You know how you come to associate some cities with certain words after your first visit? Like your word for Prague could be romantic, Stockholm could be active (or green), Reykjavik could be cozy, Venice could be gondolas, Bologna could be porticoes, and Dubai could be skyscrapers (most definitely). After my first (and very brief) visit to Warsaw, I’m tempted to describe the Polish capital in a word as historical, but after a bit of reflection on my tour through the city, I think ‘resilient’ suits it better.
The story of Warsaw is a long, tragic one, apparent in the chaotic architectural styles of various neighborhoods; modernist concrete and glass structures, drab Soviet-era housing blocks, Renaissance architecture from the 1800s, Baroque facades, dilapidated remnants of World War II, and a reconstructed Gothic Old Town that forms the perfect backdrop for tourists’ holiday photos. Hidden in plain sight are inscriptions and boundary markers along sidewalks, bullet holes in walls, commemorative plaques, and communist-style courtyards covered in graffiti and street art.
I don’t like to think about cities (or people) in terms of their tragedies; after all no one likes morbidity. But, the truth is they become part of their identities. Not acknowledging them, in my mind, is akin to not acknowledging the resilience and courage with which cities survive and emerge from the rubble of the past and step into the future.
If you want a taste of the city’s past and present, here are the top things to see and best places to visit in Warsaw.
Top Things To Do & What To See in Warsaw
Tour Warsaw with an Insider
I am very glad that Jayway Travel arranged for our tour of Warsaw with Warsaw Behind The Scenes. It’s not just about checking off a list of Warsaw’s attractions; it’s a unique way of touring the city and learning about its past and present from the locals themselves. Our guide Tomek arrived in our ride for the day- an old school, bright red fire brigade bus from the 1980’s that was fun to ride in, but didn’t look as much fun to drive. As someone who’d grown up in Warsaw, Tomek was packed with information and anecdotes, all of which provided important context to our tour of the city.
Learn About the History of Warsaw
Perhaps the most tumultuous period in Warsaw’s history began with the invasion of Nazi Germany in 1939. Not only was the city significantly damaged due to heavy bombing (Hitler envisioned the destruction of Warsaw so he could turn it into a German city), he also launched an attack on the 500,000 Jews who formed a third of Warsaw’s population. Before World War II, Warsaw was home to the biggest Jewish population in Europe.
Polish Jews were stripped of their basic human rights, rounded up and confined to live in the cramped conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto, an area of just 1 sq. mile, enclosed by a wall. Those that tried to escape were executed, while several died of hunger and lack of hygiene in the cramped conditions. Many were sent to concentration camps and murdered. Several thousand Poles were also arrested and sent to concentration camps and forced labor camps in Germany, while those trying to help the Jews were executed.
During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, in retaliation to the Jews’ uprising, the buildings and homes in the Warsaw Ghetto were almost completely destroyed by the Nazis. A visit to the Warsaw Ghetto in the Muranów area is highly recommended, if this is your first time in the city. Today, as you walk among what remains of these ruins in a place that was once the Jewish quarter, you’re hit hard by the gravity of the crimes that were once committed here. You can learn more about it in this article.
The rubble from the destruction was flattened and after the war, new buildings were built on top of the mounds. Our guide Tomek pointed to a mound by a sidewalk and remarked, “In Warsaw, we live on a graveyard.” Reminders of Warsaw’s grim past abound in the Warsaw Ghetto, like scars on the city’s face.
To learn more about the history of Jews in Poland, a population of 3.3 million before World War II, visit the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. It won the award for the European Museum of the Year in 2016, less than two years after it was opened.
In August 1944, the Warsaw Uprising began as an attempt by the Polish Home Army (on the orders of the Polish government-in-exile) to liberate Warsaw from German control before it was taken over by the Soviet Red Army that was on its doorstep. The Nazis crushed the uprising and 85% of the city was completely destroyed, including the Old Town and Royal Castle. It was only in early 1945 that Soviet troops took control of the city. The loss of life during the six years of German occupation (1939-45) amounted to 700,000 people.
Housed in a former tram power station, the Warsaw Rising Museum is full of photographs, videos, and exhibits that tell the story of the uprising, and is highly recommended if you want to learn more.
Visit The Palace of Culture and Science
During the Communist period (until 1989), huge, ugly apartments blocks were built and the city saw an increase in socialist realism architecture. It was in this period that the Old Town was reconstructed and the imposing Palace of Culture and Science was built (1955).
