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The Description of Warsaw

Updated on April 8, 2014
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Warsaw is the capital and largest city of Poland. Known as Warszawa in Polish, the city is the hub of virtually every national activity. Besides being the seat of government, it is a major center for rail and highway transportation, both within Poland and on the main European east-west axis. Its numerous universities, technical institutes, and research centers make the city an important source of educational and intellectual activity. The home base for the national theater, leading music ensembles, and the literary establishment, Warsaw is also the focal point of Polish culture.

Warsaw boasts a diversified economy. Although most workers are employed in government offices and service enterprises, including the important restaurant and entertainment industries, the city has an impressive industrial sector. Among the major manufactures are electronic products, metals, cement, plastics, automobiles, and general machinery.

Warsaw covers 174 square miles (450 square kilometers) in the Mazovian Lowland of east central Poland. As a northern European city, it possesses a temperate climate featuring days that are cold and short in winter and long, often hot in summer.

The metropolis is divided unevenly by the Vistula (Wisła) River. The larger left (west) bank contains most of the residential areas, the main shopping and financial districts, the government buildings, the airport, and the educational and cultural institutions. Most industrial and transportation operations are on the right (east) bank, with factories to the north and major rail and river port facilities to the south.

Warsaw Old Town Market Square
Warsaw Old Town Market Square | Source

Virtually all of Warsaw's major points of interest are on the left bank, and those that existed before the city's destruction in World War II are mainly postwar restorations or replicas. Most fall along a north-south route that parallels the Vistula.

This route begins in the "New Town," the central square of which was built at the turn of the 15th century. The square is dominated by the domed Holy Sacrament Church, raised by King John (III) Sobieski in thanksgiving for his victory over the Turks at Vienna (1683). Moving south, one passes along the wall of the Barbican, once the fortress guarding the gates of Warsaw, and enters the "Old Town." Although this district was founded in the 13th century, its cobbled market square is surrounded by structures built in the late Renaissance and baroque styles by wealthy merchants. The buildings now house shops, restaurants, the city museum, and the Polish Historical Society. Farther south are the Cathedral of St. John, one of the oldest structures in Warsaw, and Castle Square. In the center of the square is the Sigismund Column, built in 1644 to honor the ruler (Sigismund III) who had made Warsaw the Polish capital. On the east side of the square stands the Royal Castle.

Krakowskie Przedmieście
Krakowskie Przedmieście | Source

The castle is the northern terminus of Krakowskie Przedmieście, one of Europe's most beautiful streets. This thoroughfare is lined with former aristocratic palaces and burgher homes (now housing scholarly and cultural institutions), alongside churches built in the 18th century. From the Staszic Palace, headquarters of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Krakowskie Przedmieście continues as Nowy Świat, a busy commercial artery. Full of shops and fashionable cafés, it intersects with Aleje Jerozolimskie at the National Museum complex, which contains the National Gallery.

After the museum, Nowy Świat becomes the Aleje Ujazdowskie. Often called "Warsaw's Champs Élysées," the boulevard is lined with former aristocratic palaces and villas now serving as foreign embassies and Polish government offices. Just to its east is the impressive building of the Polish Parliament (Sejm). Farther along, the entire eastern side of the Aleje Ujazdowskie is bordered by parks -Ujazdów Park, the Botanical Gardens, and Łazienki Park. The Belvedere Palace, in Łazienki Park, is the official residence of the Polish president. Finally, a short bus ride farther south ends in Wilanów, with its summer palace of King John Sobieski.

On the west, parallel to Krakowskie Przedmieście and its continuations, runs the city's main shopping street, Marszalkowska. Fronting it are Parade Square, with the massive postwar Palace of Culture and Science in its center, and the Saxon Garden, Warsaw's first public park (1727). Near the Saxon Garden stands the Grand National Theater, one of the largest theaters in the world. In Muranów, the former Jewish district of northwestern Warsaw, the Monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto was erected after World War II.

Places of interest in Praga, on the right bank of the Vistula, include the zoo and the Ten-Year Stadium. Largely undamaged during the war, Praga contains no architectural gems but preserves the look, feel, and urban culture of Warsaw before 1939. This is especially true of the Rożycki Bazaar, with its outdoor stalls and spirited bargaining.

As the country's cultural center, Warsaw hosts festivals and competitions the year round. Among the most famous are the annual Harvest and Contemporary Music festivals in the fall and the Frédéric Chopin International Piano Competition.

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