Warsaw: ultimate guide to the city’s mind-bending architecture

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If you thought architecture in London and New York was eclectic, then our guide to the weird and wonderful buildings of Warsaw will really have you raising your eyebrows in amazement.

Poland’s capital is recognised as having extremely contrasting architectural styles. Some rather crazy history has been the cause of all this and making sense of it all is best through the lens of time. We’ve condensed as much as we could into this handy article for you.

We’re sure you’ll be both baffled and delighted by our Warsaw architecture guide.

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Medieval / Gothic

History

Poland was founded in 966AD, but you won’t find anything that old in Warsaw – it only became the capital in 1596 and before that was a modest town. The earliest buildings date from the 17th century, but most of them are reconstructed. The original Old Town and New Town were built in the early 1400s, but pretty much all of the buildings were destroyed by time or the Nazis. Today’s buildings and walls are almost entirely reconstructions from the late 1940s and early 1950s, many using the original bricks found amongst the rubble, painstakingly put together. They’re not exact replicas though – many buildings have subtle improvements while others do not actually cover their original basements (leading to ownership disputes…), and others are decorated in sgraffito that uses 1960s art styles. Initially it was seen as anachronistic, but today the area has its own value and is a UNESCO heritage site.

How to recognise Medieval architecture

In Warsaw, it’s more just a matter of where you are (there are no examples of Medieval architecture outside the Old Town and New Town).

Famous examples

The Royal Castle (parts of it), St John’s Archcathedral, the Barbican, the walls of the Old Town

Mannerist

History

In the early 1600s, Warsaw enjoyed a building boom after becoming Poland’s new capital (technically the capital of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, but that’s another story). Influenced by the Renaissance in Italy, the big architecture movement at the time was Mannerism, now recognised as an early form of Baroque. It was a breakaway from the traditional plainer buildings and tied in with the sense of Poland entering a new lavish era funded by the country’s position as one of Europe’s largest grain exporters.

How to recognise Mannerist architecture

Ornamentation imbues everything, often every surface is covered in figures and patterns, usually taken from nature. Intricate reliefs, plaster faces, cherubim, seraphim, etc. Corner towers are common.

Famous examples

The Royal Castle (has a couple chunks that still date from this period, but it has been rebuilt so many times that it’s only one small section), the Jesuit Church in Old Town, Ujazdowski Palace (also known as CSW)

Baroque

History

The second half of the 1600s was when Baroque hit full swing in Poland. A number of extremely lavish palaces cropped up around Warsaw, not least the massive Wilanow Palace which is still regarded as a rival to the Palace of Versailles. The Royal Castle was given a Baroque flank in its every expanding renovations to show that the seat of power was keeping up with fashion too.

How to recognise Baroque architecture

Fully-formed Mannerism – even more fanciness with none of the indecisiveness. Interiors reek of money, with lots of velvet, damask, tasselled cloth, and marquetry (layers of alternately-coloured wood) – although much of this sort of thing was pilfered by the Swedish when they invaded in the latter half of the 1600s (hence why you’ll see lots of Polish Baroque items in Sweden’s museums).

Famous examples

Ostrogski Palace (home of the Frederic Chopin Museum), Wilanow Palace

Rococo

History

The late Baroque period was marked by the rise of Rococo, a style that took Baroque to new extremes, if anybody thought that was possible.

How to recognise Rococo architecture

The fanciness of Baroque but with much more colour – many Rococo buildings are a warm yellow or pink colour. Also, sloped roofs were popular, usually darker than the facade.

Famous examples

Visitationist Church, Czapski Palace (Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts), Sapieha Palace, Copper-Roof Palace

History

As Warsaw and most of eastern Poland was being swallowed up by the Russian empire at the end of the 18th century, there was a boom in Neoclassical palaces popping up all over the place. The Russians were really into the style and kept adding more of it to Warsaw because of how it harked back to those original great European empires of Greece and Rome.

How to recognise Neoclassical architecture

Columns, domes, porticos and all that other good stuff one might associate with the forums of Ancient Rome. Much plainer than Rococo and in fact a reaction against that style’s lavish complexity.

