Old Town (Stare Miasto), Warsaw

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Old Town (Stare Miasto), Warsaw


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Review of "Old Town (Stare Miasto), Warsaw"

published 15/07/2011 | RICHADA
Member since : 20/06/2004
Reviews : 368
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About me :
If my reviews entertain, amuse or brighten your moment in any way, then my task is done! ++ I will return, but my current workload keeps me away currently. ++
Pro Atmosphere. Scenic. History. Architecture. Eating out.
Cons Crowds. Questionable authenticity?
Is it worth visiting?
Transport links
Family Friendly


The gate through which we entered the Old Town from the New Town

The gate through which we entered the Old Town from the New Town


Until June this year (2011), I had, due to my first visit to Poland’s capital, reservations about returning to Warsaw. Not wishing to labour the point here, but our previous experience was, for two reasons, a rather moving one, that having absolutely nothing to do with Warsaw’s fascinating, but bloody history.

On 11th September 2001, at 11.00am, my, then, wife-to-be had an appointment at the English Consulate, located in what I, at the time, assumed to be the very heart of Warsaw, almost opposite the immense Palace of Culture and Science. My Polish fiancé, partly due to the location of her family home, more closely allies herself with Krakow, and was far less familiar with, and decidedly less interested in, Warsaw. Primarily then, our two night stay there was regarded purely as a “business trip”. Business successfully conducted, in a state of rather tired elation; she had after all just been granted a marriage entry visa to the UK, we returned to our hotel to enjoy a celebratory meal.....

.....The non-English speaking, elderly, waiter approached my fiancé, towards the end of the meal, to ask if her companion was English or American; he had just heard on television that there had been an air crash in New York......

......the rest of that day, as they say, is history and may well explain why I had mixed feelings about returning to Warsaw at all.

Before those momentous events, both personal and global, we had done a touch of sight-seeing, gone up to the viewing platform of the Palace of Culture and I had reached the unfortunate conclusion that Warsaw was a grimy, commercial city, certainly no rival to Krakow in terms of historical or architectural merit. If only I had read a little more about it before venturing there!

Poland is very much a country in constant change; it is, I think, part of the Polish psyche, ‘new is best’. Buildings that have been standing for over ten years are regarded as old, nowhere is this more obvious than in its capital city – Warsaw, which still, in many respects, strikes you as a city under construction. Even driving through the suburbs in 2011 you could be in a totally different city to that of 2001.


Well, I have partly to thank a friend on this very review site for that! After reading many of her reviews here – and then my own Lonely Planet and Michelin Guides - I decided that there was so much that we had missed on our last visit. Being a World Heritage Site I was especially keen to see the Old Town, although there is much else that is also worth seeing in this city. Naturally, whilst there, we also seized the opportunity to meet the author of so many of those Wasarvian reviews that we have all read!

My wife was, initially, less than delighted at the idea of spending four days of our holiday in Warsaw, away from her family, about 180 miles to the south, but four days later was as reluctant as I to depart this fascinating place.


For those of you unfamiliar with Warsaw, I would draw your attention to the very specific subject of this review, the Old Town, or as you will find it referred to in many a polish town or city; Stare Miasto. This then is NOT a review of Warsaw in general, which, in character is, by and large, a modern, sprawling industrial and commercial city.

The Old Town is a compact area, geographically pretty much in the centre of the Warsaw metropolitan area, partly walled, and is bordered by Wybrzeze Gdanskie Street, Grodzka, Mostowa and Podwale Street. That will actually mean nothing to those who have not been there, or without referring to a map. In simple terms the Old Town of Warsaw is a town of thirteenth century origin, centred around a large market square – Rynek Starego Miasta – on the eastern side of the town is the Vistula River. The Old Town enjoys an elevated position overlooking the river and the Praga district on the opposite bank. The western side is enclosed by the impressive city wall (Barbican) running parallel to Podwale Street. Adjacent to the quaint Old Town, appropriately, is the elegant, more open, fifteenth century New Town, which would be well deserving of a review in its own right.


Warsaw did not always have the status that it now does. The ancient capital of Poland is Krakow and many Krakovians still feel hard done by to this day that, having been the capital from Poland’s foundation in 1083, in 1596, King Sigismund III Vasa moved his court from Krakow to Warsaw, thus establishing it as the new capital. By the time he did so, much of what you can see in the Old Town looked incredibly much as it does today, in fact, when King Sigismund III first set foot here, it actually LOOKED, as in fact it was, much older than it does now!

