Among many cities in Eastern Europe, Warsaw was perhaps the unluckiest. The once very beautiful city was severely damaged in World War II, leaving over 85% of buildings in ruin. But like a phoenix, Warsaw resurrected from its ashes and transformed into one of the greatest capitals in the region.
Having a strategic location at the crossroad between Western and Eastern Europe, Warsaw had been shuffled by empires and dynasties for centuries. Since King Sigismund III of Vasa moved his court here from Kraków in 1569, the city had switched owners several times, for example, Swedes in the 17th century and Russians during the 19th century.
When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Warsaw was swiftly occupied by the Nazis and a dark age began in the city once described as Paris of the East. Within a few years, 85% of buildings were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of civilians were detained and massacred, including a strong Jewish population and those who participated in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.
Once “liberated”, Warsaw was rebuilt in stagnant, Soviet-style, and thus its reputation as a gloomy, concrete city was born. But the dark, negative images of yesteryear no longer characterise modern Warsaw as the city moves boldly forward. Today, the city on the Vistula River is one of the most dynamic capitals in Eastern Europe, humming with energy and optimism.
Warsaw Old Town
Obliterated during the Second World War, Warsaw Old Town is no more than just a name. Without mercy, the Nazis began the systematic destruction of the city, building by building, street by street, when they lost ground in 1944. The 13th-century historic centre, unfortunately, could not escape its doom.
Thanks to the “Bricks for Warsaw” campaign which gathered donations from around the world, the old town was rebuilt. And many of its colourful houses, cobblestone streets, and beautiful squares were restored to their original form. At the heart of the historic centre was the statue of Syrenka Warszawska (Mermaid of Warsaw) – symbol and guardian of the city. Legend said that she is a sister of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen but they bid adieu when she swam to Vistula River. Unlike her sister, this mermaid is armed with a sword and a shield to protect the city and its citizens.
Palace of Science and Culture
Another unmissable landmark of Warsaw is the Palace of Science and Culture positioned at the heart of the city. Designed by the Soviet architect Lev Rudnev, the 231 metres tall is the tallest building in the city and a “gift” from Stalin to Poland. Being a remnant of the communist era, the towering palace is perhaps Warsaw’s most controversial building as it is loved and hated passionately. It resembles the most impressive skyscraper in Moscow, the Moscow State University, and houses a multiplex cinema, four theatres, two museums, a university, a swimming pool, an auditorium, and, at the top, a panoramic viewing platform.
If you want to chill out in Warsaw, there is no better place than Lazienki Park. Covering over 70 hectares of the city centre, Lazienki Park is Warsaw’s largest green area and the lunge of the capital. The baroque park was originally built for the Polish noble Stanisław Herakliusz Lubomirski in the 17th century. It took the name Lazienki (bath) from a bathing pavilion that was located nearby.
In the 18th century, the charming and picturesque landscape was transformed into a setting for palaces, villas and monuments for Poland’s King Stanislaw August. The park became a public park in 1918, and since then it has become one of the most important recreational areas in Warsaw.