Poland may not be a country that is at the top of most people’s bucket lists but after our recent visit to the capital city of Warsaw, we were pleasantly surprised at just how much there was to do there. When you think about a city like Warsaw, it’s inevitable that the rich history throughout this city will be high on the list of things to do. During our 48 hours in Warsaw, we had the opportunity to explore much of the “Old Town” which is what we will primarily focus on during this post. Hopefully, you will be inspired to add Warsaw to your list of European cities worth visiting in the near future.
Warsaw, just like the rest of Poland, suffered many years of turmoil during the war years but one thing that is noticeable today is how much this city has embraced this history and uses it to promote everything that we can experience today. Although the majority of our time was spent in the “old” part of Warsaw, we stayed at the gorgeous Hilton Warsaw hotel in the heart of the “modernized” city which provided a nice contrast between the two areas.
Our European adventure through the Baltic States started in Poland and Warsaw was a typical example of cities we would experience later in the trip, with the distinctive blend of “old vs new” epitomized through the architecture and cultural norms that could be found everywhere we visited. If you have seen our post on amazing European monuments, Warsaw can certainly argue that they should have a number in this collection. It’s an architects dream to explore this beautiful city.
The focus of this post is to highlight how you can experience the very best of Warsaw in just a couple of days. Whether you are intrigued by the thought of sampling local Polish cuisine or simply want to embrace all of the history throughout this city, Warsaw is a place you will likely want to return to in the future after enjoying a brief visit here.
Where to Stay in Warsaw?
Just like every other city in Europe, Warsaw is blessed with a number of accommodation options to meet every budget. We stayed at the gorgeous Hilton Warsaw Hotel and Convention Center in the heart of the business district in the city.
This was an extremely affordable option while also offering the luxury amenities associated with the Hilton brand.
Located close to headquarters for Samsung and other global corporations, it’s perfectly situated next to public transportation networks (metro, bus, tram) but also just a short walk (approximately 30 minutes) from the Old Town.
Here are some other alternatives you can consider if you are looking for something situated in the heart of Old Town or other spots around Warsaw.
48 Hours in Warsaw Itinerary
Although we would all love to stay longer in places that we visit, the reality is that due to time constraints we have to make the most of our time everywhere we travel. A visit to Warsaw was no different so here is a recommended itinerary of the best things to do during your 48 hours in the Polish capital. If you are fortunate to have longer, don’t worry, there are plenty of other attractions that will likely spark your interest.
The beauty of visiting Poland is that there are plenty of other cities and attractions that you may consider for a day trip. If you have any experience (or have read our travel around Europe using Eurail post!) using the train in Europe, you will know this is a great way to get around.
Day trips to the Auschwitz concentration camps, Krakow, Gdansk, and Katowice are intriguing prospects but for now, let’s focus on why we found Warsaw to be such an attractive city worth visiting.
- Explore Old Town – Old Town Market Place and Castle Square
- Warsaw Barbican
- Presidential Palace
- Fryderyk Chopin Museum
- Warsaw Uprising Monument
- Łazienki Palace
- Chopin Statue
- Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
- St. John’s Archcathedral
- Nicolaus Copernicus Monument and Staszic Palace
Old Town Market Place and Castle Square
If you are looking for the heart of Warsaw’s history, head to Old Town Market Place (Rynek Starego Miasta) and surround yourself with architecture dating back to the late 13th century. Castle Square is perhaps equally infamous and together, they offer the perfect opportunity to experience Warsaw’s iconic heritage.
Many of the original Gothic style houses and buildings were destroyed during the great fire of 1607, after which they were rebuilt with a Renaissance style in the late 17th century.
However, the real history of the Old Town Square is associated with the Invasion of Poland in 1939. When the German Luftwaffe destroyed much of this area during the Warsaw Uprising, it wasn’t until the 1950s when this part of the city was reconstructed.
It’s interesting to note that during this period, the decision was made to continue the architectural style of the 17th century, so today we can still embrace what life was like during this period.
