I’ve heard of multiple cases where people have advised travellers to not bother visiting Warsaw when in Poland. Generally it’s said in comparison to Krakow which gets rave reviews most of the time. I find this disappointing as I enjoyed my time in Warsaw and think that comparing the two cities is a flawed notion. The two are distinctly different and isn’t that part of the point of travel anyway?
Warsaw may have been one of my first stops in Poland, but it set the benchmark pretty high and got me in the mood to see more of the country. Here’s my 5 reasons why you shouldn’t ignore Warsaw when visiting Poland.
1. Contrast not Compare
I don’t blame people for raving about how wonderful the city of Krakow is, because I tend to agree with them. It’s rightfully one of Poland’s most interesting destinations. But I do disagree with the idea that you should ditch Warsaw because it’s supposedly less appealing than Krakow. Each is remarkable in its own right and I think it’s important to see the contrast between them, rather than trying to rank one over the other. Direct comparisons to work out “who is better” are rarely helpful.
You appreciate what makes each city special only by visiting both and seeing how vastly different they are. Warsaw allows you to appreciate the charm of Krakow’s Old Town, while Krakow lets you see how much was lost during WWII and the effort that has gone into rebuilding parts of the city, like its old town. Each has its own distinct history, in part because they are situated so far apart; Poland is a big country folks. For example, when Poland was divided in 1796, Krakow was given to the Austrian Empire while Warsaw fell to the Prussians and later Russians.
2. Not just an Old Town
What makes Warsaw such an interesting city to visit is the vast range of things to do in this modern metropolis. Warsaw isn’t just an old town and nothing more, not that Krakow is either. Due to its sprawling nature, there are many neighbourhoods and districts with widely different architecture and atmosphere. Warsaw is too big to cover in detail, partly because I only saw a small section of the city in comparison.
Still, even just looking between the city centre, the area where the Jewish Ghetto lay and the Praga district (the latter two I’ll talk about later), you get an idea of how multifaceted Warsaw is. The city centre in particular has a strong 20th century look, capped off best with the Stalinist Palace of Culture and Science. This building is a close cousin of the Riga Academy of Science building and harkens back to Poland’s communist past.
The city centre is not all modern though. In fact, the nearer you get to the Old Town, the older the buildings slowly get. It’s as if you are walking on a very carefully crafted timeline. One important landmark is the Neoclassical Presidential Palace dating from the 19th century. Another beautiful palace used to lie not two blocks away, but now its only remains make up part of the Tomb of the Unknown Solider memorial in Ogród Saski Park.
3. Don’t Forget the Old Town
Speaking of the Warsaw Old Town, it’s still definitely worth visiting. It may be less than a hundred years old, but Warsaw’s Old Town is historic and pleasant nonetheless. Given the utter devastation it saw during WWII, you have to admire the effort they put into reconstructing this part of the city. Surrounded by walls, there are plenty of picturesque buildings and spots to enjoy, centred on the elegant Old Town Market Place. In this square you’ll find the symbol of the city, The Warsaw Mermaid statue and some of the prettiest buildings in the city.
On the edge of the old town is the striking, but long-suffering Royal Castle. While a small fortified building for centuries, it wasn’t until Warsaw was made the capital of Poland in 1596 that a proper castle began construction. Sadly, over the years it saw repeated destruction and alterations on the whims of rulers, until the Nazi’s almost completely annihilated it. Across from the castle is an icon of the city, the figure of Swedish King Sigismund III Vasa, who ruled Poland and was responsible for the moving of the capital to Warsaw. At the time the statue was highly unconventional for being dedicated to a person rather than religious figure.
Exploring Old Town, you’ll come across a number of noteworthy landmarks, from churches to the fortifications and brick Barbican at its northern end. One of my favourite is by the old church bell – the Narrowest House of Warsaw. Tucked away in the corner of a small square is the front facade of a building, only one window wide! This is because historically property tax was calculated based on the width of a house’s facade, hence all the tall skinny buildings you find throughout Europe. The clever owner here, went as skinny as you can at the front, while if you go round back you’ll find a great wide rear. Clever, huh?
A great way to see Warsaw Old Town and learn about the city’s history and neat spots like the narrow building is with the Old Town tour by Free Walking Tour. I was really impressed with this tour, so much so that I ended up taking tours with the same company in most of the cities I visited in Poland.
4. Jewish History
If you are looking to gain a better understanding of Poland’s Jewish history and the community’s horrendous treatment during WWII, Warsaw is a very good choice. The city’s Jewish Quarter was converted into a ghetto camp by the Nazis, the largest in Europe, with roughly 30% of the city’s population squeezed into 2.4% its residential area. The Warsaw Ghetto was the location of several uprisings by the Jewish population, but it was also the scene of the brutal Nazi reprisal, who horrifically set the entire ghetto on fire in retribution.
Again this contrasts with the Holocaust history in Krakow, which focused on the trains heading to camps like Auschwitz and the story of Oskar Schindler. These are both important topics and surely a reason to visit Krakow. The history in Warsaw looks at this dark period from a different perspective, revealing life in the cramped ghetto and the attempted uprisings. If you want to learn as much as possible about the experience and crimes committed against the Jewish communities by the Nazis, then I recommended visiting both cities.
There are several ways in order to learn more about Warsaw’s Jewish history when visiting. First of all, there is the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, a new museum in the city that looks back at the Jewish community’s long history in the city, as well as the atrocities of WWII. For a different approach, you can learn about the city’s Jewish history on foot with the Jewish Warsaw tour by again, Free Walking Tour. I found this tour really informative and thought-provoking, so I highly recommend it.
5. Alternative Praga
I said earlier how varied and different parts of Warsaw can be and nowhere shows that more than the district of Praga. Situated on the far bank of the Vistula River from the city centre and old town of Warsaw, Praga is almost a different city. In fact, historically it was its own town for centuries until being incorporated in 1791. To this day, it bears a keenly independent spirit and distinctly alternative vibe.
Venturing over the river to Praga, you’re struck by its divergent look and feel. Whereas the centre of Warsaw was hit heavily by WWII, Praga survived mostly intact and you can see that in many of its old, worn buildings. In fact, the district was used as a filming location for the movie The Pianist, thanks to its old-world vibe.
The flip side of that old-world atmosphere is that you can sense you are in a less well-off part of the city. Visiting as part of yet another Free Walking Tour tour, the guide said that while things are improving, they still wouldn’t recommend a tourist walking through the neighbourhood alone at night. On a more positive note, that Praga is more affordable means it has attracted a lot of artists and developed a bohemian side, most noticeable in the graffiti and street art you can spot about the place. So if you after some edge in Warsaw, look no further.
Have you heard similar things about not visiting Warsaw? If you’ve been, what did you think of the city? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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