Warsaw, Poland – a near-total reconstruction of a capital


My travel guide said many tourists prefer to skip Warsaw altogether and head straight to Kraków or Wrocław, which hardly sounded like a recommendation.

After a day or two in the Polish capital I came to the conclusion that you shouldn’t put much faith in a) travel guides, or b) the opinions of the tourist masses.

Old Town, Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw, Poland. Photo credit: Benjamin White

The founding of Warsaw

A settlement first appeared on the banks of the Vistula River in the location of current day Warsaw (by the way, Warsaw is the English name for the city; in Polish it’s Warszawa – pronouncedVarshavah) from as early as the 9th Century CE.

That small fishing village eventually became several small fishing villages. Then the fishing villages merged together, and by the 1300 CE the sprawling settlement had become the capital of the Duchy of Masovia.

Old Town, Warsaw, Poland

Photo credit: Benjamin White

In 1526 the Duchy of Masovia became extinct, by which I mean the last male heir perished (his death was attributed to alcohol poisoning, tuberculosis, and foul play – you can take your pick).

The lands of Masovia were subsequently annexed by the kingdom of Poland.

Royal Palace, Warsaw

Royal Castle, Warsaw, Poland

Royal Castle. Photo credit: Benjamin White

The Royal Palace, situated on Castle Square, at the entrance of Old Town, was the residence of the Polish monarchy.

The origins of the castle date as far back as the 14th Century CE, back when the city was still ruled by the Dukes of Masovia. Much of the layout of the Royal Castle came from this period, although the structure was greatly expanded over the centuries (especially by Sigismund III in the early 17th Century).

Old Town, Warsaw, Poland

Photo credit: Benjamin White

The Royal Palace, like the 85% of the city of Warsaw, was reduced to rubble during WWII. The Nazis intended to build a German Workers Party building in its place.

The castle was rebuilt between 1971 and 1984.

Old Town, Warsaw

Main Market Square, Warsaw, Poland

Main Market Square. Photo credit: Benjamin White

The Old Town of Warsaw is littered with charming buildings with architecture referencing the medieval, Renaissance, and neo-classical periods.

All of these buildings were destroyed by the Nazis during WWII and have since been reconstructed.

Old Town, Warsaw, Poland

Photo credit: Benjamin White

UNESCO describes Warsaw as an outstanding example of a near-total reconstruction of a span of history covering the 13th to the 20th century.

You can read more about the Historic Centre of Warsaw in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.

Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, Warsaw

Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, Warsaw, Poland

Monument to the Ghetto Heroes. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Warsaw was invaded and occupied by the Nazis in 1939. All Jewish residents of the city were subsequently rounded up and relocated to Warsaw Ghetto (it was to become the largest of all Jewish ghettos established by the Nazis).

More than 400,000 people were crammed into a small part of the city, sleeping 10 people per room. During the following years the inhabitants of the ghetto were systematically removed and sent to concentration camps and mass killing centres.

Jewish Cemetery, Warsaw, Poland

Jewish Cemetery. Photo credit: Benjamin White

In 1943 the Jewish population fought back, in what is known today as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The fight lasted a full month, but the uprising never really stood a chance of victory. Those that survived the fighting were executed.

Of the initial 400,000 inhabitants of the ghetto, only a few thousand would make it to the end of the war.

Warsaw Uprising Monument

Warsaw Uprising Monument, Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw Uprising Monument. Photo credit: Benjamin White

On the 1st of August 1944, the Polish underground army, known as the Home Army, launched a massive uprising against the Nazis. It was the largest resistance movement of the war. The fighting lasted for 63 days.

The Red Army (i.e. the Soviet Army) was camped on the opposite shore of the River Vistula throughout the Home Army’s struggle, but the Reds refused to lift a finger in the way of assistance. Jospeh Stalin wanted the Polish resistance crushed, or so it is alleged, to allow a Soviet takeover of Poland in the aftermath of WWII.

Warsaw, Poland

Photo credit: Benjamin White

After the uprising had been defeated, the Nazis systematically destroyed the city, going from building to building, using explosives and flamethrowers. 85% of Warsaw was destroyed.

About 200,000 Polish civilians were killed in the fighting.

Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw

Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw, Poland

Palace of Culture and Science. Photo credit: Benjamin White

The Palace of Culture and Science was built between 1952 and 1955 and was a gift from the Soviet Union to Poland (the Soviets, as expected, used a sham election to get a Soviet-leaning Communist government in control of the nation post WWII).

The Palace of Culture and Science was designed by Soviet architect, Lev Rudnev (whose other famous works include the Main Building of Moscow State University, and the House of Government in Baku, Azerbaijan).

The 237 metre tall edifice was built in Seven Sisters style (in reference to seven, similarly designed buildings in Moscow). As of 2018 it remains the tallest building in Poland, and it is amongst the top 30 tallest buildings in Europe.

Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw, Poland

Photo credit: Benjamin White

The complex was originally titled the Joseph Stalin Palace of Culture and Science. Some still call it Stalin’s Last Erection (Stalin died in 1953) along with other, less polite monikers.

I’m led to believe that many Varsovians (as the people of Warsaw are known), and Poles in general, despise the building for its Soviet roots and want it ripped down.

Fryderyk Chopin Museum, Warsaw

Fryderyk Chopin Museum, Warsaw, Poland

Fryderyk Chopin Museum. Photo credit: Benjamin White

I didn’t know much about the composer Frédéric François Chopin, who was born just outside of Warsaw, and spent his formative years in the city, prior to my visit to this museum.

If you don’t care to learn of Chopin’s life history, you can simply lock yourself in a booth and immerse yourself in the light, delicate, and grand melodies of one of the world’s greatest composers. It’s a fine way to round out your stay in the Polish capital.


Practical information and how to reach Warsaw:

Warsaw has its own international airport with flights to Europe and intercontinental destinations. The city is also connected to the rail network.

There are intercity buses running between Warsaw and Berlin (trip time = 9 hours), Vilnius (trip time = 8 hours), Prague (trip time = 9 hours), and Bratislava (trip time = 12 hours). More transport info here.


More on Poland:

A winter hike to Morskie Oko

Zakopane – what to do if snowed in for three days

or visit my crappy capital cities page.


Posts on Central Europe:

Liechtenstien:

Vaduz – the micro-state capital

Germany:

Neuschwanstein Castle – it’s Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in the flesh

Slovakia:

Bojnice Castle – medieval castle with a Romantic skin

Trenčín – defender of the White Carpathians

Spiš Castle – where they filmed Dragonheart

Bratislava – the central-ist of Central European capitals

Slovenia:

Ljubljana – dragons, salmon pink churches, and really old wheels

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