Warsaw is a modern metropolis charged with history, with an impressive cultural scene, thriving nightlife and a string of intriguing attractions.
The tourist epicenter of Warsaw is the ‘Royal Route', which runs north-south from the New and Old Towns, past the fashionable shops of Nowy Świat, the palaces that survived the war and the royal gardens of Łazienki Park, before reaching Wilanów Palace to the south of the city center.
The strikingly successful rebuilding of Warsaw's Old Town after WWII was rewarded in 1980, when it became a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Sightseeing in Warsaw is generally concentrated on the left bank of the Vistula River. The UNESCO World Heritage Old Town is unmissable - quite literally, seeing as many of the city's attractions and a whole host of cafés, bars and restaurants are located within its environs.
Warsaw's Old Town is both a physical and symbolic expression of the city's spirit and determination to come back from the brink of annihilation at the end of WWII. Most visitors to Warsaw spend their first day strolling around the Old Town, where you can find the opulent and impressive Royal Castle, once home of the Polish kings. Outside the historic center is Wilanów, a charming palace on a grand scale, which was modeled on Versailles.
For many people, the very symbol of Warsaw is the voluminous Palace of Culture and Science, which was gifted to Warsaw by Stalin. The viewing deck on the 30th floor is accessible via express lifts and this is the best venue for visitors to get acquainted with the layout of the city.
Warsaw boasts a number of green lungs and Łazienki Park is one of the most relaxing, with its Palace on the Water and boating lake. The city is also home to an impressive array of cultural attractions, with a string of museums, including the National Museum, Warsaw Rising Museum, Chopin Museum and the haunting Pawiak Museum, which was used as a prison under the Nazis.
The city also boasts many green spaces, with leafy parks where rowing boats cruise past outdoor cafés, during the summer, and free classical concerts attract crowds in a scene far removed from the dull Communist-era images of Warsaw.
Warsaw's nightlife scene today is one of the best in Eastern Europe, with a multitude of bars and clubs scattered across the city, and the dining options have improved no end, with international cuisine regularly featured alongside Polish standards.
Warsaw Top Attractions »
Although many of the buildings in central Warsaw were built in an austere, quasi-Gothic, Stalinist style, a large number of prewar buildings were carefully restored or, in many cases, completely reconstructed following clues in old prints and paintings. A case in point is the beautiful Rynek Starego Miasta (Old Town Square). The Zamek Królewski (Royal Castle), which houses a museum, is the greatest of the rebuilt monuments.
Apart from the embankment carved out by the Wisla (Vistula) River, which runs through the city south to north, Warsaw is entirely flat. Most sights, attractions, and hotels lie to the west of the river. Major thoroughfares include aleje Jerozolimskie, which runs east-west, and ulica Nowy Swiat, which runs south-north through a main shopping district, passes the university, and ends at the entrance to the Stare Miasto (Old Town). Be careful about Nowy Swiat: its name changes six times between its starting point in Wilanów (where it's called aleja Wilanowska) and its terminus (where it's named Krakowskie Przedmiescie).
Biblioteka Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego
A 10-minute walk toward the river from the main campus of Warsaw University is the relatively new (1999) Warsaw University Library, a sight not to be missed, even if you're not on a research trip. You'll find some shops and cafés (including noteworthy restaurant Biblioteka) on the ground floor, but it's the building's roof and its rooftop garden that are truly special and definitely worth the trip. The garden, open to the general public, is both vast and intimate, not to mention one of the most beautiful rooftop spaces in all of Europe. With its nooks, crannies, brooks, paths, lawns, and benches where you can hide with or without a book, the garden provides a perfect space for thought and inspiration. It is also full of surprises: look for various "reinterpretations" of Einstein's theory of relativity. In addition, you'll find a kaleidoscope of vistas of both the city and the library's interior. If you dare, cross the footbridge over the glass library roof—with the sky reflected under your feet, you literally walk in the clouds.
The 180 acres of this park, commissioned during the late 18th century by King Slanislaw August Poniatowski, run along the Vistula escarpment, parallel to the Royal Route. Look for the peacocks that wander through the park and the delicate red squirrels that in Poland answer to the name "Basia," a diminutive of Barbara. Of course, the best way to entice a squirrel to come near is to have some nuts in your hand. In the old coach houses on the east side of the park you'll find the Muzeum Lowiectwa i Jezdziectwa (Museum of Hunting. 022/621-62-41), which contains a collection of stuffed birds and animals native to Poland. It is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 to 3; admission is zl5. One of the most beloved sights in Lazienki Park is the Pomnik Fryderyka Chopina (Chopin Memorial), a sculpture under a streaming willow tree that shows the composer in a typical romantic pose. In summer, outdoor concerts of Chopin's piano music are held here every Sunday afternoon.
