World Facts Index > Poland > Warsaw

There are many cities - such as Paris, Budapest and New York - where individual districts are known for specific traits, and these play a major role in defining the city's character. Warsaw was once the same (and it may well be again) but at the moment the city's districts are in the process of renewal and modernization. How they will end up is anyone's guess, but the pace of development and change is very rapid.

Warsaw's districts suffered along with the rest of the city's inhabitants during the dark days of the Second World War. Completely flattened, most of the city was rebuilt at about the same speed and at roughly the same time, with architectural styles and trends appearing in every district simultaneously.

Starting from the north, on the main side of the river, Warsaw has three main districts. They are Zoliborz (the most northerly), Centrum and Mokotow. The other side of the river (the east side) is referred to in its entirety as Praga. Within these areas, there are some fifty or so smaller districts, whose nooks and crannies are usually only known by long-time locals. Some of the smaller areas are worth a specific mention though, and will be pointed out later.

Zoliborz, often called 'green Zoliborz', suffered less than the other districts during the war. In fact, this is where many of the participants of the failed Warsaw Uprising escaped to (using the sewer system) once they realized all hope was lost. In certain parts it retains a peaceful suburban atmosphere, with interesting-looking houses and groups of flats surrounding parks and open spaces. Zoliborz is also home to the grave of the now world-famous priest, Jerzy Popieluszko, who was murdered by the police in 1984. Old Zoliborz meets new Zoliborz at plac Wilsona, which under Communism was officially known as the 'Square of the Paris Commune'. However, none of the locals ever called it that: to taxi drivers and residents it always remained Wilson Square. Zoliborz is an extremely pleaseant neighbourhood with its large parks and leafy tree-lined streets.

The Centrum, or downtown district is a hive of activity. There is much of interest to the tourist here, in the smaller area of Srodmiescie and it is also here that the city's history becomes apparent. Marszalkowska Street, built in 1757, meets Jerozolimskie, at what could be called Poland's main crossroads. The opera, theatres, shops and restaurants can all be found here. This is also where you will find Old Town and the New Town (districts themselves), the Royal Way, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and some of the finest hotels such as the Bristol. This is also where the now vanished Jewish district used to be, replaced by what is are now known as Muranow and Mirow which are both full of broad leafy streets and solid Socialist Realist apartment blocks.

Continuing south, the next district is Mokotow. This large area has several different feels to it: there are still some beautiful pre-war mansions standing (now occupied by businesses or embassies), as well as some typically Socialist rows of dull gray appartment blocks. There are also large areas of green, including large parks that interconnect. Access to the city's single subway line is also here.

Praga, on the east side of the river, is infamous as being the place where the Soviet Red Army sat and waited while the Poles attempted to rise up and defeat the Germans. Only when the uprising had been completely crushed and the city razed to the ground did the Red Army cross the Wisla.

Praga has a slightly dubious reputation, (for crime, dangerous streets, the Mafia, car theft and so on) although this is due in large part to only a few small areas, which themselves have improved dramatically in the last few years. The area of Saska Kepa is an upper-class haven running down to the riverbanks. Its narrow tree-lined streets (formerly the residences of Tsarist ministers) are home to many diplomats, embassies, international schools and so on.

Ursynow is another area that has gained a degree of infamy: it is a massive and sprawling example of Socialist planning: it began life as block after characterless block of gray, dull flats. However, this area too is changing with the times: new shops and services are opening up, cinemas and entertainment complexes have arrived, restaurants and community centers are active and busy and there are plenty new schools. This once depressingly gray and dull area is finally coming to life, and it's future looks bright, especially since the metro cuts right through it.

Running alongside Ursynow, beside the river, is Wilanow. Most visitors to Warsaw will want to come out here to visit the renowned Royal Palace, built in the style of Versailles. The area around Wilanow is picturesque, especially the roads that lead down to the Wisla.

In a sense you really have to be a local to appreciate the subtleties that distinguish many of Warsaw's districts. With time, they are slowly taking on new character. However, Warsaw's districts were a causalty of the Second World War. As the city begins its rapid development, its districts are coming back to life. Witnessing them slowly transform is part of what makes Warsaw such an interesting place.

History of Warsaw

Warsaw lies at the crossroads of Europe. The city sits, peering over the Wisla, halfway between Paris and Moscow.

At the moment this central location is helping to build the capital up again - Warsaw is developing at breakneck speed. Skyscrapers seem to appear virtually overnight and the signs of renovation, modernization and renewal are evident everywhere.