The Old Town Market Place is also characterized by four unique sides named after 18th-century Polish parliamentarians. Today, visitors to Warsaw can not only embrace the history throughout the square but also visit a myriad of restaurants, souvenir shops, and bars that epitomize the heartbeat of the city.
When I was reading the tourist guide on Warsaw, I noticed that the Old Town is referenced quite eloquently in the following:
a labyrinth of winding cobblestone streets, ornate tenement facades and picturesque plazas
I think this perfectly summarizes why this city should quickly become a popular destination for visitors, though I think it’s fair to say it already is!
When you think that at the end of the Warsaw Uprising, 85% of Warsaw’s structures were destroyed or seriously damaged and half of the city’s population had perished, it’s an amazing transformation to see how this city has recovered.
Castle Square is just a short walk from here and offers equally spectacular scenes with gorgeous architecture and a rich history that you cannot help but appreciate.
The Warsaw Barbican is a semicircular fortified outpost located in Old Town that dates back to the mid-16th century when it was constructed. Just like most other parts of the city, the Barbican has a rich and tragic history, particularly during the Second World War when the majority of this construction was destroyed during the Siege of Warsaw (1939) and Warsaw Uprising (1944).
In 1656, the Barbican was used for the only time in its long history in the defense of Warsaw when Swedish troops invaded and the Poles resisted the attack. Taking a stroll along the remaining fortification walls that surround the Barbican is definitely an eye-opening experience and gives visitors the opportunity to reflect on what life was once like here.
Unlike cities such as York and Chester in England that have maintained the fortified walls surrounding the city, Warsaw has only preserved a small number of these fortifications but the Barbican is definitely a great example worth exploring.
Although history suggests there was no “practical” use of the Barbican, it has always served as an iconic attraction in the city because of its unique design and more recently, because of it being one of the only remaining relics of fortifications that once surrounded the city.
When you walk along the Krakowskie Przedmieście Street in Warsaw, you cannot help but notice the spectacular Presidential Palace. The appearance we see today has been in place since the 19th century when a major renovation took place but the palace dates back to 1643 when it was originally designed with a Baroque style.
The Presidential Palace was one of the distinctive constructions in Warsaw that were not destroyed during the defense of the city in 1939 or during the Warsaw Uprising after the end of World War II.
Since 1994, the Presidential Palace has been the official seat of the President of Poland and is understandably a majestic sight that will leave you in awe as you continue your journey exploring Warsaw’s Old Town.
Fryderyk Chopin Museum
When it comes to iconic figures in Poland’s history, there are not many that are more popular than “Warsaw’s favorite son,” Fryderyk Chopin. This 19th-century Polish composer not only has the international airport named after him but also can lay claim to having a vodka named after his rich heritage.
Anyone visiting Warsaw will surely want to learn more about Chopin and what better place to do this than by visiting the state of the art Chopin Museum in the heart of the city. Officially opened in 2010, this museum features over 5,000 exhibits along with an interactive experience for all the family to enjoy.
Covering four floors located inside the gorgeous Ostrogski Palace, the Chopin Museum is the place to go to enjoy a comprehensive collection of artifacts that will help depict the life of this iconic composer. Europe has been blessed to have many historic musicians and Chopin certainly falls into the category alongside the likes of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach among many others.
Warsaw Uprising Monument
As you wander around this beautiful city, you will likely stumble across a myriad of gorgeous monuments, all of which have a rich history behind them. This is particularly true with the Warsaw Uprising Monument. For those of you that don’t have enough time during your visit to Warsaw to head over to the Warsaw Uprising Museum, the monument is a perfect way to learn a little more about the tragedies associated with this event in 1944.
The monument comprises two different aspects. The larger monument depicts a group of insurgents actively engaged in battle while the smaller highlights how insurgents descended into a manhole to escape the battlefield.
Sculpted by Wincenty Kućma and completed in 1989, the Warsaw Uprising Monument is located on the southern side of Krasiński Square, just a short walk from the Barbican.
