Warsaw is an interesting city with an incredibly complex history. I’ve visited twice, and both of my visits fell over important religious holidays: Easter Monday and Christmas—which are big holidays for super Catholic Poland. I was unprepared for this on my first visit—I didn’t know Easter Monday was a thing, and literally everything was closed.
This visit over Christmas I was much more prepared. I was able to see a lot more of the city and gained a much deeper insight into Warsaw’s past.
Warsaw suffered immense damage during World War II. The city was bombed to nothing and razed to the ground. 80-90% of buildings in the city were destroyed. At the end of Nazi occupation at the time of Soviet liberation, there were only 1,000 people living in Warsaw (almost all of them in hiding), out of a pre-war population of 1.3 million. And while the city experienced some of the worst physical damage of the war, it suffered more than that as well: the Jewish population, once one of the largest in Europe, was decimated. The Warsaw Ghetto was one of the largest (population/density wise) of the Nazi regime and most did not survive the war.
Warsaw as a city has a very intense identity based around two events in World War II: the Ghetto Uprising in 1943, where Jews in the ghetto rebelled against Nazi forces (and held out far longer than anyone expected), and the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, the only organized national resistance of any occupied nation during the war, which lasted for about 2 months. It was these events, particularly the Warsaw Uprising, that were the reason for the destruction of the city as a form of punishment by the Nazis.
But Warsaw today is incredibly proud of their heroes, who bravely fought against the Nazi regime, and pay homage to them in huge monuments, plaques, and in other small ways across the city.
Warsaw is never going to be the most beautiful city in Europe. It’s probably not going to be considered a beautiful city ever. It was rebuilt following WWII, and much of the bleak communist architecture is still there today. But the city is fascinating, and there’s loads to do to keep you busy!
Free Walking Tour with Orange Umbrella
Because I was visiting Warsaw during Christmas, when more or less everything was closed, I did something I’d never done before and went on a free walking tour! I always recommend free walking tours to people, as they’re a great way to orient yourself in a new city, but I’ve never done one before. I did the Old Town tour with Orange Umbrella, and learned more about the city in 2.5 hours than I could have ever imagined! Hopefully you’ll have Gosia for your guide, who is a wealth of knowledge about Warsaw. They ran tours on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, a welcome relief for travelers looking for something to do on days when everything is closed! Free walking tours let you determine how much the tour is worth to you, as you tip at the end. If you like your tour, tip your guide. We tipped 30 zlotys (~$7.50) for two people, but I would have tipped a bit more if I’d had more cash. I really recommend this organization for tours!
Palace of Culture and Science
You can’t miss this building on a trip to Warsaw! The Palace of Culture and Science was a “gift” from the Soviet leader Josef Stalin to the people of Poland in the 1950s, and is classic of Soviet architecture. Today, there’s an observation deck on the 30th floor (which was unfortunately closed over Christmas!), and the building is full of theaters, galleries, shops, and more.
Warsaw Uprising Museum
Of all the events in recent history, Warsaw residents (and perhaps Poles in general) are extremely proud of the Warsaw Uprising. This museum is one of the best in the city—interactive with lots of multimedia exhibits, English information captions, and packed full of facts and objects. If you only go to one museum in Warsaw, this should be it. One of my favorite parts was the information on the child “scouts” that helped during the war—mainly delivering letters around the city, and some of whom lost their lives to enemy gunfire for the cause. The replica of the Warsaw sewers is another standout. The layout of the museum can be a bit confusing, but do your best to follow the signs so that you go through the museum in order.
Museum of the History of Polish Jews
Another fantastic museum in Warsaw is the recently opened (2014) museum on the history of Polish Jews. Interactive displays take you from the beginning of early Jewish merchants in Poland during the medieval times, up through Jewish life during the partitions of Poland, rising anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and the destruction of Warsaw’s Jewish community, up to the end of the 20th century. This museum is a standout in the Central European Jewish museum circuit!
Ghetto Uprising Monument
Directly across from the Museum of the History of Polish Jews is the monument to the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. It’s a beautiful tribute to a truly heroic group of people, who more or less knew that their mission was suicidal but meant to uplift the spirits of those still living.
Warsaw Uprising Monument
Located next to the Supreme Court of Poland, this larger than life monument is dedicated to another group of brave heroes—those who fought in the two-month Warsaw Uprising in 1944.
Warsaw Old Town
As I mentioned, Warsaw’s Old Town was completely reconstructed after WWII, but it still a nice place to wander around. The Sigismund Column commemorates King Sigismund III Vasa, who moved the capital of Poland from Krakow to Warsaw in 1596. Don’t miss the mermaid statue, as the mermaid is a symbol of Warsaw and can be found in statues and plaques all around the city!
