Walk around Wilanów district
Between the high Warsaw Escarpment and the Vistula River is the district of Wilanów. This part of Warsaw, in contrast to most of the city, belonged to the Urzecze, a geographical and cultural region in the valley of the river. Due to the fertile and moist soils, it was an agricultural area that provided Warsaw with food. The district still has a lot of farmland, and among it is one of the city’s most tranquil bicycle routes. The culture and way of life of the local people were linked to the river and its floods, which attracted the Olender people, who were evangelical settlers, mainly from the Netherlands, who were used to battling water.
Wilanów was formerly known as Milanowo or Milanów; however, the name is thought to have originated with the local manor house, Villa Nova, which was purchased in 1677 by King Jan III Sobieski of Poland. The king built the manor into a palace and now it is a popular historical monument.
Błonia Wilanowskie, also known as Miasteczko Wilanów, is a newer residential development in the neighbourhood that sits alongside the historic palace and nature reserves. The tallest church in Warsaw, the Temple of Divine Providence, can be seen rising above the surrounding buildings as its dome dominates the skyline. Join us on an excursion where cycling is the ideal mode of transport due to the long distances between stops.
The Wilanów Palace, one of the most stunning examples of European Baroque architecture, was constructed in stages on the grounds of the former Villa Nova manor house. Construction on the royal palace started in 1681, during the reign of Jan III Sobieski, when a first floor and side towers were then added. The addition of side wings and further extensions took place after the king’s death. Poland’s next king, August II the Strong, leased it between 1730 and 1733. The Wilanów estates, including the palace, changed hands between various aristocratic families. In 1805, the then-owner of the Palace opened the rooms of his residence to the public, along with his collections, thereby establishing the oldest Polish art museum in the process. The Branicki family was the building’s last owner before World War II. The palace’s furnishings and gardens were destroyed by German and Hungarian soldiers stationed in the palace during World War II. After the war, it became state property and in 2013 the King Jan III Palace Museum was established in its interiors.
Entered through the main gate, in the museum’s large grassy courtyard, visitors can admire the palace’s Baroque facades decorated with elaborate bas-reliefs. Inside, you’ll find authentic pieces of furniture from the royal chambers and bedrooms, as well as restored decorations from the reign of King Jan II and his beloved wife Queen Marysieńka.
One of the museum’s biggest attractions is the park surrounding the palace. The North Garden features a fountain of a young triton, the Baroque Garden is the park’s oldest section, and the Rose Garden is known for its fragrant blooms. Beautiful scenery can also be found in the northern and southern nature parks. The whole area slopes down towards Wilanowskie Lake, where you will find interesting and picturesque buildings – a Roman bridge, a Chinese gazebo and the Raszyn Battle Monument built on an artificial island. In the colder months, the garden inside the palace is transformed into the Royal Garden of Light, a dazzling display of lights and illuminations. This is a great place for the whole family and can get crowded on snowy days.
Be sure to also enter the world’s oldest poster museum, housed in the former palace riding school. An impressive assortment of posters advertising theatre performances, films and civic engagement can be found here.
Right next to the palace is a stunning neo-Renaissance church, which is very popular among Varsovians for weddings. This is the Collegiate Church of St Anne in Wilanów. A mammoth bone discovered in the area during excavations can be seen inside the church, along with a 17th-century painting of the “Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary” that hangs above the main altar. One of the chapels also contains the tombs of the Potocki family moved from the cemetery chapel.
An undiscovered treasure awaits more adventurous visitors on the other side of Wilanów Lake. Morysin Park is a wetland forest that was once a royal hunting ground. At the beginning of the 19th century, the area was transformed into a romantic park, of which a few mysterious monuments remain. For the many different kinds of wildlife that call this ancient forest home, in the 1960s it was turned into a nature reserve.
Travelling by bicycle, you can reach the reserve by taking Vogla Street, turning left after crossing the bridge between the lakes, and then immediately turning left onto the dirt road. It will lead you straight into the former hunting ground. But first, off to the right, you can make out the remains of an old, neo-Gothic gate that dates back to 1846. Be sure to take a close look at it, so take the first path to the right. Then return to the main trail, which runs by the lake, and after a while, you will be in the park itself. Keep in mind that it is wet in the spring and after heavy rain and that mosquitoes are a problem in the summer. However, it is well worth the effort to locate the ruins of a historic tower, the rotunda-shaped remains of a classicist palace, as well as a stunning wooden forester’s lodge. The Wilanówka river and Sobieski canal run around the reserve, so return to Vogla Street to reach the next point of the tour.
