Packed with a bizarre mix of gleaming office buildings and grey, Communist-era apartment blocks, WARSAW (Warszawa) often bewilders backpackers. Yet if any city rewards exploration, it is the Polish capital. North of the lively centre are stunning Baroque palaces and the meticulously reconstructed Old Town; to the south are two of Central Europe’s finest urban parks; and in the east lie reminders of the rich Jewish heritage extinguished by the Nazis.
Warsaw became the capital in 1596 and initially flourished as one of Europe’s most prosperous cities. In 1815, however, the Russians conquered the city and, despite a series of rebellions, it was not until the outbreak of World War I that this control collapsed. Warsaw again became the capital of an independent Poland in 1918, but the German invasion of 1939 meant this was to be short-lived. Infuriated by the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, Hitler ordered the total destruction of the city, leaving 850,000 Varsovians dead and 85 percent of Warsaw in ruins. Rebuilding is an ongoing process.
The main sights are on the western bank of the Wisła (Vistula) River where you’ll find the central business and shopping district, Śródmieście, grouped around Centralna station and the nearby Palace of Culture. The more picturesque Old Town (Stare Miasto) is just to the north.
There are plenty of good private hostels, mainly in Środmieście, most offering free internet, breakfast and free/cheap laundry services. Hotels tend to be pricier than elsewhere in Poland.
Top image © Triff/Shutterstock
Warsaw’s most lavish tribute to its favourite son is the achingly modern Chopin Museum, east of Krakowskie Przedmieście at ul. Okolnik 1 (w www.chopin.museum). With interactive handsets to guide visitors through exhibits on the musician’s life, it’s a must for Chopin enthusiasts, but only 100 people are allowed into the museum at a time so tickets must be reserved in advance.
The bar scene in Warsaw has really taken off over the last decade, and the city now genuinely provides a great night out that rivals Prague and needn’t blow your budget. Praga, across the river, is a formerly dangerous neighbourhood that now boasts a lively, bohemian bar scene – an interesting alternative to the more glitzy hangouts you’ll find downtown. Check out the English-language Warsaw Insider (available in most hotels; w www.warsawinsider.pl) for more information on nightlife and a monthly list of events.
The tipple most associated with Poland, vodka is actually in danger of being eclipsed in popularity by beer among young Poles, so it’s well worth seeking out the varieties you can’t find abroad before they disappear from Polish shops and bars completely. Traditionally served chilled and neat – although increasingly mixed with fruit juice –vodka can be clear or flavoured with anything from bison grass to mountain herbs to juniper berries or honey. There’s even been a revival of kosher vodkas, although whether their rabbinic stamps of approval are kosher themselves or just a marketing gimmick isn’t always obvious.
The city’s festivals enhance the celebratory vibe, especially the Warsaw “Summer Jazz Days” Festival, a series of outdoor concerts held throughout July and August.
Cinema Films are usually shown in their original language with Polish subtitles. Tickets 17–30zł.
Music Live bands are apt to appear in bars without any warning; W Oparach Absurdu and the Irish Pub are your best bets.
West of the New and Old towns is the former ghetto area, in which an estimated 380,000 Jews – one-third of Warsaw’s total population – were crammed from 1939 onwards. By the war’s end, the ghetto had been razed to the ground, with only around three hundred Jews and just one synagogue, the Nożyk Synagogue at ul. Twarda 6, left. You can still get an idea of what Jewish Warsaw looked like on the miraculously untouched ul. Próźna.
Take tram #22 from Centralna Station to ul. Okopowa 49/51 to reach the vast, overgrown Jewish Cemetery (Cmentarz Zydowski; Mon–Thurs 10am–5pm, Fri 9am–1pm, Sun 11am–4pm, closed Sat; 8zł), one of the few still in use in Poland.
About 2km south of the commercial district, on the eastern side of al. Ujazdowskie, is the much-loved Łazienki Park (bus #116, # 180 or #195 from Nowy Świat). Once a hunting ground, the area was bought in the 1760s by King Stanisław August, who turned it into a park and built the Neoclassical Łazienki Palace (Tues–Sun 9am–6pm; 17zł) across the lake. But the park itself is the real attraction, with its oak-lined paths alive with peacocks and red squirrels.
Located in the midst of the former ghetto area at Anielewicza 6, the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews (Wed–Mon 10am–6pm; 12zł; www.jewishmuseum.org.uk) is worth visiting for the building alone – a futuristic glassy slab filled with organic, curvy surfaces. The display pays tribute to the rich Jewish civilization that flourished on the soil of Poland, until all but snuffed out by the Holocaust. The painted wooden ceiling of the 17th-century Gwozdziec synagogue is one obvious highlight. Opposite the museum is the Ghetto Heroes Monument, commemorating the doomed Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943, when lightly armed ghetto inhabitants took on the might of the German SS.
