Walk around Śródmieście district – part 1
Śródmieście, Warsaw’s city centre district, is the most ‘metropolitan’ part of Warsaw, and also perhaps the most diverse – here you will find historic buildings in the Old Town as well as a forest of skyscrapers. Because there are so many sights to see in this area, we have split the city centre into two sections – north and south – to provide a more thorough description of each area. The boundary between the two is Jerozolimskie Avenue.
Major events in Warsaw’s history are associated with this part of Śródmieście, especially the Old Town, from its foundation at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries, when it became the Polish capital in 1596, and later the Swedish Deluge in the middle of the 17th century, the regaining of Poland’s independence in the early 20th century and the Warsaw Uprising during World War II. Each stage has left its mark on the district’s appearance, with the destruction of the war almost stripping it of its earlier buildings.
Śródmieście overlaps with the centre of the city. But where exactly is the centre? Is it the Old Town, Defilad Square or perhaps the ‘frying pan’ – the square in front of the Centrum metro station? Today, there is no single place that can unquestionably be called the centre of Warsaw, and its location has changed throughout the city’s history. The oldest, historical centre of Warsaw was the Old Town Square. It then moved to Teatralny Square, where the town hall in the Jabłonowski Palace was located after 1817. After the construction of the Wiedeński Railway Station on the corner of Marszałkowska Street and Jerozolimskie Avenue in 1845, the centre moved to the area around Wareckiego Square (today’s Powstańców Warszawy Square). In 1955, the city’s focal point changed when the Palace of Culture and Science opened. We hope you will discover your own Warsaw city centre on a walk with our guide. Come with us on a journey that will be full of surprises.
Old and New Town
Start your walk in the Old Town at Castle Square, which you can reach by tram from the Ratusz Arsenał metro station. To get to the square at the top of the Warsaw Escarpment from the tram stop, climb the stone steps or take the escalator built in the late 1930s. Your eyes will immediately catch sight of Zygmunt’s Column – one of the symbols of Warsaw. Two original columns, which can be seen next to the south wall of the Royal Castle, bear witness to the centuries-old history of this monument. The older of the two is nearly 380 years old! The original statue of King Zygmunt III Waza was placed on the new column in 1949. At the edge of the square stands the Royal Castle. The home of many Polish kings and the site of the Constitution of 3 May 1791 was destroyed during the Second World War. The castle was not rebuilt until 1971-1984.
It is hard to believe that almost the entire Old Town is also a reconstruction. It was done so well that it has been placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Explore the colourful townhouses standing along the cobbled streets and visit the Old Town Square with its statue of the Mermaid. Also head to the Museum of Warsaw, located in the original surviving townhouses.
At the northern edge of the city walls, there is the Barbican, or fortified city gate. Walk through it and you will find yourself in the New Town, built at the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries. Here, too, most of the townhouses were rebuilt after the Second World War. One of them, at 16 Freta Street, houses the Maria Skłodowska-Curie Museum. Other attractions in this part of the city include the Multimedia Fountain Park at the foot of the escarpment, which is famous for its colourful evening shows.
Along the Royal Route: Krakowskie Przedmieście
The Royal Route connects the three royal residences in Warsaw: The Royal Castle, Royal Łazienki and Wilanów Palace. In the northern part of the city centre, the route runs along Krakowskie Przedmieście and Nowy Świat Streets. There are countless places of interest within easy walking distance of these streets, but we will focus on the most significant ones.
As you begin your stroll along Krakowskie Przedmieście, climb the tower of St Anne’s Church to get a great view of the Old Town, the city centre with its skyscrapers, and the Vistula valley. Afterwards, take a walk along nearby Kozia Street. Located at the end of this peaceful, off-the-beaten-track street is the unique Museum of Caricature, home to a wide variety of humorous works of art. Behind the museum is a small park where you can find a time capsule: a post-war modernist block of apartments built for high-ranking communist party officials. Its edifice is still impressive today.
Kozia Street ends in the vicinity of the Adam Mickiewicz monument and the nearby Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Joseph. Interestingly, it is one of the few churches in the area that survived the Second World War undamaged. Nearby you will also see the President’s Palace and two famous hotels: the Europejski and the Bristol.
