Charming it ain’t, but Poland’s rapidly changing capital is one of the most exciting places in the world right now, with its hedonistic nightlife, artistic scene and off-the-wall treasures. Warsaw native Kamila Napora is our guide.
The “Phoenix city” or “mini Berlin” are two of Warsaw’s most common monikers, and both are well earned. The Polish capital, with its unfortunate location on the east-west and north-south crossroads, has had to struggle a lot through the centuries to eventually rise from the ashes of WWII and the oppression of Communism. But today the city bustles with a confidence and creativity that mimics the renaissance of the German capital and that sense that, right now, anything is possible.
For the traveller, Warsaw’s rich and turbulent history, beautiful architecture, hidden corners, abundance of green spaces to relax in (nearly 25% of the city is parkland), fine restaurants, cheap eateries (…dishing up homely Polish food) and cool quirky bars are its main draws. The fact that it plays second fiddle in terms of the prettier, but more provincial, Krakow in no ways demeans the capital as a tourist destination. Rather it appears further from the beaten Central European track and offers a perfect break to anyone who prefers some big city grit and glamour over Krakow’s quaint cobbles and cafes.
Best of the Beaten Track
No matter if you come to Warsaw by train or by plane one of the first remarkable things you will notice is the Palace of Culture and Science, (ironically) dubbed as “Stalin’s gift to the people of Poland”. Love it or loathe it, it’s an undeniably jaw-dropping example of Soviet architecture. Take a closer look at the sculptures around the base, depicting people from the working class – they will make you feel tiny (just as Stalin no doubt wanted). Personally, I wouldn’t bother with the lift to the 30th floor – not only is it overpriced but the view from the top isn’t as amazing as you might imagine.
Warsaw’s Old Town might be among the most picturesque in Europe but it is not quite what it seems at first sight. Completely destroyed during World War II (only two buildings survived!) it was rebuilt based on the Bellotto’s paintings from the 18th century, eventually making it onto the UNESCO list as an incredible example of complete reconstruction. Keep this in mind when you wander the narrow cobbled streets, admiring the colourful facades of tenant houses, or walk the city walls. If you’re around on Sunday visit the Royal Castle as the entrance is free of charge then – you would never guess the building and its rich interior was completed barely 30 years ago! Be sure to climb into the tower of St. Anne’s church to admire the incredible view of the Old Town, the newer part of the city and, across Vistula river, Praga district.
A walk along the Royal Route (which leads down from the Old Town) will take you to Łazienki (Royal Baths) Park – a former summer residence of the king. You might notice that Warsaw is an extremely green city and parks occupy a big part of it but this is the favourite place for locals and visitors to go for a walk and relax. It gathers big crowds especially on Sundays when at noon talented pianists play Chopin – it’s not hard to find the spot as the concerts take place at the square next to the monument of the renowned Polish composer.
Take the tram across the river to Praga neighbourhood – it used to be a separate town, then a workers’ district and the poorest part of the city, and now serves as the bohemian heart of Warsaw. Praga wasn’t badly destroyed during the war so visiting it is as real and authentic experience as you can get in Warsaw. The place is still considered dangerous, a lot of local people refuse to visit it after dark and there are streets that should be avoided but if you’re brave enough you’re up for a treat. Beautiful brick houses are still riddled with bullet holes – the best evidence of the troublesome history – courtyards hide colourful kitsch shrines of St. Mary and the monument of the Praga Yard Band reminds us of the lost pre-war Warsaw culture (if you want to hear some music from that time just text the number of one of the songs and the band will start playing for you: a list of 100 songs is written down on the monument’s drum). The Praga neighbourhood is also where you can find some of the best and most quirky pubs in town, especially on Ząbkowska and Jagiellońska streets.
Pretty nearby, just across the train tracks and behind Warszawa Wschodnia train station one of the most hip spots in the city can be found – Soho Factory. But before you get there pay attention to the abandoned house on Mińska street that you will pass as that’s where probably the best mural in town is painted. The fairytale castle by the British artist Phlegm occupies the whole side wall of the house and fits there just perfectly. Soho Factory is where designer stores or hip restaurants are located but the main reason why you should visit the place is Neon Muzeum – one of the biggest highlights of Warsaw. You will be overwhelmed by the colours and shapes of bright neon signs dating to the Soviet time and collected from all over Poland.
To explore the Praga in greater depth, including its art scene, sampling classic snacks AND entrance to the aforementioned Neon Museum, try this tour by Urban Adventures.
