City Guide to Warsaw: Why You Must Visit Old Town
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- Old Town Market Square
- Warsaw Barbican
- Warsaw’s Old Town Churches
- Warsaw's Castle Square
- Monument to the Little Insurgent
When you think of a country’s capital, the words ‘charm’ and ‘quaint’ aren’t likely to come to mind. However, in one of the most unlikely places, Poland’s capital, Warsaw, you may just find yourself using those descriptors. Warsaw’s Old Town was nothing like we expected it to be! Of course, as the name implies, we logically expect an old town in any city to be a bit more pretty, a bit more historical, and a bit more of a 'tourist trap' than the rest of the city. However, when it came to Warsaw, we expected the combination of the recent Soviet Communist Era, and the sheer size of the city to result in an Old Town that was ‘nice’ and ‘historical’. Instead, we passed through city walls that led us into an Old Town that seemed to be out of a storybook.
TIP: Public transportation is a fantastic, simple, and inexpensive way to get into city center Warsaw. From there, we highly recommend walking to and around Old Town. It’s a fantastic way to fully engulf all your senses in the experience of sightseeing, plus you get to discover hidden gems and side streets you may never have seen on a bus or in a car!
Exploring Warsaw’s Old Town
To get to Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we passed through the city walls that looked like a well-preserved fortress from the cities medieval period. As we explored the city we walked down narrow and winding cobble stone streets, passing quaint store fronts, old cafes, and wondrous churches. If we hadn’t known any better we would’ve thought that Old Town Warsaw was hundreds of years old, but everything isn’t as it seems. Warsaw’s Old Town suffered destruction during the German Luftwaffe Invasion of Poland in 1939, but was almost completely destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, when the German Army systematically bombed the center of Poland’s Capital. Varsovian’s (resident’s of Warsaw) quickly got to work and not only rebuilt Old Town, but in an impressive feat of anastylosis, they meticulously rebuilt Old Town to the nearly identical layout and look of the pre-war Old Town Warsaw. To make the center as historically accurate as possible to pre-war conditions, they literally sorted through the rubble to recover as much as possible. Moreover, other Polish territories went as far as to demolish their similar era buildings and donate millions of bricks to the reconstruction effort. It’s an amazing sight to see the pride of the people through their efforts and success in rising, literally from the ashes of destruction.
Tip: If you’re like us, you appreciate having ‘places’ to yourself, with very few other people or no one else around. We like it because it’s usually serene, easy to move about, and we can capture the place better in our hearts, minds, and photographs. So, if this sounds like you, we’d highly recommend waking up early and going to Old Town first thing in the morning. Old Town is the main area tourists and tour companies visit, so by 9 or 10 am, the entire area is filled with people. On the other hand, there’s also a plus side to being in city center when it’s mid-day or evening, when you’re surrounded by families, locals, and tourists, because it feels ‘alive’ with the hustle and bustle of a city. To experience both aspects, we walked through different areas of Old Town at different times during our stay in Warsaw.
Warsaw All-Inclusive Sightseeing Map
To possibly make your research on sightseeing in Warsaw (and other destinations) easier, we’ve kept our maps with all of the information we gathered (accurate at the time of our sightseeing). Finding hours, prices, and general information can sometimes be challenging, so we’ve tried to include these details on our maps and provide appropriate links below. You’ll notice that it includes sights beyond Warsaw’s Old Town, but we’ve also highlighted the Old Town area in light red. To see what there's to do beyond Old Town, check out our City Guide to Warsaw: Top 7 Must-See Attractions. Make use of the map while sightseeing by pulling it up on your mobile device to get information and directions to each destination. We invite you to use the map as it is, or to save a copy to your Google account and personalize it to your needs.
NOTE: We used this sightseeing map for our personal sightseeing adventures, because of that, some notes may not make perfect sense, and some information could be outdated. Information on this map was valid at the time of creation. All prices are shown in US dollars but are actually Zolty/PLN (local currency). That being said, feel free to save it to your Google account and use it as a starting point (or modify it accordingly) for planning out your personalized itinerary in Warsaw.
