In a few words
Warsaw has its club of anti-fans (or at least – the unconvinced) in Poland, but there are just as many enthusiasts. The strength of this metropolis of two million people lies in its incredible contrasts – at a single intersection you will find gloomy socialist-realist edifices, glass skyscrapers from the era of predatory capitalism and the remains of pre-war tenements. It is a sprawling city, but also, as not everyone knows, green and very diverse. Like few others, it is able to surprise and reward the courage to deviate from the beaten path. Finally, it is a city teeming with the energy of countless trendy clubs, cafes and designer stores. Get to know them with us!
Warsaw became the capital and cultural center of Poland rather late, only at the end of the 16th century. The turning point in the history of this city was World War II. The savage occupation and the indomitable spirit of the residents who challenged Hitler in two uprisings led to a situation where the city practically ceased to exist. “Punishment” for resisting the invaders was the sea of ruins that lined the horizon in 1945.
Rebuilt after the war under the supervision of the communist authorities, Warsaw became a spacious and comfortable city to live in, but also very busy. In recent years it has grown dynamically upward and sprawled sideways. Regardless of your tastes and preferences, the Polish capital does not leave you indifferent!
Before you start sightseeing
Warsaw is a highly fragmented city. Attractions here are scattered across various, often distant districts, each with a distinct identity. Fortunately, everything is connected by an efficient public transportation network – subways, streetcars and buses will get you to every corner. Tickets are inexpensive, and picking up a few stops saves you the effort of walking.
In Warsaw, it is best to rely on your nose. You may be fascinated by Socialist Realist architecture or feel most comfortable surrounded by old tenements, you may love modern narrative museums or intimate places where you will get to know better what locals like to do with their free time. Warsaw has it all – you just need to know what you like best!
Around the Palace of Culture
The transportation and financial center of Warsaw is the area around the Palace of Culture and Science. This unwanted “gift” from Stalin – a symbol of Soviet domination over Poland after World War II – is a monumental colossus, modeled on Moscow’s edifices, the top of which you can reach by elevator. At the time of its construction, its snow-white walls contrasted with the ruins of a city slowly rising from the ashes. There were those who wanted to demolish it later, but for most the Palace of Culture has become – for better or worse – a hallmark of the Polish capital.
The eastern wall of the palace is home to the Dramatic Theater and the popular Kulturalna Café, where you can take a moment to relax and plan further sightseeing. On the other side of this part of the palace by another theater, on the other hand, the Studio Club, known for its evening events, has its place.
If you are interested in Socialist Realist architecture, you should head from here along the representative Marszałkowska Street in the direction of Plac Konstytucji, where the scale of architects raising the city from the rubble seems to have reached its peak. If you are curious about what Warsaw looked like before the war, be sure to stop by the Fotoplastikon. In a tiny room on the first floor of the building stands an unusual round metal machine from the beginning of the 20th century, in which with the help of special binoculars you can watch the frames of the old city life.
Toward the Old Town
Warsaw’s Old Town is a real rarity – a completely rebuilt part of the city. It is tiny, but very charming. Walking among the tenements topped with characteristic mansard roofs, you will not believe that most of them were rebuilt from photographs. The last one – only in the 1970s – was the Royal Castle to rise from the ruins, where you can see preserved mementos of Polish kings. A column with a statue of one of them, Sigismund Vasa of the Swedish Vasa dynasty, stands in the square in front of the castle and is one of the symbols of the city. The efforts of restorers involved in the restoration of Warsaw’s Old Town were recognized by UNESCO, which inscribed the entire area on its World Heritage List.
It is the perfect place for a short walk with a coffee break. Pleasant places to stop can be found on Piwna Street or in the neighboring Nowe Miasto district, which also refers in its architecture to the pre-war original. It is also worth walking up to one of the viewing terraces, which offer a view of the Vistula river. From the lofty escarpment on which the Old Town is located you can beautifully see the city and the completely wild other bank of the river (which we will return to).
On the trail of museums
From the Old Town it is not far to the district of Muranów, which before the war was the center of life for Warsaw’s Jewish community. Pre-war Warsaw was the largest center of Jewish culture in Europe – the Hollywood pioneer and founder of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production company Samuel Goldwyn came from here, and Menachem Begin – Israel’s prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate – studied here. During the Nazi occupation, Muranów became a ghetto, where the famous Jewish uprising broke out.
Between the quarters of socialist realist housing, the modern block of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews has sprung up in recent years. At the huge thematic exhibition inside the building you will trace the fate of the community of Polish Jews over 1,000 years, look under the roof of the original wooden synagogue from the village of Gwoździec and see what of all this has survived to this day, co-determining Polish identity forever.
