Warsaw, the capital of Poland, was one of the most damaged cities during World War II. In 1944, in what would become known as the Warsaw Uprising, the citizens of the city rebelled against the Nazi forces that had taken control. In retaliation, Hitler ordered the city destroyed. The city’s medieval Old Town – along with 85 percent of the entire city – was obliterated.
After the war, the Old Town was carefully rebuilt and its colorful Baroque and Gothic-style buildings painstakingly recreated using old blueprints and photographs for accuracy. Today, the 70-year-old Old Town stands in contrast to the more modern Warsaw that surrounds it, and though the scars of the past remain, the city also looks to the future and lures travelers interested in art, music, architecture, and great food. The best part: Warsaw is a bargain compared to other major cities in Europe. Here are some free things to do in Warsaw.
Free Museum Days
Several of Warsaw’s most important museums offer free admission on certain days. The incredibly moving multi-media Warsaw Rising Museum is free on Sundays and shouldn’t be missed. The museum provides the most in-depth look at the events of the 1944 Uprising that shaped the city, telling the story of the courageous fighters through displays, photos, and videos that bring to life the heartbreaking story of the city’s near-total destruction.
The National Museum, one of the oldest and largest art and culture museums in Poland, is free on Tuesdays. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which tells the 1000-year history of Jews in Poland, officially opens in the fall of 2014 but the temporary exhibition is currently free.
The Royal Route
Warsaw’s Royal Route is so named because it was once the seven-mile route taken by the royal family from the Royal Castle in the Old Town to the palace complex in Wilanów. Now, part of the route near the Old Town contains several historic landmarks and important stops on any tourist’s agenda. A shorter two-mile stroll runs from the palm-tree decorated Charles de Gaulle roundabout to the Old Town. Some of the sights you’ll pass include the 15th century Royal Castle, which was destroyed in WWII and rebuilt three decades later using the original bricks; the King Zygmunt III Waza Column, Warsaw’s oldest and tallest non-church monument, which honors the king who moved the capital from Krakow to Warsaw; and the Presidential Palace.
Also along the route (and at other places around the city) you’ll find some very special benches, installed to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Fryderyk Chopin’s birth in 2010. More than a place to rest your feet, the benches are programed to play snippets of Chopin’s work. There are 15 benches scattered in and around the Old Town.
Multimedia Fountain Park
Since 2011, the free Multimedia Fountain Park near the Old Town and the Vistula River has been delighting visitors with spectacular fountain displays incorporating music and light. Two fountains, the larger one pumping up to 8,000 gallons of water out of 367 nozzles each minute, are lit by LED lights and lasers, creating imagery such as that of Syrena (the Mermaid, the symbol of Warsaw) moving gracefully through the water. Themed films are also incorporated and projected onto a wall while pieces of music ranging from Chopin to modern pop are played from the surrounding speakers. Shows take place on weekend nights from May to October, with crowds arriving early to relax and picnic before the show.
University of Warsaw Rooftop Gardens
One of the largest and most beautiful rooftop gardens in Europe, the roof garden at the University of Warsaw is spread over more than 100,000 square feet. There are two sections – an upper garden and a larger lower garden – which are connected by a fountain of cascading water. Covering nearly every inch of space are trees, shrubs, herbs, vines, and flowers in every color of the rainbow. There’s a fish pond frequently visited by ducks, a small fountain, some granite sculptures, and – the garden’s biggest appeal beyond the flowers – spectacular views of Warsaw and the Vistula river below.
Landlocked Warsaw is bisected by the Vistula River, and during the summer locals take full advantage of its sandy shores. There are three beaches on the east side of the river: near the Zoo, near the Poniatowskiego Bridge (with a free ferry across the river) and near the Lazienkowski Bridge. Open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. in summer, the beaches are connected by a pathways which are often used by runners and bikers. Chairs are available for rent and there are barbecues, volleyball nets, and even a few bars set up along the water’s edge.