Without question, Stare Miasto (the "Old City") and Nove Miasto (the "New City") are the primary draws for tourists to Warsaw. Although they are named as "Old" and "New", they really are both "old". Stare Miasto is older by a few centuries, but combined they are the oldest part of town, dating back to the days of the great Polish kings. Beautifully reconstructed and colorful, they are the must-see-and-do spots in the Polish capital.
These two districts are located along a ridgeline overlooking the Vistula River, although you really can't see the river from there. Stare Miasto can be reached by following Al. Solidarnosci (Solidarity Street) from the center of town. The end of the street deposits you at the scene of the first picture -- the Royal Castle. The bright red Royal Castle was recently reconstructed and turned into a museum, which includes the Royal Apartments (among the most ornate and brilliant I've seen), throne rooms, and ballrooms. One particularly interesting room contains busts and portraits of all the kings that resided in the Castle with placards describing some of their achievements. The Castle hosts other cultural events during the year, such as concerts and special art exhibits.
A lot surrounds the Castle. The huge plaza ('rynek') you see also hosts a tall column, upon which is placed the statue of King Sigismund III, one of Poland's earlier (and better reknowned) kings. The Tourist Information Bureau is nearby as well, located across a red-brick bridge facing the Royal Way to the south. Meanwhile, the rest of Stare Miasto is to the north.
From the front of the Castle, you will see the old city walls wrapping around Stare Miasto in a circle. Among the walls are several memorials to famous Polish warriors or kings, and the base of the wall hosts a museum dedicated to medieval torture. If that isn't quite your bag, then perhaps you would prefer to follow the cobblestone roads inside the Miasto to the main market square (Rynek Starego Miasta), shown in the second picture.
This square is the center of activity in Warsaw. Surrounding by brightly colored buildings and hosting a number of cafes and restaurants, Starego Miasta always seem jam packed with people even when the sun wasn't out. The sculpture you see in the center right of the picture is the Polish Mermaid Statue, whose significance I didn't get a chance to figure out, I'm afraid, but is of a mermaid wielding a curved saber and carrying a shield (not quite Hans Christian Andersen, is it?) On the way to the square, you are likely to pass by several minor attractions -- such as the old city church bell and St. John's Cathedral that holds the remains of various Polish nobles.
Further along, you will encounter Barbican Gate, shown in the third photo. The Barbican Gate played a role in several significant events in Warsaw's history, such as when Napoleon's forces conquered Warsaw in the 19th Century. The brightness and pristine condition of the gate should tell you it is not original. Indeed, little of the city wall is original now. This Gate was rebuilt very recently, and when I traveled there a host of workers were busily repairing the rest of the wall.
The Barbican Gate bridges Stare Miasto and Nove Miasto further to the north. Nove Miasto's main road, Freta Street, is a long cobblestone street with a number of stores and restaurants of its own. I found these places to be noticeably less expensive, but no less quality, than those in Stare Miasto, so don't feel compelled to buy the first thing you see.
Nove Miasto has its own main square, the considerably plainer Nowego Miasta, shown in the fourth photo with its accompanying byzantine-style church. Don't let the lack of people discern you, the photo was taken in the early morning hours.
Several things struck me about Nove Miasto. One was the clearly Venetian influence -- as seen in the colorful murals on several of the houses, and the style of columns on some of the newer buildings. The other was the density and variety of churches. I remarked how deeply religious the Poles are, but even I had difficulty imagining that there were enough parishioners for the dozen or so churches concentrated in a mere few city blocks. But I swear, every day at 1800, when daily Mass was held, thousands of local faithful flocked to these churches to pray. I was absolutely astounded.
At the northern end are a couple attractions worth your attention. One of them is the battle memorial shown in the final photo, called the Postana Warsawskiego, located across the street from Krasinskich Palace. This commemorates a rather dark episode in 20th Century Poland, when thousands of Polish militia were slaughtered by the Nazi invaders. The large formation at right shows Poles who were hiding in the sewers, emerging to fight the Nazis presumably with Russian assistance -- but when the Russians failed to reach the city on time, the emerging soldiers were easily defeated.
Despite being a relatively compact area, Stare and Nove Miasta will require almost a day to fully explore among themselves. You could spend hours just marveling at the architecture and soaking in the atmosphere at the market squares, and certainly when you dine in one of the restaurants, you'll want to do so leisurely. If you do nothing else in Warsaw, you'll do no wrong by spending your time here.
Trip taken 4-5 July 2002 -- Page last updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2002 Tom Galvin