Famous examples

Belweder Palace, The Presidential Palace, Lazienki Palace (aka The Palace on the Water), Holy Trinity Church, Teatr Wielki (The Great Theatre), Krolikarnia

Military forts

History

During the 19th century, the Russians built around thirty forts around Warsaw to turn the city into a military stronghold. The process began after a failed uprising in 1830 – the Russians built a massive fortress known as the Citadel just north of the New Town especially as a prison for any further rebels, and then began peppering smaller forts around the city in two concentric circles. No other European capital had anything like the fortification transformation Warsaw underwent – it was the Russian empire’s first line of defence in case the Prussians attacked from the West (yes, Germany and Russia liked fighting each other back then too).

How to recognise a military fort

Easily identifiable since they’re usually surrounded by moats, most of Warsaw’s forts have been left in ruins but their red brick edifices are still explorable if you venture off the beaten track. A handful have been completely renovated and are used as venues for concerts, exhibitions, film screenings and other events.

Famous examples

The Citadel, Fort Sokolnickiego, Fort Pilsudski, Fort Bema

Neo-Gothic

History

In the second half of the 19th century, Polish industry was booming. While the city of Lodz to the west of Warsaw was the region’s powerhouse, Warsaw had its own industrial district on the east side of the River Vistula. At the time, Praga was a separate town (it was incorporated into Warsaw proper after WWII) and as it boomed, the Neo-Gothic style was all the rage, particularly its characteristic red bricks

How to recognise Neo-Gothic architecture

arches with pointed peaks, towers, red bricks (often in alternate lines with a lighter colour)

Famous examples

Koneser (and much of the Praga district), the corner of Skorupki and Marszalkowska, 22 Ujazdowski

Beaux-Arts / Eclecticism

History

While Praga was going whole hog with the Neo-Gothic wave, the fancier parts of central Warsaw were becoming transformed by Eclecticism. Eclecticism was the name for Beaux-Arts in Poland – a French architectural movement that influenced civic buildings around the world. Poland was no different, but they seemed to call the movement a more matter-of-fact name (or maybe they didn’t like having the letter x in there!).

How to recognise Eclectic architecture

Classical elements like columns, domes and porticos, all laid out with an eye on symmetry. A rusticated ground floor is pretty much mandatory.

Famous examples

Zacheta, Politechnika, most of the embassies on Aleje Ujazdowskie (these mansions and palaces were all occupied by Nazi officers so they mostly survived WWII)

Early Modernism

History

When Poland regained its independence and reappeared on maps in 1918, there was a flurry of activity as the reborn country sorted out its new government structure. Many palaces and mansions became ministries but fresh buildings appeared that married the Classical styles admired by the previous administration with Modernism, a form of architecture that hadn’t had a chance to take root previously.

How to recognise early Modernism

Function over form hasn’t quite taken hold yet as only glimpses of modernist structures appear within otherwise Classical constructions.

Famous examples

The National Museum, the Ministry of Religion on Sucha (Gestapo HQ during WWII), various ministries on Chalbinski Street

Art Deco

"Dom Pod Orłami" – mój ulubiony budynek w Śródmieściu.

A photo posted by @mazik73 on

History

Warsaw got its first skyscraper in 1931 in the form of The Prudential, an Art Deco building that has still survived until today but only just – it was heavily bombed during WWII and is mostly just a façade today. The Prudential is considered to be a symbol of Warsaw so nobody can quite bring themselves to demolish it and there are schemes in the works to somehow renovate it.

How to recognise Art Deco

streamlined edges, technology motifs, geometric shapes

Famous examples

The Prudential, Dom pod Orlami (“House under the Eagles”), Kino Iluzjon

Neoplasticism

Warsaw: ultimate guide to the city’s mind-bending architecture 4
(Image: Adam Zulawski)

History

As Modernism became more popular in the 1920s and 1930s, Polish architects began putting their own twist on it, heavily influenced by the De Stijl artistic movement in the Netherlands. Known as Neoplasticism, the architecture they came up with emphasised minimal ornamentation and kept to simple and straight lines but avoided symmetry, making each house unique and unpredictable. There is nowhere better to see this than the Saska Kepa neighbourhood, where many of the architects built their own houses, giving themselves full rein to indulge their whimsies, often in every little detail.

