Palace of Culture and Science

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Warsaw's Palac Kultury i Nauki, or Palace of Culture and Science, is a Soviet-style skyscraper built in the 1950s. It was a "gift" from the Soviet Union (i.e. imposed by it) and stands as a prime example of the quintessential Stalinist skyscrapers such as you also find in Moscow.
You can take the lift to the 30th floor for glorious views of the city. Tours of the inside of the palace are also offered, including the basement with its Soviet 1950s heating, plumbing and ventilation technology.  
More background info: Note that the Polish name of the place, Palac Kultury i Nauki, is often abbreviated to PKiN, including on its official website. This name is sometimes altered to the nickname “Pekin” (as the Polish for Beijing). 
Architecture can make strong political statements (see also Nuremberg or Berlin) – and this is a prime example. The Palace of Culture and Science was supposed to be a “gift” from Stalin's Soviet Union “to the Polish people”. But of course much more than that it was to visually, literally set in stone the new political status of Poland after WWII – namely as a satellite state of the USSR within the Eastern Bloc. To put it bluntly, it was to tell the Poles: “see who's boss!”.  
Poland hadn't exactly ended up in this position voluntarily (many Poles felt betrayed by the Western Allies of WWII, after having fought alongside Britons in the Battle of Britain and having contributed decisively to the code-breaking success at Bletchley Park, for instance) – and so the building has been very much resented from the start by many Poles as a symbol of unwanted Soviet domination
This resentment has subsided in recent times, also helped by the fact that the Palace no longer stands out so much, now that it has been joined by several new skyscrapers in its immediate vicinity. But you can still hear it said that the best reason to go up there: because it's the only place from where you can NOT see it (same as what contemporaries said about the Eiffel Tower when it was new).
Yet whatever you may think of the building in political terms, it was undeniably a remarkable engineering feat. The Palace was built in just three years from 1952 to 1955, by a few thousand Soviet workers specially sent here (of whom 16 died in accidents during construction). 
The building was designed by none other than the eminent Russian architect Lev Rudnev, who was also involved in the design of the famous “Seven Sisters” in Moscow (including the Lomonosov Moscow State University). Hence the Warsaw Palace of Culture is sometimes informally referred to as “the Eighth Sister”. Yet details on the facade also reflect various Polish influences. And the whole style was originally based on American skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building in New York.
The Palace's central tower is almost 800 feet tall (237m), including the spire at the top (still over 600 feet/188m to the roof), has 42 floors and contains over 3000 rooms. The complex includes museums, theatres, cinemas, a swimming pool and a large ca. 3000-seat congress hall
During the communist period the latter saw some unusual guests for the time, including the Rolling Stones in 1967 – the first big Western rock band to play in Poland … albeit only to a select audience of specifically invited loyal party members. To many of them the spectacle must have been quite incomprehensible. They would have been more at home at the regular Communist Party Congresses that used to be held here. 
Today the Palace's floor space (other than the public parts) is mostly occupied by offices or forms part of conference facilities. As a tourist attraction it's mainly the observation deck on the 30th floor that sees most visitors, but there are also special tours of the interior (see below). 
Apparently at one stage a museum of communism was planned to be housed here, but this was cancelled a few years ago. Yet the Palace still houses two old-style museums, one of Evolution (apparently mainly displaying fossils and reconstructed dinosaur models) and one of Technology. The latter is described by the “In Your Pocket” Guide to Warsaw (2016) as haphazardly “laid out by somebody with a sadistic sense of humour”, which “guarantees that you won't learn a thing”, yet making for a “strangely rewarding experience that really has to be seen to be believed”. I must say that this description makes me very intrigued – but unfortunately I haven't yet had the time to check out these museums in person. So the text below is just about the tour and the trip to the 30th floor.  
On my return visit to Warsaw in August 2016 (my first trip was in 2008) I noticed that the Palace of Culture was a different colour at night. And indeed, the old lighting (an old-fashioned yellowish glow) was replaced by modern LED lights that can be used for all manner of colour projections. During my summer visit the Palace was just illuminated in a purplish hue after dark. 
In December 2013, during the Maidan protests in Kiev, the tower was illuminated in the colours of the flag of Ukraine, as a symbol of solidarity. So this monumental Palace can still fulfil some symbolic political function even in the present day … 
What there is to see: The most stunning thing about the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw is the sheer size of this monster of a Stalinist skyscraper. I know some people find fault with the building, mainly for the political message it originally sent (see background) while others do not particularly like the style, but I for one find such architecture fascinating and visually very appealing. 
