In some ways, the city of Warsaw reflects the spirit of its people. Razed during the Second World War and rebuilt, in large part, in utilitarian Soviet style, the capital of Poland might not have the uniform beauty of Krakow, but it's a lively, forward-looking city. Increasingly cheap flights to Warsaw land at Frederic Chopin Airport, just 10km (6 miles) from the city.
The Old Town's history spans the 13th to the 20th centuries. It is postcard pretty, but what makes it remarkable is that as the area was bombed and blown up during World War II, it is almost completely reconstructed. After the war, volunteers armed with old maps and paintings sifted through the rubble for reusable bricks and decorative features. Other sights include the Royal Castle, King Sigismund's Column, the Market Square, and the Barbican.
One of the defining landmarks in Warsaw is the Palace of Culture and Science, which was "gifted" to the Polish nation by Stalin. Many locals consider it Warsaw at its worst. As for memorials to the fallen, these include the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Saxon Garden, the Warsaw Uprising Monument, and the poignant Maly Powstaniec (Little partisan) which commemorates the children who fought in the Warsaw Uprising.
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Warsaw has four distinct seasons. Spring starts out cold and ends with warm and sunny days. Summer is warm with lots of rain. July is the hottest month with temperatures reaching the 20s (Celsius). Autumn is the reverse of spring, and ends with cold foggy days. There can be lots of snow from December through February, and January and February temperatures can drop to minus figures.
When to fly to Warsaw
The peak tourist season is April through October. Summer is the busiest - Warsaw flights should be booked in advance - and spring and autumn somewhat less crowded.
Central and Eastern Europe’s largest book fair is held in Warsaw in May. The city also hosts the Summer Jazz Days Festival in June, a Mozart festival in June and July, the Warsaw Autumn Festival of Contemporary Music in September, and the Warsaw Jazz Jamboree in October.
The ski season runs from mid-December through March.
Winter is very cold but has fewer crowds outside the ski areas. Warsaw also has a theatre festival in January.
Getting around Warsaw
Within the city it’s very easy to get around between the trams, buses and the Metro. And you can always set out on your own two feet.
Warsaw insider information
- The statue of King Sigismund III looks over Castle Square (Plac Zamkowy). The Royal Castle (Zamek Krolewski) itself was built in the early 1400s, but as 85 per cent of the city was razed by the Nazis in 1944, what stands today is a reconstruction, rebuilt between 1971 and 1984 from maps and paintings that had been hidden by residents during the war and from bits of rubble that had been saved by survivors of the war.
- Also in the rebuilt Old Town (which is on the Unesco World Cultural Heritage list) are St. John’s Cathedral, Warsaw’s most important Catholic shrine, the Jesuit Church, and the Square with its beautiful Mermaid Statue. The Warsaw Historical Museum is here too.
- Staying with Warsaw’s often turbulent but defiant history, there are a number of monuments to the fallen. The Jewish Ghetto no longer exists, but Umschlagplatz marks the spot from where residents were sent by train to Treblinka concentration camp. Between Karmelicka and Zamenhofa streets is the Ghetto Heroes Monument, which pays tribute to those who fought in the Warsaw Uprising. An exact copy of the monument is in Yad Vashem in Israel. The Warsaw Rising Museum tells the story of that time through photographs, interviews, film footage and dioramas.
- Lazienki Park is Warsaw’s largest park. The Palace on the Water is beautiful. It was commissioned by King Stanislaw August Poniatowski, the last King of Poland, as his summer residence.
- Look out for the Fryderyk Chopin monument in the park, and later, the Chopin museum. During the summer months, Chopin concerts take place by the monument in Lazienki Park.
- The Palace of Culture and Science is 230 metres (754 feet) high and has a viewing deck on the 30th floor. It is Poland's tallest building.