Another trip into the past for you will be a visit to the Warsaw Uprising Museum. The multimedia exhibition colorfully tells the story of the tragic uprising fought by the Polish underground in 1944, and whose traces still mark the entire city today.
For a breather – across the river
You will perfectly regenerate your energy after sightseeing by taking a course to the right bank of the river in Warsaw – Praga. This is a part of the city that escaped the destruction of war and has retained its authentic character. In some places you will hear the true dialect of Warsaw, and between the old tenement houses you will feel the spirit of this fascinating city. The ornaments of the backyards in Praga are tiny chapels with statues of the Virgin Mary, carefully tended and decorated with flowers by the residents.
A very interesting place is the Neon Museum, which is located in a former munitions factory in central Prague. There you will see more than 200 colorful signs that decorated, especially during the communist era, the signs of stores and restaurants. While walking around this part of Warsaw, also keep an eye out for old advertising murals. Some have managed to be preserved to this day, and the colorful paintings delight the graphic imagination of the designers.
In recent years Praga has become a fashionable district of clubs, restaurants, cafes and designer stores. You will find especially many of them in the area of Ząbkowska and Brzeska Streets. Be sure to try the “pyzy” – potato balls with stuffing in various flavors, also available in vegetarian versions. It is the perfect quick and nutritious snack for an urban wander.
On the Vistula River
Warsaw’s life moves to the river in the summer. Over the past several years, the city has made many efforts to turn the once neglected boulevards on the Vistula River into a lively attraction for the city. The two banks of the river are distinctly different. In Praga, the shoreline is wild, full of willow groves and beaches stretching for miles, where residents relax in the summer. An unparalleled piece of nature in the middle of the city! The coast of the older part of Warsaw, on the other hand, has become an elegant boulevard full of restaurants and pubs – some of them you will find on land, and some on barges moored at the shore. Particularly abundant is a section of the boulevard near the Copernicus Science Center, in the Powiśle district, which is particularly popular with young residents.
The Royal Baths area is a representative, governmental part of the city. A huge park with an 18th-century palace in the middle of a pond stretches between numerous embassies and ministry headquarters. Poland of the time of its last king, Stanislaus Augustus, may not have had the means and opportunities to build a second Versailles in its capital, but the king was an enlightened man, and one of the most beautiful reminders of the local enlightenment are the Warsaw Baths, where peacocks sometimes stroll proudly.
Ujazdowski Castle, adjacent to the park, houses the Center for Contemporary Art, where one can sometimes come across interesting exhibitions of artists of the postmodern era. It is also worth taking a short walk past the footbridge by the castle and seeing the estate of Finnish houses in Jazdów. This oasis of quiet in the middle of the city has an amazing history. The wooden, one-story Scandinavian-style houses here were donated to the city by the Soviet Union as offices and homes for engineers overseeing the reconstruction of the capital. In turn, they had previously found their way to Russia as… a kind of tribute paid by Finns who resisted the Soviet offensive during the Winter War in 1940.
Today, the Jazdów houses have been taken over by a community of urban activists and cultural animators. In the summer, intimate concerts and literary evenings are held in the secluded gardens lit by garlands of lamps. Some of the cottages also function as coworking spaces – for a small fee, you can sit down, have a cup of coffee and work in peace.
Website of the Royal Baths: https://www.lazienki-krolewskie.pl/en
Website of the Center for Contemporary Art in Ujazdowski Castle: https://u-jazdowski.pl/en/main
With the rhythm of the night
Warsaw is a city that tends to stay awake. The multitude and abundance of nightclubs, pubs, cinemas and theaters evoke justifiable associations with Berlin. You will find most of them in the area of Plac Zbawiciela – a characteristic round square in the southern part of the city center. There you will enjoy the atmosphere of cosmopolitan Warsaw, which, though battered by history, has bravely risen from its knees and is walking through the 21st century with renewed energy.
A word about festivals
Warsaw’s urban sprawl does not make it the best place for festivals, but you will find some noteworthy events here, too. Fans of classical music primarily associate the Frederic Chopin International Piano Competition. The world-class event under the patronage of the prominent Polish composer associated with Warsaw takes place every five years – the next edition will be held in 2025. The Powiśle district is home to the biographical Chopin Museum dedicated to this Romantic classic in music. In summer, on the other hand, the streets of the old city center are filled with music from the Jazz in the Old Town festival concerts.
Website of the Chopin Competition: https://chopin2020.pl/en/
More about the Chopin Museum: https://muzeum.nifc.pl/en//
Website of the Jazz in the Old Town festival (in Polish): http://www.jazznastarowce.pl/
After such a trip, it is almost certain that you will jump from the club of the unconvinced to the group of declared fans of Warsaw. The time invested in discovering this city more than pays for itself. There is something about these walls that permanently changes travel patterns and habits. Cheers!