The Historic Centre of Warsaw is a near-total reconstruction of a city center from the 13th to 20th centuries.
Warsaw was razed in August 1944 by Nazi occupation troops to repress Polish resistance. About 85% of the city was destroyed. After the war, a reconstruction campaign was started with the aim to recreate its late 18th-century appearance. This resulted in the rebuilding of monuments like the Cathedral of St John and the Town Market Square. The project contributed significantly to the conservation practice of European cities after World War II.
Map of WarsawLoad map
It isn’t too difficult to imagine a world in which the reconstruction of Warsaw after World War II was done in such a way to make the city centre indistinguishable from every other concrete jungle in eastern Europe. Indeed, large swathes of the city seems to be done in the stereotypical brutalist style with wide streets and a fair amount of greenery between the tower blocks, which was no doubt supposed to be highly efficient but doesn’t make for the most interesting visiting experience. For my visit, I was staying near the university on the southwest side of the city but it was straightforward to head into the city centre on the excellent tram network that I made use of most nights. There was also an underground metro although I had very little experience with that. The tram led past the towering Palace of Science and Culture with its distinct Stalinist style that has come, for better or worse, to be symbolic of Warsaw and its relatively recent Communist past. However, it was surrounded by the glass and steel skyscrapers of the capitalist present and the city centre seemed to be a hive of construction activity.
With a free afternoon, I made my way on the tram to the stop outside the National Museum (Muzeum Narodowe) but sadly did not have time to venture inside. Instead, I disembarked the tram, which necessitates crossing a very busy road as there was no pedestrian underpass at that tram stop, then headed northwards along Nowy Świat. This road forms part of the old Royal Route that linked Warsaw Castle with the Wilanów Palace of the Sobieksi Kings of Poland to the south. There are some good sights along this road before even reaching the core zone of the WHS, including the Presidential Palace and Holy Cross Church. The latter is where the heart of Frédéric Chopin is buried (the rest of his body is in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris) and on another day I was able to attend a recital of Chopin’s music in a small venue nearby. These appear to still be carrying on (the business is named Chopin Point) but have moved to a different building, which is a shame because there was something magical about hearing Chopin’s music in the room where the man himself had performed. Elsewhere in the city, I visited the Curie Museum, which was rather small but an excellent collection from the life and work of the great chemist and I would highly recommend to anybody interested in the history of science.
Approaching from the south, the first part of the core zone one comes to is Castle Square, which is dominated by the grand red Royal Castle on one side. Like pretty much everything else in the core zone, the original castle was levelled to the ground as a Nazi reprisal for the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. After the war was over, this cultural vandalism was thankfully reversed and the castle, along with the rest of the historic centre of the city, was painstakingly rebuilt brick by brick. Where possible, the building materials were salvaged from the rubble to reconstruct the various monuments from their original material. In the centre of the square stands a recreation of Sigismund’s Column, with pieces of the original granite column lying broken on their side to the side of the castle. The figure at the top is Sigismund III Vasa, the King of Poland who moved the capital to Warsaw from Krakow in 1596. From the square, the brick walls of the old city extend around to the west and north and mark roughly the edge of the inscribed core zone. The eastern edge is less impressively delineated by a large six-lane road, beyond which lies the River Vistula. Within this area lies what would otherwise be a pleasant but fairly unremarkable European city – full of narrow streets with old houses with delightful hanging baskets full of flowers. Many of these homes are now instead various business, predominantly geared towards visiting tourists and a lot of different restaurants. The central market square (pictured) was the worst for this, enjoyable to look at but difficult to walk through without being approached asking if I wanted to stop for pizza, ice cream, and so on. There are a number of churches and some impressive towers on the walls but there is nothing particularly stand-out until you remember this was basically a pile of rubble within some people’s lifetime. It would take a keen eye to tell this was not an original historic city of the sort that you can see in many other places in Europe and that is what makes Warsaw so incredible. I was told that even the interiors of some of the buildings were recreations of the pre-war originals. It was only through the amazingly dedicated work of the local population that the destruction of the heart of the city was almost entirely undone in a way unprecedented in modern times. No doubt we had all hoped such rebuilding efforts would never be needed again but events in Ukraine remind us that we are never at the end of history. Despite the ongoing barbarity at the time of writing this review, the reconstruction of Warsaw is a powerful testament to the resilience of people and their culture.
