In the interest of expediency, here are some excerpts from the Lonely Planet - Poland chapter on Warsaw:
Kraków may have the beauty and Gdańsk the seashore, but Warsaw has the culture, the energy and the action. Poland’s capital was flattened in WWII and, ever since, the city’s been racing to replace what was lost. After 1989, that pace accelerated, and central Warsaw today has so many booms, cranes and construction sites, you’d think you’d landed in Beijing.
Sprawling Warsaw may be an acquired taste and your first impressions straight off the train may not be positive. But the vibe and drive of Poland’s capital are infectious if you give it time. Warsaw’s history has had more than its share of ups and downs. But like the essence of the Polish character, it has managed to return from the brink of destruction time and time again.
The first semblance of a town sprang up round the beginning of the 14th century, when the dukes of Mazovia built a stronghold on the site of the present Royal Castle. In 1413 the dukes chose Warsaw as their seat of power, and things went swimmingly for over 100 years until, in 1526, the last duke died without an heir. The burgeoning town – and the whole of Mazovia – fell under direct rule of the king in Kraków and was incorporated into royal territory.
Warsaw’s fortunes took a turn for the better after the unification of Poland and Lithuania in 1569, when the Sejm (the lower house of parliament) voted to make Warsaw he seat of its debates because of its more central position in the expanded new country. The ultimate ennoblement came in 1596, when King Zygmunt III Waza decided to move his capital from Kraków to Warsaw.
The Swedish invasion from 1655 to 1660 as not kind to Warsaw, but the city recovered and continued to develop. Paradoxically, the 18th century – a period of catastrophic decline for the Polish state – witnessed Warsaw’s greatest prosperity. A wealth of palaces and churches was erected, and cultural and artistic life flourished, particularly during the reign of the last Polish king, Stanisław August Poniatowski.
In 1795 the city’s prosperity was again shattered. Following the partition of Poland, Warsaw’s status was reduced to that of a provincial town. When Napoleon rolled into town in 1806 on his way to defeat in Russia, things started looking up. The warring Frenchman created the Duchy of Warsaw and the city became a capital once more. The celebrations were brief, however, as in 1815 Warsaw, and much of the rest of Poland, fell under Russian rule.
After WWI Warsaw was reinstated as the capital of newly independent Poland and the urban development and industrialization begun in the late 19th century continued. By 1939 the city had grown to 1.3 million, of whom 380,000 were Jews who had traditionally made up a significant part of Warsaw’s community.
German bombs began to fall on 1 September 1939 and a week later the city was besieged; despite brave resistance, Warsaw fell in a month. The conquerors instantly set about terrorizing the local population with arrests, executions and deportations, and a Jewish ghetto was built. The city’s residents rebelled against the Germans twice; first came an eruption in the Jewish ghetto in April 1943 and second a general city uprising in August 1944. Both rebellions were crushed.
Warsaw’s German occupiers did a good job of following Hitler’s instructions to raze the city after the Warsaw Rising – at the end of WWII, about 15% of the city was left standing. So complete was the destruction that there were even suggestions that the capital should be moved elsewhere, but instead it was decided that parts of the pre-war urban fabric would be rebuilt.
According to plan, the most valuable historic monuments were restored to their previous appearance based on original drawings and photographs. Between 1949 and 1963 work was concentrated on the Old Town, aiming to return it to its 17th and 18th century appearance – today not a single building in the area looks less than 200 years old. So complete was the restoration that Unesco granted the Old Town World Heritage status in 1980.
The Royal Castle took a little longer. It wasn’t until 1971 that reconstruction began, and by 1984 the splendid Baroque castle stood again as if nothing had happened. Although the brick structure is a copy, many original architectural fragments have been incorporated into the walls.
The authorities also had to build, from scratch, a whole new city capable of providing housing and services to its inhabitants. This communist legacy is less impressive. The city centre was, until quite recently, a blend of bunker-like Stalinist structures and equally dull edifices of a later era, while the outer suburbs, home to the majority of Warsaw’s inhabitants, were composed almost exclusively of anonymous, prefabricated concrete blocks.
The city’s skyline is still marred by ugly high-rises, but things have improved markedly since 1989. Newly constructed steel-and-glass towers have begun to break up the monotony, and the city outskirts are steadily filling up with aesthetically pleasing villas and family houses. Warsaw may never regain an architectural landscape that truly appeals, but considering all it’s been through, it’s doing a great job rectifying things.