Most people considering a trip to Poland put Krakow the top of their ‘must-see’ itinerary. Warsaw on the other hand is often thought of as Poland’s gritty capital with a tragic history; a place whose landmarks were largely lost during the ravages of WWII. To a large extent that preconception is true; the city’s major landmarks were destroyed and its history scarred by the atrocities brought upon the city’s Jewish population during the Nazi occupation. But Warsaw is a city of rebirth, one that has embraced its turbulent and tragic past by retelling its history in a series of compelling museums and exhibits. It’s also a city that has painstakingly rebuilt its old town brick by brick using old photos and paintings as architectural blueprints. The result is a capital city of contrasts. The reconstructed historical center provides a glimpse of the city’s perseverance and strength, museums and exhibits meticulously document the city’s darker history, the new city provides a vibrant restaurant and entertainment scene and all around are sure signs of the city’s communist past. A long weekend in Warsaw won’t disappoint.
Warsaw has two international airports. The closest to the city is Warsaw-Chopin which sits around 8km from downtown (15-30 minutes by taxi). If you opt for a taxi from Chopin then make sure you use airport licensed taxis (Sawa, Super and Ele). Two cheaper alternatives are the train and bus. The train station is a quick walk under a covered gangway after turning right out of the terminal building. Ticket booths are located within the train station and there are a multitude of options running several times an hour (KM, SKM, S2 Line and S3 Line). The train takes about 20 minutes in to the center of town. Alternatively you can catch the 175 bus from right outside the terminal exit and that takes about 20-25 minutes. You can find additional information on the Chopin Airport Website. The second airport is Warsaw-Modlin which is about 40km outside Warsaw. Modlin is where you’ll arrive if you’ve just spent the past few hours with your knees up round your ears crushed into a RyanAir seat (as we did – my wife and I like to treat ourselves to the finer things in life). Being a little further out, the taxi fare is obviously more to reach the city (at the time of writing it’s fixed at 159 zloty before midnight and after 6am) and the licensed taxis for Modlin are Sawa and Taxi Modlin. If your budget is a little more modest then you have two options; train and bus. Modlin Bus is a good cheap option and drops you right by the Palace of Culture and Science. I’d advise that you book your tickets online in advance as the bus is known to run completely full and it’s probably not best to take the risk. The train is slightly time consuming as it involves a shuttle to the train station and in all will take about an hour to reach the city. You can buy tickets covering both the shuttle and the train in the baggage claim hall. You can find more information on the Modlin Airport Website.
To be honest, other than Lazienki and Wilanow Palaces (and perhaps Praga if you don’t fancy a cold and windy winter walk across the bridge) pretty much everywhere on my recommended activities list is walkable from a central downtown location as long as you’re an averagely fit and healthy person (I just about scrape in to that category and I managed to walk everywhere). As such, there’s a chance you might only need to use public transport sparingly. If you do then the good news is that Warsaw has you well covered with an underground metro system, overground tram system and a comprehensive bus network of 1,500 buses. Ticket prices vary based on a whole host of factors (under 7, over 70 student status, inside leg measurement etc.) so I’ll stick to two basic pieces of advice. The first is to carry spare change because you can buy tickets straight from bus and tram drivers if you have the exact change. The second is to make sure you validate your ticket (on the bus or tram, or before you board the metro). There are fare inspectors trawling the carriages looking for offenders and it’s probably best to avoid a fine! Other than that your best bet is to check out the Warsaw Public Transport Website for route maps and the finer details on fares.
If you’re short on time and would like to see as much of the city as possible then a good bet might be an organised tour. A quick look at the Viator website will tell you that there are a multitude of options available. We decided we wanted to spend a morning a little off of the standard tourist trail and so opted for a tour with Adventure Warsaw who I can wholeheartedly recommend. The best part was that the whole tour was conducted in a vintage Nysa 522 (just imagine an old communist-style van). Other options worth considering include City Sightseeing Warsaw (a global brand so you know what you’re getting and you can combine multiple Polish cities into one ticket), Warsaw City Tours (like City Sightseeing but more of a local flavour) and WPT 1313 (who use communist era Polski Fiat 125P’s painted in New York Taxi Yellow). So many options…..
