Stroll the royal Route of Warsaw
No trip to the capital of Poland is complete without a walk along the Royal Route, which depending on your location either ends or starts at the Royal Castle or Wilanów Palace. This is an 11-kilometer stretch along established paved city streets where public transportation and taxis are available; however, taking the walk allows for a more enjoyable experience, as you’ll encounter at least 50 interesting sights ranging from castles to cafés to churches. The bulk of Warsaw’s tourist landmarks are located along this stretch.
The Warsaw Barbican
The Warsaw Barbican is one of the few remaining relics of the network of fortifications that encircled and protected Warsaw in the 16th century. The Barbican is intact, and walking through it bestows a sense of awe at its architectural marvel and manpower requirements. It was not simply a defensive wall but also used to establish commerce in and out of the city during a time of kings.
The growth of the city and trade resulted in the Barbican becoming more of a hindrance since it constricted the footprint of the city. In the late 18th century part of the Barbican was dismantled to make room for city advancements and was further damaged during WWII. It was restored and reconstructed in the 1950s with the purpose of being a tourist attraction and gateway into the Old Town.
Warsaw’s Old Town
As you enter the Old Town through a medieval gate of the Barbican, you immediately are taken back 500 years to a time when cobblestoned streets, close-cropped buildings and open markets were the lifeblood of the town. As you navigate winding unmarked streets, you have sense at some point you will reach the center of the maze. Looking up offers little solace as the close proximity of the buildings offers no logical clue to the design of the town.
The charm of the Old Town can be seen in its palette of colorful buildings and the fact that each building offers something to the viewer. Narrow side streets take you on adventurous journeys as you follow other tourists, wondering whether they know about a secret location unmarked on your map.
The streets are well marked but the Polish language isn’t the easiest to comprehend. Asking for help from a local brings a smile and friendly spirit, which calms disoriented tourists.
The light at the end of this maze is the Old Town Square, which dates back to the 13th century. Standing in the middle of this large square, you can envision a sprawling market of merchants and craftsmen. A town hall once sat in the middle of the square but is no longer present. This was the heart of the city, with multiple arteries extending from it. All the buildings face the main square, so clearly this was the center of attention.
Although you have street performers and vendors selling the typical tourist gear in the square, there is also a statue of the fabled Warsaw Mermaid. Warsaw, not to be outdone by any other archaic legend attached to these mythological creatures, has its own story. The mermaid was swimming in the Vistula River when she stopped on a riverbank near the Old Town to rest. Liking the area, she decided to stay in the local waters unbeknownst to the local populace. Local fishermen noticed that something was creating waves, tangling nets and releasing their fish. They went out in boats to determine the cause and discovered the mermaid singing. From that day forward the mermaid has been a symbol of Warsaw.
The Little Insurgent
After touring the Old Town head back towards the Barbican gate, but take a quick right next to the ramparts to see a historic piece of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, the Little Insurgent. The Little Insurgent statue should not be missed by any WWII buff, as it is in commemoration to the children of the resistance who died during the Warsaw Uprising. The statue is neatly tucked in a nook between the old and new towns of Warsaw. Children were often enlisted as messengers and signal callers during this time of occupation. The statue displays a child wearing a helmet and weapon of German design, indicating that resistance fighters took weapons from their occupiers.
The Uprising Museum which is about a 15-minute walk from the Old Town. If you are interested in WWII history, you should not miss this museum because it painstakingly details the German and Russian occupation of Poland during WWII and details the uprising of the Polish people that eventually resulted in the destruction of Warsaw.
Numerous relics and tools of the resistance are present, along with firsthand accounts of the resistance and its leaders. The tour fleshes out that being a “Varsovian” carries more definition than simply being a resident of Warsaw. There is a dramatic 15-minute black and white film of an aerial glider flying over Warsaw after it was razed.
Heading back towards the Castle Square you are now officially at the start of the Royal Route.