Behind the Europejski Hotel is the large, stone-paved Piłsudskiego Square. Here, in the arcades of the Saxon Palace, which was destroyed during the Second World War, is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Work is currently underway to rebuild the Saxon Palace, so it won’t be long before the look of the place will change dramatically. Go a little further and take a stroll through the Saxon Garden. Take some time to unwind by the large fountain designed by Italian architect Henri Marconi.
Of the many churches in Krakowskie Przedmieście, the most important is the Basilica of the Holy Cross. You will easily recognise it from the figure of Christ carrying the cross. Inside the church is a priceless artefact – the heart of Fryderyk Chopin, which is placed inside one of the walls.
Along the Royal Route: Nowy Świat
Just a short stroll south along Krakowskie Przedmieście will bring you to Nowy Świat Street, where you can choose from several eateries with outdoor seating areas. During the winter holidays, the Royal Route is lit up all the way to the Old Town, making for a spectacular sight. Additionally, the Royal Route from the Charles de Gaulle Roundabout to the Old Town is pedestrianised on weekends during the summer and at Christmas.
As you walk along Nowy Świat, be sure to turn into Ordynacka Street, which will take you to the palace known as the Ostrogski Castle. There you can visit the Fryderyk Chopin Museum and see the actual piano that the Polish composer played.
Return along Ordynacka to Nowy Świat. Across the road on Warecka Street, you will find the entrance to the sewer through which the Warsaw insurgents evacuated the nearby Old Town in early September 1944.
As you approach the end of Nowy Świat, if you turn into one of the gates on the east side of the street, you will enter a completely different world – the ‘pavilions’, which are former shops repurposed as pubs and bars. Nearby, on the wall of the building at 18/20 Nowy Świat, you can see a mural depicting Kora – the singer of the band Maanam. A tree standing in the foreground gives the impression that the image changes with each season.
Our walk along this section of the Royal Route ends at the Charles de Gaulle Roundabout, which since 2002 has been decorated with a plastic palm tree designed by Joanna Rajkowska. Now turn right onto Jerozolimskie Avenue and head towards the Palace of Culture and Science.
City Centre and Its Surroundings
The Palace of Culture and Science, built between 1952 and 1955 on the ruins of post-war Warsaw, is one of the city’s most recognisable symbols. During the communist era, this ‘gift of the Soviet people’ was meant to demonstrate the power and strength of the communist system. Fortunately, the architects’ original intentions are now a thing of the past and the palace, now under heritage protection, is simply a part of the city like any other. The nearby Defilad Square, or Parade Square, which used to host communist party celebrations, is also changing with the construction of the Museum of Modern Art.
Be sure to walk around the palace and see the socialist realist sculptures of heroes from the previous regime. Also, find a statue of a student holding a book with the names of the founders of communism on its cover. There was another one – of Stalin – but after his death, it was erased…
The Palace of Culture is home to many institutions. There are four theatres, museums, a cinema, a swimming pool, and the Youth Palace. Be sure to go to the 30th floor to admire a panorama of Warsaw. The Palace of Culture and Science used to be the city’s tallest structure, but the nearby Varso Tower skyscraper recently surpassed it in height and is now the tallest building in the city and the European Union.
Now cross Jerozolimskie Avenue to the building at number 51, at which you can see a Photoplasticon, a device for viewing slides. More than 10,000 three-dimensional photographs from around the world are gathered here, chronicling everything from the opening of the Suez Canal and expeditions to the frozen wastes of Spitzbergen to everyday life in Warsaw at different times in its history.
Before the Second World War, Warsaw was the city with the second largest Jewish population in the world, after New York. So head to some of the places that preserve the memory of Warsaw’s Jews, murdered by the Germans during World War II. Grzybowski Square, to the north of the Palace of Culture and Science, used to bustle with shops and stalls owned by Jews. Only a few remain on nearby Grzybowska Street. Today, the former market square has been transformed and now even features an artificial pond.
From Grzybowski Square, turn onto Próżna Street – one of the few streets from the Warsaw Ghetto that survived. Its southern part has been renovated and features offices and good restaurants. The northern part is still made up of old, unoccupied brick tenements. In the gate of one of them are cast-iron dwarves that once protected the walls from being damaged by horse-drawn carts.
