Crossroads of History

Warsaw is a thriving modern city with a storied past

By: Barbara Staszewski

If Warsaw still conjures up images of a backward East European capital, then you haven’t been to Warsaw lately. In the past few years, the capital has quietly transformed itself into a vibrant modern city a business- and tourist-friendly destination on a par with any major city in Europe.

Western companies are investing and stamping their mark on the city. One obvious result of this is the number of hotel chains now operating in the capital. Holiday Inn, Marriott, Novotel and Mercure, among others are establishing themselves in Warsaw, providing the business or leisure traveler with ample choice for accommodations for all budget types.

But even as Warsaw looks West, it doesn’t seem to be at risk of losing its “Polishness.”

It’s no surprise then that Varsovians gathered at the historical Old Town Square a place that has seen its share of change to celebrate the vote to join the E.U. in 2004, which will mark yet another momentous change for the country.

The Old Town Square, or Rynek Starego Miasta, is also an ideal place to start one’s visit of Warsaw because it encapsulates the scope of Poland’s troubled history. The square was laid out in the 15th century, destroyed to rubble in World War II, but restored brick by brick by the Poles to its prewar state.

In its current reincarnation, the Old Town enjoys a UNESCO World Heritage site and is perhaps the liveliest part of Warsaw, with restaurants and bars, boutiques and art galleries. The square is adorned with colorful facades and apartments, and the cobbled streets are usually bustling with musicians and artists. The streets leading up to the square in the Old Town showcase buildings built in Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque style. “It is an outstanding example of a near-total reconstruction of a span of history covering the 13th to the 20th century,” according to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.

Beyond Old Town, one finds reminders of the other, darker eras of Warsaw’s past as in the Warsaw Ghetto. And near the area known as New Town, one finds the massive two-part monument to the Warsaw uprising of 1944, commemorating the attempt by Polish military and citizens to push the Nazis out of Warsaw.

West of Old Town, modern skyscrapers are sprouting along the skyline in the form of office buildings and hotels. The heart of the modern city seems to beat strongest at the intersection of Ulica Marszalkowska and Aleje Jerozolimskie streets, which meet at the Rondo Dmowskiego (traffic circle), where daily life somehow intersects with the past, present and future. There’s the Palace of Culture to one side, a discreet monument to Poles killed by the Nazis on the other. This place is also a major shopping and transportation hub, with street trams, buses and the north-south metro line at the intersection.

With places in Poland such as Krakow and Zakopane, Warsaw perhaps may have a harder time competing for the more than 84 million tourists that visit the country every year. But to gain a real sense of Poland’s rich and tumultuous history, you really don’t even have to leave Warsaw.

Polish National Tourist Office: www.poland