So in that sense the best bit is really marvelling at it from all angles outside. And the building is so huge that even walking one loop around it can already take up quite some time (ca. 15-20 minutes – without stopping and looking up). Also take in the details, such as the statuary set into niches along the facade and atop the parapets above, and also look out for the sign that proclaims the year 1955 (i.e. that of the completion of the Palace). 
Once through the main entrance (on Plac Defilad) and inside the massive foyer, head straight to the stairs ahead. The ticket office for the lift to the observation deck is in the centre, the desk for tours of the interior to the right (see details below). 
When I visited the Palace I went on the most comprehensive guided tour, which included the basement, the accessible parts of the interior as well as entry to the observation deck. All these components can also be had individually, on their own. But I do recommend the full Monty, i.e. the long combination package – both the basement technology and the splendour of the rooms and corridors above are worth seeing (and all tours include the observation deck anyway). 
The exact order of things can vary from tour to tour but the one I went one started by heading down to the basement. For this part, hard hats were handed out – and they proved useful at various spots with low ceilings and doorways (also because I am quite tall – without the hat I could have hurt my head on several occasions). 
The first port of call was the “control room”. It really looked almost like that of a power station. It's chock full of vintage Soviet technology, from ventilation control to heating. Our small group also learned from the guide (who spoke decent enough English) that all this old machinery is anything but energy-efficient. In fact, keeping the Palace running is an energy-conservationist's nightmare. But the vintage design of all those dials and meters are a delight to look at – for those (like myself) with a taste for the aesthetics of such things. It's not all ancient, though. Today's engineers working down here also have more contemporary aids, including flat-screen computers. 
We then went into one of the machine rooms, where the monstrous heating and ventilation apparatus is housed. Again: vintage technology in a gloomy context. It certainly tickled my dark tastes. 
Further on in this underground maze we passed through corridors that had the clear evidence of the presence of cats. And indeed, the basement of the Palace has a resident population of about a dozen feral cats – or semi-feral, rather. They are not only tolerated here, they are also given food, cat litter trays, and a specially set-aside room where they can take refuge (and even have toys and sleeping boxes). But they are not for cuddling. I only spotted one in the refuge room. All the others clearly kept their distance from the human intruders stomping through their troglodyte realm. 
Other dimly-lit rooms down here contain exhibits from an earlier exhibition about the construction of the Palace (on its 60th anniversary), complete with dummy workers and building tools. Also on display was a lovingly made scale model of the complex. 
Yet more cellar rooms contained old seats from the Congress Hall and previous sound & light equipment, including classic old horn-design speakers and an audio mixing console and lighting equipment designed in Britain(!). 
Back upstairs the tour then proceeded through the grandest accessible parts of the interior. A highlight is certainly the marble hall with its massive gold-plated chandeliers. This is where the Place of Culture resembles the over-the-top-ness of Bucharest's Palace of Parliament the most (though it's not quite the same scale). 
The grand marble-clad staircases are also in a similar league. In one of them there's a shiny relief in socialist-realist style – it included a bearded figure that our guide claimed depicted Karl Marx, which sounded plausible but I wasn't fully convinced (it looked more like Engels to me).
Other parts are perhaps a little more modest, but only by degrees. There are domed halls, others clad in heavy glass and metal plates and dark-wood-panelled ceilings and side rooms with brocade-like burgundy wall paper. 
Also included on the tour were various conference rooms of different sizes, some complete with interpreters' booths and the associated technology. We were even allowed to a take seat at the conference tables.
But the biggest treat of them all, the main 3000-seater Congress Hall, was unfortunately not accessible during the tour I went on, due to refurbishing work, so we could only get as far as the corridor around it. (The refurbishing work is estimated to last until 2010.)
However, our guide showed us an old black-and-white picture taken at a 1967 performance by the Rolling Stones in that hall (see background). Funny contrast, seeing Mick Jagger in his typical rock star pose in front of a mostly stony-faced crowd of young party members in suits … 
You can opt to go on shorter tours, either of these interior parts or the underground parts only. But all tours include access to the observation deck on the 30th floor. This is also accessible without any tour (but you'd need a separate ticket – see below). 
Regardless of whether the ride is included in your package or not, you still have to queue for the elevator to take you up there. And since they can only take relatively small batches of people it can take quite a while until it is your turn. But it's also a method of crowd control, so it never gets too full on the deck. 
The observation deck is NOT at the very top of the building (right at the foot of the spire) but in the large arches at the top of the main tier. The floors above are not accessible. However, when you arrive and step out of the lift, you enter another grand hall, painted red and sporting another one of those huge chandeliers. 