If you think you might take the City Sightseeing Hop-On-Hop-Off tour and you also plan to visit a bunch of museums or climb to the top of the Palace of Culture and Science then you might want to consider buying yourself a Warsaw Pass. It provides ‘free’ (I never understand these cards claiming things are free after you just purchased a card!) access to whole host of attractions, includes a City Sightseeing ticket and also allows you to jump to the front of the ticket queue when you arrive at attractions. If you want to find out more, including where you can purchase the card, then check out the Warsaw Pass Website.
If you’re looking to sample a small taste of the old communist Poland (or more generally a bit of a cheapskate) then you should definitely check out one or more of Warsaw’s Milk Bars. Unlike the name suggests, this is not the place to go and buy milk. They’re actually an old-fashioned style canteen restaurant serving local fare at crazy-cheap prices (in the past they were subsidized by the Communist regime for the working class). We visited Ząbkowski s.c. Bar over in Praga. Thankfully we had someone with us who was able to order on our behalf in Polish (the menu was only in Polish) – but I have no doubt that you could muddle your way through the ordering process with some good old finger pointing as dishes come out of the kitchen! That said, if you’re feeling brave and adventurous and want to try and order everything yourself in Polish then check out the Students Abroad website which provides great instructions on what to expect and how to order.
Palace of Culture and Science: The Palace is a fairly contentious relic of the city’s Soviet Communist past and a structure that wouldn’t look out of place in Ghostbusters with Stay Puff Marshmallow Man appearing from behind it (looking at the photo, tell me you don’t agree!). The 231m structure sits right in the very center of town and was the brainchild of Stalin who specifically sent an undercover delegation to New York to learn about the design and construction methods used to build the Empire State Building. It was originally designed as the Communist party headquarters, houses 3,288 rooms and killed 16 people during the construction process. It’s pretty easy to see why so many locals hate the building and a number of politicians have wanted to tear it down! These days the city has made the best it can of the contentious building by opening the viewing terrace and filling the building with theatres, museums, restaurants and bars. If nothing else it’s a great place to visit to bear witness to the sheer magnitude and audacity of the construction effort (or to do a reccie for the next Ghostbusters movie).
Museums: Warsaw is ram-packed with high quality museums. Even if you aren’t a museum fan you should at the very least visit the Warsaw Rising Museum which charts the operations of the Polish Underground Resistance as they liberated Warsaw from Nazi occupation in WWII. The museum covers a whopping 2,000 square meters over several floors in a former tram power station topped with a replica guard tower. The interactive exhibits are free on Sundays, so if you’re short on cash then Sunday is the day for you! Warsaw’s other top museums include the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the Copernicus Science Center (who doesn’t love an interactive science museum!) and the Chopin Museum.
Warsaw Old Town: The Old Town is the prime tourist spot in Warsaw and once you’re there it’s pretty easy to see why. After the 1944 Warsaw Uprising the previously opulent architectural jewel of Poland was left 85% destroyed. Miraculously, what you see today was only completed in 1962 and the quality of the work has landed the Old Town on the UNESCO World Heritage List (quite a feat given the level of destruction). The cobbled streets of old town are a prime opportunity for an afternoon stroll – just make sure you arrive with an empty stomach so that you can sample the pierogis and sweet treats on offer from the street-side vendors. The area has a number of highlights and the best place to start is Plac Zamkowy (a giant square) which is home to King Sigismund’s Column and the Royal Castle (which looks nothing like a castle and entirely like a palace). For a few Zloty you can climb the bell tower of St Anne’s Church on the far side of the square which provides great views over the rest of Old Town. If you want to visit the Royal Castle and parliament then a small fee (15 zloty at the time of writing) is payable or you can visit the castle’s basement exhibit on the destruction and reconstruction of the castle for free. Other Old Town highlights include the Barbican, Old Town Square (Rynek) and a whole host of religious edifices (including St John the Baptist Cathedral, St. Martin’s Church and the Jesuit Church). It’s easy to navigate around Old Town so you shouldn’t have any difficulty hitting all of the tourist hotspots over the course of a few hours.
