The UNESCO World Heritage Old Town is unmissable - quite literally, seeing as many of the city's attractions and a whole host of cafés, bars and restaurants are located within its environs. The Old Town is both a physical and symbolic expression of the city's spirit and determination to come back from the brink of annihilation at the end of World War II. Most visitors to Warsaw spend their first day strolling around the Old Town.
Walking through the Royal Castle, one has to constantly remind oneself that most of it was reconstructed between 1971 and 1984, although the darker elements of the decor were actually salvaged from the ruins. The castle, located on a plateau overlooking the Vistula River, was built for the Dukes of Mazovia and expanded when King Zygmunt III Vasa moved the capital to Warsaw. From the early 17th until the late 18th century, this was the seat of the Polish kings. It subsequently housed the parliament and is now a museum displaying tapestries, period furniture, coffin portraits and collections of porcelain and other decorative arts. Work is underway to recreate the castle gardens, set on the slopes of the Vistula River, which were also badly scarred when the Nazis levelled the rest of the castle complex.
WARSAW'S CATHEDRAL CHURCH
St John's Cathedral claims to be the oldest church in Warsaw. Although a major church in the Mazovian Gothic style, completed in the 15th century, St John's was only upgraded from a parish church to a cathedral in 1798. Destroyed during World War II, is has been reconstructed in its original style. The cathedral was used in 1764, for the coronation of the last Polish king (Stanislaw II) and for the swearing in of the Sejm (Polish Parliament) after the 3rd of May constitution of 1791. The covered footbridge connecting it to the Royal Palace was the result of a failed assassination attempt on King Zygmunt III.
LAZIENKI ROYAL PARK AND PALACE
In addition to a number of palaces, Lazienki Park contains the Chopin Monument - where the annual Chopin Festival is held each summer - and the Orangerie, set within extensive 18th-century gardens. Palac Lazienkowski (Palace on the Water) is best viewed from near the monument to Jan Sobieski, on the bridge where Agrykola street crosses the water. Originally built in 1624, for King Zygmunt III Vasa, Zamek Ujazdowski (Ujazdowski Castle) now houses the Centre of Contemporary Art. The 1764 Palac Belweder (Belvedere Palace) was the residence of King Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski and later of Poland's 20th-century presidents. On warm summer days, rowing boats offer short cruises around the park's lake. Cycling is banned in the park.
In the mid-1600s, King Jan III Sobieski commissioned Augustyn Locci to build the Baroque palace and garden of Wilanow for his summer residence. Construction continued from 1677 until the king's death in 1696. It remained popular with subsequent monarchs. Visitors can tour the interior and the gallery, which features portraits of famous Poles. Artistic handicrafts are on display in the Orangerie. Also here is the Muzeum Plakatu w Wilanowie (Poster Museum at Wilanow), the first of its kind in the world. Entrance to the palace requires a guide, for a group of one to 35 people, although the park is open to unaccompanied visitors. Restoration work, the speed and scale of which is determined by current funding levels, is ongoing but affects few visits.