The capital city of Poland
and a prime dark-tourism destination. This is mainly due to the fate the city suffered in WWII
at the hands of the Nazis
, with inhumane Ghetto living conditions and deportations during the Holocaust
terror, brutally crushed uprisings and large-scale destruction of almost all the old buildings. And then this was followed by the communist
era's repression and privation.
Visiting all of the city's dark sites can be a tough experience, but Warsaw also has many pleasures to offer – despite the city's reputation. Warsaw is generally much underrated as a city break destination, and it's certainly less touristy than Kraków
. But personally I find it a really cool place!
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info: Poland
's capital is a city that ranks especially high in dark-tourism terms. This is largely due to the fact that few cities suffered such a battering during WWII
as Warsaw did.
First came the onslaught and bombardments by Nazi Germany
as Poland became the first country to be attacked and conquered in the war. Then followed a brutal regime of persecution and murder, targeted in particular at the city's Jewish population, as usual. First they were imprisoned in a cramped ghetto, then deported to the death camps
However, Warsaw didn't just suffer passively – two uprisings, though ultimately unsuccessful, stand out in the annals of this grim period: first the Ghetto uprising of 1943, and then the 1944 general uprising, after which the Nazis levelled most of what was left of Warsaw in retaliation – while the Soviet Red Army looked on and did nothing.
Don't get the two events confused – some do – as they were quite distinct, not just chronologically speaking. Also, the 1944 uprising plays a major role in Poland's national(istic) self-portrayal and understanding, as is evidenced at particular in the ultra-modern Uprising Museum
In contrast the Ghetto uprising has long been commemorated through an old-fashioned monument from 1948 – see under Ghetto Trail
. Right opposite this monument the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews (POLIN)
opened in 2013, which includes a section about the Holocaust
as well, and is now the core element of commemoration of those dark times, as well as a celebration of the history and recent rebirth of Jewish life in Warsaw and Poland
a massive reconstruction effort was undertaken to rebuild war-torn Warsaw, but as this took place in the context of the communist
era of Soviet
dominance only a small part of the actual old architecture was recreated, otherwise it was Stalinist
intimidation architecture, as in the massive "Palace of Culture and Science
", or else drab prefab high-rise housing blocks.
And as if to add insult to injury at the end of the communist era, Warsaw only played second fiddle in the process in which the Solidarność
movement started to put an end to that era, with Gdańsk
taking the lion's share of the credit for overthrowing communist rule.
Still, Warsaw today has to be regarded also as the dark-tourism capital of Poland
, especially as far as internal tourism is concerned (the Uprising Museum in particular draws large numbers of Polish visitors). But it's also become increasingly attractive to foreign tourists.
What there is to see:
lots – Warsaw is one of the most rewarding cities for a dark tourist to visit. This is also thanks to some more recent developments in the commodification
of the darker aspects of the city's tourism offerings. These are mostly related to WWII
, the Nazi
occupation and the uprisings, and sites range from simple monuments to state-of-the-art interactive museums. Here's a list with links to individual sub-pages
(Ghetto uprising monument, Ghetto Wall fragments, Umschlagplatz, ZOB)
In addition there's some splendid post-war socialist architecture to behold, and I don't mean the drab concrete blocks of flats built hastily over the rubble to provide housing for the homeless populace after the war. No, there's also the grand show-off kind of Stalinist architecture, in particular what must be Warsaw's No.1 landmark, the Pałac Kultury i Nauki
Another rather imposing building is to be found at the junction of al. Jerozolimskie and Nowy Świat: this used to be the Polish Communist Party's headquarters (and is now a banking centre, ironically).
A rather abstract monument, the Footbridge of Memory, stands at the intersection of ul. Chłodna and ul. Żelazna in the west of the city. It consists of two pairs of tall column-like structures either side of the road. This is a symbolic recreation of the footbridge that used to stand here and connected the two parts of the Jewish Ghetto during the Nazi period. After dark, optical fibres connecting the tops of the columns create an illusion of the bridge in light.
