At the mention of Warsaw, does your mind conjure the black and white photos of a decimated and war-torn city from the WWII section your history textbook? If so, you are in for a pleasant surprise. Known as the Phoenix City for its ability to rise from its own ashes, Warsaw has become a sprawling and vibrant city with architecture that tells its story—that of its ability to stand resilient in the face of danger, to overcome any threat, and rebuild to a better and brighter future. In essence, it is a city of hope, of dreams, and of freedom.
I’ve been visiting this city since I was a child, seeing it through its various stages since the fall of the Soviet Union, and it continues to rank highly on my list for places filled with quiet moments, and a city to slow down. Warsaw has a myriad of options for everyone, whatever tickles your senses, but be prepared to wear out the soles on those shoes!
1) WALK/BIKE AND BUS THROUGH THE ROYAL ROUTE
The Royal Route is not common knowledge. It begins at the Royal Palace in the Old Town and goes through Krakowskie Przedmieście, Nowy Świat, Łazienki Królewskie (Royal Baths) before ending up at the Pałac w Wilanowie (Wilanow Palace). You can rent a bike or walk from the Old Town until the Royal Baths, seeing all of the important “to see” sights of Warsaw, and then hop onto a bus to check out the Wilanow Palace.
2) STROLL THROUGH THE OLD TOWN AND THE OLD “NEW” TOWN
Likewise, you can turn to the right from the Royal Palace, and take a stroll through the Old Town, and the old “New” town. Most of this area was destroyed in WWII; however, it was rebuilt with painstaking detail and lots of love. It wouldn’t be on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list if it wasn’t considered close to the original. Enjoy the cobblestone streets, check out the Amber shops, and stop by to admire the Warsaw Mermaid in the Old Town square.
3) CHECK OUT THE RESTING PLACE OF A HEART
On your way down the Royal Route, right before the Krakowskie Przedmieście ends and Nowy Świat begins, you’ll find a church. Enter this church, known as the Holy Cross church, and walk down the centre aisle. To your right, on one of the pillars, you will find the final resting place of Chopin’s heart. Chopin, the revered Polish pianist, loved Poland so much that he asked his sister to return his heart home upon his death. In many ways, this is symbolic of the saying that “home is where the heart is”.
4) LISTEN TO INTERNATIONAL PIANISTS PLAY CHOPIN
If you are visiting Warsaw during the summer, you are in for a treat. Every Sunday between May and September at 12 pm and 4 pm, free concerts are given by world-renowned pianists by the Chopin Monument in the Royal Baths Park. As you may have guessed, it’s all about Chopin, and these pianists of all nationalities have dedicated their time and energy to study his music, so expect to hear pieces you may not even know. Varsovians (the locals) also make this event into huge family outings during the beautiful summer weather, so this is one event that both locals and tourists can love.
5) WONDER AT THE FUSION OF TWO CULTURES IN THE WILANOW PALACE
Since we are in Warsaw, you expect to find Eastern European work and art in the palaces, right? Not really. Wilanow is a palace that was built for King John III Sobieski, who was voted into power as the King by the noble class of the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth due to his demonstrated military skill in stopping the invasion of the Ottoman Empire near Vienna in 1673. It was later expanded by subsequent Kings (all voted into power of course) and survived WWII.
Its architecture is a merger of generally European Art with distinctive Polish building traditions and is a characteristic of a type of baroque suburban residents built between the entrance court and garden. What is surprising, aside from its bright yellow color, is that some of the rooms were originally made with Asian influence in mind. Dragons, Japanese ink painting, and pagoda-like structures are amongst this Palace’s best-kept secrets.
6) ENJOY POLISH MEALS AT THE MILK BARS
Forget Zapiecek, Chlopskie Jadlo, and all the other big restaurants, because while they are absolutely delicious (you should check them out once on this trip at least!), you should head to the Polish Milk Bars for a more traditional, and local feel. The milk bar’s sole purpose is to dole out homemade food quickly and for very affordable prices—it’s a Polish version of fast food. They differ in style—some may be self-serve, others may not be—but they always have a menu of “dishes of the day,” and each day, it’s different. So you can go to these milk bars more than once to try all that Polish cuisine has to offer.
That said, if you have any food allergies, are vegetarian/ vegan or on a special diet, this is not the place to go.
7) FILL YOUR BELLY WITH TASTY PIEROGI, A ZAPIEKANKA OR ENJOY PACZKI
Everyone has heard of Pierogies—at least that’s what it seems the world-renowned food of this country—so don’t hesitate to actually go to one of the pierogi restaurants, called Pierogarnie, to have these tasty dumplings in the country that knows how to make them the right way.
