Travelling through the grey, faceless housing estates surrounding WARSAW (WARSZAWA) or walking through the grimy Stalinist tracts that punctuate the centre, you could be forgiven for wishing yourself elsewhere. A knowledge of Warsaw's rich and often tragic history can transform the city, revealing voices from the past in even the ugliest quarters: a pockmarked wall becomes a precious prewar relic, a housing estate the one-time centre of Europe's largest ghetto, the whole city a living book of modern history. Among the concrete, there are reconstructed traces of Poland's imperial past, including a castle, a scattering of palaces and parks, and the restored streets of the historic Stare Miasto, while the headlong rush into the embrace of capitalist culture is already throwing up its own particular architectural legacy, some of it familiar – towering skyscrapers and plush Western shopfronts – some more original – Party headquarters turned stock exchanges, Stalin-era palaces transformed into business centres. Indeed, new construction is everywhere: many of the areas of waste ground left untouched since the destruction of World War II have disappeared under gleaming new office blocks, while many public squares (notably pl. Defilad and pl. Bankowy) are receiving extensive facelifts in order to make room for brand-new metro stations, department stores or corporate headquarters.
Wending its way north towards Gdansk and the Baltic Sea, the Wisla river divides Warsaw neatly in half: the main sights are located on the western bank, the eastern consists predominantly of residential and business districts. Marking the northern end of the city centre, the busy Stare Miasto (Old Town) provides the historic focal point. Rebuilt from scratch after World War II like most of Warsaw, the magnificent Zamek Królewski (Royal Castle), ancient Archikatedra sw. Jana (St John's Cathedral) and the Rynek Starego Miasta (Old Town Square) are the most striking examples of the capital's reconstruction. Baroque churches and the former palaces of the aristocracy line the streets west of the ring of defensive walls, and to the north, in the quietly atmospheric Nowe Miasto (New Town).
West of the Stare Miasto, in the Muranów and Mirów districts, is the former ghetto area, where the Nozyck Synagogue and the ul. Okopowa cemetery bear poignant testimony to the lost Jewish population. South from the Stare Miasto lies Sródmiescie, the city's commercial centre, its skyline dominated by the Palac Kultury i Nauk (Palace of Culture), Stalin's permanent legacy to the citizens of Warsaw. Linking the Stare Miasto and Sródmiescie, Krakowskie Przedmiescie is dotted with palaces and Baroque spires, and forms the first leg of the Trakt Królewski (Royal Way), a procession of open boulevards stretching all the way from plac Zamkowy to the stately king's residence at Wilanów on the southern outskirts of the city. Along the way is Park Lazienkowski, one of Warsaw's many delightful green spaces and the setting for the charming Palac Lazienkowski (Lazienki Palace), surrounded by waterways and lakes. Further out, the city becomes a welter of high-rise developments, but among them, historic suburbs like Zoliborz to the north and Praga to the east give a flavour of the authentic life of contemporary Warsaw.
Warsaw is a much livelier and more cosmopolitan place than it's given credit for in the West. It is a little-known fact, for instance, that there are up to thirty thousand Americans living in Warsaw – much the same number as in Prague – and since they're not all trying to write the Great American Novel, their contribution to the Polish capital has been more marked in terms of cuisine and practical facilities. It's an eye-opening experience for many people to walk the bustling, vibrant streets, though a notable side-effect of this influx of new money are the beggars that you'll encounter every few steps, from the limbless and blind to the headscarved elderly bent double against the elements.