It is not hyperbole to say that Warsaw is a city that has risen from the rubble. In 1945 85% of the city was irretrievably destroyed. But you could now walk the streets of the Old Town without comprehending the carnage that took place during the German invasion of 1939, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 and the general Warsaw Uprising a year later.
The human impact is harder to mend, and Warsaw has museums and monuments that give unflinching accounts of one of the darkest periods in European History. But there are also memories of the splendour of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the Early Modern Age, when Warsaw was the capital of Europe’s largest empire. To see it, take the Royal Route, which threads through royal properties like Łazienki Park, a little world of palaces and pavilions in the middle of the city.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Warsaw:
1. Old Town
When you tour a historic city centre you’re normally out for genuine, untouched architecture and monuments.
But after Warsaw’s experiences in the 20th century, the magic of this quarter is in the detailed and faithful reconstruction carried out up to 1962. After almost nine tenths of the city was wiped out, the Old Town’s rebirth was an incredible feat that has earned it Old Town UNESCO World Heritage Status.
As you pick your way along alleys and passageways, past guildhalls, churches and burgher houses you’d never imagine that this was all just a pile of debris 70 years ago.
A couple of sights that we haven’t included on the list below are Canon Square, a triangular plaza enclosed by tenements that once houses canons of the Warsaw Chapter, and St John’s Archcathedral, holding the tomb of Stanisław II Augustus, the last King of Poland.
Available tour: Warsaw Old Town 1.5-Hour Segway Tour
2. Royal Route
It happens that nearly all of Warsaw’s historic landmarks are on a single axis beginning at the Castle Square and continuing south for 15 kilometres or so before arriving at Wilanów Palace.
On this line are churches, parks, palaces, academic institutions and plush townhouses.
The three residences that give the route its “royal” title are the Royal Castle at the top, Łazienki Palace in its stunning eponymous park, and Wilanów Palace at the southern terminus.
All three are absolutely essential, resonating with the wealth and might of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
3. Łazienki Park
Warsaw’s largest park is an anchor on the Royal Route and is an excursion of choice for families and couples on the weekend.
The park started out as the royal baths (Łazienki translates to “baths”) and was enriched in the 18th century by a grand plan during the reign of King Stanisław II Augustus.
In these 76 leafy hectares are palaces, pavilions, two orangeries, an amphitheatre, a planetarium, follies, promenades, water features and monuments of national standing.
Hopping from one villa to the next, marvelling at the sumptuous Łazienki Palace, pottering around four museums or just relaxing in the greenery; a whole day could float by here in no time.
Maybe the most prestigious of the monuments is for the composer Frédéric Chopin, designed in 1907 in the Art Nouveau style, but delayed by the First World War and erected in 1926.
4. Old Town Market Place
Up to the creation of Stanisław II Augustus’ New Town at the end of the 18th century, this square was the epicentre of commercial life in Warsaw.
It is the most historic part of the Old Town and is enveloped by tall Renaissance and Baroque merchants’ houses in a spectrum of colours.
All of these buildings are post-war replicas of what came before, as the square was first bombed by the Luftwaffe and then blown up by the Germans at the end of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Immediately after the war the square was rebuilt as it had been, including the bizarre but charming vertical extensions that cap some of the houses.
The mermaid figure on the fountain in the centre holds special meaning for Warsaw, while in summer you can park up at a restaurant table and watch the city going about its day.
5. POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews
Seven years in the making, this museum fully opened in 2014 and documents the millennium-long history of the Jews in Poland.
POLIN is at the northern part of the former Warsaw ghetto in Muranów, and was designed by Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamäki.
In eight galleries, the core exhibition uses a mixture of genuine artefacts, reconstructions and interactive displays to explain how Poland became home for Europe’s largest Jewish community.
You can see a prayer book from 1272 with an early sentence written in Yiddish and find out about the golden age of religious tolerance in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Later comes the Holocaust, and in the gloom are stories about the heroic efforts of the Oyneg Shabbos group to archive the truth about the Warsaw ghetto.
Suggested tour: Warsaw Polin Museum Guided Tour
6. Royal Castle
At the southern entrance to the Old Town you’ll be met by the 90-metre facade of the Mannerist and Baroque castle, the seat of the Polish monarchs for hundreds of years.
The castle has come through an eventful 700 years involving two demolitions, one by the Swedes in the mid-17th century and another by the Germans in the Second World War.
