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Winter in Warsaw: Beautiful Architecture, Christmas Magic and Pages of Tragic History

After 4 amazing days in Vienna, we flew to Warsaw, excited to explore Poland for the first time. We’ve heard many good things about this country, and were curious to know how it got its reputation.

Chopin Airport is modern and well organized, and the bus to the city center was easy to find and relatively inexpensive. We stayed very close to the old town, in an apartment rented on booking.com, in a renovated communist building.

Warsaw Old Town

The capital of Poland was almost completely destroyed during the war and partially restored during the communist era. The old town in the city center looks surprisingly intact, no new buildings were built among the old ones, as is the case in many Romanian cities.

The historic center is full of tourists, with beautiful and colorful buildings, pedestrian streets where we found many restaurants and small souvenir shops. In Zamkowy Square, a huge Christmas tree which seemed to be the centerpiece of winter celebrations was creating a nice atmosphere.

But there were few sellers with holiday products in this area. We found some stalls in an inner courtyard next to Saint Anne’s Church, where we went to climb into the tower from where an amazing view over the city opens.

Then, we walked a little longer and found some kiosks with Christmas-specific products on a pedestrian alley that followed the trail of the walls of the old city: Międzymurze Piotra Biegańskiego. The offer was about the same as at the other Central European Christmas markets.

At the other main square of the old town (Rynek Starego Miasta) we found a richer offer, a skate rink very appreciated by children and adults alike and bright lights adorning the trees and the tiny wooden houses with Christmas goodies.

Food and drinks here weren’t very expensive (compared to Vienna), but we were expecting to find more vendors and were convinced that we’d eventually discover them in other parts of the city.

This old area is worth exploring on foot, to admire the gorgeous nineteenth-century architecture and enter all sorts of exciting places. We have heroically abstained from junk food and only visited some churches (Saint John’s Basilica and the Chapel of Our Lady), both splendidly decorated inside. We have also reached the Barbican, that is, a part of the ruins of Warsaw’s medieval fortress, which has not been preserved much.

 

The Royal Castle

An impressive building where you can spend a few hours is the former Royal Palace of Poland, completely destroyed during the Nazi period and restored during the communist regime.

Dating back to the 14th century, the building shelters former royal family suites, with a sumptuous design, loaded with gold and decorations carefully crafted by the most skilled craftsmen of that time.

Here you can also admire a collection of art, with valuable works from the classical period of painting, as well as treasury objects: silverware, coins, gold artifacts, old weapons and noblemen’s clothes. There are also temporary exhibitions dedicated to famous artists that take place in the former cellars of the palace.

We were amused by the museum custodians, whom we met everywhere. In each room was an elderly lady with a communist attitude and a very suspicious look that followed you from when you came in until you left every room. They reminded us of some places in our home country. 🙂

The Warsaw Museum

A place that should not be missed if you want to know the history of the city is the Museum of Warsaw, which is actually made up of a whole ensemble of 11 old communicating buildings, which can be explored for a whole day. This area too, suffered important damage in the last global conflagration, but was very well restored and valorized.

The museum is well organized, being an example for any European city that wants to present its history and culture to foreigners. The tour starts with a series of rooms dedicated to statistically significant, attractively presented data to understand how this city has evolved over the centuries. Then we learned about the history of the houses where the museum is now located, who were their owners and what tragic destiny they had.

The main part of the museum, deployed on several floors, is called “Things of Warsaw” and contains over 300,000 objects (out of which only 7,352 are exhibited), which actually show how the life of the people in this city was a long time ago. The exhibits are categorized from household utensils and art objects to clothes, maps and watches in 21 themed rooms.

Marie Curie Museum

The last museum we visited in the old area of the city was the Marie Curie Memorial House. Being a place dedicated to one of the world’s most famous scientists, winner of two Nobel prizes, we expected something spectacular, but were a little disappointed.

The museum is quite banal, with old and dusty exhibits, and most descriptions of the objects displayed don’t have English translations. It was probably the only place in Warsaw that reminded us of the old museums in our country which have not been renovated for decades. We can recommend it only to those very passionate about physics or the person it is dedicated to, but we can’t say that it is attractive for the rest of the tourists.

