When you are entering Warsaw from the east, the first thing you will see while crossing the river are the beautiful red roofs of the Old Town. Every old city has their historic part and Warsaw is no difference. The Old Town of the Polish capital, in contrary to other places, is not located near the center of the city. You can find it in the vicinity of the Vistula River, going north from the Central Station. This charming place is being forgotten by the inhabitants busy with everyday work, but is still a vital spot on the touristic map of Warsaw. On your next trip to the Polish capital take a tram ride and discover the beauty of the Old Market Square.
The Market Square in Warsaw was the first settlement of the city that functioned as a center for administration, representation and retail in the medieval borough. The narrow houses built around the old market were inhabited first by the settlers and later by rich merchants and noble families. The Market Square also housed the early town hall (built in the 14th century) that was taken down in 1817. The buildings around the square changed according to the styles characteristic for the epoch - first they were typical gothic houses that later evolved into colorful bourgeois settlements.
One of the reasons for the distance between the Old Town and the city center lays in the 18th-century history and a movement of the rich to the new parts of Warsaw. During this time the central square was turned into a regular market and the houses became available for rent. During the 19th century, it lost its power of a representative part of Warsaw and became an overpopulated district in a bad state. Another cause for the remoteness of the old heart from the new city is the postwar history of Poland. During the communist times, when the Palace of Culture and Science was built as a symbol of Polish-Soviet friendship, the central point of Warsaw was relocated to the axis of Marszałkowska and Aleje Jerozolimskie Streets.
It is worth noticing that a big part of what we can see today, is a modern reconstruction of the Old Town - only 6 out of 260 houses there survived the Second World War. The plan was conducted with great mastery (it was enlisted by UNESCO in 1980), involving some of the most renowned Polish architects and artists who were responsible for decorating the facades of the tenement houses. If you look closely you will see there modern ornaments, made in the techinque of sgraffito, that refer to the old iconography. One of the interesting facts to know is that during the reconstruction process the main architect, prof. Zachwatowicz, used, among other sources, the photographically detailed paintings of Bernardo Bellotto (Canaletto) as a point of referece. They depicted an image of the 18th-century Warsaw in its golden times of prosperity.
While wandering around the narrow streets of the Old Town you will definitely see the remainings of the old fortifications, such as the city wall and a barbican. Historically, it was a building made for protecting the city, a point of armed defence stretching over the ditch. Now you can meet there many artists selling their works on the stalls.
The figure of a mermaid is in the coat of arms of the city of Warsaw, which you will definitely notice when you come to the capital – it is used in the official visual communication and exists in many different forms around the city. There are a few legends expaining the connection between the siren and Warsaw. One of them says she was a sister of the Copenhagen's mermaid that came to Poland through the Baltic Sea and decided to take a rest during her travel. She liked the banks of the Vistula River so much, that she stayed there for a while. One day a merchand decided to catch her to make money on showing the mermaid around as a curiosity. His son heard the cries of the siren and decided to let her free – in return she promised to protect them and the city (and thus is represented with armour).
The monument representing the mermaid on the Old Town dates back to the 19th century and was built together with the new water distribution system around the city. The emerged fountains were decorated with the figures linked to the marine life – this one had a special meaning though, as it also symbolizes Warsaw. Throughout the years the sculpture was changing its location multiple times to finally come back to the Old Town in 1999.
One of the places on your list while visiting the Old Market Square should definitely be the archcathedral. As one of the oldest churches in Poland, it played a vital role in the country's history; there the king's coronations, marriages and funerals took place, it also served as a venue for attestation of the Polish constitution. The archcathedral was built in the 14th century in the gothic style and later was transformed into a church with baroque decoration that hugely transformed in the 19th century. In 1944 it was vastly destroyed during the war and it took up to 1955 to bring it back to life, taking examples from the original medieval form.
The Old Town comprises also of a Castle Square with the Royal Castle and the Zygmunt's Column that you will surely see once in there. I am going to talk about this place in my next story as it deserves its own entry.
The Old Town, though hugely reconstructed after the Second World War, is one of the most charming places in Warsaw. Its historic atmosphere makes a good balance for the city's modern vibe that you will mostly experience during your stay in the capital. It gets even better during the pre-Christmas period, when the Old Market turns into an ice rink surrounded by multiple stalls selling mulled wine and festive treats. On your next trip to Warsaw take a ride to Stare Miasto neighbourhood and discover the beauty of the Warsaw's Old Market Square.
Did you like the travel story?
Get more! Subscribe to our monthly inspiration newsletter.