How to recognise Neoplasticist architecture

Straight lines with an avoidance of symmetry, resulting in freedom in each facade’s composition, with irregular windows and irregular shapes. Most architects adhered to rules set out by Le Corbusier in the 1920s. Because many were designed for artists, workshops were often incorporated into blueprints, resulting in large windows or conservatories.

Famous examples

much of the Saska Kepa district, one or two examples elsewhere in Zoliborz and Mokotow

Polish mansion style

History

In the 1930s, Zoliborz, the area north of the New Town, was built up, mixing Polish mansion-style villas and Modernism. Villas were popular all over the country during the Baroque period, and every one had a single floor and a portico entrance – even when a family of nobility was poor, they still put a portico up. The villas in Zoliborz were specifically built for military officers, journalists and other middle-class inhabitants – the sections of Zoliborz are even named after these professions.

How to recognise Polish mansion style

a run-down and overgrown villa with grey walls, usually with a portico and porch, surrounded by a garden.

Famous examples

Zoliborz, parts of Wierzbno and Wygledow

Kamienicy / Tenements

Warsaw: ultimate guide to the city’s mind-bending architecture 1
(Image: Adam Zulawski)

History

While Zoliborz was getting its villas in the north, just south of central Warsaw in Mokotow, builders were putting up “kamienicy” for ordinary workers. These were durable and heavily built tenement houses.

How to recognise Kamienicy

Much like tenement houses elsewhere, but with tall ceilings and thick walls. Interiors almost always have parquet flooring.

Famous examples

Mokotow, parts of Srodmiescie

Finnish houses

History

Right in the centre of Warsaw, a stone’s throw from embassies and the Polish houses of parliament (the Sejm), there is a micro-village of wooden houses, seemingly totally out of place. These were quickly-built homes constructed immediately after WWII for people rebuilding Warsaw. Constructed using a unique technique that would ensure their hardiness, they were built in the style of a Finnish village due to the fact they were funded by the Finnish government (Finland had to pay reparations due to an agreement they had with the Nazis to stop them getting invaded). There’s a similar area in Jelonki, a northwest suburb, built by the Russian government – based on the Finnish homes that were already in the city, this new village was for the Russian workers that arrived in the early 1950s to build Stalin’s “gift” to Poland: the Palace of Culture and Science. Amusingly, this area in Jelonki’s name, “Osiedle Pryzjazn,” is translated as “Friendship Housing Estate”

How to recognise Finnish houses

They’re only in two areas for a start, Jelonki in Bemowo and next to the Sejm, but their single-floor wooden constructions are unmistakeable. Both areas are utterly surreal to walk around and seem totally out of place in a modern capital city. Make sure you visit them soon though – Warsaw’s mayor’s office may tear these historic places down to make space for something new and much uglier.

Socialist-realism

History

When Stalin rigged the elections in 1947 and the Communists muscled their way into Poland, the powerful Russian aesthetics of socialist-realism came with them, otherwise known as Stalinist architecture.

How to recognise Socialist-realist architecture

With its insistence on imposing upon the ordinary person, Stalinist architecture takes classical forms but then tries to make them scary instead of aesthetically pleasing. It’s all grey brick and big chunky ornamentation. Interiors are similar to Art Deco but much colder, with every surface seemingly marble. Roads built in this style were always needlessly wide for all the marches soldiers and other obedient citizens were made to do.

Famous examples

The Palace of Culture and Science (aka PKIN), MDM (the area around Constitution Square), Warsaw Philharmonic Hall

Functionalism

History

Warsaw’s infrastructure needed to be rebuilt after WWII, so the city’s overseers went with Functionalism for the main stations. It didn’t have the fanciness, nor the expense, of Stalinist architecture and instead emphasised, as the name implies, what function the building actually served. The architects had trained before the war so they had a 1930s aesthetic that was similar in many ways to Neoplasticism, but this time there was more playing around with geometric shapes. They are only a handful of other buildings left in this style.