It is that thought that so fascinated me with this place and actually drew me like a magnate to the Old Town and, subsequently, moved me sufficiently to write this review.

To most, interested in European history, it will be the events of the last century which will be of most fascination here. Having read extensively about the place and the events, particularly, but not exclusively, of the Second World War, history, courage and ultimately death jump out at you from every street and building in the Old Town. Even in broad daylight and packed with tourists, this is a place of many ghosts and that feeling is palpable.

Not only the appearance of this place, but the emotions that it stirs in people, are, in my own experience, actually unique. Maybe I have just read too much about Warsaw, been watching TOO many episodes of World at War, I do not know, but I know others who have been there have said exactly the same thing.

Thanks to the tragic Warsaw Uprising in October 1944, the Nazis, before retreating from Poland, in an orgy of revenge, destroyed Warsaw, including its historic heart – The Old Town - even going to the time, effort and expense of dynamiting the huge Royal Palace complex. Depending on what you read, between 80 and 90% of the city was totally destroyed, by the end of the war it was totally deserted – the few remaining inhabitants after the Uprising having been evacuated. After the War there was much debate as to what to do with Warsaw, many offering a strong argument for merely leaving the city in ruins, uninhabited as a permanent memorial to the hundreds of thousands who died there and to the futility of war in general. Eventually, on economic and political grounds, the communist regime – Poland fell under Russian control as part of the war reparations – decided that the Old and New Towns would be rebuilt, creating large numbers of jobs and providing an area for tourism to thrive in the city.

Everything that you see today (and in the New Town) is a total, brick by brick, reconstruction of the original. This was carried out between 1949 and 1963, wherever possible, using as many of the original bricks that could be salvaged from the ruins. Similarly architectural details were salvaged and restored in their original positions around the Old Town.

The last building to be restored (subject of a future review) was the Royal Castle. This huge project was started in 1961 and, in stages took the best part of 40 years to complete. Judging by 1930’s photographs of this building, it is the least authentic reconstruction job in the Old Town – pre-war it did not have the rather glaring, red brick walls that it currently does.

Paradoxically, the even older historic centre of Krakow, which had been the seat of the German occupying forces, survived unscathed from the War. Visiting that city provides a great contrast, and, I would now be hard pressed to tell you which I found of greater interest.


Before coming to the “experience” side of the review I would like to share with you a city-wide, yet rather perverse, first hand, local view of the Old Town. Before actually going there, when told by an Englishman of the Warsavian’s intense dislike of the Old Town, I thought this a rather odd and extreme view – maybe even that he was ‘spinning me a line’. Apparently they regard it as being akin to Disneyland, a place purely for tourists, not an area for inhabitants of Warsaw to go – and consequently they don’t!

The following day, my wife had a chance conversation with a gondolier, in Lazienki Park of all places, he told her that he could trace his family back for many generations and that they were one of the “original” Warsaw families – thanks to the Second World War, there are few families living here that can trace their family further than three generations. Whilst at one time his family had lived there, unlike us, he had never visited the Old Town and had no intention of ever going there.

On reflection, following these conversations and after going there ourselves, it occurred to me that maybe the “Disneyland” argument was merely a screen for the fact that they simply do not want to visit the Old Town for the fear of the ghastly memories and ghosts that they will find there, and that, perhaps, the ‘new is best’ psyche is driven in Poles by this same, powerful, emotion.


We drove to the area from our hotel to the north, following the west bank of the river until reaching the outskirts of the New Town. Thanks to our fellow reviewer friend’s advice we parked in ul. Dluga (Long Street), pay and display parking is easily available there until around 4.00pm, after which, mysteriously, every space becomes taken. Not really knowing where to start, we simply walked down the street, turned right, this area of the New Town is pedestrianised, and there in front of us was the bright red city wall (or Barbican) and splendid circular gate tower through which we entered the Old Town.

In the overall city-scape that is twenty first century Warsaw, the Old Town has a rather bizarre presence, hemmed in by modern sky-scrapers, bridges and those sprawling suburbs. You are literally only ever one street away from both dreadful 1960’s concrete buildings and ultra modern twenty first century chrome and glass towers.

