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Following the war Warsaw’s rush to rebuild saw the construction of what has become the defining icon of the city. Dominating the city skyline, the fearsome Palace of Culture (PKiN) towers at just over 231 metres in height - making it the tallest and largest structure in Poland. Commissioned by Stalin as a 'gift from the Soviet people,' it was originally interpreted as a reminder from Moscow that Big Brother really was watching. To this day it still stirs mixed feelings from locals and architecture buffs, and the collapse of communism even saw calls to demolish it. On April 5, 1952 Soviet representative Nikolaj Sobolev and Polish Prime Minister Józef Cyrankiewicz stamped the deal to build the monstrosity over a meeting in what is now the Belvedere restaurant. Within weeks construction had begun. Over 3,500 workers were ferried in from the Soviet states and housed in a purpose-built village in Jelonki, west Warsaw, where they were effectively cut off from the outside world. Working around the clock, it took them just three years to complete the Palace. In all 16 workers died as a result of typical communist disregard for safety practices. Designed by Soviet architect Lev Rudnyev (also responsible for Lomonosov University in Moscow), it is a fabulous example of socialist era architecture and also incorporates several more traditional styles (the pillars and parapets were apparently inspired by the Sukiennice in Kraków's Old Town Square). Built using an estimated 40 million bricks and housing 3,288 rooms, the vast Palace can allegedly be seen from a distance of 30km. Originally intended to serve as the Communist party HQ, the multi-purpose building currently houses museums, restaurants, theatres, conference halls, offices etc. The Sala Kongresowa (Congress Hall) is big enough to hold 3,000 people, and it was here in 1967 that the Rolling Stones became one of the first western bands to perform to an eastern bloc audience. According to urban legend, an army of wild cats now live in the cavernous basements, feasting on the legions of rodents who also reside within the building's gloomy bowels.
The highest clock tower in the world was added to the structure and unveiled on January 1, 2001 and visitors should pencil in a visit to the viewing platform on the 30th floor. The revamped elevators take just 20 seconds to transport you to the wind-blasted viewing level, and the panoramic views are awesome.
A forest of skyscrapers have sprung up around the Palace, including the InterContinental hotel. On the 44th floor the three-legged hotel boasts the highest swimming pool in the country. Directly opposite stands the Warsaw Marriott. A simple glass structure, the 140-metre hotel was the stage for Alain Robert’s first appearance in Eastern Europe. Otherwise known as the French spiderman, Robert scaled the 41-storey hotel with his bare hands, cheered on by a crowd of thousands. The Panorama Bar on the 40th floor offers a liquid way to view the city. The beer is among the most expensive in the city, but when you compare that to what PKiN charges it becomes something of a bargain: beer, view, no wind, and no hollering school children. More recently President Barack Obama called the Marriott home during his 2011 visit to the city.
Along the same street are two more buildings of note: the giant Novotel (originally known as the Forum or by its nickname Dollar Towers during communist times) became the first high-class hotel to be built in post-war Poland when it was completed in 1974. Now owned by the Accor hotel group, it underwent a €30 million refit in 2005 which resulted in the structure going from yellow to grey.
The Millennium Tower further down the road is also one to watch. Formerly known as the Reform Plaza, the 112-metre office complex was the brainchild of Turkish entrepreneur Vahap Toy. The same man hit headlines some years back with a six billion dollar plan to transform the tiny town of Biała Podlaska by building an international airport, formula 1 racetrack and a replica of the Eiffel Tower. His Warsaw building reflects his eccentricity; an imposing blue and white building, it has been likened by critics to a portaloo. The tower is the source of thousands of juicy rumours, all of them too libellous for print.
Another skyscraper with an interesting history is the Blue Tower, a.k.a. the Peugeot Tower on pl. Bankowy. Once the site of Warsaw’s largest synagogue and dynamited by the Nazis, an urban myth was circulated that a rabbi placed a curse on the ground that no building would ever take its place. In a supernatural twist, the Blue Tower took over three decades to complete, allegedly only after a more forgiving rabbi removed the curse.
Finished in 1999, the Warsaw Trade Tower stands on the horizon like a tall, mutant pencil. Measuring 208 metres the tube-like structure boasts some of the fastest elevators on the continent and ranks as the second tallest building in the city.
But for the best lift ride in Warsaw check into the Westin Hotel. A glass elevator shoots up and down the 90-metre scraper, giving excellent views of the immediate area.