Although the Śródmieście,or city centre (a prime area) occupies only 3 percent of Warsaw, it packs a distinctive cultural punch. It’s got the most art galleries, museums, theatres, and historic buildings in the city. Its many public parks include the magnificently massive Lazienki Park.
Here you’ll find an unmistakable landmark, the Palace of Culture and Science. Erected by Joseph Stalin in the 1950s, it continues to draw forth ambiguous emotions from locals and tourists alike. “A notorious example of Socialist Realism” is one of the kinder comments. It’s still Warsaw’s tallest building. An old joke goes that the best views of Warsaw are available from the building: it is the only place in the city from where it cannot be seen.
As an antidote, the Library of the Warsaw University offers an engrossing study in modern design with its impressive façade. It’s a meeting place for international and local events in sports and culture. A major section has even been declared a UN World Heritage site: the Old Town and the Royal Route.
Śródmieście serves as the home address of many government offices, corporate offices, banks, embassies, colleges and universities, including the Office of the President, the two parliamentary houses and the Warsaw Stock Exchange. Many international firms have their Polish head offices in the former Jewish ghetto district. Within the past decade luxury hotels and modern flats have been cropping up here, especially in the Centrum, the central business district. The district has the highest number of senior citizens in the capital, as well as its fair share of restored old flats in classically designed buildings.
This busy and thriving district features Warsaw’s busiest street, Marszalkowska. At its intersection with Jerozolimskie are cultural centres, shops, cafés, restaurants, sports and leisure facilities. The street borders the pretty Saxon Gardens, featuring tree-lined avenues, a lovely fountain and Baroque sculptures.
The district is most famous for its historical treasures, especially in its oldest quarters, Stare Miasto (Old Town) and Nowe Miasto (New Town), both of which were heavily damaged during the war and then painstakingly reconstructed afterwards.
Stare Miasto (Old Town)
Stare Miasto is the oldest part of Warsaw. Its Old World, fairytale beauty makes it one of the top places to visit in the city. The stately Royal Castle is the jewel of the old quarter. Set in the middle of Castle Square (Plac Zamkowy), it remains the official site for greeting important visitors and holding national meetings.
Rising from cobbled streets are medieval buildings like Warsaw’s oldest church, St. John’s Cathedral. They surround the Market Place, or Rynek, a popular tourist hub filled with stores and restaurants, with a mermaid statue in the centre. It also has an exciting nightlife scene, featuring outdoor cafés and open-air concerts. The Royal Route is a broad avenue heading towards Stare Miasto, serving as an ancient link between the palaces in Wilanów and Łazienki, and an hour’s stroll already provides a decent history lesson about Poland.
Nowe Miasto New Town
North of Stare Miasto is Nowe Miasto, two centuries younger but still one of the oldest parts of Warsaw. Many old houses, churches and commercial buildings have been restored to their former beauty. Providing a contrast is Stalin’s Palace of Culture and Science, built in the 1950s, and next door is a stunning shopping mall with a glass dome.
The birthplace of Marie Curie on Freta Street is now a museum. Another attraction is the 17th century Krasiński Palace. The New Town Market Square, which is actually triangular in shape, is surrounded by restored 18th century buildings. At the western end is a modern housing complex based on the area’s historical network of small streets.
Shaped in the 17th century by a Venetian architect who named the neighbourhood after the Italian island of Murano, Muranów became an infamous Jewish ghetto during World War II. After the 1943 Warsaw Uprising, the entire district was damaged by the Nazis, and the Soviets restored the housing estate with social-realist architecture. Today it is a quiet district, its houses and buildings interspersed with green spaces and trees. The residents are proud of their subdistrict’s crowning glory, the Kino Muranów, a movie house for art films.
One of Poland’s best shopping centres, the Arkadia Shopping Mall, and the traditional indoor market, Hala Mirowska, are in Muranów.
A former working-class neighbourhood at the edge of the Old Town, Powisle suffered near total destruction in the Warsaw Uprising. The Mariensztat area was the first section to be restored by the Soviets in the late 1940s, designed to be a model of communist urban planning. This postcard-pretty housing estate features low-rise buildings with balconies and 18th century-style facades, surrounded by winding roads and cosy parks.
At the small main square is the Barylka, Warsaw’s oldest pub. The new Warsaw University Library and other campus facilities make the residential neighbourhood relatively quiet and laid-back compared to other parts of Warsaw. The Library’s rooftop gardens offer a great view of the nearby Vistula River.