Naturally there are no restrictions as to your coming and going within the Old Town, but entering through the gate at this point you do half expect a gate-keeper to appear and request you to pay an admission charge – that impression is not gained should you walk around the wall and enter the area from the wide open Royal Castle Square. Incidentally the Barbican wall and gate that we have just passed through was built between 1952 and 1954, using, as a plan, 17th-century etchings, the walls having been partially demolished during the nineteenth century to make way for the construction of tenement blocks. Ironically, the bright red bricks that you see here today came not from Warsaw, but from buildings demolished in the cities of Nysa and Wroclaw.

On the other side of the gate a bridge crosses the dry moat, unusually the bridge slopes uphill to join the quaint street above it, as soon as you enter that narrow, cobbled street, with its tall houses, the sense of enclosure becomes almost claustrophobic, especially with the stifling 32degC heat when we were there.

Unfortunately our timing, early June, was not good, this is a period when all the school trips are taking place, throngs of Polish school children adding to the crowds of foreign tourists – although with all the hubbub in the streets one is given a clue as to what it may have been like with the soldiers of the Uprising fighting Hitler’s retreating forces hand to hand through the narrow streets and passageways.

The ground floors of the, mostly, four and five storey houses are usually occupied by a business of some sort; antique shops, art galleries, jewellers, cafes, restaurants - all thrive here, but the great majority of them appear purely to serve the tourist trade. There are holiday apartments in some of the buildings, but one has to wonder where you would go in this area to obtain provisions, no grocery or food shops of any kind were apparent, in a sense, it is probably that single fact that lends this otherwise authentic reconstruction an artificial air, in the true sense it is no longer a “town”.

This impression continues as the narrow street opens out into the enormous (90 x 73 metres) market square, only here, the sense of size is reduced by the sheer number of people, along with the tables and parasols, so typical of Polish bars and cafe’s – they seem to almost fill the square to the extent that it is impossible, from any angle, to take a panorama photograph of it. As I tend to do in any city that we visit, I keep my eye line above shop (and parasol!) height, in doing so, you are richly rewarded and, for the first time since entering the Old Town, will truly be in awe of the restoration that has taken place here.

How much easier it would have been on the post-War builders to have built all of the houses an even height, with floor levels and window lines the same, as indeed they are in the New Town, which has a much greater uniformity. However, that would not have looked anything like a fourteenth century Polish Rynek, where, each merchant who built his house, systematically attempted to outdo his neighbour in terms of wealth, represented by architectural splendour. In Warsaw Old Town, the rebuilding has been faithfully done, no two buildings are the same, the detailing is superb and the irregularity of the whole gives it a wonderful ambiance. Some of the buildings have statues on top of the, others fancy dormer windows – in several cases they appear to have whole houses perched precariously on top of them! The houses have rendered brickwork which has then been painted contrasting colours; some even have Trompe L'Oeil brickwork painted onto them. Considering that all this, very painstaking, work took place in a climate of post-war communist austerity; the whole project could be regarded as something of a miracle.

Looking at pre-War photographs – and even in some cases, those of the ruins, you can see that this is very much how the square looked prior to the devastation that took place between 1939 and 1944. Its’ use prior to that time would have been rather different to today however.

One minor detail, that any heritage enthusiast will notice, is the proliferation of television aerials on top of the houses, it did not really occur to me standing in the square at the time, but viewing the photographs afterwards, they do rather blight the fourteenth century sky line!

Leaving the square, following our noses so to speak, towards the Royal Palace, we are back into a narrow, shaded street (Swietojanska), this is slightly different in character as it opens out a little in the middle, two churches standing there side by side, the more traditional, externally at least, looking white plasterwork building is the Jesuit Church, originally consecrated in 1609, whilst Gothic style St John’s, one of three cathedrals in Warsaw, dates from the 14th century and was “original” to the Old Town. Due to the intense heat, we took welcome refuge inside both of these magnificent churches, I am not going to detail their contrasting interiors here, but would advise any visitor to the Old Town to admire their interiors, again, the quality of the re-construction can only leave one in awe of the time and effort spent.

