Warsaw was my favorite city we visited on the Baltic Region fam trip I took in June 2014. It’s a city that tourists may leave out of their itineraries and swap it instead for a visit to iconic Krakow and its lively, young crowds and international recognition as a popular destination. I felt that the city of Warsaw is erroneously overlooked. Even after spending just two days there, I began to understand the importance of appreciating the city’s rich history. It is unbelievable not only the tragedy and hardship Warsaw and its citizens experienced during and after WWII but also the incredible repairs and replicas of original buildings that have been constructed. About 84% of the city of Warsaw was destroyed during the war and Poland itself was attacked from all sides. After the war an overwhelming number of Poles moved back to Warsaw and even used a majority of their own funds to begin its repairs and replicas. With a guide we were able to fully understand the history and value the city and most importantly its people. I undervalued Poland and Poles before going to Warsaw but now I have a much better understanding and the highest respect for the people and their resilience.
After visiting this Warsaw, I became even more interested in Poland and since have read an informative and touching book called The Zookeeper’s wife. A passage that really resonated with me:
“Warsaw today is a spacious green city with acres of sky, in which tree-lined avenues flow down to the river, ruins mix with new trends, and everywhere tall old trees offer scent and shade. The Poles turned the former Gestapo headquarters into the Ministry of Education, the former KGB headquarters into the Ministry of Justice and the Communist Party headquarters into the Stock Exchange and so on. The architecture of Old Town is a visual hymn, rebuilt after the war in Vistula Gothic, based on old drawings and paintings by seventeenth-century Venetian Bernardo Bellotto. Some buildings show recycled rubble from the bombed city embedded in their facades. Dozens of statues and monuments grace Warsaw’s streets, because Poland is a country half submerged in its heavily invaded past, fed by progress, but always partly in mourning.”
-Diane Ackerman-The Zookeepers Wife
Below are some of my recommendations for where to stay, what to do and where to eat/drink based on my favorite sites from our trip itinerary.
Where to Stay:
The hotel is located very near to Warszawa Centralna station and 15 minutes walking from the Złote Tarasy Shopping Centre. Warsaw’s Old Town is only 2 km away.
A very traditional hotel with large, open rooms, a lot of light, huge bathroom, safe , hairdryer, AC. The buffet breakfast has an unbelievable selection and delicious food. The variety includes everything you could imagine eating for breakfast and many items you might not-like salad, cold meats, fish etc. I was also amazed with the professional, polite and welcoming staff.
This beautiful hotel is conveniently located on a quiet street at the edge of Old Town near Marie Curie’s home (She was Polish). It is also easily accessible to many attractions and to Central Warsaw. The building is modern and the staff is kind. A bit pricey but well worth the stay if you have the budget.
What to do:
I could have spent an entire day in this gorgeous park. Apart from the pleasant, dream-like atmosphere, every Sunday in the summer months there are two free piano concerts with pianists from Poland and around the world coming to perform Chopin’s work (Polish Composer). Around the park there are numerous other musicians playing classical music and unlike in many parks where musicians ask for donations, these are employees of the state, paid just to play music and enhance the beautiful surroundings.
Each Saturday evening during the summer, if you walk just down from Old Town along the river, you can see a light/music show timed along with a beautiful fountain display. Carefully choreographed with the lights and music, this modern Bellagio-esque free performance attracts a large crowd and a nice way to wind down after a long Saturday of exploring.
Across the river from Old Town Warsaw you will find a part of Warsaw with the oldest pre-war buildings and run-down yet bohemian charm-although at night you will need to be careful. There are old factory buildings and tenement houses and the district is quite poor but in the process of gentrification. I enjoyed exploring this neighborhood as there are many alternative bars, galleries, cafes, restaurants and performance spaces. As a fan of Polanski’s films, I found this neighborhood especially interesting as a lot of the footage for the film ‘The Pianist’ was captured in this area of Warsaw. It was interesting and moving to see buildings that are not rebuilt and still lay in rubble unlike other parts of Warsaw where a majority of buildings have been recreated and new development is underway. This is also where the historical Warsaw Zoo is located.
