WARSAW, Poland -- From memorials of its dramatic history to enchanting parks and Vistula River banks, Warsaw offers a great deal for free to visitors who add Poland's capital to their must-see list.
Dating back to the 12th century, Warsaw was ravaged by German Nazis during World War II and was rebuilt under communist rule in the so-called Socialist Realism style. Communism was ousted in 1989 and this city of some 2 million residents is rapidly changing in an effort to catch up with other capitals in the European Union, which Poland joined in 2004.
The Royal Route: The Royal Route runs some seven miles from Warsaw's Old Town south to the Baroque royal mansion of Wilanow. You can take a 1.2-mile stroll from Charles de Gaulle roundabout -- with its landmark plastic palm tree and former communist party headquarters ironically turned into financial offices -- to the Old Town, which dates to the 13th century, but was totally rebuilt from war damage.
Going down the Nowy Swiat (New World) and Krakowskie Przedmiescie streets, you will pass fashionable shops, cafes, monuments to Polish astronomer Nicolas Copernicus and romanticism-era poet Adam Mickiewicz, and the Presidential Palace. You can check out the Warsaw University yard and some Baroque churches. The Old Town will greet you with a monument to King Sigismund III Vasa in the form of a 17th century column, and with the Royal Castle, totally rebuilt in the 1970s. Enjoy the tiny cobblestone streets and the Market Square, and stroll beyond the medieval walls, into the New Town that dates back to the 15th century.
Lazienki Park: Part of the Royal Route, the 17th century Royal Baths park is one of the most picturesque parks in Europe. There is a charge for visitors to the ornate Palace on the Isle, but you can just stroll for free in the surrounding park and gardens, around the pond, and watch ducks, peacocks and squirrels. Free piano concerts of Frederic Chopin music are held near the Polish composer's monument on Sundays, May through September. Open air performances are to resume in the ancient-style Amphitheater in 2014. Details at lazienki-krolewskie.pl.
Warsaw Rising Museum: Opened in 2004, the multimedia Warsaw Rising museum presents films, pictures and dramatic accounts of resistance fighters from the doomed 1944 struggle against occupying Nazi German forces. The museum has a replica of an RAF Liberator bomber downed by the Germans after it dropped supplies to the fighters. Some 200,000 fighters and residents were killed and the city was razed. The revolt took place the year after the 1943 uprising by a handful of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. The museum is free on Sundays starting Sept. 1 and in August free on Mondays. Details at 1944.pl/en/.
Multimedia Fountain Park and University Library Roof: A new fountain with some 360 water jets in Rybaki street near the Old Town is a popular venue, especially on Friday and Saturday evenings when laser light and music shows are on, May through September. It's also a favorite playground for children on warm days. Just over a mile away, also on the Vistula bank, there is a park and a garden on the roof of the modern Warsaw University Library in Dobra street, offering a nice view over the river. Details at estrada.com.pl
Vistula River beaches: A rare occurrence in Europe's big cities, Warsaw has natural river banks and three beaches, on the right side of the Vistula: near the Zoo, near the Poniatowskiego Bridge -- with a free ferry across the river -- and near the Lazienkowski Bridge. They are all connected by a path among trees, used by cyclists, joggers and strollers.