Warsaw Rising Museum
One of the youngest and certainly one of the best museums in Poland tells the story of the 1944 Rising by means of interactive displays. The museum features a life-size plane, cobblestone streets, reconstructed sewers (vital transportation and evacuation lines during the battles), real objects, photographs, and also video footage and audio recordings. It is a day-by-day account of the heroic struggle of the insurgents, most of them twentysomething years old—often told in their own words. It is impossible not to be involved and moved by it. Allow a minimum of 2½ hours to see the exhibition with a guide. English-language guides are available, but to ensure that you have a guide, you should make a tour reservation on the museum Web site by e-mailing a request to the museum, especially in summer. It is possible to wander around on your own as well. Large groups (11-plus persons) must book their entry in advance.
Warsaw Travel Tips »
The Municipal Transport Board ZTM (tel: (022) 19484; www.ztm.waw.pl) operates the bus and tram network, connecting all parts of Warsaw, as well as the metro line.
Night bus routes converge on Ulica Emilii Plater, next to the Palace of Culture and Science. The one-line metro system connects the district of Bielany with Ursynów, via Śródmieście.
Tickets, valid for all modes of transport, are available at the green Ruch kiosks, post offices and hotels. It is also possible to purchase tickets on board buses, but a surcharge will apply. With every change of vehicle, a new ticket must be punched in the metal boxes inside the bus or tram, or before entering the platform on the underground.
One-day passes are valid for 24 hours after you first punch the ticket. Three- and seven-day passes are also available. You can also buy tickets at the City Transportation Office at Ulica Senatorska 37 (entrance from Saski Garden). Children under four years travel free. Pickpockets operate on some routes (especially bus 175 from the airport) and valuables should be kept close at hand and out of sight at all times.
Taxis in Warsaw are metered and can be hailed on the street, although fares are usually cheaper if the taxi is ordered by telephone. There are also a number of private firms. You can pay by credit card with MPT Radio Taxi (tel: (022) 19191), Halo Taxi (tel: (022) 19623) and OK! Taxi (tel: (022) 19628). Other taxi firms include Wawa (tel: (022) 19644) and Super Taxi (tel: (022) 19622).
There is no baggage charge and tipping is usually around 10% of the fare. Overcharging is most likely to happen at the airport, central station, the Old Town or near one of the larger hotels. Non-affiliated taxis should be avoided - it is advisable for travelers to take a taxi with the telephone number displayed on the top and advertising on the side of the car.
Driving in the City
In the past decade, traffic congestion in Warsaw has increased dramatically. Many of the city's drivers travel at high speeds and perform dangerous overtaking maneuvers, which may trouble nervous visitors.
The lack of a ring road means that traffic goes straight through the heart of the city, worsening congestion problems in the city center. A variety of plans are underway but these are largely dependent on adequate investment. However, improvements have materialized, including the building of additional bridges.
Be mindful of tramway lines when driving as the tracks are not always on a separate road area. At red lights, a small green arrow indicates that it is permissible to turn right, however, priority must be given to cross traffic. At intersections without lights, traffic must stop for pedestrians once they have begun to cross at zebra crossings.
Paid street parking is in effect and there are some underground car parks in the city center. There is a car park under the Silver Screen multiplex (also known as the Europlex building) on Ulica Pulawska 17. There is also 24-hour parking around the Palace of Culture and Science.
Warsaw restaurants, cafes and bars »
While even Poland's most ardent fans will admit that it does not have one of the world's great cuisines, the old traditions of Polish cooking are being revived, and the finer city restaurants are bringing a nouvelle flair to the tried-and-true favorites.
One of the joys of Polish cuisine is the soup, a fundamental part of the daily meal and potentially a meal in itself. Soups are invariably excellent, often thick and nourishing, with lots of peas and beans. Clear beet soup, barszcz, is the most traditional, but soured barley soup, zurek, should be sampled at least once. Pickled or soused herring is also a favorite Polish entrée.
The Polish chef's greatest love is pork in all its varieties, including suckling pig and wild boar. Traditional sausages, kabanos, usually dried and smoked, are delicious, as are the different kinds of kielbasa. A popular hunter's dish, bigos, is made from soured and fresh cabbage, cooked (for several days or weeks) together with many different kinds of meat and sausage. Kompot (stewed fruit) is customarily served at an early stage in the meal, and you sip the juice rather than eat the fruit.
The traditional sit-down restaurant is still the main feature of the dining scene in Poland, across all price ranges. But if you are in a hurry there is more variety than ever. The old low-cost, self-service bar mleczny (milk bars) and cheap cafeterias are disappearing, replaced by fast-food outlets. If you are really pressed for time, you will nearly always be able to find a street stall (usually housed in a small white caravan) that serves zapiekanki: French bread toasted with cheese and mushrooms. Street stalls selling spicy Vietnamese dishes are ubiquitous.
Restaurants usually have French, German, and Eastern European wines; the last often represent the best value for the money, especially the Hungarian reds such as Egri Bikavér (Bull's Blood of Eger) or one of the Bulgarian Sofia varieties. Note that quality imported wines and spirits are highly taxed as luxury items, and the prices charged for them in restaurants can be astronomical.