If you are interested in the history and want to understand Warsaw better head to the Warsaw Uprising Museum, a modern and interactive museum showing the story of the most important 63 days that shaped the city forever… and eventually led to its heartbreaking annihilation at the hands of the fleeing Nazis (whilst the Red Army stood and watched from across the river). Not far from there you will find Keret House – an artistic project known also as one of the narrowest houses in the world (92 centimeters in the narrowest point). It was designed as a working space for the Israeli writer Etgar Keret but other writers can use it too in search of inspiration. This part of Warsaw – Wola – is also where the city’s enormous and beautiful cemeteries are located. Even if you’re not usually a big fan of these it’s worth visiting them to reflect on the multicultural past of the city.
Experience & Events
Like in any other big Polish city with a student population, May is the month of Juwenalia. That means crazy events, lots of beer and some decent concerts of Polish and international (sometimes even very well known) bands as students celebrate the end of exams. Summer however is the time to enjoy Warsaw at its best – a multitude of events, gigs at the riverside, open air cinemas in action all over the city, jazz concerts at the Old Town Square and performances of Chopin’s music in Łazienki.
If you want to explore a different side of the Polish capital Adventure Warsaw offers off the beaten path or communist tours. The company also has a communism museum if you’d like to experience the good old times. From March to November you can also use the city bikes to explore the capital on two wheels. All you need to do is register with a phone number and have a balance of minimum 10 złoty (2.50€). The bike stations are spread all over the city and the first 20 minutes are free of charge.
Located next door from the Presidential Palace, Hotel Bristol offers luxury and upscale accommodation just few steps away from the Old Town. Even though I hesitate to recommend a chain hotel Novotel Centrum offers probably the best view of downtown Warsaw, dominated of course by the Palace of Science and Culture. From quality hostels Warsaw Downtown and Oki Doki garner the best reviews. There are also numerous private apartments to rent, if you prefer a homestay style experience.
Your best option for a typical Polish wholehearted lunch, as if homemade, is at a bar mleczny (“milk bar”). These extremely affordable eateries, serving simple yet delicious food, are a remnant of the old Soviet times but recently they have made a big come back on the food scene. No matter if you go to rusty Rusałka that looks and feels like time stopped there back in the 80s (and has Soviet service to match) or if you opt for Prasowy with a funky interior and a clientele that varies from hipsters to old ladies you are in for a treat. For all pierogi fans Zapiecek is the place to eat. The restaurant has several location across the city where the girls, dressed in folk costumes, will serve you some delicious dumplings of various flavours – you can also make your own mix and try as many different ones as you wish! One of the most popular places among locals to dine in is U Szwejka, a restaurant serving mostly Czech food. It’s not unusual to see a long line of people waiting for the table so best to reserve in advance.
Start your evening with getting a vodka shot or two in Ulubiona – a tiny bar hidden in the gate at Nowy Świat where each evening a different kind of vodka costs 2zł (0.5€) per shot and other flavours are in pretty attractive prices too. Across the street, enter the gate next to Carrefour market and you will find yourself in Pawilony, a pub paradise with more than 20 venues to choose from! But the favourite spot for young locals to hang out in is the riverside. It’s still a pretty new thing but in the past few years both banks of the Vistula river have become a nightlife hotspots: you can either enjoy a live concert at the beach, a movie screening at one of the barges, or a beer with friends at the stairs leading to the river next to Poniatowskiego Bridge (not a fully legal thing but so many people do that it’s hard to find a place to sit sometimes). If you’re in the party mood head either to Praga and 11 Listopada street where you’ll find several clubs, or else head to Plac Zbawiciela – aka “Plac Hipstera” – to hang out with the beard brigade.
Getting There & Around
Warsaw’s central location in Europe makes it incredibly easy to get to. Low cost airlines will fly you into the city from most of the European countries and cheap yet super comfortable buses will be your friend on the way to/from Prague, Berlin or the Baltic States (check out our guides to Vilnius and Tallinn if you’re going). If you’re arriving in Warsaw from another Polish city then PolskiBus is the cheapest option, with tickets starting at a paltry 1zł (0.25€) for some journeys. The trains are faster however, especially if you’re travelling to Krakow as there’s a regular express service that will get you there in around 2.5 hours. Expect to pay around 150zł though.
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Any book that treats about Warsaw in the times of the war, the Jewish Ghetto Uprising and Warsaw Uprising will help you understand the city, its past and its struggles. But the one you cannot miss is The Pianist by Władysław Szpilman, that inspired the moving Hollywood epic.
The movie version of the aforementioned The Pianist is first on the list, but if you want to become an honorary Pole take the time to watch Kanał. Following Stalin’s death in 1953 an ease on censorship in Communist-era Poland allowed Andrzej Wajda to make his 1956 film about the heroic but ill-fated Warsaw Uprising.
Soundtrack to the City
Continuing your travels in Poland? Well stay tuned, because we know the country better than most! Check out our guide to a weekend break in Wroclaw, our tips on visiting Lodz and our guide to the undiscovered Eastern gem of Lublin. We’ve got plenty of Krakow stories for you too.