From a splendid 17th century capital to virtual annihilation during World War II, Warsaw has a rich but often tragic history. Stunning royal palaces stand in stark contrast to socialist blocks of flats and monuments to the thousands who fell during 20th century battles, creating a modern day city that is virtually unrivaled in the stories it tells about the past.
Most histories of Warsaw tend to focus on the 20th century – and rightly so, considering how drastically those events shaped the city that’s seen today. However, areas such as Plac Zamkowy (Castle Square) and the Royal Castle perfectly depict Warsaw’s era as a flourishing 17th century capital. Although the area, along with most of the Old Town, was almost entirely destroyed during World War II, it was rebuilt virtually brick-for-brick in its earlier style, thus still offering a gateway to the past. The Royal Castle is teeming with lavish décor and paintings of famous Poles, and provides visitors with an insight into the time when Poland was still a monarchy. The square outside showcases Warsaw at its most beautiful, and nowadays is also a popular meeting spot full of restaurants and cafés.
Although virtually nothing remains of the Warsaw ghetto after its bombing during the 1943 Ghetto Uprising, a visit to the area that it once stood on is nevertheless a poignant experience. The recently opened Museum of the History of Polish Jews is a modern, striking centerpiece to the former ghetto, and just outside it is the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, commemorating those who fell in the 1943 uprising. Now a predominantly residential area, tell-tale signs of the district’s tragic history can be found everywhere: the stone monument to Umschlagplatz – the square on which Jews were loaded onto vehicles transporting them to death camps – and a secluded grave for the fallen uprising fighters, are two important examples.
There are numerous monuments to the Warsaw Uprising dotted across the city, but the most famous and perhaps the most impressive is the one located on Krasiński Square, just next to the ultra-modern Supreme Court. Larger-than-life-sized figures seem to be coming up out of the ground in this monument – dedicated to those who fought and fell during the attempt to liberate the city. Other monuments, such as the chilling child-sized statue commemorating the children who fought and died in the uprising, located on Podwale Street, are also definitely worth visiting.
Situated on the far side of a vast, paved square on which speakers as famous as Pope John Paul II have spoken, Warsaw’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, erected after World War I, is a monument to the unidentified Polish soldiers who fell during numerous wars. The curious shape of the monument is due to the tomb being located in the only surviving fragment of what was once a grand palace, which was destroyed during World War II. A poignant place, the tomb is perpetually guarded by soldiers, and is the place where Poles and foreigners alike come to pay their respects to the fallen.