Nearby, at 6 Twarda Street, you will also find the turn-of-the-century Nożyk Synagogue, which, although severely damaged, survived the Second World War. The synagogue and its surroundings are now the centres of Jewish life in Warsaw. As you’ll see, however, the most significant reminder of the city’s sizable Jewish population before World War II can be found in the neighbouring Muranów.
There are two more places you must see in this area. The first of these, at 39 Zielna Street, is the PAST-a building, the former telephone exchange. During the Warsaw Uprising, after a battle that lasted several days, it was captured by the insurgents on 20 August 1944. It was one of the greatest combat successes of the Home Army. The second place that captures the spirit of Warsaw is Hala Mirowska and its surroundings. It is one of the last classic city markets, where you can buy practically everything you need for your home cooking, as well as flowers from year-round stalls.
Muranów owes its name to the Venetian, Józef Belotti, who was court architect to the kings Michał Korybut-Wiśniowiecki and Jan III Sobieski. In 1686, he built himself a palace there and named it after the island on which he was born – Murano. In the 19th century, a large Jewish community settled in the area, arriving there from Lithuania and Belarus. At the beginning of the 20th century, the district became the most densely built-up part of Warsaw. Its main street and also one of the city’s most important shopping streets was Nalewki. Be sure to go to the area around the entrance gate to Krasiński Garden, where the last remaining section of this street, now called Stare Nalewki, remains.
The most important source of livelihood for the residents of Muranów was trade and services.
After the outbreak of the Second World War, it was in Muranów and its surroundings that the Germans established the ghetto, where, at its peak, 400,000 people were crowded together. In April 1943, an uprising broke out in the ghetto, which was quickly quashed and the district was razed to the ground.
After the war, new residential buildings were built on the ruins of the former Jewish quarter. Some of them were built on hills made from the rubble of destroyed buildings. When walking around Muranów, remember that the history of the place remains underground.
Since 2013, the focal point of Muranów has been the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Be sure to visit it to learn about the shared thousand-year history of the Jewish and Polish peoples. Plan to spend at least a half-day visiting the exhibition because of its size. Numerous monuments and commemorative plaques commemorating incidents from the ghetto era and the fighting during the uprising can also be found in the Muranów area. The most important of these are:
– The Anielewicz Bunker at the junction of Miła and Dubois Streets, where the leader of the Jewish Fighting Organisation, Mordechai Anielewicz, sheltered and died with his fighters,
– Umschlagplatz, a memorial at the place where residents of the ghetto boarded trains bound for the extermination camps.
Most of the northern part of Śródmieście lies on a hill, which is separated from the Vistula valley by the Warsaw Escarpment. Powiśle, the riverside area below, used to be inundated with water every time the river rose, especially in spring. As a result, the area was home to poorer people, and the wooden homes there were not particularly grand. The people who lived along the Vistula River were involved in sand mining, fishing, and water transport. To this day, part of Powiśle and one of the streets is called Solec, as this is where salt from the mines in southern Poland was transported by boat. At the beginning of the 19th century, with the taming of the river, Powiśle started to develop an industrial character. The Powiśle Power Station, which served as the city’s primary power source at the time, was built here in the early 20th century.
Powiśle is currently one of Warsaw’s more exciting neighbourhoods, with a wide variety of restaurants, clubs, and interesting institutions. Start your exploration of the area at Dworzec Powiśle, a club located in the former ticket office of Powiśle station and one of the area’s earliest establishments. Visit the revitalised interiors of the Powiśle power station, stop at the cafes along the Vistula boulevards, and in the summer unwind in the gardens on the roof of the University of Warsaw Library. If you’re out for a stroll with the kids, stop by the Copernicus Science Centre, where you can have fun playing and learning.
Towards the Old Town, you’ll come across Mariensztat, the city’s first post-war housing estate designed for model workers. Compared to the nearby tourist-filled Old Town, life moves much more tranquilly in this small, atmospheric neighbourhood. If you’ve been walking around Mariensztat for a while and your feet are starting to hurt, stop at a café or sit on a bench in the market square.