Jewish Warsaw: After the arrival of the Nazis in Warsaw the Jewish Ghetto was created in 1940 and covered an unbelievable 18km and 73 streets. A small and large ghetto were constructed and linked by a bridge (you might remember the bridge in scenes of ‘The Pianist’). Ordered into the ghetto (failure to do so risked immediate execution) 380,000 Jews were housed in the closed-off area with many later tragically destined for the Treblinka gas chambers. Much of what was formally the ghetto was destroyed in the 1943 ghetto uprising but there are a number of ways to learn more whilst in Warsaw. One small section of the ghetto wall remains at Ul. Sienna 55 whilst a Ghetto Trail found throughout downtown Warsaw traces the former ghetto boundary along a number of pavement markers and information points. The ghetto bridge is now represented by the ‘Footbridge of Memory’ on Ul. Chlodna. The memorial is lit at night by cables that represent the former handrails of the bridge and viewing windows in the memorial show photos of the ghetto. If you really want to learn more then head to the POLIN museum which at the time of writing has a 25 zloty entrance fee.
The Royal Route: Starting back on Plac Zamkowy (which at this point should feel like the center of the Warsaw tourism universe) head away from Old Town and you’ll find yourself on what is better known as ‘The Royal Route’. If you’re feeling particularly energetic then you could walk the entire 11km route that links the three royal palaces; the Royal Castle, Lazienki Park Palace and Wilanow Palace. However, mere mortals usually walk the route from Plac Zamkowy to Plac Trzech Krzyzy which is about 2.5km and much more manageable on a cold winter day (we visited in December and so took the ‘mere mortal’ route). This shorter route takes in some notable landmarks including the Presidential Palace, the 17th Century Carmelite Church, the Church of the Holy Cross and the Copernicus Monument which sits outside the Polish Academy of Sciences. There are also a number of decent bars and restaurants along the shorter route which means that you can remain well lubricated throughout.
Lazienki and Wilanow Palaces: Lazienki Park is a splash of greenery in what can sometimes feel like Warsaw’s concrete jungle. The park is home to Lazienki Palace which sits on an island in the middle of a lake (it’s picture perfect, may I add), a monument to Chopin, Myslewicki Palace (which runs guided tours for a few zloty and is actually free on Thursdays) and Ujazdowski Castle (which houses a Museum of Modern Art). The easiest way to get to Lazienki is by tram from Centrum to ul. Bagatela. The other notable palace worth visiting is Wilanow which dates back to the 17th Century and has been called ‘The Polish Versailles’. Wilanow Palace is home to a museum which also showcases the Polish Portrait Gallery. Getting to Wilanow is the only bug bear as it’s a 30-35 minute ride on the bus from Old Town (the 116 and 180 run from Old Town to Wilanow at the time of writing).
Praga: If you’re looking to get a little off of the usual tourist path and enjoy visiting areas undergoing a slow process of ‘hipster-istation’ or ‘bohemian-isation’ then Praga is the place for you. As with all areas that are up-and-coming Praga can be a little rough and ready in places and has been known for its crime. Basically don’t walk around in Praga after dark as we did; it didn’t feel safe at all. During the day head straight to Ul. Zabkowska for the perfect exemplifier of the regeneration of the area (the old Koneser Vodka Factory is a great example of the work going on in Praga). I’d also recommend stopping by the Neon Museum which exhibits communist era neon signage (just be aware that if you want to take photos there you can only do so with a camera phone unless you pre-apply for a license).
Chopin Airport Website: www.lotnisko-chopina.pl
Modlin Bus Website: www.modlinbus.com
Modlin Airport Website: www.modlinairport.pl
Warsaw Pass Website: www.warsawpass.com
Warsaw Public Transport Website: http://www.ztm.waw.pl
Palace of Culture and Science Website: http://www.pkin.pl/eng