Since its establishment as the Polish-Lithuanian capital in 1569, to say that Warsaw has had something of a tumultuous history would be more than a slight understatement. From Prussian and Russian rule to the utter destruction perpetrated by the occupying Nazis during WWII, this city has seen more than its fair share of tragedy and lost identity, especially during the shadowy years of the 20th century. Yet as the passing decades of the 21st century inevitably ease the pains of memory, modern day Warsaw presents visitors with a new, vibrant, and cutting edge vision of Poland: a city making every effort to free itself from the last tenants of both authoritarian and communist influence.
Which is perhaps why its tallest edifice, the monstrous Stalin-era Palace of Culture, remains such a sensitive subject. Sensitive or not, however, this repurposed monument is hard to avoid when embarking on a cultural exploration of the city. You’ll also inevitably wind up in Old Town, the reconstructed center of Warsaw which houses a wealth of historically significant buildings and squares including plac Zamkowy (Castle Square), Market Square, St. John’s Cathedral and, of course, the Royal Castle. Other historic areas include Natolin to the south, a scenic park and nature reserve dating back to the late 17th century. Feel like taking in some museums? You’ve got plenty to choose from, between the Chopin Museum, beautiful Lazienki Palace, the Center for Modern Art and the memorial Warsaw Rising Museum dedicated to the heroically tragic rebellion of 1944.
Modern life and development, however, are at the heart of the Polish capital’s push into the 21st century, as can be witnessed throughout the city. Gone is the once-massive outdoor market place, ended by the construction of Warsaw’s new National Football Stadium in 2012 (a great place to experience Polish football fever, by the way). Such new buildings can be seen everywhere, in stark contrast to the gray utilitarian boxes that defined communist Poland. Pilsudski Square, for example, the largest square in the city and scene of Pope John Paul II’s Holy Mass in 1979, is now flanked by works of modern glass architecture. Festivals are a’plenty, including October’s Warsaw Film Festival, July’s Jazz Festival in Old Town and the contemporary music of the Warsaw Autumn Festival in September. So if you come expecting only remnants of Warsaw’s often tragic antiquity, you’ve got another thing coming, traveler.