At the northern end of central Warsaw, beyond the restored Old Town, is the massive 19th century Citadel
. This features a few things of interest to the dark tourist too, notably the remnants of the former prison (called Pavilion X), as well as the Gate of Executions. The newest significant addition to the complex is the Katyn Museum
Bang in the middle of tourist Warsaw on Krakowskie Przedmieście is the Pałac Namiestnikowski
– it was here that the treaty was signed that gave the Warsaw Pact
its (first) name. It was also the site of the 'Round Table' talks of 1989
between the government and Solidarność
, which was a major element in the process that ended communist
rule. The Palace later became Lech Wałęsa's presidential residence.
Not far from the Presidential Palace, on the western end of Plac Piłsudskiego is the tomb of the unknown soldier
with its eternal flame guarded by two soldiers. What's more remarkable than its current function is perhaps the fact that the arches over the flame/tomb are the only surviving traces of the former royal palace which the Nazis
blew up in 1944. The square in front was used by protesters against the communist regime in the early 1980s. Today it's a rather drab traffic-free and featureless concrete expanse, whereas behind the tomb of the unknown soldier lies a pleasant park.
A relatively new addition to the square is the monument
for the victims of the 2010 plane crash near Smolensk
, in which then president Lech Kaczyński and his entourage were killed. It’s shape reminded me a bit of those measuring towers in the Polygon
A landmark building, now referred to as “PASTa
”, that is associated with the Warsaw Uprising
stands at ul. Zielna 37. It’s an unusual structure built in the early 20th century. At the top of the front of this tower-like edifice is the symbol of the Uprising a big “P” atop a “W”. It used to be a telecommunications centre and was besieged during the Uprising for over three weeks. But unlike so many other buildings it survived.
There was even a set of surviving tenement buildings in what was the Jewish Ghetto, namely at ul. Próżna, on the corner with Plac Grzybowski. The partly boarded-up facades for years featured blow-up historical photos of Jewish residents and everyday life before the destruction of the ghetto. Since 2014, these historical remnants were gradually “destroyed” through refurbishment. One building at No. 14 is at the time of writing still unrefurbished but now covered with netting so you can’t see it any more. It’s probably doomed too. The photo in the gallery below showed the site as it was in 2008. I find it a sad development (and recent comments on TripAdvisor show that I’m not alone in thinking this!).
En route between the Citadel and the Old Town a short detour south-west on Konwiktorska boulevard takes you to the dramatic Monument to the Fallen and Murdered in the East
, which generally commemorates the victims of the Soviet invasion and repression in 1939 in the east of Poland
(see also Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
). It was unveiled in 1995.
On the edge of the touristy Old Town stands one of Warsaw’s most loved monuments in relation to the Warsaw Uprising
of 1944 – the Little Insurgent
, a statue of a small child soldier holding a gun and wearing a far too big steel helmet on his small head. Thousands of candles, ribbons and flowers are placed by the statue each year to commemorate the anniversary of the Uprising.
Finally, for those into the history of nuclear science, the small Marie Curie Museum might be of interest. It is devoted to the life and work of the Polish dual Nobel Prize laureate and pioneer in that field (and more generally chemistry and physics) who, amongst other things, discovered radium and polonium (the latter so named after her home country while she worked in France).
in the centre of Poland
, roughly on a straight west-to-east line between Berlin
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: easy to get to; but not cheap.
Warsaw, as the capital city, is also Poland
's transport hub, so there are excellent connections, by air, road or railway.
The “Frederic Chopin” international airport is not only the central base for the national carrier LOT but is also served by a host of other airlines. From the European mainland, however, trains are well worth considering as an alternative (e.g. the direct connections from Berlin
); when booked early these are extremely good value.
Those who want to go by car can reach the city quite comfortably from the west via Poznań on the motorway A2 (E30), which currently ends at Warsaw. Further on, especially further east, roads aren't as good but not too bad either. But whether you really want to drive in inner Warsaw's hectic traffic on multi-lane boulevards is something to be considered with care ... and weigh up any potential benefits against the risks and stress it would entail … Personally, I would much rather make do with getting around by public transport. The bus and tram network is functional enough. There's a metro too, of just one single line ... but that's at best of marginal use to tourists.
