Cross the Vistula River from the Old Town of Warsaw and you’ll find yourself in Praga. Characterized by its crumbling factories, warehouses and gritty streets, this arty underbelly hugging the east side of the Visulta is undeniably cool, with new bohemian bars, galleries, studios and cultural venues popping up almost every month. But 20 years ago this wasn’t the case. A down-at-heel industrial area, a trip to Praga back then was considered extremely brave – or extremely reckless.
Praga and The Pianist
In fact, ask some Varovisans today about Praga and they’ll tell you it’s still a bit too edgy – and not in a good way. But there’s no denying that Praga has blossomed over the past years, with its burgeoning arts scene leading the way – and it’s about to get a huge boost when a new metro opens in Warsaw. Unlike the city center, Praga remained intact during the bombings, which is why it's one of the few regions in Warsaw which has maintained its historic appearance, and is therefore attractive to the film industry. For example, Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" was filmed there. Visiting Praga, Ryanair and Wizzair fly on Warsaw.
Soho Factory Praga
Massive post-industrial site, formerly home to the Pocisk Munitions Factory and Warsaw Motorcycle Factory, the latter manufacturer of the iconic Osa scooters. Today, a reclaimed artistic sub-district. Famous restaurants (Mateusz Gessler’s Warszawa Wschodnia, Szklarnia) and an eco-food bazaar apart, numerous creative studios and institutions of culture have been located here, such as Teatr Soho, Teatr Niewielki, and the greatly popular Neon Museum. Offering an abundance of multi-purpose space, Soho Factory has also begun hosting many regular events: Slow Weekend, WAWA Design Festival, Summer Jazz Days, and the Warsaw Autumn Music Festival.
Neon Museum Praga
“Neon Muzeum” is the first initiative of its kind in Poland, which highlights the artistic and historic values of post-war neon signs. Designed by world-renowned Polish architects, visual and graphic artists, they have been a part of Polish cities and buildings for years. The museum's goal is not only to document and protect these oldest illuminated advertisements, but also to keep them and tell their stories.
The idea was an instant hit, as shown by the fact that already on the day of its official opening, on 19 May 2012, during the Long Night of Museums, the museum attracted over ten thousand visitors.
Currently, neon signs that are familiar to the citizens of Warsaw but have been removed from their original site are displayed in the 600 m2 area of the Soho Factory in Praga, Warsaw, which hosts this exceptional museum. It features over 40 exhibits, including nearly 400 letters, and new items are still being added. All of them are renovated, as far as possible, on an ongoing basis. The ones that may already be admired in all their glory include: the neon sign of the "Warszawa Wschodnia" (East Warsaw) Railway Station, exposed on one of the buildings of the Soho Factory, the neon sign of "Jaś i Małgosia" café, as well as famous illuminated advertising signs – "Hotel Saski", "Cepelia", "Maszyny do szycia", "Społem", or "Restauracja Ambasador".
But this is not all: visitors with a passion for post-war neon signs may immerse themselves in the abundant photo documentation, collections of archival sketches of neon signs and old postcards.
Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel and Florian the Martyr
Construction of this Catholic church began to meet the pastoral needs of the parish, but also as a direct response to the 'Russification' of Poland. In this way, the church was a form of protest and an act of defiance. In the second half of the 19th century, the monumental Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene was created in Praga, prompting the priest of the local parish to build a new, neo-Gothic form of the Catholic church: its soaring 75-meter-tall towers were visible from afar, and dominated the onion dome of the nearby Orthodox church. During World War II, the church was completely ruined, the only surviving fragments being the external walls and two statues: those of St. Michael the Archangel and St. Florian. Reconstruction lasted until 1970, and was undertaken using bricks that were produced in the 19th century, to give the new church a sense of authenticity.
Metropolitan Orthodox St. Mary Magdalene Church
Built in the second half of the 19th century, the Metropolitan Orthodox St. Mary Magdalene Church (Cerkiew metropolitalna św. Marii Magdaleny) is inspired by Byzantine architecture. Previously, St. Andrew's Church stood in this place, but in the late 18th century, as a symbol of Russian domination, the Catholic church was destroyed and the Orthodox church went up. Its purpose was to serve the large Russian colony which lived near today's Jagiellońska Street, and for the many travelers arriving from Russia. In the basement, mosaic fragments preserved from the defunct Warsaw council of Alexander Nevski are kept. During World War II the Orthodox church survived, thanks to which the interior retains its original design. This is now the Cathedral of the Orthodox Church.
Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Built in the early 20th century, this is one of the most impressive religious buildings in Warsaw. In 1923, Pope Pius XI consecrated the temple and gave it the title of the Minor Basilica. The architecture of the temple is modeled on the Roman basilica of St. Paul. In the soaring belfry (built in the 1990s) there is a bell from 1712.
Church of Our Lady of Loreto
The Church of Our Lady of Loreto (Kościół Matki Bożej Loretańskiej) is the oldest temple in Praga, built in the first half of the 17th century. Its designer was the royal architect Konstanty Tencalla. Inside there is the so-called house of Loreto (a copy of The House of Our Lady in the Italian town of Loretto), where the 15th-century statue of the Virgin Mary Kamionkowska is.
