© Michael Hardenfelt 2012
Latest update October 2018
The Old Town
Though there have been several earlier settlements where Warsaw stands today we reckon the foundation of the town to date back to around 1300 AD. The town was founded by the Duke of Mazowia, and it's location close to the river and on main trade routes was attractive to merchants.
The original street arrangement has been kept more less unchanged until today's date. Through the centuries Warsaw has been devastated by fires, Swedes, Germans and Russians, but each time it has been rebuild, the last time after WWII where the Old Town was reduced to a rubble.
Warsaw was reconstructed again after 1945, and it was decided to rebuild the Old Town in a style from the 17th and 18th century, partly based on old outlines and paintings. The age-old cellars though are more or less unchanged, and where possible the builders have used original fragments from the devastated buildings, which has caused an interesting mix of styles. The ruler-straight walls make it obvious that the buildings are rather new, but even then the architecture gives you a thrilling experience and allows your imagination to move back to ancient times.
Central elements of the Old Town are the Plac Zamkowy with the Royal Castle and the Sigismund Column as well as Rynek (the Town Hall Square) with the Mermaid symbolizing the Town.
Recognizing the reconstruction of the historical churches, palaces and town houses as from 1980 the Old Town has been included on the UNESCO World Heritage list of important culture sites.
Even though the town resembles a museum it is inhabited by normal people, to whom the flats were provided as council housing. Most of them have lived there for ages and have bought the flats from the town for a fraction of their market value. This does help to create an atmosphere of a residential area, but the main part of the passers-by are obviously tourists and school classes being entertained by hordes of street traders and performers who are making the area buzz with energy during the summer time.
The Old Town slopes down towards the Vistula river, but lies that high that it is never exposed to floods.
It doesn't take long to form a general view of the Old Town. you can walk from one end to the other within 10 minutes and you may visit all the streets within a couple of hours.
There is an abundance of bars and restaurants everywhere. Most of them focus on tourists and offer a streamlined selection of drinks, food and service. Prices are quite low though, especially if you compare them to other European city centres (half a litre of Polish draught beer will cost you less than 10 zloty). In general the place is rather empty during the winter, whereas it wakes up during the summer. Warsaw's local citizens also take advantage of the range of opportunities, e.g. "Jazz in the Old Town", which takes place every Saturday during the summer.
The entire Old Town is entirely surrounded by a double town wall, which is mainly a reconstruction. At some points you may see the original gothic walls, which have been marked by a black line to indicate where they start.
Rynek (the Town Hall Square) is the central point of any Polish town, and Warsaw is not an exception. This is where we find the Mermaid symbolizing the town. She sits at the middle of the square ready for to flirt, but also with her sword risen and ready to fight. What is most unusual, you will not find the town hall here, as it was pulled down in 1817, when it was no longer capable of managing the city after an administrative reform in 1791.
Plac Zamkowy (the Palace Square) is also an essential part of the Old Town. This is where we find the re-constructed Royal Castle, beautiful town houses and a view over the Vistula River and the Stadium.
On the road from Plac Zamkowy till Rynek you will be passing the Cathedral, which is situated right beside another fascinating building, namely the Jesuit Church - the Holy Mother of Grace Church.
The Old Town continues into the New Town, which was founded around a hundred years later. The two cities are separated by the town wall and the Barbican fortification.
In my opinion the greatest thing to do in the Old Town is simply to walk around the small streets, enjoy the old bricks and the abundance of details on the buildings. you may find symbols hidden in each object and each wall drawing. you will never learn the history behind it all, but just the fact of wandering and let your imagination to transport back to ancient times will be a great experience.
Press the small icon at the left to see an enlargement without descriptions.
Behind the Kanonia Square and Rynek we find "the Rubbish Mountain" (gura Gnojna), where the inhabitants of Warsaw until 1774 unloaded their rubbish.
The dunghill must have caused an incredible stench, which undoubtedly have also reached the Royal Castle.
Supposedly people had another relationship to smells than today's urban dweller.
Back in Swietojanska Street.
In the front they sell ice-cream and coffee, at the back modern art.
During the sittings of parliament Warsaw was frequently visited by large amounts of noblemen from all over Poland.
