Warsaw, Poland, was once called the "Paris of the North." But in the past 70 years or so, it has survived almost complete destruction in World War II, the stranglehold of the Soviet occupation of Poland and the upheaval of capitalism.
The city has monuments documenting wartime atrocities and memorializing acts of resistance. Now, its palaces and churches, neighborhoods and streets have been or are being rebuilt. Warsaw has moved into a new phase of economic structuring with the European Union. It continues to rebuild and reinvent itself, demonstrating a beautiful balance of preservation and resilient renewal.
The city is bisected by the Vistula River—Wisla in Polish (pronounced vis-wah
). The majority of attractions are concentrated on the city's western side. The eastern side is mostly residential and commercial. The key to orientation is knowing the names of various neighborhoods and districts, as well as their main streets.
Stare Miasto (Old Town) and Nowe Miasto (New Town), the reconstructed historical heart of Warsaw, are on a hill on the western bank of the river. Just south of Stare Miasto is Centrum (also called the Srodmiescie district), the city center. Its main north-south artery, Marszalkowska, begins at Saski Gardens. The main east-west artery is Jerozolimskie. Marszalkowska and Jerozolimskie intersect at a traffic circle called Rondo Dmowskiego, near the Palace of Culture, a very noticeable landmark.
A few blocks to the east is the Royal Way, made up of three streets: Krakowskie Przedmiescie, Nowy Swiat and Ujazdowskie. It runs from the Royal Palace in Stare Miasto to Wilanow Palace in the south. Between Centrum and the river is the small neighborhood of Powisle. South of Powisle, along Aleje Ujazdowskie, is Lazienki Park.
Poland's location between strong powers has not always been a good thing for the country. Warsaw's location, on the other hand, was the reason for its rise to national prominence. In 1596, King Sigismund III Vasa formed a union between Poland and Lithuania and moved the seat of government to Warsaw, the geographic center of the new state. By 1611, Warsaw was the official capital of Poland.
Official recognition suited Warsaw, and the city flourished artistically and architecturally. But in 1791, Russia, Prussia and Austria invaded Poland and partitioned it among themselves. Warsaw remained under Prussian control until Napoleon invaded and made it the capital of the Duchy of Warsaw (1807-30). After Napoleon's defeat, Poland was once again partitioned, and Warsaw remained under Russian control until World War I. That period was marked by several uprisings, and Varsovians—as the residents of Warsaw are known—suffered harsh reprisals from their Russian masters. At the end of World War I, Poland regained national sovereignty.
Between the two World Wars, Poland enjoyed a brief period of independence, and Warsaw flourished until the Germans invaded and occupied the country during World War II. Several uprisings against the Germans were crushed, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives and destroying 85% of Warsaw's buildings. In January 1945, the Soviets finally "liberated" the city.
For almost 50 years, the capital and country were dominated by the Soviet Union. Following the success of the Solidarity labor movement, led by Lech Walesa, the first noncommunist government in eastern Europe since World War II took office in Warsaw in August 1989. Ten years later, Poland joined the NATO alliance. In May 2004, Poland joined the European Union. Today, the country is flourishing both economically and socially, but is currently struggling with an annual deficit of 7%. Therefore, plans to adopt the euro as its official currency in 2012 were postponed; however, politicians are nevertheless optimistic that the country could adopt the euro by 2015.
Before setting off on a sightseeing tour, it might be useful to put the city and its sites in a historical context. One of the best ways to do this is to visit the Warsaw Historical Museum and see the film that depicts the destruction of Warsaw during World War II. You can then walk through Stare Miasto (Old Town) and Nowe Miasto (New Town) and appreciate the reconstructed quarters in a different light.
In 2010, Poland commemorated the 200th anniversary of Frederic Chopin's birth. The composer and pianist, son of a French immigrant father and Polish mother, was born nearby and lived in Warsaw for much of his early life. Tourists can download an audioguide available in English, German and Spanish that leads them to benches at locations that were significant in the musician's life, where they can learn more about Chopin and even hear snippets of some of his compositions. http://chopin2010.um.warszawa.pl.
The city has spent millions to create and upgrade places of interest along the Chopin Route, including the renovated Chopin Museum in the Ostrogski Palace. The Chopin Center offers a library and conference facilities, and the musician's official birthplace in Zelazowa Wola, about 30 mi/48 km outside the city, has been transformed into a center for culture and a venue for free, open-air concerts.
A must-see in Stare Miasto in Warsaw is Zamek Krolewski (the Royal Palace), rebuilt in the 1970s and '80s. In both Old Town and New Town you'll find a rynek (central marketplace or square), as well as several churches.
The heart of Warsaw is Centrum (also known as Srodmiescie). That's where you'll find most of the city's museums, churches and palaces. The Royal Way, which runs from the Royal Palace to Wilanow Palace, is lined with many of these sites. A few blocks west of the Royal Way are the Ogrod Saski (Saxon Gardens) and, farther to the south, the imposing Stalinist-style Palace of Culture and Science.
A great art museum is the Center for Contemporary Art, which is near Lazienki Park, a beautiful green oasis dotted with palaces. Farther south, in another lovely park, is Wilanow Palace, King Jan III Sobieski's beautiful baroque retreat.
Little remains of the original Jewish ghetto, which was west of Centrum, but you can contact the Zydowskie Instytut Historyczny (Jewish Historical Institute), which documents the history of Polish Jews before, during and after World War II. Three other places related to World War II are the Monument to the Heroes of the Warsaw Uprising, the Warsaw Rising Museum and the Pawiak Prison Museum. The History of the Polish Jews Museum, located opposite the Monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, presents exhibitions, workshops and lectures, and traces the thousand-year history of Jews in Poland. Prior to 1939, the area was the center of the Jewish community.
You can easily see Warsaw on your own, but organized tours provide more perspective and can clear up questions about Poland's complex history. Another option is Bus No. 180—it passes many of the main sites along the Royal Way.
Warsaw's nightlife ranges from tame pubs to upbeat jazz venues to hot dance clubs. Ulica Foksal, east of Krakowskie Przedmiescie, is lined with clubs, restaurants and bars, including hot spot Sketch. Ulica Wierzbowa, west of Teatr Wielki, has some good clubs, such as Opium (drinks and attitude) and Szlafrok (hip-hop and attitude). You can find several trendy nightspots along Ulica Mazowiecka and Ulica Sienkiewicza.
If you'd like to take the bitter edge off your beer, ask for a piwo z sokiem (beer with juice). The bartender will add fruit syrup (usually raspberry). Dance clubs generally stay open until the wee morning hours.
The Warsaw dining scene continues to thrive: Expectations have steadily risen, which has been good news for visitors and locals alike.
Polish fare is celebrated in both upscale establishments and in the traditionally inexpensive milk bars (bar mleczny). Milk bars focus on no-frills and hearty fare, but other restaurants may experiment with Polish dishes and lighten them.
Typical Polish dishes include sledz (herring), kielbasa (sausage), bigos (hunter's stew), pierogi (dumplings stuffed with meat), forest mushrooms, kapusta (cabbage), fruit or cheese, various hot and cold soups, and placki (potato pancakes). For those with a sweet tooth, szarlotka (apple cake), makowiec (poppy seed cake) and packi (jelly doughnuts) are very pleasing.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than 40 PLN; $$ = 40 PLN-90 PLN; $$$ = 91 PLN-160 PLN; and $$$$ = more than 160 PLN.
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