Warsaw offers the widest choice of accommodation at the full range of price levels, to suit all pockets. If you shop around in advance, some really good deals can still be found, even at upmarket hotels.
With regard to food an drink
, the range of cuisines has broadened over the years, and while Polish staples still dominate, you can now also find plenty of good alternatives at various ethnic restaurants. With regard to drink it has to be said that Warsaw has become a Mecca for the craft beer movement. Several specialist bars/restaurants have sprung up in recent years so the discerning beer drinker is as spoiled for top-quality choice as one would be in, say, California (where the movement began and is still strongest) – and that at a fraction of the prices you'd have to pay in the US
or Western Europe. For those who'd rather stick with wine: did you know that Poland
even produces some wine itself? And it's of pretty decent quality too (mostly in the style of German wine, especially that of the Saale-Unstrut region which borders south-western Poland.) It's available from a few speciality shops and in upmarket restaurants in Warsaw too now.
If you fancy a bit of tongue-in-cheek post-communist nostalgia in one of those commie-themed bars/restaurants, then Warsaw's Oberza Pod Czerwonym Wieprzem (The Inn Under the Red Hog) is one of the better specimens of the genre.
Time required: You should allow at least five to six full days, and that's just for the dark sights of Warsaw; add more time for taking in the other attractions of this city as well.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
The nearest other dark site to Warsaw, though a bit tricky to reach, is Palmiry
, the site of Nazi mass executions and graves, now a national memorial.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Warsaw has a lot to offer on this front too, not least its reconstructed Old Town, where it gets really touristy indeed, complete with rip-off prices at restaurants. The “Old Town”, by the way, isn’t really so old because it is a post-war reconstruction. At least it is a faithful recreation (unlike the “Old Town” in Gdańsk
). Keep your eyes open and you may see the “1954” year of construction marked on one of the pseudo-historic houses. It is nevertheless a charming maze of cobbled streets and understandably the main focus of mainstream tourism. The ramparts and bastions ringing the Old Town are visibly “new”, i.e. reconstructions too.
Just a bit to the north of the Old Town, the district called Nowe Miasto ("New Town") is a wonderful oasis: an equally picturesque quarter, but a lot less crowded and not (yet) so commercialized. More recently up-and-coming areas include the blocks east of the “Centrum” train station, and now also the old Praga district across the river (it's sort of shabby-chic and an artsy-crafty scene).
Warsaw also has a number of pleasant parks, museums, wide boulevards, glitzy shopping centres and some fantastic restaurants. The city may not have the pretty and quaint feel that Kraków
has, but it's still a worthwhile travel destination in its own right.
Otherwise, Warsaw is a natural starting-off point for exploring the rest of Poland
, especially to the east and north (Masuria).
- Warsaw 01 - modern cityscape by night
- Warsaw 02 - ensemble with Palac Kultury i Nauki and plastic bison
- Warsaw 03 - former Workers Party HQ
- Warsaw 04 - ghetto bridge monument
- Warsaw 05 - ghetto bridge symbolism
- Warsaw 06 - Palac Namiestnikowski
- Warsaw 07 - monument for the Smolensk plane crash
- Warsaw 08 - tomb of the unknown soldier
- Warsaw 09 - tomb of the unknown soldier
- Warsaw 10 - PASTa building
- Warsaw 11 - surviving tenement houses in the former ghetto area at ul. Prozna in 2008
- Warsaw 12 - Monument to the Fallen and Murdered in the East
- Warsaw 13 - detail
- Warsaw 14 - Warsaw Uprising monument
- Warsaw 15 - with the Little Insurgent
- Warsaw 16 - towards the Old Town
- Warsaw 17 - not really that old reconstructed old town house
- Warsaw 18 - old town main square
- Warsaw 19 - old town rampards and gate
- Warsaw 20 - reconstructed old town battlements
- Warsaw 21 - Marie Curie museum
- Warsaw 22 - grand refurbished palace hotel
- Warsaw 23 - unrefurbished house beyond repair
- Warsaw 24 - new stadium