Obviously Warsaw made its fair share of money on these visits, but they were also considered a curse. In order to shelter the noble gentlemen the burghers were obliged to house the guests during the parliamentary sittings. In most cases this has probably taken place without animosity, but sometimes a nobleman would devastate his hosts possessions. We must bear in mind that a nobleman from the country side would be ranking far above a citizen, who would most likely be working with something as disgraceful as trade.
The plaque on this building is a so-called freedom charter. It frees the owner of the building from the obligation to shelter guests during parliamentary sessions. A charter like this could be granted by parliament (the Sejm).
The Holy Mother of Grace Church
The old church of the Jesuits is located next to the Cathedral. It is a richly ornamented church from 1626. The Jesuits had their pharmacy at this place and this is where they taught theology and philosophy. When the Society of Jesus was dissolved in 1773 the church was taken over by the National Commission of Education. The church languished the next many years until it again became a church in 1834.
The Holy Mother of Grace Church is absolutely worth a visit because of the many elements special to Polish churches.
If you haven't got the time, or if church architecture is not on top of your agenda, then spend a few minutes looking at the entrance portal.
The angel doors were installed in 2009 and have been made by the Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj, who has also made similar works in France and Italy.
The doors are made in bronze and represent the Archangel Gabriel foretelling the birth of Jesus. From above the Holy Virgin is contemplating the angels.
Rynek (the City Hall Square)
The actual city hall was pulled down in the beginning of the 19th century, but the square hosts a lot of bars and frequently exhibitions and concerts are being organized, eg. Jazz in the Old Town, which takes place every Saturday at 19 h. during the entire summer.
During the winter the square may look rather quiet, but this gives time and peace to observe the architectonical details.
The mermaid - the symbol of Warsaw.
Made by Konstantin Hegel in 1855. She has been knocked about a good deal, but she survived deportation and wars. She is now back at the place where she has always stood.
A number of legends are being told about the Mermaid; one of them tells that she swam into the Baltic Sea together with her sister. Her sister preferred to stay in Copenhagen, whereas the other swam up the Vistula river and ended up in Warsaw. Being a Dane I find this very unlikely, as any Dane knows that the Danish Mermaid's sisters all live in the Sound between Denmark and Sweden.
One of the many elaborate houses at Rynek.
This classical (rebuilt) building was the property of the Fukier family for centuries.
The Fukier family came to Warsaw from Nürnberg in 1515, and founded a flourishing wine trade. As time passed the family expanded into other areas, among others a restaurant. The family's last representative died in 1959, and today the restaurant as well as a wine museum is owned by the restaurant mogul Magdalena Gessler.
Rynek to its full extent. Measuring 90x73 metres there is enough room for open air restaurants as well as caricaturists.
In medieval times this was the centre of the town's social life. Besides from the Town Hall you would find a pillory and a cage for local criminals.
During the 19th century Rynek deteriorated into a slum, and not until independency in 1918 did the local government start a renovation of the old buildings.
Ulica Piwna (Beer Street) is the longest street in the Old Town. It runs parallel to Swietojanska Street, but isn't as exclusive as the neighbour street. It is also a bit quieter.
But also Beer Street has its restaurants, bars and history. This is where you find the St Martin Church from 1353.
If you walk down to the other end from the Palace Square you will notice the back premises of the elegant buildings at Rynek.
Szeroki Dunaj is located at the end of ul. Piwnej. It is a short and wide street, almost like a small Square, and it also functioned as a market place in old days.
The name originates from the no longer existing spring, Dunaj, which rose from this place.
The architecture is interesting, with the City Wall at one end and the Shoemakers Guild and a leather works museum at the other end.
Behind the parasols in the picture at the right you find the house of Jan Kilinski, a shoemaker who became Warsaw's rebel leader during the Kosciuszkowski-insurrection against the Russians in 1794.
Jan Kilinski - as mentioned he lived in Szeroki Dunaj - is watching over Warsaw from his position right outside the City Wall.
The Kosciuszkowski insurrection - rather a regular war than an insurrection - was provoked by the Great Powers partition of Poland and the abolition of the country as an independent state in 1794.
The insurrection was short, but Kilinski survived and was exiled. He later returned to Warsaw, where he died in 1819.
The City Wall. Pres the picture to see an enlargement.
At some places on the City Wall you notice a black line between the bricks. This line indicates that what is below is the original medieval wall.