From the observation deck you do indeed get a marvellous view of the city of Warsaw in all directions, from the central train station right next to it to the Old Town and the river and the suburbs beyond. There are also some information panels that explain what you see. One panel specifically points out various Jewish-heritage sites in Warsaw, such as the POLIN Museum or the ghetto wall remains or the Jewish cemetery. Another one provides some background info about the surrounding new modern architecture. 
Once you've take it all in sufficiently, it's time to get the lift back down to the ground floor. I found the queues much shorter for the return journey, but maybe I was just lucky. 
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my combination guided tour of the Palace of Culture and Science, and am glad that I didn't just make do with the trip up to the observation deck (which is what the vast majority of tourists do apparently). The interiors AND the basement parts are well worth seeing too. Highly recommended. 
Location:in the heart of central Warsaw, right next to the main train station (Centralna) and the intersection of the main artery boulevards of Marszalkowska and aleje Jerozolimskie.
Google maps locator: [52.2319, 21.0066]
Access and costs: easy to locate the building (though inside it can be a bit confusing), tours not cheap but worth it. 
Details: Getting to the massive edifice is easy enough. It's so big that you get a choice of two metro stations serving it, Centrum to the south-east, and Swietokrzyska to the north-east. The various tram lines plying the boulevards to the south and east are also useful. From within the Centrum and Mirow districts it's easily walkable. From the Old Town it's a bit longer (ca. 30 minutes). It's impossible to miss the building as such, given that it is visible from almost anywhere within Warsaw.   
Finding the correct entrance and locations inside can be a bit more demanding. The main entrance is clear enough: it's on the eastern side facing the former parade ground (now mostly a car park), between the two theatres (Drama and Studio); address: 1, Plac Defilad. The name of the Place is written in huge letters above the columns of the main portal. 
Inside is a vast atrium with stairways and corridors leading off in all directions. To get to the ticket desks for the observation deck and the tours, head straight on and take the stairs to the mezzanine level. The ticket booth for the observation deck (or Viewing Terrace, as they call it here) is a bit to the right of the centre and at most times clearly identifiable by the queue that forms in front of it. Only join this if you don't want a tour but only the observation deck. It is normally open daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. (closed on certain days, and occasionally open longer in the evening – best check ahead on Stand-alone tickets for just this cost a not-too-much-value-for-money 20 PLN (a few concessions apply).
For the guided tours you have a couple of options, both in the nature of the tour and the way to purchase tickets. Several companies offer tours but the recommended tour I was on is operated by a company that also has their own ticket desk on-site. This is to be found to the right of the top of the stairs to the mezzanine. The desk is supposed to be staffed daily at least between 11:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. (and 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays and Saturdays). But when I first went there I found it already deserted shortly after 4 p.m., so I had to go back the next day at an earlier time.   
The company is called CREATour and there are three types of tours of the PKiN: only interior, only underground (basement), and both combined. All include access (unguided) to the observation deck as a bonus. The shorter tours last 40 minutes each (plus free time on the observation deck) and cost 30 PLN (interior) and 40 PLN (underground), respectively. Given the added value you get from these tours, those are very reasonable prices indeed. 
The short interior tour runs several times a day, between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., starting on the hour.
The basement tour is much more restricted and now only runs on Saturdays at 4:45 p.m. (minimum 5 participants – see below).
The same applies also to the combination tour, entitled “from the basement to the roof”; this lasts ca. 90 minutes and cost 60 PLN when I went in the summer of 2016. Last time I looked online (July 2018), the price was still the same, but the tour time is now only Saturdays at 4 p.m. (minimum 5 participants). 
You can in theory pre-purchase tickets online, but note that the basement and combination tours require a minimum of 5 participants (the interior tour only 2). And nominally the tour won't run with fewer people (or you have to pay through the nose for empty places). So it might be better to buy tickets on the spot, and only if the tour is running, rather than trying to get your money back from an online pre-purchase.
When I went to do the combi tour with my wife in August 2016, they initially failed to fill the other three places but I was lucky that they were flexible. The guide I was assigned happened to be taking some friends round and we were allowed to join for the regular tour price (and the tour did all the regular stops).    
Nominally tickets for the guided tours should be bought from the desk at least 30 minutes before the tour commences; if you have a pre-purchased ticket, be there at least 10 minutes before the tour for validation. 
The basement (part of the) tour requires negotiating some narrow staircases and low-clearance corridors and doorways (hard hats are provided, though). It may not be suitable for people suffering from claustrophobia.  