I visited this WHS in August 2020. The near total reconstruction of the Historic Centre of Warsaw is really outstanding and unlike other WHS such as Regensburg in Germany or Torun in Poland itself, the quality of the reconstruction is so high and on such a large but meticulous scale that it wouldn't be unheard of to think that most of the old city centre is from Medieval times.
Warsaw was deliberately annihilated in 1944 as a repression of the Polish resistance to the German occupation. The capital city was reduced to ruins with the intention of obliterating the centuries old tradition of Polish statehood. The rebuilding of the historic city, 85% of which was destroyed, was the result of the determination of the inhabitants and the support of the whole nation. The reconstruction of the old city centre in its historic urban and architectural form was the manifestation of the care and attention taken to assure the survival of one of the most important testimonial of Polish culture. The city as the symbol of elective authority and tolerance, where the first democratic European constitution of 1791 was adopted was rebuilt, including a holistic recreation of the urban plan, together with the Old Town Market, the town houses, the circuit of the city walls as well as the Royal Castle and important religious buildings.
I'd recommend starting your visit of the historic centre by entering through the Barbican gate and gazing at the different pretty motifs on most of the facades of the town houses. After a short while, you'll reach the Old Town Market Square (Rynek Starego Miasta) which in fact is the oldest part of Warsaw. On each side of the square is a ceramic sign with the UNESCO symbol with some info on the restoration of the facades. In the middle is a statue of the Mermaid of Warsaw, also represented on the city's coat of arms. According to a legend, the mermaid decided to stay after stopping on a river bank near the Old Town. Fishermen noticed something was creating waves, tangling nets, and releasing their fish. They planned to trap the animal, then heard her singing and fell in love. A rich merchant trapped and imprisoned the mermaid. Hearing her cries, the fishermen rescued her. Ever since the mermaid, armed with a sword and a shield, has been ready to help protect the city and its residents. Sometimes this legend is expanded to say the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen is the Warsaw mermaid's sister and they went separate ways from the Baltic Sea.
Above one of the edges of the Old Town Market Square (15, Zapiecek Street) is a pretty clock and on the floor beneath it is the UNESCO WHS inscription plaque. Recently, UNESCO marble markers with a bronze miniature of the old town were placed near the Barbican as well as near Sigimund's column. After visiting a number of churches (free entrance), hidden behind St. John's Cathedral, Queen Anna's corridor connects the Royal Castle with the cathedral. After a quick look at the huge wishing bell, I reached Castle square. For 6 zloty, you can climb St. Anne's Church Tower for a panoramic view (photo) of Castle Square from the viewing terrace which is not very popular as most go to the 30th floor of the Palace of Culture and Science for the highest panoramic view of Warsaw. From here, I noticed the Copper-Roof Palace, adjacent to the Royal Castle, which I visited later on together with the Upper Garden of the Royal Castle just behind it.
I went with friends to Warsaw in April 2015 for the 17th International Chopin Piano Competition. Whilst there, we took the opportunity to explore the Historic Centre, which is a pretty small section of the centre of the city that showcases what the area was like prior to its destruction by Nazi Germany in the Second World War.
Over 85% of the city’s buildings were destroyed in the war, as depicted movingly in the Roman Polanski film The Pianist.
It was in response to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 that the Germans took the decision to annihilate the city, destroying over 700 years of historical buildings ranging from the thirteenth to the twentieth century. The remarkable thing about what the people of Poland achieved in five years after the war was that they followed historical plans and imagery in great detail, enabling them to rebuild the city very much as it had been.
For a big European capital, Warsaw does not have a large number of attractions, but enough to spend a pleasant day or two. The reason for the relative lack of sights is of course the immense destruction it suffered during WWII, and the Old Town was meticulously rebuilt in the following decades. If you don't look too closely, you could believe that you are walking through a town with many authentic medieval, Renaissance and Baroque buildings. The restored centre is quite small, however. Apart from the Old Town, the (in)famous Palace of Science and Culture merits a visit for its panoramic views of the city.
