WARSAW, POLAND: CITY SPOT LIGHT
From the series: The Best & Worst of Poland: The Highs, Lows, and Very Lows of Gdansk, Warsaw, & Krakow
Continuing from the City Spot Light of Gdansk, here is what Warsaw has to offer.
More than any other city we have visited, Warsaw bares the marks of its complex history on the face of its buildings. From the communist era architecture of Constitution Square, to the dilapidated remains of the former Jewish Ghetto, to the Western influence that is very much evident on the face of its newer buildings, Warsaw is a city where the architecture of the past meshes, blends in, and in some cases, clashes with the present. As a result, a tour of the city is one that is aesthetically very interesting and leaves a traveller with a sense of having journeyed through time.
Apart from the stimulating architecture, what Warsaw has going for it is indeed, what makes the architecture so interesting. Its history. Having been almost completely leveled in the Second World War, and consumed by communism thereafter, it is trite to say that Warsaw has had an interesting twentieth century. That being said, there is a bevy of museums and tours that help explore this fascinating part of Poland’s history and culture.
Warsaw is an astonishing mishmash of architectural styles. From the neo-classical government buildings to the Communist-influenced apartment blocks and squares, to the charming Old Town, Warsaw’s buildings are the epitome of contradiction. That is not to say that it does not work however. On the contrary, there is a certain allure to the way the city is set up that helps showcase its history and speaks to the constantly changing nature of the city.
What also struck us about the Polish Capital is that Warsaw is a city that is truly able to balance having the amenities and activities of a larger city center, with the atmosphere and attraction of a smaller urban region. There was never a feeling while being in Warsaw of being overwhelmed, as one might find in a big city. Likewise, throughout Warsaw there were pockets and patches of tranquility and beauty that slowed things down and made you feel like you were somewhere quiet in the middle of nowhere.
Most Memorable Moments
Taking shots of vodka in the meticulously recreated communist era apartment at the headquarters of the Adventure Warsaw tour company. Down to the kitchen utensils and pictures on the wall, the apartment had the effect of transporting you back in time, giving you a realistic and unsettling look at the day-to-day struggles of those who lived through communism in Poland. It was an eye-opening experience, and very astutely rounded out our time in the Polish capital.
Best Food Moment
For those who have read our article entitled“The First (and Worst) 24 Hours in Warsaw,” which captures the highs, lows, and very lows of our first 24 hours in Warsaw, you will remember that we had an absolutely awful time at dinner on our first day in Poland. This was the result of following the usually excellent recommendations of Lonely Planet, very much to our own demise.
An unfortunate after effect of this detour in to nausea-ville with Podwale 25 was that our usual open-mindedness with which we approach cuisine in a new city had tapered off a bit. Afraid of embarking on a second culinary disaster, our palate for new and exciting foods was non-existent during our time in Warsaw. That being said, what we did find most enjoyable was the snacks offered in the pubs and through the local stands that dotted the city. This included the waffles that were sold throughout the city, as well as the pig lard and pickle accompaniment to a shot of vodka that you could purchase in the local pubs.
Where to Focus Your Time/ Sights
Warsaw is a place where the main sights seem to be spread out at random throughout the city. As a result, your time in Warsaw is likely to be divided between a few different areas of the city, with each area containing a few sights close enough together so that you can walk between them with ease.
The first such area is Warsaw’s “Old Town.” Established in the 13th century, destroyed in the Second World War, and rebuilt thereafter, this eloquent location is a throwback to medieval Poland, complete with a wall, 15th century cathedrals, and a castle gate. The highlight of Old Town however is the Old Town Market Square, which is ringed by a number of restaurants, cafes, souvenir stalls, and museums. The Old Town Market Square is a great place to sit and people watch, is surrounded by a number of beautiful buildings, and is filled to the brim with history both inside and out.
At the entrance of Warsaw’s Old Town is the Castle Square, where the Royal Castle and Sigismund’s Column is located. From here, one can follow what is known as the “Royal Route,” which is a roadway that leads past some of Warsaw’s most beautiful sights, ending at Wilanow Palace. Along the way, this easily accessible boulevard is dotted with cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops, and a bevy of other sights worth checking out, including the Prazmowski mansion (sight of Poland’s first escalator!) St. Anne’s Church (one of Warsaw’s oldest churches!), and the Presidential Palace (Poland’s Whitehouse!).
