More Warsaw

Last time, we left off in the heart of Warsaw Old Town, Old Town Market Square. Now, let’s go to the edge of Old Town and the old city walls.

Starting in the 14th century, the Old Town was surrounded by defensive walls. They used a double-wall system, with inner and outer walls that you can walk between, and gates to get into and out of the city. Some of the walls are still standing today, or rather, some of the walls were preserved/reconstructed after the destruction of WWII.

View of the city walls.

Walking between the inner and outer walls

One of the major attractions of the city walls today is the Warsaw Barbican. It was designed as a fortified gateway into the city, but due to advances in weaponry, it was useless as soon as it was built. In the years that followed, it was mostly disassembled as people took the bricks to use elsewhere. During the post-war rebuilding efforts, it was reconstructed as a tourist attraction. So, if there’s one thing in Warsaw that really is like Disneyland, it’s the Barbican.

Approaching the Barbican.

Barbican from the inside with artists selling their work.

Street views.

This was about where the tour I went on ended. Another fantastic thing about free tours is that sometimes, they give you a city map at the end! I think paper maps are the best way to plan city sightseeing because you can draw all over them, so when our guide pulled a stack out at the end of the tour, I was thrilled. Unfortunately, he didn’t have enough for everyone, but the Spanish tour guide had some extra Spanish maps… I figured that was better than nothing, right? Ehh, maybe. Over the next couple days, my bad translations sent me all over the city with completely wrong ideas of what I was going to see. Whoops. Oh well, it’s all part of the fun of exploring a new city!

I stayed in Warsaw for two more days after my exhausting arrival day and did a combination of museum visits and sightseeing around the city. I’m going to leave the museums for my next post, so for now, let’s go for a walk around “New Town”!

As I mentioned in my modern history post, the Polish people are extremely proud of their famous countrymen and will never miss an opportunity to remind you that they’re Polish. It doesn’t matter how long they lived in Poland, if they ever lived in Poland, if they’re only 0.5% Polish, etc. I think Polish blood is dominant, so even a drop means you’re 100% Polish. And obviously, all of those people love Poland the most, so no matter where they may have lived, their hearts were always in Poland.

For one person in particular, that statement is disturbingly true. Do you know where Frédéric Chopin, the famous pianist and composer, is buried? In Paris, where he lived for half of his life and most of his career. Do you know where Chopin’s heart is? Like his actual, literal heart? In Warsaw. Chopin was afraid of being buried alive, so he requested that his heart be removed after death and brought back to Poland. Poland didn’t exist at the time, so his sister had to smuggle it from France into Russia (at the time) in a jar of liquor. It now lives inside a column in Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. Yes, I’m serious. Fun fact: In 2014, it was taken out of the column and visually studied (without removing it from the jar) in an attempt to determine Chopin’s cause of death (they believe he died from pericarditis, a complication of tuberculosis).

Chopin may have lived abroad, but even then his heart was, figuratively, and now is, literally, in Poland.

Holy Cross Church

Here’s the column with Chopin’s heart. At the very bottom, it says in English, “Here lies the heart of Frederick Chopin”.

The interior of Holy Cross Church.

There is also a series of 15 “Chopin benches” scattered across the city. Each is in a place connected to Chopin, and with the press of a button, each plays one of his compositions! Musical benches! I wonder how the Warszawians feel about those benches… maybe it’s in the Polish blood that you never tire of listening to Chopin.

This is one of the Chopin benches. On the right side, there’s a “map” showing the locations of the other benches and a button to start the music. On the left, it explains why this bench was placed here. This one is near the former Saxon Palace, home of the Warsaw Lyceum where Chopin’s father taught and the family lived.

The above Chopin bench is where Saxon Palace used to stand (now it’s just an empty plaza, Piłsudski Square), also the location of Poland’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The tomb was constructed underneath the palace’s colonnade. After the WWII destruction of Warsaw, the palace was gone and only a small portion of the colonnade remained standing, including the part sheltering the tomb.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It contains the remains of an unidentified soldier from the Polish-Russian war, as well as urns containing soil from significant battlegrounds. There’s also an eternal flame.

Piłsudski Square is full of monuments, actually. In 2010, a Polish government plane attempting to land in Smolensk, Russia crashed, killing all 96 people on board. The passengers were headed to an event commemorating the WWII Katyn massacre (the mass execution of thousands of Polish officers by Soviet forces). Among the victims were the Polish president, government officials, military officers, and members of the clergy. It was ruled an accident caused by bad weather, though as you might expect, there are plenty of conspiracy theories. To honor and remember the victims, a monument was placed in Piłsudski Square. It’s designed to look like airstairs, like what you climb to board a plane. My first thought was that it looks like a stairway to heaven.

Smolensk Air Disaster Monument

Walking through the park next to Piłsudski Square. Is there anything more European than a park with statues in it?

More park views.