Like almost all of Warsaw’s buildings, the Royal Palace was destroyed by the Nazis—this time, blown up by dynamite. It was reconstructed in the 1980s, and today houses an impressive art collection (including a few by Rembrandt) and the state apartments. You can see one of the original walls, with holes where the Nazis prepared it for dynamite, in the basement.
Monument to the Little Insurgent
Another monument in Old Town you shouldn’t miss is the Little Insurgent’s monument. The moving statue is of a young boy, wearing an oversize helmet and carrying a gun. While there weren’t actual child soldiers fighting for Poland during the Warsaw Uprising, the monument commemorates the children who died during the fighting, and those who helped the home front offensive (mainly as mail runners and scouts).
One of Warsaw’s largest parks is well worth a wander if you have the time. Łazienki Park is the largest in Warsaw, and is home to Łazienki Palace, a Baroque bathhouse, and many other buildings from the palace complex. In the summer months, there are free Chopin concerts here!
One of Warsaw’s most famous sons is the composer Frederic Chopin, who was born in Warsaw in 1810 and grew up in the city. This museum is dedicated to his life and works, and is worth a visit for any classical music fan!
Marie Curie Museum
Another of Warsaw’s most celebrated residents is Marie Curie, who was born in Warsaw in 1967 and later went on to win two Nobel Prizes, the only woman to win two different prizes in different fields (Physics and Chemistry). For anyone interested in her life and scientific studies, don’t miss this museum!
St. Anne’s Church
One of the few buildings to escape bombing, this beautiful church near the Old Town was originally built in 1454, and has remained relatively unchanged since its last renovation in 1788. Although the roof suffered damage during WWII, the church miraculously survived the war relatively intact. I went to a midnight Mass service here on Christmas Eve, which was absolutely beautiful!
Church of the Holy Cross
Another of Warsaw’s notable churches is the Church of the Holy Cross. While the building itself is a showstopper, it’s mainly known for a small urn on the left-hand side of the nave, which contains the heart (or the remains of the heart) of Chopin. I have managed to interrupt both an Easter Monday service and a wedding in this church, so be careful poking your head in to not disrupt any services!
Movie Locations: The Pianist
If you watch one movie before coming to Warsaw, it should be The Pianist, starring Adrien Brody. It’s based on the true story of the composer Władysław Szpilman, a Jewish pianist and composer who managed to survive World War II in Warsaw. The house he hid in at the end of the movie, where a German officer helped him, is located at 223 Niepodległosci street, with a commemorative piano plaque on the outside. Scenes from the movie were also filmed on streets in the Praga district of Warsaw.
Located slightly outside the city center is the beautiful Wilanow Palace, which I have yet to visit! But this beautiful palace is definitely on my list for my next visit. It was constructed in the late 1600s, and survived both the partitions of Poland and the World Wars, making it a true treasure. Both the palace and park look beautiful!
Milk bars are leftover relics from the Soviet era, serving up hearty traditional Polish food in greasy diner type of way. There are loads of milk bars all over Warsaw, and are definitely one thing you should do when in Poland!
The Basics: Warsaw is the capital of Poland, with a population of 1.75 million. Poland’s total population is about 38.5 million people. Poland is an EU member and part of the Schengen zone, but still has the Polish zloty as their currency. Beer can be as cheap as $1.25 for a pint! Warsaw is easily connected with buses and trains to all major cities in Poland, and is accessible to both Western and Eastern Europe. Warsaw is pronounced “varshava” in Polish.
Getting Around: Warsaw has a good connection of buses and trams, as well as a Metro system with two lines (north-south and west-east). I didn’t use public transportation but walked everywhere. If you do use public transport, buy your tickets before boarding and make sure to validate them.
Where I Stayed: I stayed at Oki Doki Hostel, in an en-suite private room for my 3-night stay in Warsaw over Christmas. I’d previously stayed here before, for just one night in a dorm room, in April 2014. The hostel has everything you might need: 24-hour reception, a bar with incredible happy hour deals (5 zloty beer!!!), laundry service, a kitchen, free computers, excellent (and fast) wifi, friendly and informative staff, and a great location in the city center. I would absolutely recommend this place—I wish all hostels were as good as this one!
Warsaw is an interesting city, with so much history and so much to do! It’s definitely worth a trip when in this area of Europe!
Have you ever been to Poland? What were your experiences like?