Likewise, try the Polish version of panini—called a Zapiekanka. It’s a long piece of bread, toasted with a variety of great toppings, and is great grab-n-go food. It’s absolutely delicious. Just be warned: Ketchup is a sos (sauce) in Poland, and it comes as a topping on these things.
Lastly, one of the biggest and most celebrated desserts in Poland: the Pączki. It’s a jelly-filled, puffy doughnut that is oh-so-yummy and you can’t get enough of.
8) CHECK OUT THE MUSEUMS DOTTING THE CITY, CATERING TO YOUR PREFERENCES
There are so many museums dotting Warsaw that you can probably have a guide dedicated to every type of era in Polish history, and still have plenty of things to keep you occupied for days on an end. So don’t hesitate to plan out your days according to your interests, and do the research.
9) GO TO THE TOP OF PALACE OF CULTURE AND SCIENCE
Aside from the fact that the Pałac Kultury i Nauki (Palace of Culture and Science, also known as “PKiN” in shorthand) usually results in a heated discussion amongst the locals, it is a very cool piece of architecture. It was built as a gift from Stalin to the Polish people and is considered to be the “Eighth Sister” designed by the Soviet architect Lev Rodney. Due to its connection to Stalin, this building is considered by many of the older generations who lived under Communism to be a symbol of oppression, while many younger individuals love it for its uniqueness.
Debate aside, the PKiN serves as an exhibition, and cultural center, as well as an office complex. It houses a multiplex cinema, four theaters, two museums, bookshops, a large swimming pool, an accredited University, an auditorium hall, and offices. On the 30th floor of the PKiN is the terrace with views, which gives you an astounding bird’s eye view of the center of the city, and its outskirts.
10) STOP AND SMELL THE FLOWERS IN THE GARDEN OF THE LIBRARY
Hidden behind the University of Warsaw on Krakowskie Przedmieście, two streets over is the Biblioteka Uniwersytecka w Warszawie, also known as BUW. It is a beautiful and eye-catching building, with large blocks of classical texts written in various scripts—Arabic, Polish, Hebrew, Greek, Mathematics and others. You can enter the library, and enjoy the coffee and restaurant area; however, you will not be able to proceed past the doors to the actual library. Underneath this library is another (secret) area with an arcade.
However, its best-kept secret is the garden entrance to its side. This library has one of the largest roof gardens in Europe, considering it has an area of one hectare. If you’re not afraid of heights, I suggest taking a walk up the stairs (it’s free and accessible to the public) to the roof-top and enjoy the views not only of the flowers but also of the river and the Praga district.
11) WANDER THROUGH COBBLESTONE STREETS OF WARSAW’S PRAGA, A TRENDY AND HIPSTER DISTRICT
On the other side of the Vistula River, is a district known as Praga (in Polish it means “Prague”). This district stayed intact during WWII and specifically during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, so when you visit today, you can see the original cobblestone streets, and original houses from that time period.
While there are some buildings that have fallen into disrepair, they tie into Praga’s up and coming artist, trendy vibe. This part of the city is known for its craft beers in old warehouses, galleries, quirky events, and they even have a Neon Museum.
12) RELAX AT THE RIVERFRONT
Visiting Warsaw, you should not miss out the opportunity to spend some time by the Vistula Riverfront. The area has been recently remodelled with a beautiful bike and walking paths, parks for dogs and, lots of rest areas to sit and take in the view. On top of that, there are floating bars—boats docked at the walkways that have become bars. It’s a good place to enjoy a nice beer or a margarita in the evenings.
Likewise, on the Praga side of the Vistula River, you can find a few beaches to relax.
13) ENJOY NATURE
Polish people enjoy nature, which is why you will find so many parks and natural spaces, resulting in Warsaw being one of the greenest cities in Europe. Some parks like Ogrod Saski, Lazienki Krolewskie, and the park around the Palace in Wilanow are very old. Others cropped up as the city began to rebuild after the war. So if you enjoy walking, yoga or sitting on benches at a Park and people watching, Warsaw has that for you. Likewise, if you are interested in biking around the city, there are plenty of bike lanes, and the city even has trails on the Praga side that you can explore.
As you can see, Warsaw is so much more than it’s near past. It is full of mystery, rich history and fantastic food that is waiting for you to discover. So come on in and join us. Zapraszamy!
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