How to recognise mid-century modernism / functionalism

Buildings based on big shapes, no ornamentation. Feels a bit like you’re standing around the set of a 1970s sci-fi film.

Famous examples

Central Station, Powisle Station, Ochota Station

Mid-century Modernism

History

While mid-century Modernism took off around the world, Poland got a much cheaper version of it that stayed within communist budgets. Buildings would often take a decade to be built thanks to the large amounts of bureaucracy and poor movement of resources. Either way, plain residential blocks sprung up around the city with thin walls and dodgy plumbing. Many were made using pre-fabricated units and looked identical to each other – many inhabitants ended up being unable to find their own home because they all looked the same! Reviled at the time, these old “panelaks” or “bloks” have become fashionable in recent times due to their supposed retro allure. Shops and other buildings were also pieced together using cheap Modernist methods, such as the cavernous furniture store that currently houses the Museum of Modern Art on Panska Street and the iconic Rotunda near Centrum station.

How to recognise mid-century modernism

If it’s a big old greying block of flats, then bingo. Other buildings might have steel frames and large windows along with a penchant for pebbledash surfaces.

Famous examples

Smolna 8, Rotunda PKO, Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej w Warszawie (Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw)

International style

History

Despite the bland Modernism that predominated the later communist era, there was the occasional impressive build. Most notably Centrum LIM, popularly just referred to as the Marriot Hotel, which was constructed from 1987 to 1989 and is one of the few examples where foreign companies were given license to build in the communist state. The resultant skyscraper was in the International style, a glossy form of Modernism popular in New York from the 1930s onwards. Many of these new taller builds were close to the Palace of Culture and Science in an attempt to stop that reminder of Stalinism from dominating Warsaw’s skyline, a tradition that continues to this day.

How to recognise International architecture

Glossy functional forms and regular patterned lines. Lots of glass but no ornamentation. Slick and corporate.

Famous examples

Oxford Tower, Intraco 1, Centrum LIM

High-Tech

History

After 1989, Poland was a free country again and ever since it has wanted to show off that it’s an international city. Cue famous international architects getting a look-in and cutting edge designs that marry new technology with aesthetics: High-Tech. There are some bright spots like Norman Foster’s Metropolitan building in Pilsudski Square, but others are less fondly looked upon – in Lower Mokotow around Domanieweska Street there is a swathe of High-Tech office buildings that is less-than-lovingly referred to as Mordor

How to recognise high tech architecture

It looks like the future (at least, it does today). Lots of glass.

Famous examples

The Metropolitan, Cosmopolitan Twarda, Mordor

Post-Modernism

History

Melding different ideas comes naturally to Poland, a country with centuries of history where conflicting ideas and people would mix freely, so Post-Modernism suits it well. Planning permission is notoriously difficult to get in Poland but once a project has been given the green light, the developers are free to do pretty much anything they want. This contrary attitude at least lends itself to creativity if surrounding residents aren’t happy – for example, when the Intercontinental Hotel was being built, the architects took a huge chunk out of the bottom of the design to allow neighbours to get more sunshine, resulting in a massive stilt-like leg holding up half the skyscraper. Meanwhile the University of Warsaw Library (aka BUW) houses a huge library behind malachite-green walls emblazoned with giant famous texts, all covered by a dazzling roof garden – it doesn’t make much sense but it is rather beautiful.

How to recognise Post-Modernist architecture

Structures based on themes (like sound waves and sails for Zlota 44), often mixing architectural styles for the fun of it or genuine deeper meaning (such as the cavernous slice taken out of POLIN that represents the missing part of Poland’s Jewish history)

Famous examples

Zlote Tarasy (Golden Terraces shopping centre), Zlota 44, TVP headquarters on Woronicza, Intercontinental Hotel, POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, BUW (University of Warsaw Library)

Warsaw: ultimate guide to the city’s mind-bending architecture was last modified: June 26th, 2019 by Adam Zulawski