A sentimental tour of Warsaw, Poland

You know a city’s a good one when you see it in terrible weather and still love it. Warsaw fits that bill for me, although I definitely want to return some day and have a whole lot more sunshine.

Warsaw, Poland, back in 2003

Fourteen summers ago (ouch I feel old!), I was backpacking from Russia to Slovakia and I got to spend two weeks in Poland along the way. Sadly, it could only be two weeks, because way back then we Aussies needed a visa to visit Poland, and the standard visa was for a 14-day visit only, and even that took a three-day stay Vilnius to get. (It’s so much easier these days!)

A sentimental tour of Warsaw

Five of those days were spent exploring Warsaw, the surprisingly funky Polish capital. It was the very end of summer, and the weather seemed to have got that memo and it was rainy and cold (think 10 Celsius) most of the time, but my boyfriend and I still got out into downtown Warsaw each day to see something new. I’ve dug out my pictures to take myself (and you!) on a sentimental tour of Warsaw from all those years ago – to some of the best places to visit in Warsaw today, too.

Old Town Market Place

This large square in the Old Town of Warsaw was one of the first places I explored, and I was so impressed by the care that had obviously been taken to renovate and restore the old buildings, and how colourful and interesting they looked.

Warsaw Old Town Market Square

Warsaw Old Town Market Square

The buildings around the square were almost completely destroyed during World War Two, and then very quickly a huge effort was put in to rebuild and restore them. I was surprised that back in 1950 it was seen as so important to spend the time and money restoring these buildings – and they were intentionally restored to the 1700s version – but in terms of twenty-first century tourism it was absolutely well worth it. When I visited the Warsaw Historical Museum (since renamed the Museum of Warsaw) on this square, I got to see a film showing the area pre-war, during the war and during the reconstruction and it really was impressive.

Palace of Culture and Science

This is a ridiculously imposing building and not surprisingly is the tallest building in Poland. When I was there, I chatted with locals who all told me they didn’t like it – it was a gift from the Soviet Union in Soviet times and they felt like it was a symbol of them being dominated – fair enough.

Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science

Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science in 2003: a rare sunny moment on my visit!

It’s full of cinemas, museums, offices, an exhibition centre and even a university, and it’s intensely visible from many parts of Warsaw – and while I don’t love it either, it’s worth visiting simply because of its interesting history. Soviet-era buildings and monuments are a fascinating part of the eastern bloc of Europe to me, and this certainly fits that bill.

Warsaw’s Royal Castle

Unbeknownst to me until I got there, Poland had a long and fascinating royal history and the Royal Castle dates back to the 1300s (the Wikipedia entry describing the Royal Castle’s many uses over the centuries is worth a look before you visit!). The gorgeous Royal Castle is right at the entrance to the Old Town and there are lots of walking tours (either self-guided, which we picked, or guided) head from here to other important royal-related parts of Warsaw.

Warsaw Royal Castle

Warsaw Royal Castle with the tourist crowds of 2003; I guess it is busier these days

Jewish Cemetery and the Warsaw Ghetto

As I expected, there were some particularly sad parts of history to be reminded of in Warsaw (though nothing prepared me for my visit to Auschwitz a few days later). The Jewish Cemetery and the Warsaw Ghetto area were stark reminders of horrid times.

Warsaw at Jewish Cemetery - Jack Eisner poem

Poem from Warsaw Ghetto survivor Jack Eisner

Like many parts of my travels when they touch war and disaster and other historical events we’d probably rather not think about, I’m always glad I’ve been, even though I couldn’t say I exactly enjoyed it. I still think exploring these areas is important for us to learn and relearn about history – and when you’re in a place where it happened, you learn so much more than just from a textbook or a documentary – but it can still be pretty upsetting.

Warsaw Jewish Cemetery Gravestones

Grave stones at the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw

Church of the Holy Spirit

I like to see different churches when I travel (I’m actually not kidding! I find old buildings fascinating – remember we don’t really have any old buildings at all here in Perth …) but the Church of the Holy Spirit was intriguing for another reason. Our guide book told us that composer Chopin’s heart is preserved in it!

Warsaw Church of the Holy Spirit

Church of the Holy Spirit in Warsaw – complete with Chopin’s heart!

It turned out that Chopin’s heart was not actually on display, but rather preserved more tastefully within a pillar (my diary notes, in case you want to find it too, that it’s in the second pillar on the left side of the main nave!). Turns out many Polish kings were also ordained in the Church of the Holy Spirit so it has value for other reasons too.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

I’m always moved by “unknown soldier” kind of monuments; it’s sad enough to know of war heroes who are named and famed but the sacrifices of people who don’t even get any credit are even more heartbreaking. In Warsaw there’s a large area devoted to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and on the day we happened to go – rainy and cold – we got to watch the hourly changing of the guard without any other spectators present.

Warsaw Tomb of Unknown Soldier

Tomb of Unknown Soldier in Warsaw just before the guards changed

Apparently they still do the changing of the guard every hour 24/7 and I found it a moving experience; it’s also part of a large and beautiful park area.

One day, I’ll return to Warsaw …

Since that day, I’ve made a very dear friend here in Perth who was born in Warsaw, and I’ve read more about the history and impact of the war on the city too. Of course, I’ve also now got a son who wants to see everywhere I’ve seen too. One day I’ll get back there, cross my fingers for sunny weather, find a Warsaw hotel and explore away. Just like last trip, I’d be more than happy to combine it with a wander through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as well. Such a fascinating part of Europe!

 

Comments

  1. Hi Amanda,

    I loved this post and returning to Warsaw on a sentimental journey with you! I only spent 1/2 day there in (I think) 2000 but this post has got me thinking that I really should visit Warsaw next time in Europe (makes it sound like Europe is just around the corner, haha 🙂 ).

    • Thanks Kati! Yes – you definitely need to return – 1/2 a day is not enough. So much to see. (And yes I do wish Europe was just around the corner … oh well …)

  2. Great photos! Warsaw is full of so much history…

  3. Poland is one of my favorite countries in Europe. It felt so authentic and historically interesting. I also enjoying picking up Polish language here and there. Of course I’ve forgotten all right now but hopefully I’ll have an opportunity to practice again!

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