Commissioned by Stalin, the Palace of Culture and Science, though a symbol of the Soviet rule, deviates in terms of architecture from the socialist realism style typical of the Communism-era. In fact, some say it was inspired by the Empire State Building in New York (that was comprehensively studied by a secret delegation sent by Stalin to the U.S), and also incorporates elements of Polish Renaissance architecture from around the country. 5000 workers built the skyscraper in just three years, but Stalin never lived to see it.
When you see this structure, you’ll know what I mean by imposing, it’s impossible to not look at it if it’s within sight. By the way, the Palace of Culture and Science is the tallest building in Poland.
It was originally built as a palace for the people with theaters, museums, conference rooms, sports venues and a swimming pool. There’s also a multiplex cinema, bars, as well as a casino inside the palace.
Today, many locals despise its existence as a symbol of the Soviet-era and would like to see it destroyed. The palace is also referred to as ‘Stalin’s erection’. Yet others feel that it is a reminder of the past and how much Warsaw has progressed since.
Take the old-school elevator to the viewing terrace on the 30th floor for what some call the best view over Warsaw (because you can’t see the palace itself).
Relax in the Rooftop Gardens of the University of Warsaw Library
Perhaps one of the city’s best-kept secrets, the quiet and beautiful rooftop garden spread over two levels of the University of Warsaw Library is a quiet escape and among the most unique of Warsaw’s attractions. I was quite surprised to see that the garden, opened in 2002, didn’t have more tourists around, given how interesting it was.
The lower level is home to a pond with ducks and fascinating granite sculptures whereas the upper level features different types of plants and trees. Bridges and pathways connect you to the different sections and viewing platforms offer panoramic views of the area.
Wander Around The Old Town
With its resplendent squares, beautiful cobbled streets, ornate churches, and charming facades, Warsaw’s Old Town, the heart of all the tourist action in the city, is one of the best places to visit in Warsaw and wander for a few hours.
After being almost entirely destroyed in the Warsaw Uprising, the Old Town was rebuilt in the post-war period using old sketches and photos. In recognition of this incredible achievement, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.
But this rebuilding of the Old Town was not without cost; other Polish cities had to demolish their own historic buildings to send bricks to Warsaw for the reconstruction. I was shocked to learn that Wrocław sent a million bricks a day to Warsaw to rebuild the city.
The Market Square is the heart of the Old Town and home to restaurants and cafés in burgher houses with colorful facades. You’ll also find buskers and musicians in the square playing to crowds of tourists and locals. Here you’ll find a bronze statue of Syrenka, The Warsaw Mermaid, associated with legends about Warsaw, who with her sword and shield, seems like a guardian of the city.
One of the things I loved about the Old Town were the little stores selling unique wares and their cute window displays, you’ll find yourself stopping at windows showcasing everything from tailored dresses, vintage trinkets, and antiques to freshly baked bread.
The 15th century St. John’s Cathedral (rebuilt after World War II) and St. Martin’s Church are among the interesting churches to visit in the Old Town. As you walk from the Old Town to the New Town, you’ll notice The Barbican; a 16th century gate in the fortified wall that encircles the Old Town. This relatively quiet part of the Old Town, looking upon a moat, seems popular with couples and students enjoying a beer or two.
See The Royal Castle
The magnificent Royal Castle, once the residence of kings and the President, and then the seat of Parliament, is the crown jewel of the Castle Square (Plac Zamkowy) in the Old Town. Its reconstruction was completed in 1984. Apart from a ticketed tour of the interiors of the palace, there are temporary and permanent exhibitions including among others, that of its reconstruction after World War II and a collection of paintings donated by the Lanckoroński family (including two by Rembrandt).
The Castle Square, centered around a column with a statue of King Sigismund erected in 1644, is a lively center of activity- here you’re surrounded by the buzz of locals, tourists, musicians and horse-carriages, and restaurants with tables outside to people watch as you enjoy your meal.
Market Scenes at Hala Mirowska
Shop (or wander) like a local at Hala Mirowska, a typical fresh produce market built between 1899 and 1901, where grandmas with shopping bags rush past with a sense of urgency (occasionally glaring at you if your leisurely ambling is slowing them down), fruit and vegetable displays are a riot of colors, busy vendors might take a second to smile at you, and locals shop for tangy, pickled cucumbers, fresh cow cheese and delicious ham and sausages at the butcher’s. Surprisingly, the buildings survived the war, making this landmark one of the most authentic witnesses of the city’s history.