However, being at Europe's crossroads has not always been an advantage. Warsaw has often paid a heavy price for its location. Its reasons for being a great city are also what caused it to be completely destroyed in the recent past.

The current population is around 2.6 million people (taking the neighboring suburban areas into account. However, at the end of the Second World War - the largest single contributing factor to the city's current appearance - the capital was practically a ghost town.

Archeologists have uncovered evidence of human settlement along the east side of the Wisla from as far back as 10 000 years ago. Nevertheless, it wasn't until 1289 that the town is first mentioned in records: at that time there was settlement on both sides of the river.

The name of the city is said to be derived from the names of two lovers - Wars and Sawa - who met and fell in love here. Another more likely story is that it comes from the name of a traditional landlord named Warsz.

In the 14th century, Warsaw is suddenly referred to as a fully-fledged city. No written document has ever been uncovered to explain this sudden transformation. The only logical supposition is that, once again, its position between north, south, east and west made it a popular choice. By 1408, it had grown enough to spill beyond the protective city walls and construction of the New Town began. In 1413, the now famous Old Town Square was created. That same year the city also became a regional capital of Mazowia.

In 1526, Warsaw was incorporated into Poland proper and in 1569 it was chosen (once again because of its central location) to be the seat of the Parliament (or Sejm) of the new Polish-Lithuanian Republic. Not much later, in 1596, King Sigismund III (whose column stands at the entrance to the Old Town) moved the capital to Warsaw from Krakow and the city became the parliamentary, financial and mercantile center of the Republic (which, besides Poland and Lithuania also included Belarus and Ukraine).

In 1648, Warsaw officially expanded over the river, taking in what is now the Praga district into its boundaries. Over the next hundred years it would continue to grow. By the 18th century the capital had become an important cultural and artistic center: Marszalkowska street was opened (1757), the National Theatre held its first performances (1765) and the city was becoming internationally renowned.

Now however, location began to be a negative factor. Other nations more powerful than Poland began to look on it as a possible and highly desirable territorial acquisition. Thus began the period of Poland's partitioning and repartitioning. It started in 1772, and happened again in 1793 and 1795. In the meantime, the Poles themselves (in Warsaw) voted in the second democratic constitution of modern times (after that of the United States). This proved too much for the still very imperial Russians who saw this as a legitimate excuse to invade. By 1795 Poland was gone from the map; the nation no longer existed and Warsaw was no longer a capital.

It wasn't until 1815 that Poland gained back some autonomy, thanks to the Congress of Vienna. Nonetheless Warsaw was still under the domination of the Tsar and the official language of education, diplomacy and so on was Russian. The Poles tried several times to rise up and defeat their stronger foes (the beginnings of a long and bloody uprising tradition in Warsaw) but all attempts failed.

The end of the First World War saw Poland reinstated as an autonomous nation once again and within ten years, Warsaw was a city of one million people. The inter war years were a time of success and growth, but it wasn't to last. In 1939 the German army invaded. Thus began what was to be a long and protracted war.

The Jewish population of some 400 000 people was systematically reduced to practically zero. By 1944 Warsaw lay in ruins, perhaps the most destroyed of any city in the war, with hardly a single building left standing. Entire sections of the once proud capital were left deserted and barren. It would take until 1956 before the population once again reached one million people. The Jewish community has never returned in any great number.

Two things happened at the end of the war which are responsible for how the city looks today: the first, and most important historically, is that the country fell under the control of the USSR. This had a major impact on Warsaw's development and especially on its architecture. Socialist Realism - the new Soviet building style - was given a ruined city to experiment with.

The second factor was the Poles' desire to rebuild the Old Town and other historic areas in an attempt to salvage at least something from their past. This resulted in one of the most amazing reconstruction projects of modern times: the Old Town, reassembled brick by brick, along with the New Town and other historic sites was to be recognized by UNESCO and added to the list of World Heritage Sites in 1980.

By 1989 it was clear that Communism was coming to an end. Warsaw was host to the now famous 'round table' talks in which the government, Solidarity and groups participated. In the elections held that year, Solidarity emerged victorious and Tadeusz Mazowiecki became the first non-Communist prime minister in Eastern Europe.

Investment from the West started to trickle in, but this flow of investment soon became a flood. Warsaw began to boom - and is still booming. With its bizarre mix of historic buildings, massive Socialist Realist structures and shiny new skyscrapers, the city looks sure to become one of Europe's most eclectic and interesting.


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