Sightseeing in Warsaw’s Old Town
There’s many sights to see in Old Town and we highly suggest exploring the area and enjoying the streets, buildings, shops, and architecture as you go. Here are a few highlights that should definitely be on your list of sights to see in Old Town:
Old Town Market Square (Rynek Starego Miasta)
The area dates back to the founding of the city in the 13th century and in large part was the center of the city through much of the 18th century. It was home to town hall, where meetings between merchants, guilds, and political leaders took place. It was also the center of trade, as festivals, markets, and social gatherings were held here as well. It was even the place of some of the city's public executions. Sadly, the town hall was torn down in 1817, so it can’t be seen today. But, you can still enjoy each and every unique and beautiful building façade, the wonderful cafés and restaurants, and even be reminded of what it must have been like in the centuries before as horse drawn carriages continue to cross through the square. Old Town Market Square has many aspects of historical and cultural significance, so be sure you don’t miss any of them by rushing through it!
Four Sides of the Square
As you peruse the square, you can make note of where you are by the names of the four sides of the square, which are named after the influential inhabitants that once lived on the sides of the square:
- East Side – Barss’ Side (Solicitor)
- West Side – Kollataj’s Side (Priest)
- North Side – Dekert’s Side (Mayor)
- South Side – Zakrzewski’s Side (Mayor)
Warsaw Mermaid (Syrena Staromiejska)
Located in the center of the square, the Mermaid, holding the sword and shield is the city’s symbol and protector. The origins of the mermaid as the city’s symbol aren’t fully known, however, the Museum of Warsaw has a collection of almost a hundred historical pieces featuring the mermaid! Additionally, due to vandalism, the statue you see in the square is a copy, although if you want to see the original, it’s located in the Museum of Warsaw.
Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature
Located on the East Side and spanning six townhouses, this museum features manuscripts and historical items connected to Adam Mickiewicz, famed for inspiring Romanticism in Poland. Additionally, the museum exhibits manuscripts, art, and memorabilia depicting Polish literary history. Check the Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature website for visiting and exhibition information, although you may need to use your browser’s translation feature on the website.
Museum of Warsaw (History Museum)
Located on the North Side, this museum takes up 11 townhouses! It was originally named the Museum of Old Warsaw when it was established in 1936 and spanned across three homes in the square. After the destruction during World War II and the ensuing rebuilding of the square, the museum was re-opened. Throughout the years, it’s undergone renovations, a name change, and continues to add exhibitions and pieces to its collection. Check the Museum of Warsaw website for visiting and exhibition information.
Tip: Paid entrance to the museum includes access to the top floor viewing area, where visitors can see out over old town in all four directions. If you’re visiting for the top floor view, just be aware that glass windows stand between you and the view, so there may be a glare and finger prints to contend with.
Located near the northeast corner, it’s said that a ‘basilisk’ (a serpent with the power to kill with just a glance) lived in the cellars until a wise and brave townsman defeated the basilisk with only a mirror. It’s said that with only one look at itself, it turned to stone and therefore no longer terrorized the citizens of Warsaw.
Cafés and Restaurants
The square is lined with cafés and restaurants that are extremely popular with tourists and locals alike. Outside seating is abundant, so on a pleasant day, when the weather permits, it's a perfect place to enjoy the bustling square.
Warsaw Barbican (Barbakan Warszawski)
The Warsaw Barbican, a semicircular fortified outpost, was built in 1548 as a defensive post that connected the medieval walls that encircled the city. The barbican was a large, three-level and four tower bastion that only saw conflict once, during the Swedish Invasion of Poland in 1656. Due to artillery advances, the usefulness of the barbican was short lived and it was dismantled in the 18th century to be replaced by a larger gate that would enable easy movement of people and goods into the city. In the early 20th century, the reconstruction of the medieval wall and barbican began, but the plans weren’t seen to completion. World War II brought near complete destruction of the fortifications and of Old Town itself. Thankfully, reconstruction after World War II included the walls and the Warsaw Barbican. Today tourists visit the Warsaw Barbican and are able to walk through the impressive redbrick fortification post to get into Old Town. It’s more than a gate though, it’s the intersection between old and new. We’d highly recommend entering Old Town for the first time through the Warsaw Barbican, as it will set a mood that will stay with you through the rest of your exploration of Warsaw's historical Old Town.
