Last Updated on May 29, 2023
Warsaw is the capital of Poland and in recent years has fast become a popular tourist destination. The city sits on the Vistula River and its rich history shows in the stunning architecture and cultural activities found here.
From its humble beginnings as a small fishing town, Warsaw rose to prominence in the late 16th century when King Sigismund III moved the Polish capital and royal court here from Kraków. Its rapid 19th century growth was driven by the Industrial Revolution and made it one of the largest and most densely populated cities in Europe.
Its royal and capital cheritage were responsible for the classic beauty showcased in Warsaw’s elegant architecture and boulevards. However, it was soon to be ravaged, heavily bombed and besieged in the 1939 start of World War II. Much of this beautiful historic city’s population and structures were destroyed, especially during the Jewish Ghetto Uprising in 1943 and the general Warsaw Uprising near the war’s end a year later.
Warsaw slowly recovered during its years under the Soviet-controlled Iron Curtain and its renaissance blossomed after Poland overthrew the yoke of communism and joined the democratic free world. Today, Warsaw showcases both remnants of its storied past as well as its modern-contemporary side attracting an entirely new generation of tourist.
As with any travel destination, it’s wise to plan your trip before setting off. One great way of doing this is by looking into what the Warsaw of today has to offer in the way of things to see and do. Here’s a checklist of activities and places to visit that will introduce you to the many charms of this iconic East-Central European capital.
- Old Town and the Market Place
- The Royal Castle
- The Neon Museum
- The Palace on the Isle and Royal Baths Park
- Wilanów Palace
- POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews
- Jewish Cemetery
- Warsaw New Town
- Palace of Culture and Science
- The Frederick Chopin Museum
- Copernicus Science Centre
- The City Zoological Garden
- The Dollhouse Museum
- Even more to see and do!
Old Town and the Market Place
Warsaw Old Town, historically known as Old Warsaw, is the oldest part of the city containing numerous historic buildings from 17th and 18th centuries. You’ll find the Royal Castle, city walls, St. John’s Cathedral, and the Barbican with origins date back to the 13th and 14th centuries.
The Market Square (Rynek Starego Miasta) was also laid out in the late 13th or early 14th century along the main road connecting the castle with the New Town to the north.
There is nothing quite as charming as a European market, and Warsaw’s old town fair has a charm all of its own. The entire market was obliterated in an explosion in the Second World War and had to be painstakingly rebuilt after. Great efforts were made to use as much of the intact brick and rubble in order to restore Old Town and its market to its former glory.
Today the Market sits at the heart of Old Warsaw and is a popular socializing spot for locals and tourists alike. Here you can wander through the cobblestone streets, admire the colorful facades, and visit the iconic Royal Castle. You can also take a stroll along the Royal Route to see some of the city’s most notable landmarks.
The Royal Castle
No visit to an old European Capital is complete without touring a royal castle, and Warsaw does not disappoint. Dating back to the 1600s, the royal castle served as the official residence of the Polish royal family for many years.
Warsaw’s Royal Castle is now a state museum and a national historical monument located in Castle Square. The Royal Castle along with surrounding Old Town became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. It formerly served as the official royal residence of several Polish monarchs.
Completely destroyed in World War II, the Royal Castle was reconstructed from 1971 to 1984 restoring its 17th century appearance and grandeur.
Today, the Royal Castle is a stunningly beautiful building in pristine condition reflecting its historic legacy and home to a significant collection of Polish and European art.
The Neon Museum
If you fancy something a bit out of the ordinary on your visit to Warsaw, the Neon Museum may just fit the bill. It’s one of the few museums of its kind housing a collection of neon signs. The museum is located within a factory building adding to the industrial feel.
Seeing these iconic signs is like taking a walk-through decades-past. The vast collecting of neon lights began in 2005 and now consists of over 100 pieces. Most signs date back to the 1960s and 1970s as Warsaw completed its phoenix-like rise from the ashes of World War II.
The Palace on the Isle and Royal Baths Park
This ornate classicist palace dating back to the 1600s sits on an island in Warsaw’s Royal Baths Park, the city’s largest park, occupying over 76 acres of the city center.
Commissioned by Count Stanisław Herakliusz Lubomirski to be a Baroque bath house similar to a number of other European historic sites, including England’s city of Bath, the palace was erected on a square and richly decorated with stuccos, statues, and paintings.
In 1766, its owner King Stanislaus Augustus converted the bathing pavilion into a classicist summer residence, complete with an English garden. During the final weeks of World War II, the retreating Germans devastated the interior of the Palace and even drilled holes in the building in preparation for demolition. Fortunately, the plan was never carried out and the impressive palace remains a Warsaw historical gem.
The Royal Baths Park, also known as Tazienki Park, is Warsaw’s largest park. Here you’ll not only enjoy the neoclassical beauty of the Palace on the Isle, you can also bask in the serenity of the surroundings as you leisurely stroll around the lake and observe the beautiful resident peacocks.
