5 Must-Visit Historical Sites in Warsaw

Once described as the Paris of the East, Warsaw’s wide, leafy boulevards, ornate palaces, and countless theatres were all reduced to ash and rubble in the dying days of WW2. SS Chief Heinrich Himmler instructed his officers in 1944: “The city must completely disappear from the surface of the earth and serve only as a transport station for the Wehrmacht.”

They did their very best to make his wishes a reality. It was not, however, to be. Fate had another outcome in mind. While Himmler and the entire fiendish Nazi regime would be dead and gone by the end of 1945, Warsaw remained. 

Polish people began returning to their capital to rebuild her, brick by brick. From the ruins of war, the city slowly rose again. It is said that Warsaw’s Old Town is a masterpiece of reconstruction, but it is more than that.

The rebuilding and repair of Warsaw is nothing short of being one of the most glorious chapters in the entire history of the Polish nation. It ranks alongside the Battle of Grunwald, the regaining of independence, and the Miracle on the Vistula, as one of Poland’s defining historical events.

Today, Warsaw is as bustling and vibrant as any urban centre you will find across Europe. However, the city’s brush with death, only a generation ago, adds extra poignancy to the city’s historical sites. 

Below, we select 5 of Warsaw’s most fascinating historical sites that go some way towards telling the city’s extraordinary story. 

If our blog inspires you to begin planning your next trip to Poland, consider joining us on one of our Multi-Day Guided WW2 Tours of Poland or WW2 Day Tours in Poland.

Warsaw Old Town during the Warsaw Uprising

The Warsaw Rising Museum

At Poland at War Tours, we explore WW2 history through guided tours of Poland’s war-era sites and war-related museums. There is surely no WW2 museum anywhere that better captures both the senseless tragedy of war and the bravery it can inspire in ordinary people. 

Although the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 did not succeed, it symbolizes, to this very day, the Polish nation’s absolute refusal to be subjugated by Nazi Germany. 

The exterior of the Warsaw Rising Museum is visually striking, located as it is in a former tram power station. Inside, guests are presented with a modern, immersive exhibition that stretches across five floors. 

Given the subject matter, the photographs, archival films, and war-era objects have a powerful effect, bringing home the immense loss the city experienced. And yet, the museum’s very existence is a reminder of who the eventual victors really were. 

Truly a must-visit site for anyone interested in WW2 history. If you’re new to the city, our Warsaw Old Town Walking Tour will make for an ideal place to start.

The Royal Castle, Warsaw

Built in the 16th century, the Royal Castle in Warsaw served as the official residence of the Polish crown from its construction until the final partition of Poland in 1795. 

Originally Gothic in style, the castle was redesigned throughout the 18th century in the Mannerist and Baroque styles popular at the time. 

The Constitution of 3 May 1791 was signed here – the oldest constitution enacted in Europe. During the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, the castle had its heyday, becoming one of the grandest buildings in Europe. 

Following the suppression of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, the building was entirely destroyed by Luftwaffe bombing. However, like the surrounding Old Town, the castle would eventually be rebuilt. 

Completed in 1984, the reconstructed castle is a masterpiece here to be enjoyed by new generations – a building, like Warsaw itself, that is old and new at the same time.

Wander through the castle’s Great Assembly Hall, the King’s Apartments, and the Throne Room to get a sense of how opulent life would have been for a European monarch in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

Of particular interest to WW2 aficionados is the Canaletto Room. The twenty-two 17th-century paintings of Warsaw scenes by Bernardo Bellotto that hang in this room were used by the Warsaw authorities during the reconstruction of the city due to the painter’s extraordinary attention to detail.

The Warsaw Ghetto, 1944

POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Located on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto, the POLIN Museum tells the 1,000-year history of Jews in Poland.

Poland was once home to the largest Jewish community in the world, and the POLIN Museum tells their story from the arrival of the first settlers in the 11th century through to the persecution of Jews during the Nazi and Soviet occupations of WW2. 

The Holocaust and its almost total annihilation of Polish Jews does, of course, imbue this history with a deep sense of sorrow. However, the museum’s creators, from the architects who designed the building to the 120 scholars and curators who prepared its exhibitions, have endeavoured to remind us that the story of Poland’s Jews is more than the tragedy of WW2. 

Particularly moving are the final gallery spaces that tell of a research resurgence in Poland’s Jewish communities – it is a hopeful note to end on, a reminder of evil’s ultimate inability to succeed.

The National Museum, Warsaw

The quintessential big city museum – grand, slightly old-fashioned, without pretension or gimmicks, and utterly charming. 

Developed between 1927 and 1938, the National Museum is one of the few historic buildings in Warsaw that the Nazis did not manage to destroy (though it was damaged). The museum’s collections, though, were heavily looted by the Germans, and over 5,000 objects remain missing to this day.

Today, the National Museum has around 820,000 items within its collections. The permanent display within the main museum ranges from ancient Greek sculptures to medieval Christian art and works of Impressionism. 

Among the greatest treasures on display are paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Botticelli, and Rembrandt. 

Historic Centre of Warsaw

Our final selection is the heart of Warsaw itself: the city’s historic Old Town. 

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980, the historic streets of the Old town are a connection to Warsaw’s glorious past and a symbol of Polish defiance. 

That Polish workmen, architects, and restorers could engineer so successful a rebuilding project during the oppressive years of communist rule in Poland is nothing short of extraordinary. 

It is immensely rewarding to walk through Warsaw’s reconstructed centre, appreciating its architectural splendour and the life that flows through streets that were nothing but rubble in 1944. 

But the profound power of Warsaw’s historic centre rests in its being a manifest response to the nihilism and violence of Fascism – the 1,000-year Reich lasted a mere 12 years while Warsaw will celebrate its millennial birthday a century’s time.

If you have any questions, please get in touch.

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