After fighting for Poland’s existence post-WW1, when the Soviets invaded the country and were defeated at the Battle of Warsaw in 1920, Poland’s capital was then fought over and razed to the ground in WW2.
Warsaw quickly came under German control, following the invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939. Several hundred Jews – 30% of the city’s population – were herded into the Warsaw Ghetto. Following deportations o the death camps, the fighters in the Ghetto launched the Ghetto Uprising on 19 April 1943 – when the fighting ended almost a month later, almost all the survivors were murdered, with only a few escaping.
On 1 August 1944 (with the Red Army already deep into Polish territory), at the orders of the Polish government-in-exile in London, the underground Home Army led the Warsaw Uprising to try to prise control of the city from the Germans. The operation, which was planned to last 48 hours, ended after 63 days with the surrender of the fighters and civilians. Fighters were transported to PoW camps in Germany, while the civilian population was expelled from the city. Civilian deaths alone are put at between 250,000 and 200,000.
On Hitler’s orders, the entire city was to be razed to the ground and the collections of the libraries and museums taken to Germany or burned. About 85% of the city, including the historic Old Town and the Royal Castle were destroyed.
Against that background, and under the heel of the Soviets, Poland re-built its capital.
Warsaw’s history can be traced back to the fortified settlements of Bródno (C9/10) and Jazdów (C12/13) before one raid too many led to the establishment of a new settlement on the site of a small fishing village called Warszowa in about 1300 under the orders of prince Bolesław II of Masovia . Under the Dukes, Warsaw became the capital of Masovia (1413), with an economy based on crafts and trades, until it passed to the Polish Crown in 1526.
In 1529 Warsaw was for the first time the seat of the Sejm, the Polish Parliament, and became the Sejm’s permanent seat from 1569. In consequence of its location between Poland’s capital of Kraków and Lituanian’s capital of Vilnius, Warsaw was chosen to be the capital of the Commonwealth and the King moved his court there in 1569.
Between 1655 – 1658 the city was laid to siege three times – and three times taken and pillaged – by the Swedes, Brandenburgians and Transylvanians,
During the Great Northern War (1700–1721) the city was besieged several times and was obliged to pay heavy contributions. For those not aware, the Great Northern War could be explained as the Russian-led ass-kicking of the Swedish Empire.
Two maps show the campaigns – two points to note (a) the yellow bit is Poland-Lithuania – see where the borders are? And (b) the orange bits are the Swedish Empire (who knew?)
Warsaw remained the capital of the Commonwealth until 1795, when it was annexed by Prussia. Liberated by Napoleon in 1806, the Duchy of Warsaw was taken under Russian control in 1815, where it remained until it was occupied by Germany from the 4 August 1915.
Incidentally, the Russian Empire Census of 1897 recorded 626,000 people living in Warsaw, which made it the third largest city of the Empire, after St Petersburg and Moscow.
After such a history, you’d hope Warsaw would have had a chance to relax after Poland regained independence in 1918, but sadly the country was promptly plunged into the Polish–Soviet War (February 1919 – March 1921).
Blame for this one falls on both sides – Poland’s chief of State Józef Piłsudski felt the time was right to expand Polish borders as far east as feasible, to lead to a confederation of east and central European states to counter future German and Russian expansion, while Lenin saw Poland as the bridge the Red Army had to cross if it was to help other communist movements and bring about other European revolutions.
In effect it was Soviet Russia and Soviet Ukraine vs Poland and the Ukrainian People’s Republic.
“the fall of Warsaw looked to be certain”
By mid-1920 the fall of Warsaw looked to be certain, but the Poles trashed the Red Army at the Battle of Warsaw and, in the light of the Polish advance eastward, the Soviets sued for peace – signed off at Riga in March 1921.
All this, we hope, gives you an inkling of Warsaw’s importance to Poles but also some idea of why there is so little in the way of “genuine” Old Warsaw to see. Kraków was the capital until 1569, so the older buildings of power, education and religion are there, three hours south. Also, Kraków emerged from WW2 relatively unscathed – 85% of Warsaw was destroyed. So, while there are many places worth seeing in and around Warsaw, understand that not all of it is “history-pretty”.
Much of Warsaw’s historic centre was lost during WW2, and it has only been rebuilt in parts. The Old Town is special, but you’ll find worthwhile buildings and places throughout the city. As Poland’s capital, Warsaw is also a cultural centre, though it does not have the tourist profile (nor the stag parties!) of Kraków.
So starting in Castle Square, with the Royal Castle and St John’s Cathedral, the Royal Route leads south.
