Warsaw (Polish: Warszawa, German: Warschau) is the capital city of Poland. The city is situated on the banks of the Vistula River and is home to 1.7 million people. Many historic buildings and precincts were restored in the post war period. Warsaw is home to the Polish Parliament (Sejm).
Warsaw is notable among Europe’s capital cities not for its size, its age, or its beauty but for its indestructibility. It is a phoenix that has risen repeatedly from the ashes of war. Having suffered fearful damage during the Swedish and Prussian occupation of 1655–56, it was again assaulted in 1794, when the Russian army massacred the population of the right-bank suburb of Praga. In 1944, after the Warsaw Uprising failed, by Adolf Hitler’s order the city was razed; the left-bank suburbs, controlled by the Germans, were emptied of their remaining population; and the buildings were systematically reduced to rubble by fire and dynamite. In 1945, however, the people of Warsaw, the Varsovians, returned, and the city resumed its role as the capital of Poland and the country’s centre of social, political, economic, scientific, and cultural life. Many of the historical streets, buildings, and churches have been restored exactly according to their original forms.
Warsaw possesses a wide variety of architectural monuments, whether as replicas or originals. In the Old Town, which was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1980, the Gothic St. John’s Cathedral and the red-brick fortifications known as the Barbican remain from the medieval period. The houses of the Old Town Market Square have been rebuilt in the splendour of their 15th-century style. There are many Baroque churches of the Counter-Reformation period, including the Jesuit Church next to the cathedral and the Church of the Holy Cross, which contains the heart of the Polish French composer Frédéric Chopin. The magnificently reconstructed Royal Castle, decorated in late 18th-century style, is on Zamkowy Square. Other royal and aristocratic palaces are at Łazienkowski Park and at John III Sobieski’s Wilanów. South of Łazienkowski Park is Belweder (Belvedere) Palace, a former presidential residence used now for ceremonial occasions. Remnants of the tsarist era are evident in the Church of St. Alexander in the middle of Trzech Krzyży Square and in the vast Alexander Citadel on the riverside, north of the New Town. The city’s modern architecture is generally regarded as undistinguished. Although the prewar garden suburbs of Żoliborz and Saska Kępa have survived, the vast sprawl of contemporary suburbia is made up in large part of seemingly endless expanses of uniform, prefabricated concrete apartment blocks.
Warsaw’s writers, artists, and musicians play a major role in creating the cultural values of the nation. The city is also the seat of such prominent institutions as the National Museum and the Zachęta National Gallery of Art. There are numerous specialist museums (including POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews) and many social, cultural, and educational associations. Poland’s leading theatre and radio and television operations are centred in Warsaw. The National Philharmonic Orchestra and the National Opera draw large crowds. The Warsaw Autumn is a festival of contemporary orchestral and choral music.
Since the second half of the 18th century, the emblem of Warsaw (originally a siren) has been a mermaid with sword and shield in hand, representing the creature who in legend led a prince to the site of Warsaw and ordered him to found the city. The city’s motto is, appropriately, “Contemnit procellas” (“It defies the storms”).