Since the last reconstruction in the 1980s the castle has been a museum, where you can view the apartments of the 16th-century King Sigismund II Augustus, and visit the House of Parliament, the fountain-head of Polish democracy and where amendments made to the Polish-Lithuanian constitution ushered in unprecedented religious tolerance.
There’s also a collection of paintings from the 16th to the 18th century by masters like Rembrandt, van Dyck, Joos van Cleve and Gainsborough.
Book online: Tour of the Royal Castle in Warsaw
7. Castle Square
When Poland’s capital moved from Kraków to Warsaw in 1596 the square beside the castle became the cornerstone of the largest Empire in Renaissance Europe.
The man who brought about this switch was Sigismund III Vasa, who is commemorated by a bronze statue atop an 8.5-metre column.
This was first raised in 1644, but was toppled by the Germans in 1944 and its original red marble was replaced with granite.
There are still fragments of the marble column by the castle walls.
Some events that shook Poland have taken place here, like a bloody riot during the period of Martial Law in 1982, a massacre by the Russians during an uprising in 1861 and a speech by Bill Clinton welcoming Poland into NATO in 1997. Whether it’s a rally or concert there’s often something going on at Castle Square in summer.
8. Warsaw Uprising Museum
This museum of the Warsaw Uprising of August to October 1944 is in the converted former tramway power station in the Wola district.
On entering you can use pre-War telephone receivers to listen to the memories of participants in the uprising.
Among the many clever installations is the Kino palladium, a cinema showing the footage collected by the insurgents and screened at the Warsaw Palladium during the uprising.
There are also replicas of the sewers that the fighters used to get around, while ‘before and after’ photographs of the city bring home the ruthlessness of the German backlash.
9. Copernicus Science Centre
Poland’s top science museum opened in 2010 and has more than 400 interactive exhibits across six zones, each tackling a different field, from the Roots of Civilisation to the Lightzone, investigating the nature of light.
The World in Motion for instance has an earthquake simulator to try out as well as a moving model that showing a human skeleton on a bicycle.
At the Humans and the Environment zone you can find out about urban ecosystems, contruction technology.
There are also webcams beaming footage directly from a falcon’s nest at the Palace of Culture and Science, and the gorilla enclosure at the Warsaw Zoo.
The centre also has a state-of-the-art planetarium with a 3D sound system, screening shows about the cosmos, but also nature and human cultures.
10. Palace of Culture and Science
Whatever your opinion on this enormous building, it is practically ever-present in Warsaw.
At 237 metres the Palace of Culture and Science is the tallest building in Poland, and on its 42 floors are four theatres, a multi-screen cinema, two museums, the 3,000-seater Congress Hall, government offices, academic institutions and private companies.
Taking cues from Art Deco skyscrapers and Polish Historicism, this immense Stalinist complex was a ‘gift from the Soviet Union to the people of Poland’ in 1955, and that’s just one of the reasons it evokes mixed feelings.
If an international event is taking place in Warsaw there’s a good chance it will go down at the Congress Hall, while there’s an observation terrace on the 30th floor open 10:00-20:00 for the ultimate panorama of the city.
11. Łazienki Palace
On the artificial island in the lake at Łazienki Park is the sublime Classical palace conceived in the 18th century for King Stanisław II Augustus.
The property is a conversion of a Baroque bathing pavilion for Count Stanisław Herakliusz Lubomirski from the century before, and has kept some of the architecture from that first building.
The north facade has a portico at the shore of the lake, while the main entrance is in a recess with powerful Corinthian columns, while the roof is hemmed by a balustrade carrying statues of mythological figures.
The ground floor has lavishly decorated salons (The Solomon Room is a stand-out), and the Lower Gallery, has paintings by Jacob Jordaens, Rembrandt and Rubens.
Upstairs is the Upper Gallery, as well as the King’s splendid cabinet and bedchambers.
Included in this tour: Warsaw Half–Day Highlights Tour
12. Wilanów Palace
The palace at the southern end of the Royal Route came through the Second World War without a scratch.
So Wilanów Palace is a rare glimpse of the majesty of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth before Poland was annexed by Prussia and Russia in the late-18th century.
This palace was intended as a summer escape for King Jan III Sobieski towards the end of the 17th century, and has all the hallmarks of Baroque palace architecture, including a parterre with two terraces boasting topiaries, broderie and statues symbolising love.