It is a gorgeous walk along Krakowskie Przedmiescie from the Old Town market place to the Chopin Museum where you will pass The Presidential Palace, interactive musical benches playing Chopin, the University of Warsaw and the Holy Cross Church which houses Chopin’s heart. The Museum occupies a beautiful, old building and is contrasted by the modern and technologically advanced exhibit inside. There is endless information about Chopin’s life and music on multiple floors although I would have loved if there was a piano/keyboard where people could play/learn Chopin’s music.
The exhibitions will not be complete and ready until December 2014 although it is definitely worth seeing if you visit before then and I can confidently predict it will be an exceptional museum after its completion. An extreme amount of organization and care has gone into the construction of the building itself and planned exhibits. The design of the building hails from an international contest won by two Finnish architects. We were able to see a film portraying the plans for the upcoming exhibits and saw some of the small existing displays. The museums strikes me as unique from other Jewish museums I have visited in the past as it will be set-up to celebrate Jewish life before the war, traditions and history, about their religion and about past and present Jews, Jewish literature, art etc. At the same time however, it was difficult not to cry knowing that an entire culture was almost wiped away and only a small fragment of the city’s Jewish population remains in a city that once had 30% of its population made up of Jews and more Jews than any other city in Europe.
The tallest building in Poland, the skyscraper is also known as “Stalin’s Gift” and was a said gift from the Soviet people to the Polish Nation. Completed in 1955, understandably many Poles have negative attitudes towards the building and view it as a symbol of Soviet control. On the 30th floor there is a terrace with a panoramic view of the city that is available for tourists to visit. Unfortunately all of the information on the plaques is written in Polish but this doesn’t detract from the astonishing views of the entire city. Best of all, as is the running joke, the view from the palace means the palace itself is not obstructing your view of the city. It is also interesting to see Soviet architecture if you haven’t seen much before.
Free Guided Walking Tour of Old Town
Warsaw’s Old Town was completely destroyed during WWII. Much of this part of the city has been reconstructed to look like the original based on old paintings and historic artifacts before the war. Without a guide to inform you, you might never notice that the entire Market Square in Old Town is a replica! There are a few free guided walking tours which is an excellent way to first become acquainted with Warsaw and its fascinating history including having an internationally imported/elected monarchy in the past and having a mermaid as the city’s symbol.
No two museums in Warsaw are alike and this one’s uniqueness is no exception. Although it seems a bit Hollywood-esque with the sound effects and large crowds and chaos, there is definitely an important part of Warsaw’s history depicted and explained through the museum. The exhibits are primarily dedicated to the fearless citizens of Warsaw who revolted against Nazi Germany’s plans to liquidate the entire city and massacre not only the Jews but all of the Poles as well. The museum has many interesting items including arms, letters, photographs and my personal favorite, the short film “The City in Ruin” which has created an accurate digital journey through Warsaw’s destruction after the war. The film is something that will remain with me forever and will help you visualize the tragedy and atrocities that Varsovians lived through, if they survived.
Where to eat/drink:
This elegant and airy restaurant is set in the middle of Lazienki Park. The food is light but the flavors are rich and thoughtfully presented. The grounds would be the most beautiful place for a wedding and the free music spotted throughout the park only adds to the ambiance.
If you can’t swing this fancy meal, opt for a picnic in Lazienki Park- Warsaw’s largest.
This restaurant with more traditional Polish food, is a place where many Poles gather for special occasions as you can tell by the large space and a few tables with generous seating. The atmosphere is very homey and inviting with a lot of busy decorations but not overly kitschy. The food was a bit heavy as is expected with Polish food but I loved the beet borscht and the inviting, family feel of the place!
I still think about this restaurant quite often. Located across from the Chopin Museum, let this be your special night out as it is pricey. The food is a modern take on traditional Polish cuisine, accomplished in a very sophisticated and unique manner. I was impressed with the innovation and creativity of the dishes, their presentation, the most comfortable chairs of any restaurant and the exceptional service.