The New Center and the Palace of Culture

After occupying Poland (or liberating it, it depends on perspective), the Soviets decided to raise a number of edifices here to help the newly installed Communist government impress the population. This is how the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw appeared, the best example of Stalinist architecture in Russia’s former satellite countries.

The building was erected in 1955, it is 231 m high and has 42 floors, resembling several buildings in Moscow raised during the same period. Something similar, but on a smaller scale, would be the House of Free Press in Bucharest. On the 30th floor there is a panoramic terrace, which we didn’t climb to this time because of the foggy weather and the lack of time.

Now, many state institutions, companies, theater groups, cinemas, bookstores, sports clubs, universities and scientific organizations are functioning in this building. The interior design resembles that of the Palace of Parliament in the capital of Romania, each room having a different style, and the decorations are inspired by Polish rustic models.

The bottom floors impressed us the most with dozens of different rooms housing a huge fair (we don’t know whether it was organized just for the holidays or is a permanent thing), with hundreds of vendors and thousands of people barely fitting in these huge spaces. The contrast between the sober and solemn socialist building and the stalls filled with clothes and various objects, the people who were eating tasty dishes while seated on the floor or on the stairs, the modern bazaar atmosphere, impregnated with an air of freedom, was striking and amazing. Perhaps this is the best solution when you just escaped a dictatorial regime and you have some huge spaces you don’t know what to do with: you can open them to public, truly give them back to the people.

The palace area is surrounded by the new center of the city, which is a combination of several interwar buildings, many high constructions from the communist era and some new steel and glass skyscrapers.

Here, you have that feeling of a great metropolis, with very high buildings and architectural lighting, with shops everywhere, large boulevards and bright advertising. The new heart of Warsaw beats in this central district.

Wilanów Palace

On one of the days we made a tour through the southern part of the Polish capital. Upon arriving, we were impressed by the design of a new block of apartment buildings, which was totally different from what has been built in our country in the last 29 years. That is, there are wide streets, very large sidewalks with bicycle tracks and many trees… So the Poles can do it!

We were amazed and intrigued by a building of the Catholic Church in the area. It looked less like a church and more like a huge conference hall with a futuristic design dedicated to religious leaders. It seemed to be extracted from a SF dystopia, but the style intrigues you and makes you pass its threshold to see the interior.

After visiting the SF Church, we continued our walk towards the reason that brought us in this part of the city: Wilanów Palace, one of the most important aristocratic residences preserved in Warsaw. Unfortunately, however, we only took a tour of the gardens and visited the beautiful church in front of it, without going into the actual palace, which was under renovation and most of the exhibitions were closed.

Museum of Polish Military Technology

Wanting to see something different, we went to a museum of the Polish Armed Forces, which turned out to be very different from what we expected. Most of the exhibits were in the outdoors, which normally would be super okay, but not in December, during frozen rain and penetrating wind, plus muddy alleys. So, being merciful to us (or ashamed of the state of the museum premises), the gatekeepers let as in without asking for an entrance fee. 🙂

So, as we were already there, we walked among the hundreds of exhibits, most of them of Soviet production, which until recently were used in the army. In fact, these examples of military equipment exist in all Eastern European countries. We saw tanks, armored cars, planes, helicopters, missiles and all kinds of iron mastodons, some of them damaged by rust and the passing of time, all of them displaying a sinister presence that reminds of the horrors of the past.

Mausoleum of Struggle and Martyrdom

Remaining in the field of history (or its dark side), we have also visited a museum dedicated to the Nazi period, located in the cellars of the present Ministry of Education. Here was a former prison where the Gestapo (the German secret service dealing with repression) arrested the Poles suspected of anti-Nazi attitude.

The torture chambers, the dark cells, the corridors on which the corpses were placed and the explanations of the crimes exposed on the walls were very touching, this place being a true museum of suffering and death.