Castle Square comprises of the Royal Castle, a large and daunting brick square residency that served throughout the centuries as the official residence of the Polish monarchs. The original was razed in 1944 during WWII and was completely rebuilt between 1971 and 1984. The interior of the castle is lined with tapestries and artwork of the Polish monarchs. Magnificent chambers and delicately adorned rooms, one of marble, can be found within the castle. The highlights of the castle’s collection are the original paintings by Rembrandt.
Sigismund's Tower, a 60-meter-high clock tower, is located in the center of the main façade, flanked on both sides by the castle. The castle now serves as a museum and hosts the occasional state meetings.
The Royal Route
Directly outside the castle is the start of the Royal Route, which leads to various points of interest. The route is a modern, wide promenade with a narrow middle road for public transportation. With wide sidewalks and storefronts grouped together, you will have little difficulty getting in and out of shops and observing architecture at pleasing angles. The route is also on level ground, no severe inclines or winding, nauseating paths to navigate. All you have to do is follow the large road, and note steeples and monuments peeking from the corners of the building frames.
A mix of old and modern buildings dominates this area, from the 15th century St. Anne’s Church to the 21st century Copernicus Science Center. St. Anne’s Church is known for its first pilgrimage by Pope John Paul II as he returned to his native homeland in 1979. Ascending a nearby belfry allows for a panoramic view of the Old Town and Royal Castle.
The Copernicus Science Center is full of experiments to be felt, not simply seen. Want to experience an earthquake? Chase a tornado? Learn about plane lift? Channel the mad scientist and build your very own controllable robot? The center is geared for a younger generation to understand modern science beyond Wi-Fi connectivity and how nature’s forces impact us greater than social media ever could.
Continuing along the route reveals an opening to the lush and beautiful Saxon Garden, which is decorated with numerous sculptures, a fountain and rotunda in the shape of a sundial. Pilsudski Square is next to the garden and contains the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a symbolic tomb to commemorate the heroes that fell anonymously in the fight for Poland’s freedom. An honor guard stands ready here with an eternal flame. The Presidential Palace, where the Polish President lives, is also along the route, but is generally off limits to the public.
The Basilica of the Holy Cross and the Copernicus Monument sit on opposite sides of the road. The monument sits in front of the Staszic Palace, a modern Russian-Byzantine-style building housing the Polish Academy of Sciences. The Basilica of the Holy Cross is one of the most notable Baroque churches in Poland. The church contains the hearts of some of Poland’s most renowned artists, including Frédéric Chopin immured in one of the interior pillars. Magnificent frescoes and a high altar are not to be missed. A mere two blocks away is the Frédéric Chopin Museum.
Do not miss the former Krasinski Palace, originally built at the end of the 17th century for a prominent Polish Governor and decorated with reliefs showing the triumph of legendary Polish clans. It is tucked away on a parallel road to the Royal Route. Destroyed during WWII and rebuilt in a unique baroque style, the residence is now called the Palace of the Republic and houses special collections of the National Library.
The next five blocks are littered with shops and restaurants, until you are welcomed by the National Museum, which has a rich collection of exhibits, from paintings to handcrafts spanning multiple eras. There are also ceramics by Picasso and the impressive “Battle of Grunwald” painting.
Stretching the walk to the last kilometer reveals St. Alexander’s Church, which is modeled on the Roman Pantheon. It was also destroyed during the war and rebuilt in a smaller more simplified form.
If five kilometers is your stopping point, you’ll come across the Ujazdów Castle, which sits prominently on a hill in front of the Chopin Monument. The castle is a beautiful wooden manor built in the 17th century that now houses the National Contemporary Art Gallery.
Off the beaten path and far from the Royal Route you can gaze up at the tallest building in Warsaw and the seventh tallest building in Europe: the Palace of Culture and Science. Mimicking the Seven Sisters complex in Russia the palace was built to show the Soviet domination of the Polish people. The building currently serves as an exhibition center and houses a multiplex cinema and two museums. It is best viewed when colorfully lit at night.