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.
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.
The small fishing village eventually became several small fishing villages. The villages merged, and by 1300 CE the sprawling settlement had become the capital of the Duchy of Masovia.
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
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).
The Royal Palace, along with 85% of the city of Warsaw, was reduced to rubble during WWII. The Nazis intended to erect an office for the German Workers Party in its place.
The castle was rebuilt between 1971 and 1984.
Old Town, Warsaw
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.
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 was invaded and occupied by the Nazis in 1939. Before long all Jewish residents of the city had been 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.
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
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.
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
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 predicted, manipulated the Polish elections to get a Soviet-leaning Communist government in power at the end of 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.
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
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:
or visit my crappy capital cities page.