Route and New World Street (Nowy Swiat)
When you leave the Old and New Towns, if you head south back towards the city centre, you will most likely walk along the Royal Route, which eventually turns into New World Street which, by the way, is not that new. All along the combination of the two streets’ way, you are going to pass by all kinds of small boutique shops and cafes. If you’re like me and have a sweet tooth, definitely call in at one of the excellent pastry shops. You can diverge off the streets and find several interesting sites and museums. Warsaw University is located just off New World Street. A stroll around its campus will bring you to a cluster of charming attractive academic buildings (not a red brick in sight). Close by is the Presidential Palace, an imposing building, once the private property of several aristocratic families.
Also in the vicinity is the Frederic Chopin Museum, opened in 2010 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Poland’s greatest composer. Among the 5,000 exhibits are a lock of his hair, his school exercise books, a gold watch, and his passport. There are also audio-visuals, music games, and touch screen options to learn about his life and works. One very enjoyable hour that I spent in Warsaw was at a recital given by a music student of Chopin’s compositions at the Chopin Salon on New World Street. Recitals take place daily at 6 pm and coffee and cakes are also served. For opera fans on a Poland vacation, the elaborate Polish Opera House is in this locale, where both opera and ballet performances take place.
Lastly but certainly not least, the Copernicus Science Centre is one of the major attractions in Warsaw. It has been declared the best science centre in Europe and is for both adults and children alike. The hands-on exhibits range the gamut from not only science but to everyday life on our planet. I idled away a very pleasant couple of hours using the experiments, many with multi-choice answers to pertinent questions. I learned quite a bit about our world and hopefully, I will retain most of my newfound knowledge. The imagination that has gone into this museum is amazing. There is a genuine flying carpet, you can pilot a spaceship, and you can take a picture of your own eye (and then try to recognize it among the others photographed that day).
The Palace of Culture and Science
This is a grandiose name for the Soviet-style building I mentioned earlier. It is said you either love it or hate it, but you should take a look at it on your Poland vacation. Built in the early 1950s, it is the tallest building in Poland. It is home to a large congress hall, theatres, a multi-screen cinema, and museums. There is also an observation terrace on the 30th floor which provides excellent panoramic views of Warsaw. It has been nicknamed “Stalin’s Syringe,” the “Elephant in Lacy Underwear,” and the “Russian Wedding Cake.”
Not too far from the centre of the city is the very beautiful and large Lazienki Park which was designed as a summer residence for Polish royalty. Now it is a landscaped park which incorporates a summer palace, an amphitheatre, an Orangery, and several pavillions. It is very pleasant just to stroll through this forest-like park. You will come across the Lazienki Krowlewski Museum which is an art gallery, an interesting futuristic monument of Chopin, the Myslewicki Palace, once the official residence of the king’s nephew in which you will find murals, art, and furniture, and the White House, a gorgeous summer house built in 1774, all interesting architecturally. Belvedere Palace in Lazienki Park was traditionally the residence of the Polish president until 2015. Although you can’t go inside, it is worth viewing. Originally built in 1694, it was remodelled in 1818. Lech Walesa, the Polish hero and Nobel Peace Prize winner, was a resident for a period of time during his term of office as president (1990-1995).
Wilanow Palace is Poland’s answer to France’s Palace of Versailles. It is located 10 kilometres/6 miles south of the city and is a wonderful baroque-style late 17th Century palace and one of Poland’s treasures. It started off as a royal residence and subsequently has also been the home of Polish nobility. You can tour the palace with its many rooms which include the royal apartments with their suits of armour, Etruscan vases, magnificent frescoes, an exceedingly rare 18th Century glass grandfather clock, and even a private chapel. Then there is the portrait gallery and the Wilanow Palace Museum which contains some old royal coaches. The palace and park host cultural events and concerts, with summer royal concerts in the Rose Garden. There are many other things to do here including a visit to the Poster Museum and renting a rowing boat on the palace’s lake. It is easily possible to enjoy a full day here while on your Poland vacation.
Other Warsaw Museums
The Warsaw Uprising Museum
A visit to The Warsaw Uprising Museum is a moving experience and is a tribute to the Warsaw residents who fought and died in their effort to free the city from the Nazi army in 1944. The exhibits depict the fighting and the everyday life of these people. There are 800 exhibit items and 1500 photographs, films, and sound recordings. The stories of eye witnesses of the 1944 events are heard on audio recordings and the movie theatre shows films about the Warsaw Uprising on a panoramic screen. The exhibits, spread over several floors, are dedicated to each district of Warsaw.
The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews
The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews only fully opened in 2014. Prior to the Second World War, Warsaw had one of the largest Jewish populations in the world. One-third of Warsaw’s population was Jewish, of which 90% of them perished during the war. The exhibits here range from the time of the arrival of the first Jewish people to settle in Poland up to the 20th century. Naturally, the Holocaust is a major part of the exhibition, which includes interactive installations, paintings and oral histories.
The National Museum
The National Museum is basically an art gallery which contains Old Masters, including 15th Century Dutch and Flemish paintings as well as Polish art from the 16th century onwards. There is also a large gallery of medieval art and another gallery dedicated to works from the 20th and 21st centuries. The museum also has displays of Chinese porcelain, Japanese woodcuts, jewellery, and furniture. The Numismatics Room contains Poland’s largest collection of Greek and Roman coins.
The Neon Museum
The Neon Museum is a fascinating exhibition of neon signs from the 1960s and 70s. The signs, designed by some of Poland’s top architects and designers, advertise products, cinemas, dance halls, restaurants and cocktail bars, and much more. Most neon signs of that era were usually just discarded once finished with, but the two collectors who started this museum managed to save over 200 neon signs and around 500 letterforms from never being seen again.
You can add to all of the above highlights of Warsaw an amazing selection of restaurants featuring every kind of cuisine, pubs, bars, and excellent shopping. These are all of the ingredients needed for an enjoyable and rewarding Poland vacation.