My only pre-conceived notion of Warsaw was that it was grey and gloomy, a vision from the early 1980’s television broadcasts probably streaming news about the Solidarity Movement conflict. So, as we sped towards Warsaw on the high speed intercity train in the fall of 2017, I looked forward to discovering the city.
We arrived at the Warszawa Centralna (Warsaw Central) Station, originally a large communist era building but refurbished in 2010 and 2015. According to ‘Warszawa Centralna railway station’, en.wikipedia.org, the station was registered as “a historical monument of modern architecture”. After some convoluting turns just to get out of the station, we tugged our suitcases to our little 21 room hotel, the Castle Inn in the Old Town of Warsaw.
Warsaw, known for it's resilience, is a city of 1.7 million people situated in the east central portion of Poland on the Vistula River. As Britannica.com, ‘Warsaw’, describes, Warsaw is not known “for it’s size, it’s age or it’s beauty but for it’s indestructability”, rebuilding itself repeatedly over the centuries, the latest after being decimated in 1944 under Adolf Hitler. It’s appropriate motto is “Contemnit procellas” (“It defies the storm”).
Old Town in Warsaw dates to the 13th century, has cobblestone streets and re-constructed medieval buildings, and was named a UNESCO World heritage Site in 1980. Warsawguide.com is a good resource. There are two main Squares: Old Town Market Square which houses the market and the Warsaw Mermaid sculpture, and the Castle Square, right in front of the Royal Castle and which houses the Zygmunt (King Sigismund) Statue and our Castle Inn hotel. The Barbican is the 1548 access gate, and several historic churches (and great coffee houses!) are found in Old Town. The Krakowsie Przedmiescie/ul Nowy Swiat is the most prestigious street in Warsaw, leading from Old Town to the south, lined with high end businesses, the presidential palace, classic churches, and the Warsaw University. These are pictures of the two Old Town Squares.
One of our enjoyable days was spent touring around the University of Warsaw, the largest university in Poland, and eating in the cafeteria (because we like to do strange things like that). The university library is an exceptional building with an amazing roof garden. Nearby is the Copernicus Science Centre with it’s own rooftop garden, designed to show plant species growing in harsh environmental conditions. The rooftop garden has a different ‘climate’ than the streets below, and we found this interesting, being from Canada where we know a few things about growing plants in harsh climates! These pictures are of the library rooftop garden.
Warsaw is known for it’s natural areas. Warsawtour.pl tells us that almost a quarter of Warsaw is “green” and gives a great description of Warsaw’s parks. We managed to see a few in the four days we were there: The largest park in Warsaw, Lazienki Park, is one of the most popular, 76 hectares of beauty which is home to the summer palace of the last king of Poland and is popular for music and theatre events. There was a women’s marathon in progress on the day we visited. The small Saxon Garden was one of our favourites, on the edge of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Praga Park parallels the Warsaw Zoo and has some quirky statues. Green space runs all along the Vistula River and has great walking paths, lighted dancing fountains, and modern art displays. And, as above, the gardens on the top of the university library and the science centre are unique. Seeing all of Warsaw’s parks is on the bucket list! The above pictures are of Lazienki Park - the palace, the Chopin statue (he grew up in Warsaw), and the Old Orangery, home of the Royal Theatre.
The pictures below are Pilsudski (Victory) Square, the ceremonial changing of the guards (we laughed at the guards checking their iPhones as soon as their 'watch' was done!), and the bordering Saxon park, all in the early evening.
We spent a funky day on the ‘other side of the river’ in the Praga District. Of course, I thought it was “funky” while others deem it “’edgy’ at best and ‘dangerous’ at worst”, an area of lower income housing and gangs, apparently (manvsglobe.com, ‘Alternative Warsaw . . . .’). It’s not generally where the tourists venture. We walked from Old Town across the very high (and scary – I remember feeling that there was not much protection for walkers) Gdanski Bridge to the Praga Park by the Zoo and then to the up and coming arts district, Fabryka Trzciny, an 'incubator' for artists. We loved the nearby Neon Musem which houses neon signs, the backstory being that neon signs became very popular, post-Stalin, to show how “culturally relaxed” Warsaw had become. The Praga district is also home to one of my favourite milk bars, a cheap traditional Polish cafe. Needless to say, if you know me, I loved the Praga District. These are pictures of whimsical statues by the zoo, the arts 'incubator', an experimental playground, an old fellow feeding the pigeons, and some neon signs.
‘Downtown’ Warsaw is a mix of old and new. The ‘new’ juts up to Old Town and is a thriving city. From the Pilsudski (Victory) Square, you can see two buildings that symbolize Warsaw - the old majestic Palace of Culture and Science next to the modern Zlota residential skyscraper, the highest in the EU with 54 floors (zlota44.com).
Warsaw has some amazing museums that would be worth another visit in themselves – just check with Trip Advisor for an exhaustive list. We did tour the Museum of the History of Polish Jews (the building, alone, is spectacular) and toured around the old Jewish Ghetto near Old Town. Remember, Polish history is complicated, and I am in no way knowledgeable about it; if you are interested, there is much information on line.
These pictures are the Museum of the History of Polish Jews and the Jewish Ghetto.
Warsaw has so much to see. A quick visit to the crazytourist.com, ’25 Best Things to Do in Warsaw’, surprised me with how many of the 'best things' we managed to pack into our days but still left me planning our ‘next time’. Parks and museums will be the order of the day.
Enjoy this slide show of some of the other sights of Warsaw:
So, even if the picture of Pilsudski Square at the top of this page is rather dull and sombre, Warsaw is definitely no longer “grey and gloomy” to me.
Our next stop was Krakow which will wrap up my little series on Poland.
(all pictures are my own)