For hidden Warsaw at its best, penetrate the courtyards for the city’s unseen side…
For Something Iconic
Around 300 courtyard shrines can be found in Warsaw, and though Praga is especially famed for them (taken on its own, the area has around 120) they’re also prevalent in other parts of the city that survived WWII. Though some date to Tsarist times, most popped up during the Nazi occupation and served as secretive places of public worship at a time when the church faced relentless persecution.
Together, they brought with them a feeling of ‘security, solidarity and even freedom’. Often eccentrically decorated with flowers, twinkly lights and assorted add-ons, they’re a curious glimpse into times gone by. Lovingly maintained to this day, they vary in size and general health, but regardless of this they represent a fascinating chapter in local history.
For Social Media
Completed in 1913 to a design authored by Wacław Heppen and Józef Napoleon Czerwiński, the tenement at Sienkiewicza 4 was reputedly inspired by the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris. Originally seven-floors in height, it lost two of these during the war. That wasn’t all. Previously home to luxurious apartments for Warsaw’s high rollers, the post-war years saw it decline into a cracked, broken state.
Now finally renovated (or sort of, anyway), slipping into the courtyard allows visitors a true sense of the city’s rich contrasts – jutting out behind, almost like a space rocket, the 22-storey Moniuszki Tower provides a brilliant clash between the then and the now.
Strictly-speaking, there’s nothing special about the courtyards in the Palace of Culture, but they do allow for the unerring sensation of being shrunk to the size of an ant. It’s in these damp hollows you appreciate the overwhelming size of Stalin’s gift to Poland.
More fun, not least thanks to the bars that back out onto it, is the courtyard within the former Communist Party HQ at Nowy Świat 6/12. Completed in 1951, two-years later thousands flocked here to file past a portrait of Stalin during a symbolic funeral ceremony.
Home to Poland’s top officials, 70s leader Edward Gierek would reputedly chill out looking out onto the courtyard while flicking through his daily copy of Le Monde. With the ground floor units now in-filled with bars, the inner courtyard has never been livelier.
For Curiosity Seekers
Not all courtyards are equal. Beat the buzzer to enter Hoża 70 and you’ll happen upon what’s colloquially known as ‘the Doll House’.
As cute as a button, and sneaked inside a 19th century courtyard, this two-floored building was added in 1910 and served as the home of the Hipolit Majewski dyeing store until 1937. Dwarfed by the surrounding buildings, and capped with a trio of pointy gables, it’s a genuine covert gem.
For History Buffs
Many of Warsaw’s courtyards bear the scars of war, not least the ghostly, jagged ruin on Waliców 14.
Even more poignantly, head into Bracka 5 to see an inscription announcing to mourners the removal of Antoni Szczęsny Godlewski’s body to Powązki Military Cemetery.
Killed in action during the Warsaw Uprising, the 17-year-old was originally buried on Bracka in 1944. Around 1.5 meters in length, the inscription was added the following year by the combatant’s mother.
For The Modern Man
When it opened in 2003, Sir Norman Foster’s Metropolitan building helped usher in a new era for Warsaw’s architecture. Eighteen years on, its ring-shaped courtyard remains a photographic fave for its sleek looks and spewing fountains.
But arguably even more enticing is the courtyard of the BUW Library – head to the fantastical rooftop park to peer down into a small courtyard that appears as unexpectedly as a sinkhole.
You feel the pomp of Poland’s past glories in the Royal Castle’s courtyard, a place that took its present shape under the rule of King Sigismund III Vasa – yup, the same dude that shifted the capital from Kraków to Warsaw.
For the pre-war glory years though, have a poke around the gritty courtyards that are sandwiched between Jerzolimskie and Nowogrodzka – to see them from a bird’s eye perspective, the 40th floor Marriott Panorama Bar offers unhindered views.
For Unseen Secrets
There’s no other way to describe it: the Polytechnic is stunning. Inspired by educational facilities in Vienna, London, Milan, Paris and Strasbourg (to name but a few), and heavily influenced by the Italian Renaissance, exploring the echoing cloisters – capped by a breathtaking glass ceiling – is a joy in itself. But beyond these, additional glories include a pair of inner courtyards that few people know about.
Visit yourself to follow in the footsteps of notable alumni such as Henryk Magnuski (one of the figures credited with inventing the walkie talkie) and Stefan Kuryłowicz (the architect widely hailed for hauling the city into the 21st century with his groundbreaking designs, e.g. Focus Filtrowa, Centrum Królewska, Wolf Bracka, etc.). and one of the greatest super villains the world has ever seen: Ernest Stavro Blofeld.
The fictional figure earned a degree in Engineering and Radionics from the Poly during the inter-war years, before going on to become the star turn and evil mastermind in many of the James Bond books and films.