Tour and Tasting at the Polish Vodka Museum
I’ll admit, as a wine lover, I hardly ever pay attention to any other kinds of alcohol. I didn’t know what to expect at the Polish Vodka Museum and was surprised to learn that the heritage of vodka production is quite old in Poland. In fact, the multimedia museum is housed within the premises of an old vodka factory that produced some of the best Polish brands of vodka.
Our guided tour of this interactive museum took us through the entire process of vodka production and was pretty entertaining. There are exhibits, illustrations, photographs and simulations to learn about the raw materials and processes, and understand how Polish vodka is made. A timeline traces the history and development of the vodka business in Poland.
At the end of the tour, we tasted three types of vodka made of wheat, rye and potatoes. Yes, that is exactly like it sounds, three shots of vodka (we didn’t have to down it) just before lunchtime. But what was surprising to me, given my limited prior experience of drinking vodka, was that once we were taught how to drink it right, we could actually taste the differences and tell how one was smoother than the others.
Afterwards, we toured the interactive museum to put on goggles that blur your vision to show you what you see depending on your drunkenness percentage! Like I said, high spirits all around.
Visit the Neon Museum
Founded in 2005 by photographer Ilona Karwińska and graphic designer David Hill, the Neon Museum is one of the coolest things to see in Warsaw. Here, you’ll find what is left of the city’s famous and unique neon signs from the 1960’s and 70’s. Found all over the city during the post-war period advertising cocktail bars, restaurants, cinemas and shops, these were gradually done away with, either thrown away or left in a state of disrepair, in the years after communism. Today, you can visit the museum to see the ones that were saved, as well as look at documents and exhibits that trace their history and cultural significance around the city.
Where To Eat and Drink in Warsaw
Gorge on Pyzy Dumplings
Pyzy are a type of Polish dumplings made of flour and eggs with our without potatoes, served stuffed with meat or vegetarian fillings. Our guide took us to a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the Praga district called Pyzy Flaki Gorące for a lunch of pyzy served in jars. While some were stuffed with meat, others were served with vegetarian and meat toppings. I had never tried these before but they were absolutely delicious. In fact, if there’s one food that I crave for, from my trip to Poland, it’s the pyzy at Pyzy Flaki Gorące.
Hang Out with the Cool Kids at Hala Koszyki
A restored art nouveau market hall that was built in 1909, Hala Koszyki might just become Warsaw’s answer to Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel, but for now, it’s nowhere close to being as touristy. In fact, this hipster market hall with its edgy yet chic appeal, trendy bar, 18 restaurants, garden seating, and open plan wooden tables and chairs, seems like the perfect (-ly Instagrammable) setting for the city’s cool hipster kids, tucking into Thai curry or conversing over after work drinks.
The variety of food options here ensure there’s something for everyone; whether you’re in the mood for hummus and falafel, chicken tikka, or a juicy burger. Not hungry? There’s a trendy bar in the center on the ground floor and you’ll find everything from craft beers on tap and cocktails to Prosecco.
Dine in Style at Restaurajca Polka
Stepping into Restaurajca Polka is like leaving behind the bustling Old Town and entering a palatial home where time has stood still in exquisite dining rooms, between walls with colorful floral motifs and regal arches. Here, diners enjoy elaborate meals, local and from around the region, seated on plush chairs under ornate lamps. It isn’t just about the old world charm, the food is delectable too and completely worth the wait, as you would expect from a restaurant owned by Polish celebrity chef, restaurateur, artist, author and TV personality Magda Gessler. See it on TripAdvisor.
Further reading: Here are some books and guides about Poland if like me, you love reading about the places you travel to.
Where To Stay in Warsaw
An easy 5-minute walk to the Old Town and Market Square, and within walking distance of the Royal Castle, but set on a quiet, picturesque street in the New Town, Mamaison Hotel La Regina Warsaw is a five-star boutique hotel that guarantees a luxurious stay in Warsaw
Spacious, modern rooms feature plush furnishings, comfortable beds, free Wi-Fi, TVs, minibars, safes, and spacious bathrooms with dual vanities and bathtubs. The breakfast buffet is lavish with cold cuts, breads and pastries, Polish and international breakfast dishes as well as eggs to order (including a very good Eggs Benedict). There’s also a fine dining restaurant La Rotisserie if you don’t want to wander out for a meal after a long day. Amenities include a spa, indoor pool, sauna and gym.
Visiting Poland? Read more about my visit to Wrocław.
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I visited Warsaw on a trip to Poland as a guest of JayWay Travel and can highly recommend them for your visit to Poland. All opinions, as always, are honest and independent.