Monument of Praga's Backyard Orchestra
Revealed in 2006, this monument (Pomnik Praskiej Kapeli Podwórkowej)presents a neighborhood band from the days when such musicians roamed the courtyards of Warsaw, especially in the Praga neighborhood, and played popular Warsaw tunes. In the band are a violinist, accordion player, guitarist, banjo player, and a drummer. A small square with benches surrounds the monument, where one can take a rest.
Monument for the Kościuszko Division
This monument is dedicated to the soldiers of the 1st Tadeusz Kościuszko Infantry Division, who died trying to help during the Warsaw Uprising. In September 1944, they failed in their attempt in crossing to the left bank of the Vistula River, trying to help during the Warsaw Uprising. The monument was designed by Andrzej Kasten at the initiative of the Polish Army Veterans Association and Kościuszko Club. It shows a soldier extending his hand, in a dramatic gesture, toward Warsaw’s left-bank. The 12-meter high bronze statue was unveiled in January 1985 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the liberation of Warsaw. The creator of the monument’s architectural environment is B. Chyliński.
Museum of Warsaw Praga
The Museum of Warsaw Praga (Muzeum Warszawskiej Pragi) is in a restored complex of historic buildings at ulica Targowa 50/52, next to the famous Rożycki Bazaar. One of the buildings – former home to Jan Krzyżanowski – was built in late 18th century and is the oldest residential building of Praga district. The second building of this complex, next to a famous bazaar, used to be one of prayer houses for local Jewish community. Museum presents permanent and temporary exhibitions, Archives of Spoken History, ’Dying Professions’ Hall’, reading room and many other attractions. Institution is also focused on educational aspect of their works, it holds intellectual meetings and versages.
Former Water Chamber
This is one of the oldest and most valuable buildings on the right-bank of Warsaw; it’s also called the House of Columns. Built and designed by Antonio Corazzi between 1824-1825, it was for the City Department of Bridges. The building was situated at the entrance to the boat bridge, which was used to cross to the other side of the Vistula River, and it was here that tolls were paid. The chamber performed this function until 1864, when the first permanent crossing of the Vistula River was built – the Kierbedź Bridge.
On the building’s facade is a carved relief by Tomasz Accardi, which represents Neptune’s (the god of the sea) chariot drawn by fish-tailed horses, and surrounded by dolphins. Also interesting are the cast-iron plates documenting the record heights of the Vistula’s water levels in 1813, 1839 and 1844.
In 2007-2008 the building underwent a general overhaul, now, it houses a branch of the Warsaw City Office.
Koneser former vodka factory
This is a complex of red brick buildings from the late 19th century, in which, for over a hundred years, there was an alcohol factory. It's one of the most valuable examples of industrial architecture, as some of the buildings are inspired by Gothic influences (look at the front gate, which often makes visitors think of a castle with a small turret). Today, the former distillery premises are in use by Google Campus Warsaw. The world’s first Polish Vodka Museum is to open in 2018. Until then, the spacious complex is to be transformed into a lifestyle center complete with a hotel, restaurants, shops, offices, and a residential quarter.
Former Jewish Bathhouse
This small building with a façade of red brick was built between 1910-1914, and designed by Naum Horstein. It originally served as a mikvah, that is a Jewish ritual bath. Before the Sabbath (Saturday) and important religious holidays, Jews cleaned away any spiritual impurity in this ‘special pool’. After the war, many things stood in the building, including Office of the Central Committee of Polish Jews, and then a kindergarten and secondary school. Today the building is owned by the Jewish Community, and houses a multicultural high school, named after Jacek Kuroń.
During its renovation in 2009, in the building’s courtyard was found a perfectly preserved pool, which had been used to store rainwater. The former mikveh building is the only one of its kind in Warsaw. It flanks a small square where the Praga synagogue stood until 1961, its foundations preserved underground. On the instructions of the then-authorities the temple was destroyed and the ruins were turned into a small hill, and next to it was built a children's playground.
Established in 1928 in the northern part of the Praski park, the zoo originally had 500 animals only. Completely destroyed during World War Two, it reopened in 1948. Today, it is home to over 12,000 animals representing more than 500 species. There are animals native to Poland, such as otters, brown bears and storks, but there are also a number of exotic species, such as African elephants, Rothschild giraffes, Indian rhinoceros, gibbons, various species of birds, reptiles and tropical fish. Most animals can be viewed from runways, but they are kept inside the buildings in winter. Birds can be found wandering freely around the zoo, living around its ponds and aviaries. Most of them stay in the main aviary, a part of which is the only 'Hall of Free Flight' (Hala Wolnych Lotów) in all of Poland.
Special facilities include the gorilla and chimpanzee residence, the aviary with its free-flight hall resembling an Asian jungle, the hippopotamus house with hippos frolicking underwater on view, and the modern aquarium inhabited by sharks and stingrays.
There are several restaurants in the zoo, as well as various souvenir shops. At the center of the Zoo is the special 'Fairytale Zoo' (Baśniowe Zoo), where children can stroke the animals and feed them carrots and apples; there is also a large, modern, safe playground. The part of the zoological garden grounds is the modernistic villa where director Jan Żabiński and his wife Antonina sheltered people seeking refuge – mainly Jews escaped from the ghetto – during Nazi occupation. The atmosphere and climate of the 1930's is restored to the villa’s interior and Diane Ackerman used the amazing story penned by Antonina Żabińska wife to write The Zookeeper’s Wife. This is also the title of a Hollywood production based on Ackerman’s book, starring Jessica Chastain