A labyrinth of winding cobblestone streets, ornate tenement facades and picturesque plazas with plenty of Olde World charm, it’s easy to understand why the Old Town is Warsaw’s top tourist area. A window into the ‘once-upon-a-time’ of Warsaw’s golden days as one of the country’s architectural pearls in addition to being its cosmopolitan capital, the Old Town represents much more to Warsaw’s citizens than UNESCO accolades, postcard panoramas and tourist dollars. Entirely rebuilt after the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, the Old Town is also symbolic of Warsaw’s rise from the ruins of WWII and of Varsovians’ pride in their city.
When US General Dwight Eisenhower visited Warsaw after the war he was moved to comment, "I have seen many towns destroyed, but nowhere have I been faced with such destruction." Buried beneath twenty million cubic metres of rubble the city resembled a shattered shell; over half the population had been killed, and 85% of the city razed to the ground. The Old Town had been hit with particular Nazi efficiency, and by the time the Red Army rolled across the river it was little more than a smouldering wasteland. To their credit the Capital Reconstruction Bureau chose to rebuild the historic centre, a painstaking process that would last until 1962. Using pre-war sketches, paintings and photographs the Old Town was carefully rebuilt, though only at the considerable expense of Poland's 'recovered territories.’ Szczecin, for instance, was coerced into demolishing many of its historic buildings in order to 'donate' an estimated 27 million bricks to the Warsaw rebuilding program; so too Wrocław, which at one stage was sending a staggering one million bricks to Warsaw per day. Although now only half a century old, Warsaw's historic quarter is an architectural miracle, and a stunning tribute to the city’s will to survive.
What to See
Most visits to the Old Town begin on Plac Zamkowy under King Sigismund’s Column. There isn't a more popular meeting place in the city, and not a minute of the day when the steps to the statue aren't besieged by dating couples, school kids and skateboarders. Erected in 1644 by Sigismund's son, Władysław IV, the twenty-two metre column was designed by Italian architects Augustyn Locci and Constantino Tencalla, and the figure of Sigismund ranks as Poland's second oldest monument - the oldest being the Neptune Fountain in Gdańsk. Local legend asserts that Sigismund rattles his sabre whenever Warsaw is in trouble, an occurrence that was first reported during the 1794 Kościuszko Uprising and again during WWII. With the Warsaw Uprising in full swing the column took a direct hit from a tank shell and came crashing down. Amazingly Sigismund survived, losing only his sword, and he was returned to his new perch in 1949. The remains of the original column can be seen nearby at the side of the Royal Castle.
Moving forward, head down ul. Świętojańska towards St. John the Baptist Cathedral (ul. Świętojańska 8). Inside you will find the Baruczkowski Crucifix - a 16th century cross renowned for its mysterious powers. Famed in particular for its crypt, this neo-Gothic masterpiece also contains stunning artworks, as well as the treads of a remote-controlled German tank used to attack the Cathedral in 1944, today seen on an exterior wall. Also, don't miss out on the Jesuit Church next door (ul. Świętojańska 10), a Renaissance building described in detail in our Churches section.