Just a few blocks up from the Royal Route and Old Town is perhaps the most serene spot in Warsaw, that being the Saxon Garden. Originally inspired by the gardens at the Palace of Versailles in France, this beautiful tree lined park, which is the oldest public park in Warsaw (having been opened in 1727), is as good as place as any in the city to rest and recuperate amongst the fountains and sculptures that dot the area. The Saxon Garden stands out as a sweet spot in terms of quiet and relaxation in the centre of what can be a bustling and very busy city.
The Saxon Garden was also previously home to the Saxon Palace, which was used by the Nazis during the Second World War as a base of operations, and subsequently destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising. All that remains of the Saxon Palace is the Saxon Garden, as well as three arches. These three arches are where you will find the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, a monument to unknown soldiers who have died in wars fought by Poland. This monument is lit constantly by an eternal flame, and is flanked by a Polish army solider who guards the monument day and night.
The Saxon Garden is also connected to Piłsudski Square. Also known as “Victory Square,” it is the largest square in the city, and above all else, a good place orientate yourself within the city and figure out where to go next.
From one square to another, just a short taxi ride (or long walk) away from the Saxon Garden is Constitution Square. For those looking for a taste of what it was like to live and walk amongst the streets of Communism-era Warsaw, Constitution Square should not be missed. From the architecture, to the size of the roads (which were built large enough to accompany tanks should a proletariat rebellion rear its ugly head), to the towering figure of the Palace of Culture and Science in the background (the Soviet version of the Empire State Building, and a gift from Uncle Stalin!), Constitution Square is a throwback to a time in the history of Warsaw when the Soviet influence was at its peak.
For those looking to head over to the east bank of the Vistula river, the Praga district of Warsaw holds an interesting blend of shops, art galleries, and eateries. This part of the city is worth checking out for those wishing to get away from the main tourist haunts and spend a little more time seeing how the average Warsaw resident lives. Additionally, an added bonus for those who traverse to the Praga district is that this part of Warsaw holds much of the limited undamaged buildings that survived the Second World War.
Tours & Museums
For those who have read some of the other articles on the website, it should come as no surprise that we absolutely love walking tours. They are a great way to get acquainted with a city, help assure you don’t miss out on any of the top sights, and provide you with an insider’s perspective on where to go in the city. Warsaw, for all its charm, can be a difficult city to traverse as it is spread out over a large area, with its sights at seemingly opposite ends of the city. As such, it is the perfect place to go on a walking/bus tour to help you get orientated, and to its credit, Warsaw is home to a couple of excellent companies that offer tours of these types.
The first company is Adventure Warsaw, which, as of this writing, currently occupies third out of 98 tours in Warsaw on TripAdvisor. While not strictly a “walking” tour, as some of the tour is spent shuttled from location to location in a funky looking communist-era van, the tour does allow individuals to get out and stretch their legs at the various stops.
Adventure Warsaw offers several choices for tours, of which we took the “Off the beaten path trip.” Starting near our hostel, we were ushered around Warsaw hitting up Constitution Square, the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto, and the Praga district along the way. As noted above, given the distance between Warsaw’s main sights, it was nice not to have to expend the energy walking between them, instead of using that time to immerse ourselves in the sights when we arrived. The tour ended up back at the office of Adventure Warsaw, where we were able to visit their “Charm of the PRL” exhibit, which was chalked full of memorabilia from Communist Poland. The company had even recreated an apartment from the era, which gave an incredible insight into the day-to-day lives of those who lived in Poland during Communism.
The guide and driver on the tour were absolutely fantastic, and a part of the reason for this was because of their authenticity and absolute love for the city. As you will be able to discern, Adventure Warsaw is a company operated by people who have grown up in Warsaw and have experienced the rapid change endured by their city firsthand.
Orange Umbrella Free Tour
The second tour we took was with a company named Orange Umbrella Free Tour, which currently occupies the second spot amongst tours on TripAdvisor. Orange Umbrella offers a number of different walking tours around Warsaw, including a tour of Old Town, a tour of Jewish Warsaw, and a tour centering around World War II. Of these options, we decided on a tour of Old Town, as we were most curious about the area we were staying.