The Royal Castle
Queen Anne’s Corridor connects the Castle with …
… St John’s Cathedral
Just down the hill from the Royal Castle is the Copper-roofed Palace, now a branch of the Royal Palace Museum
On and around Krakowskie Przedmieście you’ll see the Presidential Palace, Potocki Palace and the University of Warsaw, established in 1816 when it became clear partition had separated Warsaw from the centre of academia in Kraków
Potocki Palace pre 1939
The Kazimierz, Tyszkiewicz, Czetwertyński and Czapski Palaces
The Hotels Bristol and Europejski, the Visitationist Church and St Anne’s Church
The Charitable Centre Res Sacra Miser stands on the site of the Kazanowski Palace, the richest aristocratic palace in the Commonwealth until destroyed in the Deluge in 1656.
The Holy Cross Church houses the heart of Frederic Chopin, while the Carmelite Church is best known for its two belfries shaped like censers
The southern continuation of the Royal Route is Ulica Nowy Świat, on and around which stand
Wilanów Palace and gardens, one of the few survivors of the partitions and Wars, and Three Crosses Square, destination for up-scale fashion shoppers
At No 72 Ul Nowy Świat you will find Staszic Palace, the current seat of the Polish Academy of Sciences. In 1892-93 the palace was renovated by the Russian authorities; in line with the on-going Russification of Warsaw, the palace was transformed into a Russo-Byzantine style building.
Following virtual destruction in WW2, it was rebuilt in its original neoclassical form.
Aleje Jerozolimskie (Jerusalem Avenue) is dominated by the modernist BGK bank, Warszawa Centralna station and, especially, the skyine grabbing Palace of Culture and Science (Pałac Kultury i Nauki, or abbreviated PKiN), the tallest building in Poland and a gift from the Soviet Union (hence formerly the Joseph Stalin Palace of Culture and Science
The building currently serves as an exhibition centre and office complex. It is 231 metres (757 ft) tall. There are 3288 rooms on 42 floors, with an overall area of 123,000 m², containing cinemas, theatres, museums, offices, bookshops, a large conference hall for 3000 people, and an accredited university, Collegium Civitas on the 11th and 12th floors of the building.
The terrace on the 30th floor, at 114 metres, is popular with tourists and locals alike – it’s the only place in Warsaw without a view of “Stalin’s syringe”.
On an around Ujadów Avenue are the Chancellery, or Prime Minister’s Office, Ujazdów Castle (now housing Warsaw’s Centre for Contemporary Art) and Ujazdów Park
Łazienki Park (literally Baths Park) takes its name from the bathing pavilion built in C17.
Lubomirski’s bathing pavilion
Occupying 76ha of the city centre, the gardens were made a major project by King Stanisław August. The principle buildings of the park and palace complex stand beside or close to Łazienki Lake and Łazienki River. Stanisław August’s palace is situated on the lake and hence is known as the Palace on the Water.
Most of the buildings in the park suffered severe fire damage during and after the Warsaw Uprising, but although holes were drilled for the placement of explosive charges, charges were never laid.
Warsaw University Astronomical Observatory and the cadets’ barracks also stand close the Park, as does the Belweder Palace.
Dating back to 1660, the Palace has had an interesting history. In the last 100 years it has served as the residence of Józef Piłsudski, chief of state, from 1918-1922, then as residence of presidents Gabriel Narutowicz and Stanisław Wojciechowski. From 1989 to July 1994, the Belweder Palace was the official residence of the President of the Polish Republic, but was found to be too small. It also serves as an official residence for heads of state on official visits to Poland and other important guests. There have been plans to turn the Belweder Palace into a museum dedicated to Józef Piłsudski. Currently it houses a small exhibition devoted to the Marshal. However, the current president of Poland, Bronisław Komorowski, has chosen to make Belweder his official residence.
The city’s monument to Chopin is also in the Park, and piano recitals are held there in the summer.
Warsaw’s Old Town Market Place (Rynek Starego Miasta) was blown up by the German Army and subsequently re-built and restored in the 1950s to its current glory.
Being a square, it has four sides – each with its own name
Dekert’s Side is the north side
Barss’ Side is on the east
Kołłątaj’s Side is the west side
Zakrzewski’s Side is to the south
The square’s buildings were reconstructed to look as they did in C 17 when it was mostly inhabited by rich merchants and their families. The Warsaw Mermaid has been the symbol of the city since 1855.
About ten minutes walk from the Old Town is Warsaw’s biggest park, the Saxon Garden. The park of the Saxon Palace was made public in 1727. Many of the buildings which had stood in the Garden, including most of the Saxon Palace, were destroyed in WW2 – the Blue Palace and the colonnade of the Saxon Palace (surrounding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) remain.
