There are many cities such as Paris, Budapest and New York where individual districts are known for specific traits, and these play a major role in defining the city's character. Warsaw was once the same (and it may well be again) but at the moment the city's districts are in the process of renewal and modernization. How they will end up is anyone's guess, but the pace of development and change has been rapid and shows no signs of slowing.
Warsaw's districts suffered along with the rest of the city's inhabitants during the dark days of the Second World War. Completely flattened, most of the city was rebuilt at about the same speed and at roughly the same time, with architectural styles and trends appearing in every district simultaneously.
Starting from the north, on the left, and predominant side of the river, Warsaw has three main districts. They are Zoliborz (the most northerly), Centrum and Mokotow. The other side of the river (the east side) is referred to in its entirety as Praga. Within these areas, there are numerous smaller districts, whose nooks and crannies are usually only known by long-time locals. Some of these smaller areas are worth a specific mention though, and will be pointed out later.
Zoliborz, often called 'green Zoliborz', suffered less than the other districts during the war. In fact, this is where many of the participants of the failed Warsaw Uprising escaped to (using the sewer system) once they realized all hope was lost. In certain parts it retains a peaceful suburban atmosphere, with interesting-looking houses and groups of flats surrounding parks and open spaces. Zoliborz is also home to the grave of the now world-famous priest, Jerzy Popieluszko, who was murdered by the secret police in 1984 for his opposition to the communist regime. Old Zoliborz meets new Zoliborz at plac Wilsona, named for President Woodrow Wilson, which under Soviet rule following World War II was officially renamed the 'Square of the Paris Commune'. However, none of the locals ever called it that: to taxi drivers and residents it always remained Wilson Square. Zoliborz is an extremely pleasant neighbourhood with its large parks and leafy tree-lined streets.
Śródmieście is the main area of interest for visitors to Warsaw as it includes the central business district, the fashionable shopping of Nowy Swiat
, the Old Town and much of the Royal Route. The central business district, commonly known as Centrum, is a rushing hive of activity that shows the eruption of modernity in Warsaw in recent decades. Amid the skyscrapers you can still find history, and the best place to see it all is at the viewing terrace at the top of the Palace of Culture
. From there you can see a birds-eye view of the city in its rushing madness below.
Marszalkowska Street, built in 1757, meets Jerozolimskie, at what could be called Poland's main crossroads. From there, the opera, theatres, shops and restaurants can all be reached by hopping on one of the many red and yellow trams that criss-cross the busy downtown boulevards. Further to the north, you will find Old Town (Stare Miasto)
along the banks of the Vistula River. There you can experience the Warsaw of medieval times as you stroll within the walled city reconstructed according to historical records following its complete destruction in the Second World War. Leading up to the Old Town is the Royal Route, a beautiful stretch of wide avenue lined with villas and the high-end boutiques of Nowy Swiat marking the road the king used to travel to his summer palace in Lazienki Royal Park
. Nowadays this park is not only incorporated into the city, but is a favourite spot in Warsaw for residents and tourists alike, as well as a glorious place to spend an entire day.
Continuing south, the next district is Mokotow. This large area has several different feels to it: some beautiful pre-war mansions still remain standing (now occupied by businesses or embassies), as well as some typically Socialist rows of dull gray apartment blocks. Five of Warsaw's institutes of higher education are found in this district, including the Warsaw Polytechnic University and the School of Economics. There are also large areas of green, including large parks that interconnect. Access to the city's single subway line is also here.
To the west of these three districts, still on the left side of the Vistula, you will find Wola. This district is predominantly the site of corporate office parks and emerging housing developments, but amidst these campuses you will find many historical sites worth visiting. Wola is primarily an industrial area that is seeing some revival. Amidst the old factories, you can find several museums such as the Warsaw Gasworks Museum, the Wola Museum, Museum of Industry and the must-see Warsaw Uprising Museum. This district also bears the sad history of being built on the site of the former Jewish Ghetto, where you can visit sites of historical tragedy such as the Jewish Cemetrey (Cmentarz Zydowski)
, the Monument to Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Umschlagplatz where a memorial stands to all Jews deported to Nazi extermination camps.
The other side of the river (the east side) is commonly referred to as Praga, infamous as the place where the Soviet Red Army was stationed and stood in wait as the Germans crushed the 63-day Warsaw Uprising and Hitler vowed to erase the city off the map in retribution just before the end of the Second World War. It was only after the Germans were defeated that the Soviets crossed over to reclaim Warsaw. For this reason, Praga was spared much of the war's destruction and a historical tension developed between the right and left banks of the river.
Praga has a slightly dubious reputation among locals for crime, dangerous streets, the Mafia, car theft and so on. Although this is true in large part in only a few specific areas, they have seen dramatic improvement in the last few years. Popular among artists for the low rent available in this district, Praga has become home to many studios and workshops for the new avant-garde. Cafes, pubs and clubs are popping up to cater to Warsaw's bohemian crowd. Saska Kepa is an upper-class haven running down to the riverbanks. Its narrow tree-lined streets are wonderful to walk through and admire the villas that were once home to Tsarist ministers. Now these structures instead belong to private owner, embassies and international schools.
Ursynow is another area that has gained a degree of infamy. A massive and sprawling example of Socialist planning, it emerged as block after characterless block of gray, dull flats. However, this area too is changing with the times. New shops and services are opening up, cinemas and entertainment complexes have arrived, restaurants and community centres are active and busy, and there are plenty new schools. This once depressingly gray and dull area is finally coming to life, and its future looks bright, especially since the metro cuts right through it.
Running alongside Ursynow, beside the river, is Wilanow. Most visitors to Warsaw will want to come out here to visit the renowned Royal Palace
, built in the style of Versailles. The area around Wilanow is picturesque, especially the roads that lead down to the Wisla.
In a sense you really have to be a local to appreciate the subtleties that distinguish many of Warsaw's districts. With time, they are slowly taking on new character. However, Warsaw's original districts were a casualty of the Second World War. As the city continues the rapid development that began soon after the fall of communism and was accelerated by Poland's joining the European Union, its districts are coming back to life with a vitality that is evident to any visitor. Being able to witness the transformation is part of what makes Warsaw such an interesting place.