Warsaw Old Town & the Royal Castle
Having undergone painstaking rebuilding from the ground up, the historical center of Warsaw is one of the youngest “Old Towns” in the world. The Old Town's inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is no accident - although smaller than the historic centres of Prague and Vienna or even Krakow, it is still stunning and the story of its rebirth in the immediate post-war years is truly uplifting.
Meander around the beautifully relaid cobblestone streets radiating out from the ancient market square and feel the Polish pride in raising the Phoenix of the old city from the flames of war. The exquisitely reconstructed Royal Castle tells a similar story. Take a guided tour through its hallowed rooms and relive the history of the Polish kings and the opulence of their surroundings. Finally, get off the beaten track at the end of your wanderings and enjoy a quiet drink in the New Town square. You can also request a guided tour of the Old Town and Royal Castle if you wish.
Like Berlin’s Unter den Linden or Paris's Champs-elysées, Warsaw has its own grand boulevard - Krakowskie Przedmieście. It doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily as its western cousins, to be sure, but it nevertheless has all the sweep of a historic thoroughfare.
Together with another popular avenue - Nowy Świat Street - it forms one end of what was once known as the Royal Way along which Polish and visiting royalty would proceed on their way to or from the Royal Castle. Both streets are pedestrianised at the weekends, so you can enjoy the ostentatious palaces built by the nobility and striking houses of worship that line the route without the distraction of traffic. Don’t miss the glass cubes featuring Canaletto paintings of the avenue from the 18th century, or the black benches that play clips of Chopin as you explore the street. Nearby is a museum devoted to Chopin, while Warsaw University, with its many beautiful buildings, possesses the leafy ambience of an American university campus.
Palace of Culture and Dining Out in Central Warsaw
The neo-Baroque Palace of Culture and Sciences is the building that leaves an indelible imprint on anybody who visits the Polish capital. With its 42 floors it consumes as much energy as a town of 30,000, and it remains the tallest skyscraper in Poland, even though it was built in the 1950s as a 'gift' from the Soviets to the Polish people.
Known to the locals as "the Russian cake", the building evokes intense emotions among Warsaw’s citizenry. Form your own opinion by ascending to the observation terrace for unsurpassed views of three versions of the city – the rebuilt old town, the standardised and monolithic apartment buildings of the Communist era, and the glitzy arcades and high rises of the new capitalist Warsaw. Just a stone’s throw away from the Palace you can enjoy a night out on the town around the streets of Chmielna and Nowy Świat, which have the heaviest concentration of pubs, cafes and eateries in the city.
Lying adjacent to the former Royal Way, the most luxuriant public space in Warsaw is Łazienki Park, which was once a hunting ground on the periphery of town, but was later transformed into an English-style park with formal gardens.
The beautiful Łazienkowski Palace is built astride an attractive lake and is the highlight of the park. On weekend days in the summer you can lounge around the large statue of Chopin and experience an outdoor concert. Another nearby attraction is the Belvedere, the official residence of Polish heads of state from the end to World War I until 1995, when Lech Wałęsa moved it to Namiestnikowski Palace near the Royal Castle. Otherwise you can just quietly stroll along the oak-lined walkways, watch the park's resident fauna, and people-watch from one of the occasional cafes that populate the park.
Warsaw Rising Museum
The story of the Polish capital's suicidal rebellion in 1944 against the Nazi occupation is vividly told through interactive, multi-media installations that play on the emotions as much as they engage the intellect. This is one of a new generation of brilliantly narrative museums that’s proven a box-office sensation for the Poles among whom the museum unashamedly aims to foster feelings of patriotism.
This is the first such modern museum in Poland devoted to the 63-day insurrection in August and September 1944 that left 200,000 dead and incurred a terrible revenge when the Nazis methodically razed Warsaw. After more than four decades of suppression of memories of the Rising under the Communist regime, the museum was the first to reconstruct the events of a famous, but neglected, chapter in the history of the Second World War. If you’re a WWII enthusiast, you’ll be fascinated by the way the story is depicted.
Winner of the 2016 'Oscar' for museum design and another mesmerising example of the new wave of narrative history museums, the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews is Warsaw's latest outcome in its determination to portray Polish history after decades of censorship under the former Communist regime.
Built on a former Jewish Ghetto site in front of the Ghetto Heroes Monument, the museum's core exhibition occupies more than 4,000 square metres (43,000 sq ft) of space. It consists of eight galleries that document and celebrate the thousand-year history of the Jewish community in Poland – once the largest Jewish community in the world – that was almost entirely obliterated during the Holocaust. The museum is also known by the Hebrew word 'Polin', which means, in English, either "Poland" or "rest here" and is related to a legend on the arrival of the first Jews in Poland which you will find out about in the museum's First Encounters gallery. No visitor will leave unmoved.
Following the Nazi invasion and occupation of Poland, Jews were in 1940 forcibly penned into an area that already housed most of the Jewish population. Failure to move into the assigned area was punishable by death. Measuring 3.4 km2 (1.3 sq mi) and enclosing 73 of Warsaw’s 1,800 streets, this area was carved into a ‘small’ and ‘large’ ghetto with the two linked by a wooden bridge over Chłodna St.
There were over 400,000 Jews imprisoned there, with an average of 7.2 persons per room barely subsisting on the meagerest of food rations. After the Ghetto Uprising in 1943 portrayed in Roman Polanski's The Pianist, the entire ghetto area was levelled on Hitler's orders. Altogether, some 300,000 inhabitants of the Ghetto are estimated to have died. A handful of Ghetto remnants remain, however, as reminders of the horrors that took place there and you can see them either with the assistance of a guide, or with detailed self-guided instructions and directions.
Trace the career of Poland’s greatest musical star and Warsaw’s most famous son, Frederyk Chopin, with a guided tour through the city that also takes you to the composer’s birth place in a village outside Warsaw, Żelazowa Wola.
Visit the church where Chopin would play the organ for choir practice, as well as the homes he occupied in the capital and the schools that he attended. And of course no Chopin tour would be complete without dropping by the wonderfully interactive Chopin Museum housed in the immaculately restored Ordynacki Palace close to the Royal Way.
Warsaw is famously the city of Fryderyk Chopin, so it's not surprising that Chopin recitals and concerts are a staple of the Varsovian musical diet.
As such, there are numerous venues around the city centre where you can hear Chopin being played, including daily concerts at the House of Music, Stara Galeria ZPAF, the Chopin Salon, and even at the Warsaw Archdiocese Museum, plus there are plenty of ad hoc concerts at other venues. Warsaw also boasts what was once the world's largest concert hall when the Grand Theatre was reopened in 1961 following its near total destruction in WWII, and it's still one of the biggest today. It houses not only the National Opera, but also the Polish National Ballet and the National Theatre.