Warsaw’s Old Town Churches
St. John's Archcathedral (Bazylika Archikatedralna w Warszawie)
St John’s Archcathedral dates back to the 14th century but suffered a large percentage of damage during World War II and the Warsaw Uprising, when the Germans drove a tank filled with explosives into the church. The attacks on the church didn’t end there, when after the uprising, the Germans drilled holes in the walls and placed explosives inside, which destroyed roughly 90% of the church’s walls. After the war, the church was rebuilt based on early 17th century illustrations of the Archcathedral, and because of this, it was built back to its 14th century Gothic style, rather than its pre-war Baroque style. Historically, the Archcathedral has been the coronation and burial place of many Dukes of Wasovia, and it’s the location of the failed attempt to assassinate the King of Poland, Sigismund III in 1620.
Shrine of Our Lady of Grace
Originally built in 1609, in the Polish Mannerist style, the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace is a Jesuit church located next to St. John’s Archcathedral. The church was demolished after the Warsaw Uprising during World War II and its reconstruction was completed in 1957, with a simplified interior but a preserved Mannerist style exterior.
St. Martin’s Church
St. Martin’s Church was built at the turn of the 14th century and was later reconstructed after World War II. It’s a mix of styles, the lower part of the church is in Gothic style and the upper portion in Baroque style. The church is known for its historical significance, as it was a meeting place for the Polish Opposition in the 1970s and 1980s. When visiting, be sure to see the statue of the bear sitting outside of the front of the church, as legend has it that it’s actually a shy prince waiting for his love to kiss him and bring him to life.
Castle Square, Warsaw (plac Zamkowy w Warszawie)
Castle Square is located directly in front of the Royal Castle and is a much larger square than Old Town Market Square. It’s a popular congregation point for visitors and a starting point for many city tours, so we highly recommend visiting the square early if you prefer enjoying the calmer aspects of the square. Otherwise, enjoy the hustle and bustle of the tourist epicenter!
Two major points in the square are the Royal Castle and the Sigismund Statue:
The Royal Castle you see today was reconstructed in the 1980’s due to its destruction during World War II. It was once the residence of the Polish Monarchy between the 16th and 18th centuries, and during World War I it was the residence of the German Governor-General. Throughout the Castle's tumultuous past it’s suffered plundering by the invading Swedish, Brandenburgian, Prussian, Tsarist, and Nazi German armies. The Royal Castle now offers tours and serves as a gallery of portraits and a collection of 18th century paintings. Be sure to check the latest visitor's information on the Royal Castle’s website.
Sigismund's Column (Kolumna Zygmunta)
Sigmund’s Column is a monument to King Zygmunt III, who made Warsaw the capital of Poland in 1596. The monument was erected in 1644 and stands 22 meters (72 feet) tall, however the original column fell during the destruction of Old Town during the German bombing of World War II. Although, if you’re interested in seeing the original column, it’s kept at the Royal Castle. When you look up at the column, you’ll see King Zygmunt III at the top, dressed in armor and holding a large cross in one hand to symbolize his readiness to fight evil; his bravery is symbolized by the sword he wields in his other hand.
Monument to the Little Insurgent (Mały Powstaniec)
The Monument to the Little Insurgent was the most touching memorial we saw in Warsaw, and is certainly at the top of the list of all the memorials we’ve seen throughout Europe so far. It’s located just outside the Old Town walls on Podwale Street. The memorial commemorates the child soldiers who fought and died during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, which took place during World War II. The statue is of a small boy, who’s wearing a helmet that’s much too large for his small figure, which only amplifies the submachine gun (Sten gun) he carries. He’s outfitted with German equipment, as the resistance armed itself with what it could find, usually stolen and found German weapons and armor. It’s thought that the statue, designed by Jerzy Jarnuskiewics in 1946 but not unveiled until 1983 due to communist resistance of monuments for the Warsaw Uprising, is of a 13 year old boy known as ‘Antek’ who fought with the resistance and subsequently died on August 18th, 1944. Behind the statue, engraved on a plaque are the words of a popular song that translate roughly in English to “Varsovian children, we’ll head into battle, for every stone of yours, we shall give our blood”. It’s quite a somber experience that deserves time for reflection on the heroism of the young soldiers, the lives that were lost, and the very unfortunate reality that’s war.
More to Explore in Warsaw!
Visiting Old Town, in our opinion is a must when spending time in Warsaw, however, don’t stop there! In our humble opinion, there’s so much more to see if you want to fully explore Poland’s capital. Beyond the walls of Old Town you’ll find the hustle and bustle of a large and growing city, full of art, culture, history, and business.