The Vistula and the Olender Cemeteries
Now head for the wild Vistula River by taking Vogla Street northeast and then exiting the roundabout onto Zaściankowa Street, which will lead you to the Vistula embankment. On the other side, you will find a path that leads through wild riverside meadows and woodland. After a while, you’ll get to a long stretch of sandy beach with several islands connected to it at low tide. This is Wilanów Zawady Beach, which is divided into two parts, separated by a river spur. Swimmers who choose to cover can bathe in the northern section, while the southern section is for those who choose to go nude. No matter what state of dress you are in, it’s worth spending a few lazy and quiet moments here. You’ll also discover that this section of the Vistula is a wild river, full of islands and nesting birds.
If the summer heat becomes unbearable, head south on Wał Zawadowski Street. After crossing underneath the bypass, turn into Olęderska Street, which will take you to the junction of Syta and Bruzdowa Streets. Here there is an old Protestant cemetery belonging to settlers from the Netherlands and North Germany, the Olenders. You can read inscriptions in Polish and German on the surviving graves. You will find a second, similar cemetery a little further away, outside the borders of Wilanów at the roundabout on Sągi Street. During the Second World War, many Olenders collaborated with the Germans and, because of their origin, were included on the volkslist, the list of Germans in occupied Poland. When the Soviet Army approached, they fled together with the German troops, and only the cemeteries that have been renovated in recent years remain in the Wilanów area.
Natolin Park and the Warsaw Escarpment
On the other side of the district, right on the border with Ursynów, is Natolin Park. To get there, find the cycle path at Korbońskiego Street and follow it to the top of the Warsaw Escarpment, on the border of Wilanów and Ursynów. Follow Nowoursynowska Street until you the park gate. It’s a true wilderness in the city, a nature preserve that will blow your mind. The entire area, for fear of unruly tourists, has been fenced off, and the gates open to the public several times during the summer season. Those who want to visit must book in advance.
King Jan III Sobieski went hunting in this park, and by the late 18th century, several neo-classical structures, the Potocki Palace among them, had been constructed. Like all the surrounding estates, this place belonged successively to various noble families, and the name Natolin comes from the name of the heiress Natalia Potocka. In 1945, the park and all the buildings became state property. At one time, it was home to Poland’s first communist president, Bolesław Bierut. Since the 1990s, the College of Europe has had its headquarters in the Potocki Palace.
If you are not on one of the popular summer tours, go around the edge of the park. Head down to Gąsek Street and, following the path that runs close to the fence, look at the monumental old trees and the picturesque eastern gate. Additionally, pause for a moment at the stream-crossing bridge to observe the pond in the distance. The path will lead you to the base of the escarpment, where you can avoid the ring road and enter the Ursynowska Escarpment Reserve. Stop by the fenced pond at the foot of the Warsaw University of Life Sciences vice-chancellor’s building, where you will have to make a decision. You have the choice of exploring Ursynów or relaxing in one of the many restaurants in nearby Miasteczko Wilanów. So which one will it be?
The Błonia Wilanowskie Estate and Multicultural Wilanów
Back in the 1990s, the whole area was arable fields and wasteland. At that time, a plan to create a 100-hectare site that is completely self-sufficient as an urban organism was conceived. When it was first introduced in the early years of the 21st century, the project fell short of locals’ expectations. The residents grumbled about the lack of services and the estate was sometimes referred to as a dormitory suburb. While it still doesn’t have a cinema or theatre, today’s Miasteczko Wilanów is a place full of cafes, patisseries and restaurants serving international cuisine, and even has its own beach. It is separated from Wilanowska Avenue by the Potok Służewiecki, a stream spanned by a footbridge decorated with hearts. Over time, in-love couples began attaching padlocks to its railings and it became known as the Bridge of Lovers.
Walking around the estate, you will see the dome of the monumental Temple of Divine Providence – a church that was supposed to have been built as early as the 18th century as a vote of thanks for the adoption of the Constitution of 3 May 1791. Did you know that the often-criticised shape of the building is based on Jakub Kubicki’s original concept from 1792? If the exterior design isn’t to your liking, you might prefer the inside: a minimalist interior, almost devoid of ornamentation. In addition to the church itself, the building is home to the Pantheon of Great Poles and the Museum of John Paul II and Primate Stefan Wyszyński.
Followers of other faiths are represented in Wilanów by the mosque at 103 Wiertnicza Street, as well as a house dedicated to the Buddhist community founded by a well-known actor Małgorzata Braunek and her husband Andrzej Krajewski, just 500 metres away.