Walk around Żoliborz district
Żoliborz is one of the most attractive districts of Warsaw. Its name derives from the French Joli Bord, or Beautiful Bank, as the estate of the Piarist Order located here in the 18th century was called. There was also the village of Polików, which was later renamed Fawory. In 1831, the village made way for the construction of the Warsaw Citadel, around which minor forts were built and a military training ground created.
After the First World War, military land was made available for construction and in the 1920s and 1930s the district now known as Old Żoliborz was created. It features villas, squares with radial streets and lots of green areas. Since its inception, the district has been associated with the intelligentsia, which can be seen by the names of its parts: Żoliborz Dziennikarski (Journalists), Urzędniczy (Civil Servants) and Oficerski (Officers).
During the Warsaw Uprising, Żoliborz was seized by Home Army soldiers and only surrendered to the Germans at the end of September 1944.
After the war, apartment blocks were built on the outskirts of the area with villas, including the famous Sady Żoliborskie, one of the few examples of resident-friendly and well-designed housing estates of the time.
Take a stroll through atmospheric, verdant Żoliborz.
The Citadel and its Surroundings
The citadel covers an area of 36 hectares and was built on the grounds of the Fawory manor and the Piarist estate. Its construction, which began in 1831, was a punishment for the Poles for triggering the November Uprising.
Start your citadel tour with a walk around its picturesque brick walls. On the Żoliborz side, there is a park full of grassy spaces and art installations that blend into nature. The north-western section of the walls is flanked by the Drna River, which used to be the citadel’s moat. It was buried underground in the 19th century and only the final section of it comes to the surface. A picturesque bridge, known as the aqueduct, adds to the charm of the place.
On the Vistula side, the fortress walls were built on top of a high escarpment. This is also the location of the Execution Gate, through which citadel prisoners were led out for execution. On the slopes of the escarpment, you will see their symbolic graves.
Today, the citadel is home to the 10th Pavilion Museum, the Katyń Museum, the Museum of the Polish Army (closed until further notice) and the Museum of Polish History. The first is located on the site of the former Tsarist prison for political convicts. The Katyń Museum, which tells the story of Polish officers murdered in the Soviet Union, can be found in the southern caponier of the citadel. From there, it is only a step to the Gdański Bridge with its optimistic neon sign Miło Cię widzieć [Nice to see you].
The central part of the district is Wilson’s Square, which was laid out in 1923. It was built on the model of squares in Paris, with streets radiating out in many directions. The buildings around the square are home to numerous cafés, patisseries, and food outlets. For delicious cakes and good coffee, it is worth heading to Felińskiego Street to one of the cafés near St Stanisław Kostka Church, the same one where famous patriotic masses were held by Father Jerzy Popiełuszko in 1982-1984. If you want to learn more about the fate of the Solidarity chaplain, visit the museum dedicated to him in the basement of the church.
Getting there is very easy – take the Metro Line 1 train and get off at Plac Wilsona station. Take a look at its interior, as it is, without a doubt, the most beautiful station in the Warsaw metro. The illuminated ceiling, the irregular wall shapes and the materials used have impressed many juries, which has resulted in numerous architectural awards.
Wilson’s Square is bordered to the south by Żeromskiego Park. It was built in the 1920s, in the early period of the construction of Old Żoliborz. Its focal point is Sokolnickiego Fort, which was one of the citadel’s outer forts. Now restored and listed as a protected heritage site, the fort is home to popular cafés. It’s a great place to spend a warm summer evening.
Museum of Sport and Tourism and Kępa Potocka
Just a quarter of an hour’s walk from Wilsona Square is the landmark Olympic Centre, with its Museum of Sport and Tourism. Step inside to learn about the history of sports, and see sports equipment, trophies, and Olympic medals of famous athletes. If that’s not your thing, then take a seat and enjoy the sculpture by Igor Mitoraj in front of the entrance to the building. Do you recognise the mythical Icarus in it? Across the street is the district’s favourite spot to relax. People call it the canal, but it is in fact a former branch of the Vistula. The park that now stretches along it – Kępa Potocka – used to be an island. Take a leisurely stroll among the greenery here or relax on a blanket by the water. At dusk, a pink neon sign in the shape of a giant glass of bubbly orangeade adds to the atmosphere of the whole area.