The exterior is laden with medallions, busts, statues and other Baroque ornamentation, while interior decor abounds with stuccowork, striking trompe-l’œil frescoes and chinoiserie.
High points are the sumptuous White Hall, traced by mirrors, the King’s Library, the King’s Bedroom and the North Gallery, flanked by statues and with magnificent ceiling frescoes.
13. Krakowskie Przedmieście
The most prestigious street in Warsaw makes its way southwards at the beginning of the Royal Route from near the Castle Square.
You’ll see palaces, dignified monuments and eminent Polish institutions like the Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw University and the Presidential Palace.
Across from the entrance to Bednarska Street is Warsaw’s second oldest standing monument, the Madonna of Passau.
This dates from 1683 and is a votive offering in thanks for King Jan III Sobieski’s role in the defeat of the Turks at the Battle of Vienna, in which he led the largest cavalry charge in the history of warfare.
14. National Museum
Warsaw’s biggest museum is also one of the largest in Poland and has a huge assortment of historical artefacts from many places and eras.
The collection of antiquities is noteworthy, made up of some 11,000 Egyptian, Greek and Roman pieces.
Also set aside an hour or two to see everything in the Faras Gallery.
This is furnished with Nubian early Christian frescoes, friezes and architectural elements brought here from the Egyptian-Sudanese border before the construction of the Aswan High Dam flooded the valley.
In the collection of Polish Medieval art from the 14th and 15th centuries are works produced for churches and cathedrals, including devotional paintings, altarpieces and sculptures.
And there’s also lots of art from the Early Modern Age and 19th century, by well-known names like Lucas Cranach the Elder, Brueghel the Elder, Rembrandt, Courbet and Renoir.
15. St Anne’s Church
One of the oldest landmarks in the city, St Anne’s Church on Krakowskie Przedmieście was founded in 1454. In the 17th century the church had to be rebuilt no fewer than four times, until receiving its final Neoclassical facade in 1788. In the niches between the columns and pilasters are statues of the Four Evangelists below a massive pediment.
The interior has kept hold of its theatrical Baroque design from a little earlier, and has spectacular frescoes on its barrel vault and has a nave edged by Corinthian pilasters with gilded capitals.
There are also regular organ recitals at St Anne’s, well worth catching.
16. Taras Widokowy na Stare Miasto (Viewing Platform in the Old Town)
St Anne’s Church has a stand alone bell tower, which will provide you with another vantage point over the city.
In fact, this tower may even be better than the Palace of Culture and Science, as it’s planted on the edge of the Old Town and has regal Baroque architecture.
If you can brave the 147 steps you’ll be rewarded by a bird’s eye view of the Castle, Castle Square, the Old Town to the north and Krakowskie Przedmieście to the south.
17. Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
In Piłsudski Square, the largest in Warsaw, is a monument for unidentified soldiers who have died fighting for Poland.
The tomb dates to 1925, and contains the body of a soldier who fell in the Battle of Lemberg of 1918-1919 between Poland and the West Ukrainian People’s Republic.
The monument housing the tomb is a fragment (three arches) from the arcade that once belonged to the Saxon Palace, demolished after the Warsaw Uprising.
Under the central arch is the tomb and eternal flame, watched by the Representative Honour Guard Battalion of the Polish Armed Forces.
At the stroke of every hour 365 days a year the guard is changed.
The monument and square are the focus of ceremonies for the Polish Armed Forces Day every 15 August.
18. Jewish Ghetto Memorial
By the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews is a monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. On the square below the wall is a circular plaque inscribed with the message: ” Those who fell in the unprecedented heroic struggle for the Dignity and Freedom of the Jewish people, for Free Poland, for the liberation of man – Polish Jews”, in Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew.
This was unveiled in 1946 and is encased in red sandstone to symbolise the bloodshed.
The wall behind came later, in 1948, designed by Natan Rapaport and intended to resemble Jerusalem’s Western Wall and the wall of the Warsaw Ghetto.
On the eastern side of the monument a bronze bas-relief depicts Jewish children, women and elderly being driven by German soldiers.
On the west side the monument shows the uprising of April 1943 with a relief titled “Fight”.
Recommended tour: 3-Hour Tour of Jewish Warsaw
19. Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery
At 33 hectares this Jewish burial ground, dating back to 1806, is one of the largest in the world.