Saxon Palace is, at the moment, nothing more than that little fragment of colonnade above the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. There are plans to rebuild it, but those have been put on hold for financial reasons. There is, however, no shortage of other palaces in Warsaw! I walked around and looked at a few of them from the outside, but I would love to go back and spend more time exploring the interiors! I’ve heard people say that there’s not much to see/do in Warsaw… I don’t know what to say to those people because I could have spent months there and still not gotten to everything on my list!

This is Krasiński Palace. It was originally built in the 1670s, but what you see now was completely rebuilt after WWII. I can’t get over the scale of the post-war rebuilding efforts. I mean, it’s one thing to rebuild a city from complete devastation. That is crazy enough. It’s a whole new level of crazy to rebuild a city from complete devastation AND be faithful to the original designs. This palace now houses a portion of the National Library.

Since I love both parks and palaces, I had to visit Łazienki Palace, also called the Palace on the Isle. It’s located in the largest park in the city, on a man-made island on a lake.

Łazienki Palace

The other exciting thing about this palace is that it wasn’t destroyed in WWII! Much of the destruction of historical monuments was done by drilling holes in their walls and putting dynamite in the holes. At Łazienki Palace, they drilled the holes but never got around to the actual blowing up… which means we all get to enjoy the 1680s original! Well, original plus some later renovations. It was designed to be a bathhouse, so adjustments were made to convert it into a palace. Yes, a bathhouse. Please, take another look…

Casual bathhouse.

This is what my bathhouse looks like too. Doesn’t yours?

You know, I also have a peacock that likes to hang out in the colonnade near my bathhouse. What a funny coincidence! (See it? Sitting in the back left.)

Funky duck. Is it a duck? Heck if I know. Funky bird.

A walk in the park.

Like I said before, I didn’t have NEARLY enough time to fully explore Warsaw. I was there for three days, and I barely even made it across the river! Old Town and New Town are on the west side of the city, the side that was occupied by the Nazis. There’s still a whole other part of the city on the east side of the Vistula River, the “artsy” Praga district. Since it was occupied by the Russians in WWII, it was the least damaged part of the city… so while the west side is a kind of “new” old, the east is an “actually old” old.

Even though I didn’t have the time required to do the east side justice, I felt like I had to at least cross the river before I left. I also wanted to check out the Warsaw beaches! Yeah, you read that right, there are beaches along the river! Like actual beaches with actual sand… that I actually didn’t take a picture of so you’ll just have to believe me (whoops!).

There’s also a trail that makes you feel like you’re definitely NOT in the middle of a city and piers where you can walk out along the water. So. Cool.

Strolling through the city…

View of the west side across the river

An intimate stroll along the river. Not a good choice if you want to avoid bugs.

I. Love. This.

If the nature-y feel of the east side of the river isn’t for you, there’s a much more refined river walk on the west side, but I liked feeling like an explorer.

I’m a little obsessed with this bridge.

This is the end of our little city stroll, but I do have a more to say about Warsaw! Next time, we’re going to take a peek into a few museums…

A Walk Around Warsaw

My flight landed in Warsaw (Warszawa in Polish, pronounced like “Varshava”) at about 6:30 in the morning. I wanted to collapse from exhaustion, but I still had a whole day ahead so that wasn’t an option. I dropped my bags off at the hostel at around 8AM and then had to scram until the 2PM check-in time. It’s probably better that I couldn’t check in right away because I would have gone to sleep and wasted the whole day.

The best way to start off in a new city where you have absolutely no plan is to find a free walking tour! You don’t have to plan anything, they give you some historical context and make sure you hit the highlights, and you can ask your guide for recommendations of other things to check out after the tour. It’s a win, win, win. So, that’s what I did. I found one that started at 10:30, wandered across the city to the meeting point, and went to a café for hot chocolate and a cinnamon roll while I waited (I intentionally picked some extra-nutritious options to make up for all the muffins I ate the day before).

The tour was awesome… probably one of the best ones I’ve been on (if you’re ever in Poland, check them out). The only drawback was the fact that it started mist-raining halfway through, but I guess they can’t control the weather.

This photo clearly not taken during the mist-rain… I did a walk-around again the next day when the skies were nice and clear! So if there’s a blue sky in the picture, you can be sure that it was taken the next day. Heh.

We started by the statue of King Sigismund III in Castle Square in Warsaw’s Old Town. This is on the side of the river that was occupied by the Nazis during WWII, and even though it looks old, practically all of it was constructed after 1945. Warsaw wasn’t just occupied, it was destroyed. Hitler specifically commanded that the city be leveled as punishment for the resistance put up by its residents. The estimates are that 90% of Old Town, 80% of New Town, and 30% of the city on the Russian-occupied side of the river were destroyed. That’s insane. The damage was so bad that one proposal suggested leaving it in ruins as a sort of war memorial and starting fresh somewhere else.

Castle Square from above.

One of the only buildings that remained standing in the Old Town is St. Anne’s Church (below), located right near the castle.

The front facade of St. Anne’s.