We chose to have lunch in a tiny restaurant called Zapiecek Polskie Pierogarnie, directly opposite the churches, not much more than a hole in the wall – well double open doors actually – this traditional Polish “Pierogi House” fortunately, for me, had other items on the menu too, although neither of us have ever seen such a huge choice of both sweet and savoury fillings offered, and you can order a mix of both, which is exactly what my wife did!

As soon as you enter Swietojanska, from the market square you increasingly anticipate what is to come as filling the gap at the end of the street is the inescapable presence of the imposing, 60 metre tall, red brick Sigismund's Tower, complete with its spired top. I was expecting to see another cathedral due to this spire, but when you finally reach the end of the street, which dramatically opens out into the wide open Castle Square – which, in reality, is almost triangular in shape – you are faced with the colossal edifice of the Royal Castle, with the tower at its centre. Due to the angle at which the castle is set to the rest of the Old Town, from this particular viewpoint it looks as though it stretches into the distance for ever, a trick of the brain which I am sure its original architects fully intended to happen. In reality, the facade here is actually 90 metres in length.

Running your eyes along the front of the Castle from here, you cannot help but catch site of Warsaw’s equivalent of Nelson’s Column - Sigismund's Column (Kolumna Zygmunta III Wazy), only this one is somewhat older, having been erected in 1644 by Sigismund’s son, commemorating his father’s transference of the Polish capital to Warsaw in 1596. The Column is 22 metres tall, whilst the king, dressed in armour, sword in one hand, a cross in the other - sculptured in bronze - stands a further 2.75 metres in height. Along with all around it, the column was blown up by the retreating German forces, fragments of the original red marble column now lay on the ground next to the Royal castle, Sigismund’s battered bronze remains were rescued from the rubble and fully restored, being placed back on the granite column you now see in 1949. From the steps at the base of the column there is a wonderful 360 degree panorama of the Barbican. Old Town, New Town, the Royal Way stretching off to the south, and even the controversial new football stadium on the other side of the river.

Castle Square is probably the smartest area in all of Warsaw. It is lined with expensive bars and restaurants, offering fantastic views – and people watching opportunities - but, on the whole, less attractive and over-priced menus. For all of that though, the facades are as interesting as anywhere else in the Old Town and due to the openness of it the feeling of claustrophobia is absent.

On our first visit we walked back to the car via ul. Piwna, (Beer Street) which is a fascinating way of by-passing the crowds in the square. Again, narrow, hemmed in by tall buildings you have a sense of history here, maybe because, in contrast to the main street, there are so few people here, it feels a touch creepy, even at three in the afternoon! Appropriately, in view of the street name, there are bars here – ironically the first is a Bavarian beer cellar, a place that I am sure you will not find many Poles frequenting!

Our second visit to the Old Town took place in the early evening, when, although parking was much more difficult, the streets however were easier to negotiate as they were free from the school trippers packing them earlier in the day. We actually enjoyed a wonderful tea on the Royal Castle Restaurant terrace overlooking the river. I could thoroughly recommend this as a good, stylish and not over-priced place to eat, with a wide choice of restaurant, cafe, and al-fresco dining – all served by friendly, yet professional waiters, naturally menus with an English translation are offered.

The Old Town of Warsaw is undeniably a special place to visit. It has a unique ambiance from several perspectives. Throw the historical events of the Second World War and its subsequent re-construction into the pot and you have the makings, for me at least, of a place worthy of a lifetime of study.

Due to time constraints on our part – and the excessive length of the review itself, I have really only scratched the surface of the attractions, churches and museums that this historic area houses. We departed Warsaw craving more and knowing that there is a lot to discover here on future visits.

I hope that this review has at least offered an introduction and some food for thought, that indeed you might consider Warsaw as a city break destination and that if you do so, please, do not be put off of visiting the Old Town by a Warsavian hotel receptionist or taxi-driver!

===© RICHADA CIAO 16.07.2011/ UPDATE 24.1.2017

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Comments on this review

  • elfbwillow published 14/04/2017
    Truley excellent read :)
  • jo-1976 published 09/02/2017
    Fascinating read
  • ccmccartney published 24/01/2017
    Beautiful architecture
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Product Information : Old Town (Stare Miasto), Warsaw

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Product Details

City: Warsaw

Type: Location

Country: Poland

Continent: Europe


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