Learn about another well-known square in Żoliborz – Inwalidów Square. It was built on the site of the demolished Georgiy Fort. There is an urban legend connected to this which says that somewhere under the square there is a secret corridor connecting the former fort to the citadel. Maybe one day it will be found… In the meantime, walk around the square and see the buildings that survived the Warsaw Uprising intact. Head down Wojska Polskiego Avenue and follow it west to the junction with Felińskiego Street. There you can see two German bunkers from the Second World War. One is very easy to spot. But will you be able to find the other one?
If you found the second bunker, head back to Inwalidów Square and walk along Mickiewicza Street towards the city centre. On the west side of the street, there are several interesting restaurants and cafés. It’s a good place to sit for a while and relax. Another, admittedly Saturday-only, culinary attraction in Żoliborz is located on Wojska Polskiego Avenue near the citadel. From April to October, there is an open-air Breakfast Market, where you can sample dishes from all corners of the world.
Żoliborz of Officers, Journalists, and Civil Servants
Żoliborz has always been a district for the intelligentsia, with houses and villas built side by side by members of esteemed and well-paid professions of the time. The division of the district by the professions of its inhabitants continues in the names of neighbourhoods: so there is Żoliborz Dziennikarski (Journalists) Żoliborz Oficerski (Officers) and Żoliborz Urzędniczy (Civil Servants).
Start your tour with Dziennikarski Żoliborz, near Wilsona Square. Between Krasińskiego and Promyka Streets you will find terraced houses from 1928-1930, where famous interwar and post-war journalists lived. Melchior Wańkowicz lived at 3 Dziennikarska Street, which he described in his book Ziele na kraterze (Herbs at the Crater).
In contrast to the modernist Żoliborz Dziennikarski, Żoliborz Oficerski located between Krasińskiego Street and the citadel features mostly white houses with red roofs in the style of Polish manor houses. You’ll find the most charming buildings of this type on Forteczna and Śmiała Streets. On the wall of the villa at the corner of Śmiała and Józefa Hauke-Bosaka Streets, you will see a commemorative plaque dedicated to Andrzej Wajda, who spent more than 40 years of his life there.
Similar houses, this time alluding to the small-town Polish architecture of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, can be seen in Urzędniczy Żoliborz. To admire them, take a stroll along picturesque Brodzińskiego and Wieniawskiego Streets. In one of the houses on the second street, Czesław Niemen, to whom we owe the hit song Sen o Warszawie (Dream about Warsaw), lived and worked. See also the circular Henkla Square nearby.
In the 1960s, new housing estates began to spring up on the outskirts of pre-war Żoliborz. Some of them are comprised of high-rise buildings. However, there are also examples of interesting and resident-friendly architecture that harmonise with the low-rise buildings of Old Żoliborz. One such example is Sady Żoliborskie [Żoliborz Orchards], which, as the name says, was built on the site of former orchards adjacent to the pre-war district. There is a definite charm in the square formed by Popiełuszki, Krasińskiego, Załuskich and Gojawiczyńskiej Streets. The low-rise apartment buildings are arranged in such a way as not to obstruct each other, and the central part of the estate is occupied by a well-kept park with old fruit trees that still flower in spring and bear fruit in autumn.
To the north of Old Żoliborz is Marymont. Its name, like that of Żoliborz, comes from the French – Marie Mont or Marie’s Hill. It was here, on a hill on what is now Gdańska Street, that the brave King John III Sobieski built a palace in honour of his beloved wife Maria. In addition to being the residence of the royal wife, it also served as a hunting lodge, hosting the royal court on their way to hunt in Bielański and Kampinos Forests. Today, on the foundations of the former palace stands the picturesque Church of Our Lady Queen of Poland, built in 1924-1930, and Kaskada Park, located on the opposite side of Gdańska Street, is a remnant of the palace park.