Warsaw's Old Town is a dream for every city break. A large part of the old town was destroyed during the Second World War, but rebuilt. There are also plenty of small shops and restaurants that invite you to a short stop. The old town flows from an incredible charm.
Like Jorge I stayed at the hotel Gromada near the airport, as I was leaving next day for Riga. Very conveniently bus #175 stopped outside the hotel and took me directly to the Stare Miasto. So I was able to maximise my time visiting the WHS, first in the afternoon, then again early next morning.
I enjoyed seeing the imposing Royal Palace and the colourful baroque buildings surrounding the squares. But in addition there were the more sombre reminders of the Ghetto, the Nazi persecution and the Uprising.
I was really impressed by Warsaw. I had heard some pretty mediocre reports about the city from others that had visited, however I really enjoyed the two days I spent there at the start of my little jaunt.
The World Heritage Site itself is the reconstructed old town, and whilst it may not be as glorious as some of the other Central European cities on the list, it has an incredible story of rebuilding after near total destruction. It was actually a little bigger than I was expecting it to be, and the sgraffito wall decorations were some of the finest examples I have seen. It is pretty evident that this site has been rebuilt, however I think this is quite good as it enables people to ‘read’ the restoration, instead of just trying to pass it off as being more authentic. I kept on returning for strolls down different streets and think I probably walk down every one with-in the WHS.
Aside from the old town I really liked Warsaw, admittedly the Central station is a little grim looking but there are plenty of other worthwhile places to visit; most strikingly the Palace of Science and Culture, but we also had great fun venturing off to more remote parts of the centre to see the monuments and museum relating to the history of the city in the Second World War. Perhaps my favourite thing though was the relaxed atmosphere we found, from queuing in Milk Bars to bar hopping in Praga, however my favourite ‘find’ was the network of ‘Pawilony (Pavilion)’ bars located just behind Nowy Swiat, these slightly shabby looking exteriors actually housed some of the best drinking establishments I have come across in Europe. If you are wanting to uncover a few more of Warsaw’s hidden gems then I can highly recommend the free 'Use-It' map ) this was almost invaluable to us.
Overall I really enjoyed my time in Warsaw, it was a fun relaxed city and the Historic Centre was the icing on the cake. It has a great story to tell and the restoration is done in such a way that you can read this story in the reconstructed townscape.
Wolfgang H. Salcher
Some weeks ago I enjoyed for one week the wonderful and interesting town Warsaw and I liked it very much. Especially the combination of the old and the new in this town is quite interesting. A special impression for me was also the performances in the opera house TEATR WIELKI (e.g. BALLET DE LORRAINE, THE QUEEN OF SPADES ).
The market-place is really wonderful. But one negativ thing I have to mention with this old town square: Unfortunately it was started to change the wooden windows to plastic windows with no proportions and other dimensions. It would be terrible if more houses would change in this way. So please stop these plastic windows otherwise the market place would look like a plastic Disney World and the place would loose its wonderful atmosphere.
After hearing mixed reviews of the Polish capital, I decided that it would be worth checking out. I headed there from Krakow and though first impressions weren't the best [the Central Train Station was quite ugly], my mind was changed once I got to discovered the rest of the city.
The area known as Srodmiescie, with it's skyscrapers and modern buildings blends in with XIX century tenements and eventually the city's historic core, which can be reached by walking up the colourful promenade known as the Royal Route. It looks quite original and I have to say that the conservationists did a good job reconstruction the street. The Old Town and New Towns are interesting as well, offering everything from over-priced dining and junk to really good Italian Ice Cream. All in all, it's a nice place to idle around.
The city itself is one that is in a state of transformation. The grime and greyness that so many associate with it is slowly being replaced with glass and steel and fresh paint. In 10-15 years, it'll be a totally different place. Though it's not Krakow, I recommend Warsaw, especially if you enjoy modern architecture.
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Bureau - ICOMOS supports but concern about reconstruction -Bureau divided!
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