Look out over the roofs of the attractive buildings of Warsaw’s Old Town and it’s easy to believe that they’ve been there for hundreds of years. The medieval charm of the maze of cobbled streets, baroque churches and welcoming bars and restaurants hides the fact that the area was rebuilt from a pile of rubble after 1945. Even now it continues to change as Warsaw becomes one of Europe’s most modern cities and an increasingly popular destination for short breaks.
I first visited my family in Warsaw in 1978 at a time of queues, empty shelves and ration books. I’ve since returned many times and observed as the city eagerly shook off its communist shackles and developed its own contemporary flair. Today, Warsaw boasts a variety of world-class museums, restaurants and independent hotels.
The city was occupied by the Germans from 1939 to 1945 and was completely destroyed after the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, when it earned the unwanted label of being the world’s most bombed city. There are many memorials to the tragic events of 1944 throughout the city and the recently opened Uprising Museum tells the story of those days in harrowing detail.
Across the river, the Praga district escaped the worst of the war damage and while the rest of Warsaw was rebuilt, Praga’s redbrick factories and warehouses fell into decline. It still carries the burden of post-industrial neglect and decay, but within its crumbling walls a growing number of new museums, restaurants and bars are slowly putting the area on the map for visitors.
While the years of painful occupation and communist-era repression will never be forgotten, Warsaw is very much a modern city, retaking its rightful place as one of Europe’s great cultural centres. The newly opened Faras Gallery in the National Museum showcases the only examples of Nubian church paintings outside of Sudan, while the major new Museum of the History of Polish Jews is destined to be a major centre of European Jewish heritage, which will attract visitors from around the world.
And thanks in no small part to the many young Poles who’ve spent time working abroad, it’s becoming increasingly hard to find a Varsovian who doesn’t speak excellent English. Not only does this make it easier for visitors to get help from locals, but it also means that many people go out of their way to chat to visitors and make them feel welcome in their city.
What to see & do
Museum of the History of Polish Jews: This new museum provides an interactive overview of over 1,000 years of Jewish life in Poland. The replica of the roof of the 17th-century synagogue of Gwozdziec is particularly impressive.
Lazienki Park: The palace at the heart of this park was home to the last king of Poland and now holds collections of paintings and sculptures.
Chopin Museum: This high-tech museum provides a journey through the life of one of Warsaw’s most celebrated citizens, with regular stops providing the opportunity to don a pair of headphones and listen to his work.
Czar PRL – Life under Communism Museum: This museum in the Praga quarter offers a glimpse of the absurdities of life in communist times.
Neon Muzeum: This former factory building in Praga is home to a growing collection of the iconic neon signs that once lit up many of Poland’s otherwise drab post-war buildings.
Wilanów Palace: Get lost in this baroque 18th-century royal palace’s many rooms before exploring its formal gardens and lake. Audio-guides are available to tour the palace but there’s plenty of information in each of the rooms.
Faras Gallery at the National Museum: This collection of well-preserved Nubian wall paintings, dating from the eighth century, was rescued in the 1960s from Sudan’s Faras Cathedral before it was flooded during the building of the Aswan Dam.
A Blikle: Choose from a range of high-quality cakes and chocolates in gift boxes at any of the shops belonging to this small chain of artisan bakers and confectioners.
Amber shops: You’ll find many shops in the Old Town selling a range of golden amber bracelets and necklaces, as well as more chunky items like model ships and chess sets made of amber. Ask to see certificates of authenticity before you buy.
Bargain Hunting in Warsaw Markets: The infamous Russian market has now gone, although there are still some great flea markets if you’re prepared to get up early and head to the suburbs. Nowadays, you’re more likely to find farmers’ markets selling organic and healthy produce.
Where to stay
Oki Doki Hostel: Cosy dorms and brightly coloured private rooms, some with bathrooms, in this funky hostel with its own bar, hand-painted murals and a separate smoking room.
Castle Inn: Individually decorated rooms in this Old Town hotel include a deluxe Maharaja room with four-poster bed and a Persian-themed single room. Some rooms overlook Castle Square.
Mamaison Hotel Le Regina Warsaw: Originally an 18th-century nobleman’s house, this modern luxury hotel offers elegant rooms with wall paintings and some with private gardens. There’s also an indoor pool and a fine dining restaurant.
Where to eat
Krowarzywa: Vegetarian and vegan dining at this new burger joint is so good that 80% of its regulars are carnivores who simply crave the delicious burgers. Seating is limited with diners standing in the street in good weather.
Solec 44: Chef Aleksander Baron serves up creative modern dishes with a seasonal a la carte menu and a distinctive tasting menu that includes nose-to-tail concoctions. There’s also a wide range of board games and regular live music.
Butchery and Wine: Poland’s first authentic steak house offers succulent Polish steaks at a fraction of typical European prices, accompanied by a wide selection of wines. The friendly staff will help pair wines with meat options.
Mielzynski: This modern wine bar and wine shop is tucked away in the northern suburbs. Staff will help customers choose from the thousands of wines from around the world. The bar gets very busy at weekends.
Bar Warszawa: A stone’s throw from the Old Town, this laid-back bar with mirrored walls is located above a busy restaurant. A small table on the balcony overlooks Castle Square.
Pijalnia Wódki i Piwa: For an evening of vodka and traditional Polish bar snacks, head to this no-nonsense 24-hour bar that’s popular with staff and students from the nearby university. Nowy Swiat 19a. T: 00 48 796 110 000.
Like a local
Obey traffic signals: Jaywalking is illegal in Poland and while the modest fines aren’t always enforced, most locals will wait obediently, if not always patiently, for the lights to change.
Talk politics: Forget the rule about never discussing politics on your travels. There are few Poles who won’t be willing to share their typically scathing opinions about the state of their local and national government, wider European politics and the latest worries about Uncle Vlad to the east.
The 175 bus between the airport and city takes around 45 minutes and costs 4.40 zloty (80p). Buses and trams are cheap and plentiful and a long-awaited second metro line opened in October 2014.
When to go
Spring and autumn are ideal times to visit, as summers can be very hot and winters harsh. A varied festival programme includes the Festival of Jewish Culture in Warsaw, which takes place in August, and the Warsaw Film Festival, in October. The annual Christmas markets are always colourful events that draw large crowds.
Need to know
Visas: Poland is a member of the EU and no visas are required for UK citizens.
Currency: Zloty (PLN). £1 = 5.30 zloty
International dial code: 00 48.
Time difference: GMT +1.
How to do it
Most visitors book their flights to Warsaw directly with an airline and arrange their city hotel online. Check out laterooms.com or booking.com to find Warsaw hotels. Regent Holidays offers three nights’ B&B at the Polonia Palace Hotel with return flights from £365.
Published in the March 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)