Time required: Even just seeing the palace from the outside from street level alone can take time – it's so big and you may want to do a full loop round to see it from all angles. The guided tours last between 40 and 90 minutes. On the observation desk you can spend as much time as you like. I found 20 minutes plenty enough. So in total you may be looking at two hours plus (including waiting time at the desk and in the queues). 
Combinations with other dark destinations: in general see under Warsaw
The Palace of Culture and Science may have more of interest to offer to some tourists. When I was there (summer 2016) for instance, there was a special exhibition on of/about (giant) spiders (tarantulas et al), and not only total arachnophobes would probably agree that there is something spooky about these creatures. I would have loved to go and see it too, but unfortunately my schedule did not allow sufficient time. 
The same also applied to the quirky, old-school Museum of Technology (see under background), which is open Tue-Fri 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Sat/Sun from 10 a.m., closed Mon), admission 25 PLN.   
The nearest points of interest for the dark tourist in Warsaw outside the Palace of Culture and Science complex are the socialist-realist stonemasonry works of art on Marszalkowska a bit further to the south-east. 
In the other direction, to the west of the Palace, some ghetto wall fragments can be found off Sienna street – see under Ghetto Trail.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see under Warsaw
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 01 - grand gift from StalinPalac Kultury I Nauki 01 - grand gift from Stalin
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 02 - closer up at the frontPalac Kultury I Nauki 02 - closer up at the front
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 03 - congress hall at the rearPalac Kultury I Nauki 03 - congress hall at the rear
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 04 - year of constructionPalac Kultury I Nauki 04 - year of construction
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 05 - the tour begins in the basement of the buildingPalac Kultury I Nauki 05 - the tour begins in the basement of the building
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 06 - old control roomPalac Kultury I Nauki 06 - old control room
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 07 - ventilation controlPalac Kultury I Nauki 07 - ventilation control
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 08 - more vintage technologyPalac Kultury I Nauki 08 - more vintage technology
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 09 - energy-intensive old technologyPalac Kultury I Nauki 09 - energy-intensive old technology
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 10 - old machineryPalac Kultury I Nauki 10 - old machinery
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 11 - do not enterPalac Kultury I Nauki 11 - do not enter
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 12 - deep in the bowels of the buildingPalac Kultury I Nauki 12 - deep in the bowels of the building
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 13 - corridor with cat littersPalac Kultury I Nauki 13 - corridor with cat litters
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 14 - one of the resident cats in their refuge roomPalac Kultury I Nauki 14 - one of the resident cats in their refuge room
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 15 - from an exhibition about the construction of the palacePalac Kultury I Nauki 15 - from an exhibition about the construction of the palace
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 16 - scale model of the palacePalac Kultury I Nauki 16 - scale model of the palace
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 17 - old studio equipmentPalac Kultury I Nauki 17 - old studio equipment
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 18 - vintage electronicsPalac Kultury I Nauki 18 - vintage electronics
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 19 - vintage loudspeakersPalac Kultury I Nauki 19 - vintage loudspeakers
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 20 - vintage congress hall seatsPalac Kultury I Nauki 20 - vintage congress hall seats
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 21 - marble hallPalac Kultury I Nauki 21 - marble hall
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 22 - grand chandelierPalac Kultury I Nauki 22 - grand chandelier
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 23 - grand stairsPalac Kultury I Nauki 23 - grand stairs
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 24 - grand socialist artPalac Kultury I Nauki 24 - grand socialist art
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 25 - grand interior designPalac Kultury I Nauki 25 - grand interior design
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 26 - gleamingPalac Kultury I Nauki 26 - gleaming
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 27 - side roomPalac Kultury I Nauki 27 - side room
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 28 - smaller conference roomPalac Kultury I Nauki 28 - smaller conference room
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 29 - larger conference room and theatrePalac Kultury I Nauki 29 - larger conference room and theatre
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 30 - conference technologyPalac Kultury I Nauki 30 - conference technology
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 31 - part undergoing refurbishmentPalac Kultury I Nauki 31 - part undergoing refurbishment
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 32 - under the top of the towerPalac Kultury I Nauki 32 - under the top of the tower
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 33 - on the observation deckPalac Kultury I Nauki 33 - on the observation deck
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 34 - view down towards the central stationPalac Kultury I Nauki 34 - view down towards the central station
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 35 - view towards the riverPalac Kultury I Nauki 35 - view towards the river
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 36 - view towards the Old TownPalac Kultury I Nauki 36 - view towards the Old Town
  • Palac Kultury I Nauki 37 - new modern WarsawPalac Kultury I Nauki 37 - new modern Warsaw

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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