This former royal palace of King John III Sobieski was built between 1677–1696 for King of Poland John III Sobieski according to a design by architect Augustyn Wincenty Locci. Wilanów Palace somehow survived both World Wars, serving as one of the most remarkable examples of Baroque architecture in the country.
It’s widely considered one of Poland’s most important and popular monuments, receiving around 3,000,000 visitors annually – making it one of the most visited palaces in the world. In 1994, it was designated an Official Polish National Historical Monument by the National Heritage Board of Poland.
The Wilanów Palace has a stunning interior housing a vast collection of art and historical artifacts and is surrounded by beautifully manicured gardens to explore.
The palace and park in Wilanów host several important cultural events and concerts each year, including Summer Royal Concerts in the Rose Garden and the International Summer Early Music Academy.
POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews
At this award-winning museum, visitors can delve into the rich history and heritage of Polish Jews. The Museum presents a comprehensive narrative spanning a thousand years, showcasing the contributions and struggles of Poland’s Jewish community.
Jewish people played a major role in the history of Warsaw and contributed immensely to Poland’s cultural, scientific, and economic achievements.
In Warsaw alone, nearly 400,000 Jewish called the capital their home, living and thriving in Warsaw’s industrious urban environment prior to the onset of World War II.
This is perhaps the most poignant site to visit in Warsaw. The Cemetery is one of the largest in Europe occupying 83 acres and dating back to 1806. Many renowned Jewish scientists, writers, historians, educations, and rabbis are interred here.
The famous cemetery contains over 250,000 marked graves, many plain and others decidedly ornate. Sadly, the cemetery also holds mass graves of victims of the Warsaw Ghetto. Touring this site is yet another somber reminder of the inhumane atrocities by the Nazis against the Jewish citizens of Warsaw.
The cemetery is still active today, handling 20-30 burials a year from the small remnant population of Jewish people still remaining in Warsaw.
Warsaw New Town
Located close to Warsaw Old Town, this area is an eye-catching part of the city popular for tourist discovery. Much like Old Town, the New Town was devastated in World War II, requiring extensive repairs.
Despite its misleading name, New Town actually dates back to the 14th century and was originally designed to be a city in its own right. In this area, tourists can view an array of both traditional and modern Polish buildings including churches and buildings surrounding the market square.
Palace of Culture and Science
The impressive landmark skyscraper housing the Palace of Science and Culture can be seen from all over the city, offering panoramic views of Warsaw from its observation deck. Standing at over 230-feet-tall, it’s the highest building in the country.
The structure, erected in the 1950s, plays host to a variety of public facilities such as cinemas, libraries, sports clubs and theatres.
The Frederick Chopin Museum
A must for music lovers, this impressive museum actually resides on two sites honoring Warsaw’s most beloved composer. The first is the birthplace of Chopin and second was once the Chopin family’s parlor.
Here you can immerse yourself in the world of classical music exploring the life, works, and influence of the famous composer through interactive exhibits and multimedia presentations.
Copernicus Science Centre
Located on the river side, the Copernicus Science Centre is a science museum that will delight both children and adults with 450 interactive exhibitions. The thought behind the museum is that visitors can create their own experiments and make discoveries for themselves.
The museum opened in 2018 and has become regarded as one of the most advanced museums of its kind. Who ever thought science could be so fun and entertaining?
The City Zoological Garden
More commonly referred to as simply the Warsaw Zoo, this is a popular place for families with children. The Zoological Garden covers an impressive 40 acres and boasts over one million visitors each year.
Animal lovers can view over 11,000 animals across 500 different species. But the Zoo also has a more fascinating history, serving as a vital hiding place for Warsaw Jews fleeing from the persecuting Nazis.
The Dollhouse Museum
A rather unusual, but entertaining venue, the Dollhouse Museum makes for a wonderful family day out if you have children. It can be equally enjoyable for doll collectors of all ages.
The museum claims to be mysterious and enchanting, and certainly lives up to this claim. It houses over 130 dollhouses from various eras in history and has an incredible collection of dolls and accessories.
Even more to see and do!
The list of enjoyable things to do in Warsaw is endless. Other activities worth mentioning include taking a relaxing cruise along the Vistula River, enjoying scenic views of the city’s skyline and its many bridges while learning about the history and culture of the area.
Or you can explore Warsaw’s vibrant culinary scene by taking a food tour. This is a great way to savor traditional Polish cuisine and learn about local culture as you sample pierogi, traditional soups, and other local treats while exploring different neighborhoods.
A visit to the Ritual Nightclub famed for its impressive cocktail menu and amazing music is a big draw for the younger crowd wanting to sample Warsaw’s vibrant nightlife.
Warsaw is a city rich in culture and heritage with much to offer admiring visitors. Whether your passion is music or food, science or history, you are sure to find something to excite your senses in this amazing city.