There are over 250,000 marked graves at Okopawa Street Cemetery, as well as several mass graves for those who were killed during the Warsaw Ghetto.
Nature has taken over large swathes of the site, which, along with the Art Nouveau and Historicist monuments, makes the cemetery equal parts beautiful and poignant.
Something interesting about this place is that it was drawn up for Jewish people of all affiliations, so there are allocated areas known as “Quarters” for military burials, Orthodox burials (for men, women and holy scriptures), reform Judaism and children.
After the Second World War a small corner of the cemetery was reopened for Warsaw’s returning Jewish population.
At Plac Małachowskiego is a solemn gallery built in 1900 and dedicated to modern and contemporary Polish art.
Since its foundation in 1860 the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts has had the job of promoting fine art in Poland.
In its early years some of the nation’s most celebrated painters like Jan Matejko and Wojciech Gerson staged exhibitions Zachęta.
And in the same vein, it remains a shortcut to Poland’s art scene via temporary exhibitions for up-and-coming talent and established names like Katarzyna Kozyra and Krzysztof Wodiczko.
In the permanent collection are pieces by leading post-war artists like the painter and set-designer Tadeusz Kantor and the Surrealist Jewish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow.
21. Nowy Świat Street
Also on the Royal Route, this one-kilometre artery leads southwards from Krakowskie Przedmieście down to Three Crosses Square.
Nowy Świat Street’s origins lie in the 16th century when it was first used by the upper class to reach their properties in the countryside south of the old town.
As Warsaw grew, the city’s wealthier and aristocratic residents built homes along the street.
And by Napoleonic times these were remodelled from half-timbered buildings into fine Neoclassical mansions and villas.
The thoroughfare has cafes, upmarket shops and international retailers like Sephora by day, and lots of nightspots with international clientele when the sun goes down.
22. Copernicus Monument
The monument for the trailblazing Renaissance astronomer and mathematician stands proud in front of the Polish Academy of Sciences at Stazsic Palace.
The work shows Copernicus with a compass and armillary sphere and was fashioned by Bertel Thorvaldsen, maybe the leading sculptor in Europe of the day.
It was presented to the public in 1830 and had an uneventful first century until the Second World War.
Not long after entering the city in 1939 the German authorities replaced the Latin and Polish inscriptions with a one in the German language, leading to a tit-for-tat campaign between the Polish resistance and the occupiers.
After the uprising in 1944 it was removed to the city of Nysa to be melted down, but by then the German army was in retreat and the statue could be rescued and returned to its rightful place.
23. Holy Cross Church
Another of the head-turning sights on Krakowskie Przedmieście, the Holy Cross Church is a Baroque monument built in the first half of the 18th century to a design by the royal court architect Józef Szymon Bellotti.
The church was badly damaged in the Warsaw Uprising and was later blown up by the German army in 1945. And when it was rebuilt right after the war the design was simplified and didn’t include the frescoes and polychrome statues that came before.
But there’s still a very good reason to pay a visit: In accordance with his will, Frédéric Chopin’s heart was brought to this church by his sister in an urn, and embedded in a pillar in one of the chapels.
24. Warsaw University Library Garden
A few steps back from the Vistula River, Warsaw University’s library is strange to behold from ground level: There’s a long and austere stone facade and a blue scaffold-like porch that could be from the Pompidou Centre.
But up the exterior stairway is one of the largest roof gardens in Europe.
Open from March to November, this one-hectare space is a little dreamland of fountains, streams, pergolas, arbours and lawns, while the library’s windows and skylights add a touch of the surreal.
This is all the work of landscape architect Irena Bajersaka and opened in 2002. The city views are also fantastic, encompassing the Vistula, the recent PGE National Stadium and the Copernicus Centre.
25. Saxon Garden
When Saxon Garden off Piłsudski Square opened its gates to the public in 1727 it became one of the first public parks in the World.
It had been landscaped in the 17th century for the Saxon Palace, which was lost in the Second World War, along with the Rococo Brühl Palace that also backed onto the park.
In its first century Saxon Garden was a Baroque parterre in the style of Versailles, but has been an English landscape park since the 19th century.
Seek out the park’s sandstone allegorical sculptures, fashioned in the mid-18th century.
Twenty remain from an initial 70, and you can try to work out what each one symbolises (Intellect, Justice, Astronomy, Painting and Poetry are all pretty easy to decipher).