Warsaw was founded by the Dukes of this region of Poland, Mazovia, in the late 12th century. Their castle, which was transformed into the Royal Castle in 1569, was the most important building in the area. The Old Town (Stare Miasto or Starowka) grew up around it in 13th century and is the oldest district of Warsaw.
In September 1939 during the German invasion of Warsaw the Old Town was badly damaged by the Luftwaffe. Later in 1944 some of the hardest battles of the Warsaw Uprising took place here (1944) and the Old Town was turned into rubble.
After the war it was reconstructed together with the Royal Castle with great effort of all Poles. When the reconstruction was completed in 1984, the Old Town was placed on the UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites as "an outstanding example of a near-total reconstruction of a span of history covering the 13th to the 20th century."
The Old Town stretches between Wybrzeze Gdanskie Street, Grodzka, Mostowa and Powale Street. Nowdays it impresses tourists with its cobbled streets and unique old architecture. The heart of the area is the Old Town Market Square with the mermaid fountain which is the symbol of Warsaw. The burgher houses that line the Old Town Square are particularly striking, with many boasting intricate details on the façades. A 15th century town hall that occupied the centre of the square was pulled down in 1817 and has never been replaced.
The favoured haunt of street artists, one Rynek act to watch for is Piotr Boł - a cagey character with a parrot and one of Europe’s last few music boxes.
The major building of the Old Town is still the Royal Castle. Surrounding streets feature old architecture such as City Walls, The Barbican and St. John's Cathedral. Thanks to its special atmosphere the Old Town is ideal for walks and dine around.
St. John’s Cathedral was built in 14th century and was the oldest Warsaw’s church. The last Polish King – Stanisław August Poniatowski was crowned and buried here. He also announced in 1791 the May Constitution inside of the building.
In front of the Royal Castle you will find the twenty two meters high Sigismund Column (Kolumna Zygmunta). It was built in 1644 to commemorate Kind Sigismond III Vasa who in 1596 moved the capital from Krakow to Warsaw.
The Column collapsed during the war bombardment – the orginal one lies now next to the Royal Castle. The new column with the original figure of Sigismund at the top was re – erected in 1949.
The network of cobbled streets that lie east of the square are probably the most intriguing. A few inches wider than a doorway, the house at ul. Kanonia 20/22 is one of the narrowest in the world.
Close by is the covered walkway that was built following the failed assassination of King Sigismund III. While the King escaped unmolested, his would be killer faced a rather grisly end. According to popular myth Michał Piekarski, the hapless hitman, was skinned alive, stretched using four horses and had his hands cut off before being put out of his misery courtesy of a blunt axe.
The archway on ul. Dawna leads to a grassy bank that boasts fantastic views of the Wisła river and Praga district.
On the other side of Old Town, the area around ul. Piekarska and ul. Rycerska was once home to a small square used for executions. Nicknamed Piekałka (Little Hell), this is where witches and vagabonds were once burned alive or beheaded.
The tiny ul. Wąski Dunaj played home to Warsaw’s Jewish population back in the middle ages, while Szeroka Dunaj was home to a large fish market. Tadeusz Kościuszko, leader of the 1794 insurrection, lived at ul. Szeroka Dunaj 5.
A set of defensive walls mark the boundary of Old Town, with the crowning piece being the Barbakan - a fearsome structure built in 1548 using the designs of a Venetian architect. Today, the Barbakan serves as a bridge between the old and new parts of town.
More information: http://www.inyourpocket.com/poland/city/warsaw.html