After World War II, it took 15 years for the residents of Warsaw to rebuild their beloved city. The wartime devastation in Poland’s capital was mindboggling; nearly 85 percent of the medieval city was razed to the ground. Undaunted and armed with the help of art historians using 18th-century paintings of the town, plans moved into action to rebuild the city as it once was.
Warsaw was reconstructed with such precision that it’s difficult to determine which buildings survived and which were rebuilt. In many ways, the city was reborn much like the mythical phoenix.
In recognition of the meticulous reconstruction, UNESCO added Warsaw’s Old Town to its list of World Heritage Sites in 1980. And today, Warsaw is still referred to as the “Phoenix City.”
“Group travelers are often surprised when they find out the Old Town is in reality a new town, meticulously reconstructed to its former, pre-World War II majesty,” said Anna Cichonska, director at the Polish National Tourist Office. “Most visitors to Warsaw don’t realize how green the city is. A quarter of the city is taken by parks and green spaces. Warsaw is a modern metropolis, yet it retains its original medieval character with ease and grace. A stroll through Warsaw is an exceptional adventure in sights and sounds, arts, history and folklore of a unique European capital.”
A visit to Warsaw’s Old Town begins in Castle Square, a triangular plaza that’s home to a towering column and the Royal Castle. During World War II, the Royal Castle was destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. The only pieces of the castle that remained were precious art collections and decorative elements secretly salvaged and hidden. Now a museum, the Royal Castle offers guided tours for groups.
A towering 72-foot statue sits at the center of Castle Square. The statue, one of Warsaw’s most famous landmarks, depicts King Zygmunt III Waza, who was responsible for moving Poland’s capital to Warsaw from Krakow in the 17th century.
Old Town Market Place
The Old Town Market Place is a lively square, lined with picturesque buildings. The area is protected by Syrenka, a bronze mermaid statue armed with a sword and shield. The Warsaw icon makes a perfect group photo op. The square is filled with cafes, restaurants, shops and street musicians, including barrel organ players.
The 7-mile (11 kilometer) Royal Route links Warsaw’s three Royal residences: Royal Castle, Lazienki Krolewskie and Wilanow Palace. Following the route, groups pass historic buildings, parks, churches and monuments. The route includes a stroll along Krakowskie Przedmiescie, one of the most prestigious streets in the city.
Legendary composer Fryderyk Chopin, one of Poland’s most famous sons, spent half of his 39 years in the capital. Today, his legacy lives on at the Chopin Museum, housed in Ostrogski Palace, one of the most high-tech biographical museums in Europe.
Chopin concerts are held every Sunday, mid-May through late September, in nearby Lazienki Royal Park. Distinguished pianists perform Chopin’s music in the shadow of the Chopin monument. Complete a Chopin journey at Holy Cross Church, the location of Chopin’s heart; it is sealed in an urn that is located behind a plaque bearing his likeness.
Palace of Culture and Science
A visit to the Palace of Culture and Science, the tallest building in Warsaw, is a must-see, despite its controversial history. Commissioned by Stalin as a gift to the Polish nation, the palace stands as a reminder of Poland’s four decades of communism. The behemoth building boasts more than 3,000 rooms, but the real draw is the Viewing Terrace on the 30th floor. The Palace of Culture and Science is visible from almost anywhere in the city.
Copernicus Science Centre
In honor of the pioneering Polish astronomer and founder of modern astronomy, Copernicus Science Center offers groups a kingdom of experiments. The glass and steel building houses six sections and over 400 exhibits. The center features the only Robotic Theatre in the world, where the moves of its leading actors, RoboThespians, are controlled by compressed air, and their heartbeats are produced by a 40-watt loudspeaker. Groups should set aside five hours to see all the exhibits.
The Nicolaus Copernicus Monument, one of Warsaw’s notable landmarks, stands before Staszic Palace on Krakowskie Przedmiescie.
POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews
POLIN Museum presents a 1,000-year history of Polish Jews and stands in what once was the heart of Jewish Warsaw. During World War II, the Germans turned the once-lively neighborhood into the Warsaw Ghetto. The museum completes the history of the place: the nearby Monument to the Ghetto Heroes commemorates the Polish Jews that died, and the museum is a reminder of how they lived. Tours and genealogy workshops are offered.
Don’t miss: Krakow
Take a four-hour train to Krakow, the only metropolis in Poland whose architecture survived the war years. Krakow is Poland’s second-largest city and former capital.
Groups visiting Krakow’s Old Town won’t want to miss Main Market (Rynek) Square, a natural start, pause and finish location for tours. Visitors can browse Cloth Hall, a 700-year-old shopping mall with merchants selling handicrafts and other local products.
Rynek Underground museum, located 13 feet (4 meters) below the market square, is a high-tech museum that consists of an underground route through medieval market stalls and other long-forgotten chambers.
Schindler’s Factory museum covers the German occupation of Krakow during WWII and is housed in the former enamel factory of Oskar Schindler. Schindler’s story was popularized by Stephen Spielberg’s 1993 film, Schindler’s List. The permanent exhibit “Krakow During Nazi Occupation: 1939–1945” covers the war of 1939, everyday life under occupation, the fate of Jews and the city’s underground resistance.
The historic Wieliczka Salt Mine, located hundreds of feet underground, attracts more than 1 million tourists each year. The monument features 12 objects on UNESCO’s World Culture and Natural Heritage list. Groups can choose from several guided tour routes that take them through the labyrinth of tunnels and chambers. The mine’s underground health resort gives groups the opportunity to sleep overnight in the therapeutic microclimate of salt excavations.