The inside is awesome! Just think about how much other awesome stuff like this was destroyed… and for what purpose? What a waste.

Look at this!! It’s painted to look 3D, but that’s just a flat wall. I live for this kind of thing. I was fan-girling so hard in this church.

The Warszawians are particularly proud of the rebuilding of the city. Using historical paintings, the Old Town especially was rebuilt to look the same as it did before. Poland didn’t receive money to help with their rebuilding efforts, so the saying of the day became, “The entire nation builds its capital.” Funds were donated by Poles near and far, and those in and around the city helped to remove rubble and painstakingly reconstruct the buildings and monuments. Some people say that it’s not genuine because it was rebuilt, that it’s like a weird Disneyland, but I think it’s beautiful. It’s a testament to the determination and pride of the Polish people.

I think they did a darn good job!

One of the buildings that WAS completely demolished was the castle. This was where the monarchy moved when the Polish capital shifted from Krakow to Warsaw. The castle was looted prior to its destruction. Much was taken by the enemies, but some of the artwork and even pieces of the building were secretly smuggled out by museum workers who were already preparing for the rebuilding process. The castle was blown up in 1944.

This is the interior of the castle courtyard. Only an estimated 2% of the castle exterior is original, and you can pretty clearly see which parts are included in that. See the “white” pieces underneath the balcony that are almost black? Those are original.

The first phase of the castle reconstruction was completed in 1974 when the building’s outer shell was completed, and the clock was restarted at 11:15, the time when the original clock stopped due to the bombing.

Just off of Castle Square is St. John’s Archcathedral, an important Roman Catholic church. During WWII, a tank filled with explosives was driven into the church, severely damaging it. The surviving walls later had holes drilled into them to hold explosives, leading to the complete destruction of the original building.

The front of St. John’s

This little archway comes from the castle. After a failed assassination attempt on one of the kings, a corridor was built from the palace directly to the church. The would-be assassin was subjected a horrible public torture/execution to discourage others from following in his footsteps. Lesson learned – no one ever tried to kill a king again.

The interior of St. John’s

You know how I love my stained glass! There’s some great stuff in St. John’s.


The church’s crypt houses some of the Polish royalty, along with other prominent Poles. There used to be a graveyard behind the church as well, but it was relocated in the late 1700s for sanitary reasons and because it was right next to the palace. I guess they realized that having a smelly cemetery in the middle of your town isn’t exactly the best urban planning decision.

The former cemetery area is now a small square behind the church, occupied only by a large church bell. The bell was designed by the same artist responsible for the statue of King Sigismund III on top of the column in Castle Square. It is said that if you put your hand on the bell and walk around while thinking of a wish, it will be granted.

Wishing bell? Yeah, right… butttt while I’m here I might as well join in the fun! You know, just to be a good sport…

See the little beige strip/doorway in the corner between the green house and pinkish house?

In the same square as the wishing bell is a house with the skinniest possible facade. Back in the day, property was taxed based on the length of your facade… facing the main street. Some smarty pants designed his house to pay as little tax as possible.

Joke’s on him though, because the back of his house faced the “rubbish mountain” where people used to unload their trash and human waste. Yum. It’s also right near the palace, and kings never wanted to stay there because the smell carried. After Napoleon visited the city and remarked on the terrible smell, it was covered with earth making a nice man-made hill. This is now where some people have started leaving love locks which is funny because like… ew.

Here’s the back of the house. As you can see, it’s much bigger than the entrance would suggest.

Viewing terrace on the former rubbish mountain

Love locks on the mountain of… rubbish.

At the heart of Old Town is the Old Town Market Square. From the beginning, it was the center of the city’s social life. This was the spot for trade, for fairs and festivals, and for the occasional execution (including that unfortunate soul who tried to assassinate the king). Later, a town hall was built in the square where it remained for about 400 years. In my opinion, this is the part of the city where the rebuilding efforts are the most impressive. I. Love. This. Square. Feast your eyes on these facades, please.

I LOVE YOU!

They. Are. Unreal.

In the center of the square is the Warsaw Mermaid, the symbol of the city (she’s on the Warsaw coat of arms!). Legend has it that she’s the sister of the famous Copenhagen mermaid. Her sister got tired; that’s why she stopped in Denmark. The Warsaw mermaid kept going, swimming up the Vistula River until deciding to make her home in Warsaw. Once, she was captured by a merchant who planned to make some money off of her. She called out for help and was rescued by some locals. To say thank you, she promised that she would be there to protect them if they ever needed her.

The Warsaw Mermaid, fierce with her sword and shield

Okay, geez, I’m tired. I’m going to take a hint from the Warsaw Mermaid and stop my journey for now in Old Town Market Square. I apparently saw more in Warsaw than I realized… I really thought I could give you the full tour in one post! If I ever want you to come back though, I should stop here. So, there’s your half-tour of Warsaw. We didn’t even make it out of Old Town yet! So much for my estimation skills. Until next time