Elsewhere in Warsaw you’ll find more than enough to keep you busy. Powązki Cemetery is one of the oldest in Europe, full of sculptures and with a long list of famous “residents” from all of Polish society. Nearby is the Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery, one of Europe’s largest Jewish cemeteries. In the latter you will find the monument to Janusz Korczak (Henryk Goldszmit) the teacher, children’s author and paediatrician who worked for many years as director of an orphanage at 92 ul Krochmalna. When the orphans were ordered to be ready for transport from the Ghetto to Treblinka extermination camp Pan Doktor refused his freedom. There are several monuments to Pan Doktor, including a commemorative stone at Treblinka.
You’ll find many references to Jewish culture and history in Warsaw. The Nożyk Synagogue is the only surviving pre-war Jewish house of prayer. Ulica Próżna is the only former Ghetto street, with four surviving tenement houses and is the centre of the summer Festival of Jewish Culture. There’s the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, the fragments of the Ghetto Wall on ul Sienna and elsewhere, the 22 boundary markers and a mound in memory of the Jewish Combat Organisation.
The Umschlagplatz (collecting point) was created by fencing off a western part of the Warsaw Gdansk freight train station that was adjacent to the ghetto. The area was surrounded by a wooden fence, replaced later by a wall. Railway buildings and installations on the site as well as a former homeless shelter and a hospital were converted to the prisoner selection facility. The rest of the train station served its normal function for the rest of the city during the deportations.
Pawiak Prison was built in 1835 and later served as a transfer camp for Poles sentenced by Imperial Russia to be deported to Siberia.
It became the main Warsaw prison for male prisoners, but in 1939 it was turned into the Gestapo Prison, the Warsaw Concentration Camp. Although exact numbers are not known, some 100,000 men and 200,000 women are thought to have passed through the prison, mostly Home Army, political prisoners and civilians. An estimated 37,000 were executed and 60,000 sent to the German death and concentration camps.
The Pawiak Museum (and tree) and the Mausoleum of Struggle and Martyrdom (minimum age 14 y/o) are part of the Museum of Independence.
There are many more things to see – the Citadel and Barbican, the statue of the Little Insurgent on ul Podwale, next to the ramparts of the Old Town
The Church of St Kazimierz, the Great Theatre on Theatre Square, with the Jabłonowski and Blanka Palaces, Kamienica Petyskusa and St. Andreas and St. Albert Church
The monument to the Warsaw Uprising in 1944
We’ve shown you a lot, but there are too many to list. What you see depends on your own interests and the time you have available – do some research, and give Warsaw a chance!
Getting to Warsaw
Warsaw has two airports – Chopin and Modlin. Modlin has suffered some construction problems, but this year it hopes to expand its roster of low-cost carriers beyond Ryanair. Meanwhile, all other flights are into Chopin, the closer of the two airports. Internal flights compete with the trains and coaches.
There are frequent trains and buses to and from Chopin, while Modlin has a cheap bus/tran combination or a more expensive direct bus. In both cases there are, of course, taxis and transfer operators. (see below)
Chopin Airport is served by five bus lines:
Running daily between 04:35 – 22:35
Route: Chopin Airport – Ursynów – Praga; main streets: (ŻWIRKI I WIGURY – NOWOURSYNOWSKA – MOST SIEKIERKOWSKI – GROCHOWSKA)
Running daily between 04:58 – 23:27
Route: Chopin Airport – City Centre; main streets ŻWIRKI I WIGURY – AL.JEROZOLIMSKIE (Central Railway Station) – KRAKOWSKIE PRZEDMIEŚCIE – PL. PIŁSUDSKIEGO)
Running daily between 04:43 – 23:13
Route: Chopin Airport – City Centre (Metro Politechnika station) – Praga Południe (Wiatraczna); main streets: ŻWIRKI I WIGURY – AL. ARMII LUDOWEJ – AL. STANÓW ZJEDNOCZONYCH – SZASERÓW – MAKOWSKA)
Running from Monday to Friday between 04:38 – 17:52
Route: Chopin Airport – Metro Wilanowska Station; main streets: NARKIEWICZA, WIRAŻOWA, POLECZKI, ŁĄCZYNY, PUŁAWSKA, AL. WILANOWSKA
Night Bus N32
Running daily between 23:09 – 04:39
Route: Chopin Airport – Central Railway Station
Chopin Airport and Warsaw’s city centre are connected by a fast and convenient rail link.
The train ride from the airport to the city centre takes around 25 minutes.
The service is operated by two companies – Szybka Kolej Miejska – SKM (Fast Urban Railway) and Koleje Mazowieckie -KM (Masovian Railways):
SKM’s line: S2, S3C and S3S. Timetables and routes.
