|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 is
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 main 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 some fifty or so smaller districts, whose nooks and crannies are usually only known by long-time locals. Some of the 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 police in 1984. Old Zoliborz meets new Zoliborz at plac Wilsona, which under Communism was officially known as 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 pleaseant neighbourhood with its large parks and leafy tree-lined streets.
The Centrum, or downtown district is a hive of activity. There is much of interest to the tourist here, in the smaller area of Srodmiescie and it is also here that the city's history becomes apparent. Marszalkowska Street, built in 1757, meets Jerozolimskie, at what could be called Poland's main crossroads. The opera, theatres, shops and restaurants can all be found here. This is also where you will find Old Town and the New Town (districts themselves), the Royal Way, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and some of the finest hotels such as the Bristol. This is also where the now vanished Jewish district used to be, replaced by what is are now known as Muranow and Mirow which are both full of broad leafy streets and solid Socialist Realist apartment blocks.
Continuing south, the next district is Mokotow. This large area has several different feels to it: there are still some beautiful pre-war mansions standing (now occupied by businesses or embassies), as well as some typically Socialist rows of dull gray appartment blocks. There are also large areas of green, including large parks that interconnect. Access to the city's single subway line is also here.
Praga, on the east side of the river, is infamous as being the place where the Soviet Red Army sat and waited while the Poles attempted to rise up and defeat the Germans. Only when the uprising had been completely crushed and the city razed to the ground did the Red Army cross the Wisla.
Praga has a slightly dubious reputation, (for crime, dangerous streets, the Mafia, car theft and so on) although this is due in large part to only a few small areas, which themselves have improved dramatically in the last few years. The area of Saska Kepa is an upper-class haven running down to the riverbanks. Its narrow tree-lined streets (formerly the residences of Tsarist ministers) are home to many diplomats, embassies, international schools and so on.
Ursynow is another area that has gained a degree of infamy: it is a massive and sprawling example of Socialist planning: it began life 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 centers are active and busy and there are plenty new schools. This once depressingly gray and dull area is finally coming to life, and it's 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 districts were a causalty of the Second World War. As the city begins its rapid development, its districts are coming back to life. Witnessing them slowly transform is part of what makes Warsaw such an interesting place.