Welcome to Warsaw, Poland!
Having been largely razed during the Second World War, Poland’s capital is often overlooked in favor of the better-preserved historical cities of Krakow or Gdańsk. While the war may have damaged buildings, it created a city with a unique identity and a beauty of its own.
There’s no doubt that the heart of the old town has been lovingly restored, but the real Warsaw isn’t to be found in the cobbled streets of Castle Square but on the lanes that surround it. Here are our insider’s tips for worldwide locals who want to get to grips with the real Warsaw.
Where to begin
The lovingly restored old town, Stare Miasto, around Castle Square, needs little introduction. This is an excellent area to start your Warsaw experience and to gain a glimpse of how the city looked in its heyday. From here, head across town to the imposing Palace of Culture and Science, a communist-era behemoth gifted to the Polish people in the 1950's by Joseph Stalin. Looking beyond the politics, the building itself is undeniably impressive and warrants a return visit after dark when it is fully illuminated. To learn more about life in Warsaw under Soviet rule and the subsequent revolution, a visit to the excellent Warsaw Uprising Museum is essential, commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. If, however, you’re traveling with kids--or just looking for something a little lighter--spend some time at the Warsaw Zoo.
Worldwide Local Tip: Umschlagplatz, literally meaning, “handling center” in German, is preserved as a living memorial to the hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews who were deported from Warsaw under Nazi occupation. This is a raw yet vital reminder of past atrocities.
The Old Town and its surrounding areas are best navigated on foot, given its compact size. Journeys to other parts of the city are easy to navigate, with an extensive tram, bus, or metro system providing excellent coverage and negating the need for taxis, except late at night. All public transport falls under a single ticketing system, and as a tourist, you are unlikely to leave Zone 1, making ticket purchase a breeze. If you intend to cover a lot of ground, a 24 or 72-hour ticket can prove excellent value for your money, and give you a reliable way to travel to and from your Warsaw hotel.
Worldwide Local Tip: When purchasing a timed ticket for the Warsaw public transport network, be sure to validate your ticket at a machine, immediately after boarding your first bus or tram. An un-validated ticket is treated the same as no ticket at all and inspectors aren’t always sympathetic towards oblivious tourists.
Explore the Warsaw Neighborhoods
Having ticked off the big sights, it’s time to explore Warsaw’s up-and-coming neighborhoods, packed with trendy boutiques, independent restaurants, and craft beer bars. The streets that radiate out from Plac Trzech Krzyży square, is a great starting point, with the vast Łazienki Park, a great spot to enjoy the Warsaw weather, within easy striking distance.
Worldwide Local Tip: A number of free themed walking tours are available, covering different parts of the city and its history. Run by local students and residents, this can be a great way to get an overview of the city and to learn a little of its history and culture. The guides are also a goldmine of information, so don’t be afraid to ask for tips.
Eating and Drinking in Warsaw
When it comes to food and drink, Warsaw has it all. Polish dumplings, called Pierogi, are a national treasure and must be tasted while in Warsaw. They can be found almost everywhere and are available with a range of sweet or savory fillings. The minced pork varieties are classic, although those filled with mashed potato, quark, and onions, often referred to as Ruski, meaning “Russian,” are equally delicious. For a taste of bohemian Warsaw’s nightlife, head to Nowy Świat street around sundown to drink elbow-to-elbow with some of Warsaw’s trendiest residents.
Worldwide Local Tip: For a throwback to the Soviet days, enjoy a meal at one of the classic Milk Bars (bar mleczny) dotted throughout the city. Once a staple of the working-class population, these timeless eateries are typified by hearty portions, rock bottom prices, and service straight out of the Soviet era. Pod Barbakanem, on the edge of the old town, is a classic.
Enjoy Your Stay!
Somewhat gritty and unrefined, Warsaw is a city that makes you work a little for your reward. As a worldwide local, you’ll begin to understand what Warsaw life is really all about and find yourself absorbed by a city that has seen the best and worst of times.