One of Warsaw’s most popular attractions is located inside the city’s largest park, Royal Baths Park, occupying over 76 hectares of Warsaw. Łazienki Palace, more commonly referred to as “The Palace on the Island” is a classicist palace dating back to the late 17th-century. Not only is this a spectacular architectural design, the location of this former bathhouse is what attracts so much attention from visitors to Warsaw.
During World War II, the Nazis had intentions of destroying this palace and actually drilled holes in the walls in preparation for the destruction. However, fortunately, this never materialized and today we have the opportunity to admire this gorgeous structure.
Visitors to the Royal Baths Park will not only be intrigued by the Palace on the Island, they will also likely want to head over to the upper part of this rural space to enjoy the gorgeous Chopin Statue. This bronze statue was designed in 1907 and finally completed in 1926.
It’s likely to be no surprise when you hear that this Chopin Statue was unfortunately destroyed during World War II. I hope you are not painting a picture in your mind as to the incredible destruction that took place throughout Warsaw. Seeing all these monuments and structures that have been transformed and renovated is a real credit to the city.
The Chopin Statue that we can see today was completed in 1958 and depicts Chopin sitting in the heart of this park next to a willow tree. Whether you visit during the day or after dark, this is a relaxing spot to take a moment to reflect on not only Chopin’s legacy but also the history throughout the city.
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Anyone visiting Warsaw should head over to Piłsudski Square to pay their respects to the unknown Polish soldiers that lost their lives fighting for their country. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a monument dedicated to these Polish soldiers and an eternal flame can frequently be seen here.
Depending on the day that you visit, you may have the opportunity to enjoy a service commemorating this monument and all of the soldiers.
We felt fortunate to experience a military commemoration and also the Changing of the Guard that occurs every hour daily, 365 days of the year!
St. John’s Archcathedral
In terms of historical significance throughout Poland, there are not many spots more impressive than St. John’s Archcathedral in the heart of the Old Town. As the burial site of many iconic Polish figures, this center of religious life in Warsaw is an incredible sight both on the outside along with the moment you walk inside.
Whether you are an avid architecture aficionado that will drool over the intricate details of this structure or perhaps you want to enjoy the relaxing sound of the huge pipe organ that plays an integral role in this cathedral, you cannot help but be impressed by this majestic structure.
The gorgeous facade overlooking the narrow, winding streets of Old Town provide a perfect backdrop for visitors exploring this part of Warsaw. Although this is primarily a place of worship for Catholics in Warsaw, this cathedral is open daily with free entrance.
Nicolaus Copernicus Monument
Another of Poland’s historic figures is Nicolaus Copernicus, an astronomer prevalent in formulating models of the universe that placed the Sun rather than the Earth in the center in the late 15th and early 16th-century. In front of the Staszic Palace in Warsaw is a monument of Copernicus that dates back to 1830 when it was completed after being designed by Bertel Thorvaldsen in 1822.
This bronze statue of Copernicus depicts him holding a compass and armillary sphere. During the Warsaw Uprising, the Germans made the decision to melt it down and moved it to a town in southwestern Poland. However, before they had time to “melt” this structure, they were forced to retreat and Polish authorities were able to recapture this monument and bring it back to Warsaw in 1945. Following renovations, it was later unveiled again in 1949.
On the east face of the pedestal is a Latin inscription, “Nicolo Copernico Grata Patria” which literally translated means, “To Nicolaus Copernicus from a Grateful Nation.” A similar inscription can be found on the opposite side but in Polish!
If you only have a few days in Warsaw, you can still experience a lot of the history and culture that will certainly make you want to return to learn more. Warsaw is understandably a city that has gone through a lot over the years and to see this city today is a real credit to a nation that went through a number of tragedies.
The Warsaw Uprising in 1944 caused more devastation than we can ever imagine and just taking a stroll around the city and reflecting on this is certainly a moving experience.
Warsaw may not be the first city you think about visiting on your next European adventure but we would urge you to consider adding this to your itinerary. We look forward to having the opportunity to return in the near future, along with heading out to other parts of Poland to see how they have recovered from such a tragic history.