That the current Polish capital is often overshadowed by Krakow, its predecessor, is largely a matter of aesthetics. Warsaw was almost completely flattened during the Second World War and what sprang up afterwards, in classic communist style, tended towards the functional rather than the beautiful. Yet, the city has always had an abundance of playful energy and a youthful edge, and now, it’s changing on the outside to reflect what’s always been bubbling underneath. Run-down areas are being refurbished, shiny new buildings are springing up, and the creative spirit is being harnessed in everything from cool bars to striking museums. Warsaw is an ugly duckling no longer.
“It’s not the same since they took away the rainbow,” says Iza, my guide. We’re on Plac Zbawiciela, also known as Plac Hipstera (Hipster Square), which is encircled by cool cafes and clubs and an even cooler clientele. And, although the art installation — a rainbow made of artificial flowers — that sat in its centre from 2012 to 2015 has gone, the area’s alternative vibe is still strong.
Covering a swathe of central Warsaw (the name literally translates as ‘city centre’), Śródmieście is full of busy thoroughfares and headline attractions, including the Presidential Palace and the National Museum. Yet, south of Warszawa Centralna train station and that towering example of socialist realist architecture, the Palace of Culture and Science, you’ll find a neighbourhood of narrower streets and handsome buildings — a stylish enclave of quirky bars and independent boutiques.
Parts of this area came through the Second World War relatively unscathed (almost 90% of the city was destroyed) and among the grand structures still standing is H15. This 19th-century edifice once served as the Soviet embassy, and during the Occupation was the Nazi headquarters, but it’s now a boutique hotel, perfectly positioned on Ulica Poznańska, Śródmieście’s best street for drinking and dining. Here, hip Varsovians bar-hop between late-night joints such as Grizzly Gin Bar, which claims to have Poland’s biggest selection of the spirit, and Polonez, a ‘club-cafe’ that serves smoothies by day and cocktails by night.
The surrounding roads are home to trendsetting design shops (my favourite is Pan Tu Nie Stał, which does an excellent line in Polish-made fashions and accessories), along with a few independent art galleries. And, as of last autumn, the hottest attraction has been Hala Koszyki. This market hall, dating back to 1906, has been restored and extended to create a multi-restaurant food court. Serving everything from sushi to tapas, it also houses design company offices, a yoga studio and art exhibition spaces.
“Lots of Polish celebrities were photographed here when it first opened,” says Iza. But while the celebs have gone, the public have stuck around, so be prepared to wait for a table.
Stretching out along the river’s western bank, Powiśle was once a place of disrepute and extreme poverty, but today it couldn’t be more different. Bordered by Warsaw University, the Academy of Fine Arts and the city’s music college, this is a cultured corner of the capital that’s intellectual and laid-back. And while it melts into Śródmieście to the west, it has its own distinct identity.
For the most part, shops are few and far between, and as a result Powiśle has a real neighbourhood ambience. Locals flock to landmark cafes for long, leisurely brunches, while students and young creatives nurse complicated drinks and tap away on their laptops in smart coffee shops like Stor.
In summer, the beaches along the Vistula River come alive with pop-up cafes and bars on boats, but the area’s numerous parks do a good job of sustaining the outdoorsy atmosphere all year. Architecturally, the area’s a bit of a mish-mash, and as I walk along the riverbank, the style ranges from the traditional to the outlandish. Mid-century office blocks are interspersed with the odd art nouveau apartment building — and then there’s the Copernicus Science Centre. This boxy, red construction was a controversial addition to the area when it opened in 2010, but while some see it as an eyesore, its interactive exhibits and planetarium are undeniably popular; 10 minutes before opening time and I’m weaving through a queue outside that’s already several dozen families deep.
Close by is Warsaw University Library, which looks older than its 18 years, covered in oxidised copper and a living wall of vines. Inside, as well as the obvious, it contains the Polish Poster Gallery, which displays (and sells) some amazing examples of Poland’s unique graphic design style.
Atop the library is something that in itself is worth detouring to Powiśle for. I follow the few rather vague signs out to the side of the building, where a staircase leads up to the roof garden. Spread over two levels, orderly plant beds are criss-crossed with paths, bridges and pergolas, while the ventilation shafts emerging from the building add a touch of steampunk aesthetic. From here you can look out on to the rooftops of the city, or over to the Vistula.
Powiśle rewards flaneurs, and the library garden is just one curiosity waiting to be found. Elsewhere, discover the punk-style mural of Polish-born Marie Curie on Ulica Lipowa, or a stone mermaid (the symbol of Warsaw), staring out from the riverbank.
Some locals are still wary of Praga. My Polish cousin is skeptical when I mention I’m going there, and Iza tells me there are streets she wouldn’t walk down alone. But things have changed in this once crime-ridden district in eastern Warsaw. Just like rough-and-ready neighbourhoods the world over, artists and other creative types have moved in, replacing the graffiti tags with street art and the boarded-up shops with dive bars. Śródmieście may have Hipster Square, but Praga is the city’s true hipster heartland.
This sprawling district can be a little overwhelming for visitors, as the main pockets of interest are quite far apart, so come with a clear plan. Some parts feel rather derelict, where beautiful tenement blocks have been allowed to crumble and plots of land have been left vacant, but in other areas the historic architecture is being returned to its former glory and smart new developments are appearing.
Ulica Ząbkowska is the best place to explore on foot. Here, hip bars such as W Oparach Absurdu, with its brick walls and kitsch furniture, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with traditional shops where you can see old ladies making pierogi. And housed within the neo-gothic Koneser vodka distillery is Google’s Campus Warsaw tech hub, with a vodka museum and new hotel on the way.
Meanwhile, the liveliest nightlife is to be found on Ulica 11 Listopada, where a pair of alternative venues are positioned around a graffiti-clad courtyard; in summer, tables and chairs cater to their overspill. But, the development that put Praga on the map was Soho Factory. Once a place where munitions and motorcycles were made, it’s now a collection of artists’ studios, flats, a fringe theatre, restaurants and the brilliant Neon Muzeum. Here, I walk between rows of Cold War-era signs salvaged from hotels, shops and even a public library.
Round the corner, Iza leads me down a dingy back street to a place I’m almost certain I wouldn’t be able to find again. It’s Czar PRL, a museum commemorating day-to-day life in communist Poland. The reconstructed flat, with its vintage vacuum cleaners and cheap laminate furniture, is a throwback to an era I just about remember from childhood trips to see my grandma in Warsaw. Time has stood still here, while outside, everything is changing fast.
When in Warsaw
Some of Poland’s communist-era, wallet-friendly milk bars are still around today. Expect cheap pierogi (dumplings), soups and stews, brusque staff and no-frills decor. Among the best are the refurbished Prasowy, and the more rustic Familijny.
Some of Warsaw’s prettiest architecture has been reconstructed since the Second World War. See the colourful Old Town, rebuilt using many of the original bricks, and Łazienki, the carefully restored royal park.
Forget tinnies of Tyskie and Lech, like the rest of Poland, Warsaw is home to a growing number of craft breweries. Try Cuda Na Kiju, a bar in the old Communist Party HQ, and Artezan, which brews
To some Varsovians, Sundays mean one thing: Targ Śniadaniowy (breakfast market), where food stalls sell dishes from across Poland and beyond. There’s one in Żoliborz and another in Mokotów.
The Warsaw Rising Museum tells the story of the city’s rebellion against the Nazis, while Polin (the Museum of the History of Polish Jews) opened in 2013 on the site of the former Jewish ghetto.
Published in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)