The Citadel and the Katyn Museum

Heading towards the northern part of the city, we reached the ruins of the former citadel, where we only walked around for a short while, meeting many people walking their dogs and we didn’t enter the premises of the citadel as it was a military objective there. But we went to the Museum dedicated to the Katyn Massacre, another dark page of the painful Polish history.

If at the previously visited museum we learned about the Nazi torturers, here we found the traces left by the Soviet ones. Katyn was a Ukrainian village where thousands of Polish officers were executed by the Red Army, who then blamed the Germans. It was only after the fall of the USSR that the truth could come to light.

The museum houses a collection of personal belongings of people who were imprisoned in Russian camps and then killed for no reason, buried in mass graves and forgotten for decades. The most impressive exhibits are the glass windows with thousands of small spaces behind them, each containing an object dug up by archaeologists and legists from the mass graves. When you see so much death, you begin to look at your life differently, to value more what you have and the times you live in.

The Railway Museum

A place that we liked very much was the “Station” Museum, a former Warsaw railway station, now transformed in an exhibition space for railway history. There are hundreds of scale models of all types of trains, both Polish and from the rest of the world, as well as various other elements specific to train transportation.

In the inner yard of the museum there is an open-air display of dozens of old locomotives and wagons, some of them more than a century old, which can be admired from all sides and some can be visited inside, too. It’s a nice place, not just for those passionate about trains, but for anyone, you look at these relics and imagine what our great-great-great-grandparents were doing, how they traveled, and how their lives were changed by this “new” way of transportation.

Malls and Shopping Centers

We usually don’t do much shopping during our travels, but the first snowflakes of this winter found us in Warsaw, which was very nice, but one cannot spend hours in the cold (and we both caught colds anyway). So we visited several big stores.

The first to be mentioned is the Złote Tarasy, a mall attached to the Palace of Culture, with a very pleasant design (especially the glass dome that looks great from the food court on the top floor). Next to the mall is the central train station of the city, which is actually a kind of big, underground shopping center itself, an example (again) for other cities in the eastern part of the continent.

Arkadia was another mall we went to. This one is very big, probably one of the largest in Poland, you can spend a whole day in here if you are passionate about shopping. In front of it were some stalls intended to be a small Christmas market, but they probably exists there all year round.

A smaller shopping center we entered was ALTO in the south of the city. Nothing spectacular about it, it’s just a neighborhood mall with a few shops and a supermarket.

However, we have also visited 3 classic shopping centers, i.e. former produce markets transformed into shopping areas. These are Hala Gwardii and Hala Mirowska (located next to each other, close to the center) and Hala Koszyki (which is not far away). These resemble the central market in Budapest, and are located in nineteenth-century halls with specific architecture (lots of wrought iron).

Here we found mostly food and drinks, quite pricey, but also other products, especially clothing. They have lost their role as bazaars for the local population a long time ago, nowadays being mostly tourist attractions. The latter even claimed it had a Christmas fair, but we didn’t find it.

Vistula River

At the end of our story about the Polish capital, we just want to add that we didn’t forget to write about the river passing through it. If in Budapest, Bratislava and even in Vienna we were very impressed by the Danube, here in Warsaw the Vistula River is quite modest. Most of the city is in the western part of the water, while the other part is mostly covered with residential areas.

When we reached the Świętokrzyski Bridge we were quite disappointed: it is very far from the magical atmosphere in the capital of Hungary, it’s just a simple bridge with no special lighting, no pedestrians (we were the only crazy people passing on foot, during winter, in super cold weather, on the bridge), but with many cars running fast. Maybe it’s nicer in the summer…

In conclusion, we didn’t find as many Christmas fairs in Warsaw as in other European capitals, but we liked the city a lot and want to come back in warmer weather. There are many places here that we still have to discover.

The capital of Poland is a combination of old and new, with charming historical buildings, gray communist blocks and new, functional constructions. You’ll find here many places that remind of the tragic history of this country, but also many cheerful people who enjoy the moment and live in the now. There are quiet, relaxing areas and large parks as well as a business district with shopping and entertainment areas that makes Warsaw a great European capital. If you have not been here, we think you definitely should.

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