The tour was extremely well run, taking place over a couple of hours in and around Old Town, and ending in a nearby bar with a shot of vodka to send us on our ways. The information covered in that period of time was extensive, including an explanation of the various buildings, tips on getting around and eating in Warsaw, and pointing out monuments initially missed. We were able to walk along the walls of Old Town, inside Castle Square, and although the tour attempted to cram in an impressive amount in a short span, our guide on the tour did so with humor, and did so in a way that the information conveyed was interesting and helped us to enjoy our time in Warsaw.
For those wishing to get out of the Warsaw rain or snow, and brush up on some Second World War history, the Warsaw Uprising Museum is a must-see for anybody going to the city. After two months travelling Eastern Europe, and having perused countless museums, Kristen and I are still of the opinion that the Warsaw Uprising Museum was amongst the best (if not the best) museum we visited during this time.
The Warsaw Uprising Museum sheds light on a period of Polish history that I was unaware of before venturing to Warsaw. That being the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, in which the Polish resistance Home Army attempted to expel the Nazi occupiers during the Second World War. The attempted rebellion led to the death of as many as 16,000 members of the Polish resistance, as well as many more civilian casualties. Likewise, by the end of the Second World War, and due in part to the actions of the Polish resistance, as much as 85% of Warsaw was destroyed at the end of the Second World War.
The Warsaw Uprising Museum attempts to pay homage to this period of Polish History, as well as shed some light on those individuals who were involved in the uprising’s planning, the struggles they endured, and the life of everyday citizens by thrusting the visitor headlong in to a series of exhibits, artifacts and replicas. The highlights of the Warsaw Uprising Museum include recreations of a resistance hospital, letters written by combatants prior to and after the uprising, and an exhibit on the Communist takeover of Warsaw after World War II.
Accommodations: Generally and Specifically
When we visited Warsaw we stayed in a hostel in Old Town called the Old Town Hostel Kanonia. While I will not get into too much detail about our stay here, having done so in our “The First (and Worst) 24 Hours in Warsaw,” column, what I will say is that sometimes you have to sacrifice comfort for a prime location. Nowhere was this true more than in Hostel Kanonia, who despite is great spot right in the middle of Old Town, left a lot to be desired in terms of comfort and friendliness of the staff.
I will say however that it was worth it to put up with the ricketiest beds in existence in exchange for being within a stone's throw of many of Warsaw’s prime sights. As such my recommendation would be to find accommodations in or around Old Town. This is where you are going to be spending the bulk of your time in Warsaw, so it makes sense to have a home base close by. It is also in a tourist friendly location, and as such, is safe at mostly any time, easily accessible, and provides a great starting point for your exploration in Warsaw.
Special Tips/ Tricks
Read “The First (and Worst) 24 Hours in Warsaw,” for warnings with regards to taking taxi cabs in Warsaw. Only marked taxi cabs should be taking, to avoid being swindled out of all of your money before your trip even begins.
Another recommendation, as noted above, would be to stay somewhere in or around Old Town. This provides a safe, comfortable base for exploring the city, has all of the available amenities, and while a bit of a tourist trap, will ensure that you are well positioned to engage in any tours whose starting point is likely to be nearby.
This includes at least half of a day exploring the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which is an absolute must, and another full day city hopping in Adventure Warsaw’s Nysa 522 van. Also, allow up to a day to peruse all the shops in and sights in and around Old Town, ensuring you hit up the Royal Castle, and walk alongside the walls of the Old Town. An additional day to a day and a half can be allotted for any other number of museums or sights in Warsaw, including the Chopin Museum, the National Museum, or Wilanow Palace, which we were regrettable unable to see. If you require time to rest, do so in one of Warsaw’s wondrous parks, including the Saxon Garden or Lazienki Park.
When We Visited
Coming from the small and compact town of Gdansk, one might find the spread out bigger city feel of Warsaw difficult to comprehend. There is no easily discernible way to navigate about the city, as we found the train system somewhat difficult to understand, and had sworn off taxis soon after our arrival due to being ripped off by a taxi driver on the first day. That being said, some may view this as a positive, and an opportunity to stretch your legs as you walk about the city. Just be sure to stretch them out well beforehand, as they will certainly be throbbing by the end of your time in Warsaw.
PHOTO HIGHLIGHTS OF WARSAW
NEED MORE RESOURCES?
Join our newsletter to get access to our resource library