The dirty little secret about Warsaw is that it is almost entirely fake (“fake news,” to quote one unmentionable source). It’s not a secret actually. The fact is well publicized. It’s just that the tourist public doesn’t care. It looks fantastic, and tourists are apparently willing to go along with the ruse. Only Wilanow Palace, on the outskirts of town, is real.
You can get an equally good idea about what Warsaw looks like by going to the Eastern Europe section of a Disney theme park. Of course, Warsaw has a larger collection of reconstructed façades. But, hey, it’s expensive to go overseas to see them. You might as well stay at home, except…
Learning the history of Warsaw is best done on site. The monuments there tell a story that must not be forgotten. The residents of Warsaw demonstrated their resilience in reconstructing their city and are to be highly commended. Nearly the entire city of Warsaw was bombed into rubble by the Nazis during World War II.
You have to commend the Poles … they took it upon themselves, without help from the Marshall Plan (as they were behind the iron curtain) or any U.N. assistance or German reparations, to rebuild Warsaw. The reconstruction was so successful that UNESCO, the United Nations organization that declares mostly old places as important enough to be protected, put Warsaw on its list, the only recreated place with this honor.
As you walk through the “old” city of Warsaw, a large area of public squares linked by narrow streets, it all looks incredibly authentic. Today, people still live in this area, driving their cars and shopping. The façades are only that. Inside the “old” buildings are all modern conveniences.
In the old days each public square served a different purpose, one for the flower market, one for the pork market, one for the fish market, etc. Not so anymore. Today, the squares are filled with sidewalk cafes, public art exhibits, restaurants and pubs, souvenir shops and currency exchanges.
What you should do, however, is take a guided tour of the area to learn the significance of what took place here. Nearby, the Jewish Quarter (in contrast to Prague’s Jewish Quarter) no longer exists in the slightest. Now it’s middle class housing units and the accompanying necessary shops leave no trace of its former past. The Jewish Quarter today still attracts tourists to a fantastic museum, the POLIN museum, and monuments to the extermination of the Polish Jews, first forced to wear yellow Jewish stars to be identified, then forced to live in a small walled-in section of Warsaw (no longer in existence) known as the Jewish ghetto, then shipped off to concentration camps to be worked to death or killed, or killed in the ghetto itself by police for minor infractions. The story cannot be repeated enough so that it never happens again to any group.
There are many fine museums in Warsaw that are well documented by tourist books. Many tourists flock to the reconstructed palace, a dominant feature of reconstructed “old” Warsaw.
A little on the outskirts of Warsaw, however, is the sole example of an authentic thing in Warsaw, the Wilanow Palace and Gardens, the Versailles of Eastern Europe where the Nazi high command lived during its occupation of the city … the sole reason that it was not destroyed. Wilanow Palace is real.
Descendants of the aristocratic family that owned the palace before the war came to reclaim their property after Poland returned to capitalism following communism’s ban on private ownership of property. Today, they are caretakers of the palace, living on the second floor by special arrangement with the Polish government, which owns and maintains the estate and gardens.
It should be a must-see of any Warsaw visit, but unfortunately, it is often skipped by tourists either happy with reconstructions or not knowledgeable about the palace. It isn’t as easy to get to, but don’t make the mistake of missing it. It is the only real old thing to see in Warsaw.