Perhaps the only constant quality of Warsaw is change. It is remarkable how often—and how quickly—Poland’s capital rebuilds and reinvents itself over time. Though in the past this reinvention was involuntary, the city having been invaded and destroyed several times over the ages, Warsaw now continues to metamorphose quite well on its own. To today’s young Varsovians—and visitors alike—World War II may seem like ancient history, but it is impossible to forget that some 85% of the city was utterly destroyed in the war. The “phoenix from the ashes” label fits no other modern European city more than Warsaw.
In decades immediately after World War II, Poland’s capital was often—and rather unjustly—dismissed as “concrete jungle” or “a life-size model of a city.” Now well into the 21st century, both these phrases simply no longer apply. Warsaw will consistently surprise you: you may find yourself in a beautiful park wondering whether you are in a city at all; but go just a bit farther, and you will be confronted by a brand-new, tech-and-chic skyscraper you would not necessarily envisage in the country from the former Soviet bloc. Warsaw is a modern, thriving metropolis, with everything you’d expect in a bustling urban environment: plush five-star hotels, a thriving arts scene, top-notch contemporary architecture, gourmet restaurants, and upmarket shops. It’s worthy of the label “European capital” as much as Berlin, Paris, or Rome.
And yet it is more than a fashionable modern city: it is a city with a memory—or rather with multiple, carefully preserved memories. Within today’s Warsaw, you will find the city of Chopin’s youth; and the city that resisted the Nazis in 1944 during the heroic, tragic Warsaw Uprising. Fragments of the city that survived the war acquire a special poignancy in their isolation: odd rows of Art Nouveau tenements, such as those on the south side of the great square around the Pałac Kultury i Nauki (Palace of Culture and Science) and on ulica Wilcza; the elegant Aleje Ujazdowskie, now the Diplomatic Quarter, leading to the Belvedere Palace and the Łazienki Palace and Park. The reconstructed areas of the Polish capital—the historic Old Town area, rebuilt brick by brick in the 1950s; the Royal Castle; the Ujazdowski Castle—are moving tributes to the Poles’ ability to survive and preserve their history.
There are many areas where the city slows down its pace. The right-bank district of Praga, until recently regarded as an “off-limits” area, is now a fashionable bohemian hang-out. The wild, unregulated Vistula River is lined with surprisingly nice city beaches. The city’s abundant green space will allow you to walk the length and breadth of town practically from park to park. Warsaw is a city that deserves to be loved; it’s definitely a city to enjoy.