At the southern end of Nowy Świat and east along al. Jerozolimskie is the National Museum (Tues–Fri 10am–4pm, Sat & Sun 10am–6pm; 15zł, free Sat; w www.mnw.art.pl), housing an extensive collection of medieval, Impressionist and modern art, as well as Christian frescoes from eighth- to thirteenth-century Sudan. Particularly striking is the fourteenth-century sculpture of the Pietà, which is more reminiscent of the Modernist distortions in the room nearby than Michaelangelo’s famed depiction of the same scene.
On ul. Świętojańska, north of the castle, stands St John’s Cathedral, the oldest church in Warsaw. A few yards away, the Old Town Square (Rynek Starego Miasta) is one of the most remarkable bits of postwar reconstruction anywhere in Europe. Flattened during the Uprising, its three-storey merchants’ houses have been rebuilt in near-flawless imitation of the Baroque originals. It’s also home to the Warsaw Historical Museum (closed at the time of writing, due to reopen by early 2014; w www.mhw.pl), where an English-language film shows poignant footage of the vibrant, multicultural 1930s city and the ruins left in 1945. Crossing the ramparts heading north brings you to the New Town Square (Rynek Nowego Miasta) at the heart of the so-called New Town (Nowe Miasto), the town’s commercial hub in the fifteenth century but now a quiet spot to escape the bustling Old Town.
The title Old Town (Stare Miasto) is, in some respects, a misnomer for the historic nucleus of Warsaw. After World War II the beautifully arranged Baroque streets were destroyed, only to be painstakingly reconstructed so accurately that the area has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Old Town comes alive in the summer, as tourists, street performers and festivals take over the cobblestone streets. Plac Zamkowy (Castle Square), on the south side of the Old Town, is the obvious place to start a tour.
West of the National Museum lies the commercial heart of the city, the Centrum crossroads from which ul. Marszałkowska, the main north–south road, cuts across al. Jerozolimskie running east–west. Towering over everything is the Palace of Culture and Science, a post-World War II gift from Stalin whose vast interior now contains theatres, a swimming pool and a nightclub. The platform on the thirtieth floor (daily 9am–8pm, Fri & Sat till 11pm; 20zł; pkin.pl) offers impressive views of the city.
On the east side of Castle Square is the thirteenth-century Royal Castle, now home to the Castle Museum (w www.zamek-krolewski.pl). Though the structure is a replica, many of its furnishings are originals. After passing the lavish Royal Apartments of King Stanisław August, you visit the Lanckoranski Gallery, which contains a fascinating range of aristocratic portraits including two paintings – Girl in a Picture Frame and Scholar at His Desk – by Rembrandt.
Lined with historic buildings, the road that runs south from pl. Zamkowy along the streets of Krakowskie Przedmieście and Nowy Świat to the palace of Wilanów, on the city’s outskirts, is the old Royal Way. One highlight is the Church of the Nuns of the Visitation, one of the few buildings in central Warsaw to have come through the war unscathed. Much of the rest of Krakowskie Przedmieście is occupied by university buildings, including several fine Baroque palaces and the Holy Cross Church. Sealed inside a column to the left of the nave is an urn containing Chopin’s heart.
For flashy boutiques and department stores, first explore the gleaming Złote Terasy shopping centre (replete with such Western titles as H&M and Zara), opposite the Palace of Culture and Science on ul. Emilii Plater, before passing through to the mainly pedestrianized streets of ul. Chimielna and ul. Nowy Świat.
The Hala Mirowska market on al. Jana Pawła II is the place to go for fresh fruits and vegetables (daily); antique hunters should head for the Kolo Antique Market on ul. Obozowa (trams #13 & #23 from the Old Town; Sun 7am–2pm), where you’ll find everything from war medals to old Christian icons.
About 1.5km west of Centrum is the Warsaw Uprising Museum at ul. Grzybowska 79 (Mon, Wed & Fri 8am–6pm, Thurs 8am–8pm, Sat & Sun 10am–6pm; 14zł, free Mon; w www.1944.pl; tram #22 from Centralna Station). Set in a century-old brick power station, the museum retells the grim story of how the Varsovians fought and were eventually crushed by the Nazis in 1944 – a struggle that led to the deaths of nearly two hundred thousand Poles and the destruction of most of the city. Special attention is given to the equivocal role played by Soviet troops, who watched passively from the other side of the Wisła as the Nazis defeated the Polish insurgents. Only after the city was a charred ruin did they move across to “liberate” its few remaining inhabitants.
The grandest of Warsaw’s palaces, Wilanów (May–Sept Mon, Wed & Sat 9.30am–6.30pm, Tues, Thurs & Fri 9.30am–4.30pm, Sun 10.30am–6.30pm; Oct–April Mon & Wed–Sat 9.30am–4.30pm, Sun 10.30am–4.30pm; 20zł, free Sun Oct–April; w www.wilanow-palac.pl), makes an easy excursion from the centre: take bus #180 south from Krakowskie Przedmieście or Nowy Świat to its terminus. Converted in the seventeenth century from a small manor house into the “Polish Versailles”, the palace displays a vast range of decorative styles, a mixture mirrored in the delightful palace gardens (daily 9am–sunset; 5zł, free Thurs).