KM’s line: Timetables and routes
Brochure “Transport from Chopin Airport to downtown Warsaw and destinations across Poland”
ModlinBus bus service links Warsaw city centre directly with Warsaw/Modlin Airport terminal, operating 24h a day. It offers modern, comfortable and air-conditioned vehicles with professional on-board personnel. The timetable is adjusted to departure and arrival times.
Tickets can be purchased on board of the bus, at the airport or online.Payment by cash, card or foreign currency.
Buses stop on the following stops: Metro Młociny (Młociny Subway Station) at Public Transport Authority (ZTM) bus stop Metro Młociny 25, and on the Palace of Culture and Science parking lot, in front of the main entrance, at the Marszalkowska Street side, near the Metro Centrum station exit
For more information please visit www.modlinbus.pl
Koleje Mazowieckie trains on Warsaw-Modlin route are operated by modern Elf trains which have been purchased specially for that route. To ensure passenger comfort there are 190 seats on each train. Passengers can use specially installed extra luggage compartments and comfortable passenger seats. The trains are air-conditioned and monitored. Elf trains have facilities for people with disabilities and persons travelling with babies (changing tables).
Passengers can choose between 42 train services on the Modlin–Warsaw route every day (14 airport services marked with a special aircraft symbol and 28 trains running on route to Działdowo via Modlin).Out of the 14 airport services 11 trains connect the two airports of the Mazovia region: Warsaw/Modlin Airport and Chopin Airport, while the other 3 run on the route Modlin-West Warsaw (Warszawa Zachodnia).
Special airport buses in the colours of Koleje Mazowieckie run from Modlin railway station to Warsaw/Modlin Airport terminal every 20-30 minutes. They can seat up to 70 passengers, have air-conditioning and facilities for people with disabilities.
Bus timetable is coordinated with arrivals and departures of trains.
For more information please visit:www.mazowieckie.com.pl
To make it easier for passengers arriving from distant areas of the region and the country to access Warsaw Modlin Airport, the PKP rail company is having the following trains stop at Modlin railway station TLK and EIC:
- TLK “Mazury” on route Olsztyn Główny – Warszawa Zachodnia via Nidzica and Ciechanów
- TLK “Kormoran” on route Bielsko Biała Główna – Olsztyn Główny via Katowice, Częstochowa, Radomsko and Piotrków Trybunalski
- 38108/9 “Pobrzeże” on route Kołobrzeg – Kraków Płaszów via Koszalin, Słupsk, Gdynia, Gdańsk, Malbork, Ciechanów and Warszawa
- EIC “Warmia” on route Kraków Płaszów – Olsztyn Główny via Warszawa, Ciechanów and Nidzica
Koleje Mazowieckie buses run regularly from Modlin rail stop to the Airport, providing quick access right to the door of the passenger terminal.
A bus ticket for passengers not taking a Koleje Mazowieckie train is PLN 4 one way.
Warsaw is also well-connected by rail and by bus. The Jan Kiepura runs overnight from Amsterdam to Warsaw, there are fast cross-border and internal train services, and Warsaw is at the heart of Poland’s road network.
Warsaw to Krakow is about 5-6 hours by road or 3 by fast train. Slower (and cheaper) trains take about the same time as the road.
No European city is designed to be car-friendly, but at least Warsaw has a paid-parking zone in the centre of the city. This applies Monday to Friday, 08:00 to 18:00. Parking costs 3.00 zł for the first hour. Subsequent hours cost more although there is no hour limit. 0.60 zł is the minimum payment. You can pay with coins (must be exact amount – the parking meters give no change) or with the Warsaw City Card.
If you take a taxi, make sure it’s a legal one. A legal taxi will have its number displayed on the front door under the window (black digits on white), on a TAXI sign (not TAX1 or TAKI), on a sticker with the base fare displayed on the passenger (rear) door window, and on the driver’s ID card visible inside the cab.
Warsaw has some 200 bus routes, 30 tram lines and one subway line. The buses and trams create a spider-web of routes, while the subway runs north-south through the city centre.
All buses and trams start running at about 05:00 and start to shut down at about 22:00, though some will run until midnight. On Friday and Saturday night, the Metro runs until 03:00. Night buses run about every half hour.
There is an excellent route planner for getting around Warsaw http://warszawa.jakdojade.pl/?locale=en Drop markers for your start and finish points, hit search and it will give you a map for the route with the bus/tram stops en route shown on the map. Cool!
For more on Polish public transport, see our page About Getting Around Kraków, and remember to VALIDATE!