Although upscale city restaurants have adapted to Western mealtimes, and some offer lunch starting at noon, Poles traditionally eat their main meal of the day, obiad (dinner), between 3 and 5. Many restaurants therefore open at 1 and do not get into full swing until mid-afternoon. Although in cities there is a growing trend to stay open later ("to the last customer" is a popular new slogan), many restaurants still close relatively early, and it may be difficult to order a meal after 9. A few restaurants offer fixed-price meals between about 1 and 5; these do not always represent a savings over à la carte prices.
The best Balkan restaurant in Warsaw serves a mix of Croat, Serbian, Bosnian, and Jewish recipes, executed by Serb and Croat chefs. Meat dishes are the menu's core, although Thursday is fish day, and food comes in generous portions. Worthy choices include dimljena vesalica
(sirloin smoked with cherrywood and then grilled very slowly), and jareci kotleti
(mixed lamb cutlets in herbs). The decor is rustic, and in summer, the garden is one of the best places in town.
Restauracja Fabryki Trzciny
You'll find the atmosphere at this restaurant cozy and warm, which is surprising since the modern arts center that houses it was once an industrial warehouse. The cuisine here is classified as "art-industrial cuisine," but the truth is that the food served here is Polish—mostly Varsovian—with influences from the Mediterranean and other European cuisines. Many dishes may recall childhood favorites, such as leniwe
(sweet cheese raviolis) or pyzy
(a kind of dumpling popular in Mazovy). Among the many excellent dishes, don't miss horse-radish soup or veal liver in mushroom sauce, both of which are unforgettable. If you feel indecisive, go with the six-course tasting menu and a shot of zoladkowa
vodka to wash everything down.
This establishment is widely considered one of the best Indian restaurants in Poland—and not just by its owner, Charanjit Walia. Tandoor Palace serves North Indian food, mostly tandoori dishes, as the name indicates—including excellent butter tikka masala, and a selection of jalfrezi
(a vegetable curry), biryani
(a sweet and spicy rice dish), and other recipes where green chilis, ginger, and coriander are used generously. Curries can be washed down with Kingfisher beer. The restaurant is the favorite haunt of foreign residents, who attend the monthly Curry Club and the Comedy Club.
Warsaw Shopping - Poland's Authentic souvenirs »
In terms of shopping, Warsaw has it all—from big, sparkling shopping malls to tiny boutiques and specialty stores, as well as some decent street markets. Increasingly, international chains—such as Marks & Spencer—are appearing, which has meant that locally produced products are sometimes harder to find than expensive imported alternatives. Shopping hours are usually from 11 AM to 7 PM on weekdays and from 10 AM to 1 PM on Saturday, but shopping malls are open until 8 or even 10 PM. RUCH kiosks, which sell bus and train tickets, newspapers, and cosmetics, are usually open from 7 to 7.
The political transformations of 1989 were quickly reflected in the hundreds of new shops that sprang up all over Warsaw. Since then, shops have come and gone with surprising regularity, but there are some that have withstood the test of time. There are also licensed and illegal street vendors that offer wares ranging from cloth napkins, wooden sculptures, cooking pots and freshly picked mushrooms.
The main shopping streets are the restored Ulica Chmielna, elegant Nowy Świat, Ulica Marszalkowska and Aleje Jerozolimskie. Shopping arcades, both in and outside of the city center, have
become very popular, including Galeria Centrum, Ulica Marszalkowska 104/122, the biggest shopping oasis in Warsaw, Arkadia, Aleja Jana Pawla II 82, and the newest of all, Złote Tarasy, Ulica Złota 59. These malls have both national and internationally known brands including H&M, Levi’s and Zara, and often house cinemas and restaurants.
Probably the best spot in Warsaw for souvenir hunting is in the Old Town, among the colorful facades and artists’ stalls. The Cepelia stores are also worth a visit for Polish handicrafts such as lace, dolls, amber and silver jewelry and leather goods. To pick up some wonderful Boleslawiec pottery, visit the outlet on Ulica Marszałkowska 99/101. Desa Unicum shops specialize in art and antiques and a savvy shopper can pick up some choice pieces here; the most central store is located at Old Town Square 4/6.
With the temporary demise of Europe’s largest flea market, known locally as the Russian Market, Warsaw’s market scene is a little bare. There are still a few spots worth visiting however, such as Bazat na Kole (ul Obozowa) in the western reaches of the city, which has mountains of junk and antiques to sift through, ranging from CDs to WWII relics. Fingers crossed the local council finds a spot for the Russian Market to reopen soon.
Shops are generally open Monday to Friday 1000/1100-1800/2000 and Saturday 1000-1300/1600. In the past five years, 30 shopping centers and hypermarkets of all the major European chains have opened in Warsaw. Often open seven days a week, these are the best places to stock up on Polish staples - such as pickled herring, preserved meats and, last but not least, vodka.
VAT is applied at rates of 3%, 7% and 22%, depending on the goods or services bought. Tax-free shopping is available to nonresidents of the EU if a minimum of ZL200 is spent in one transaction at participating outlets that will issue Global Refund Cheques. Cash refunds are given out at airports on presentation of the tax free documents (website: www.globalrefund.com).
Warsaw Hotel Reviews »
Warsaw's overall shortage of luxury hotel rooms is fast becoming a thing of the past. At least two international chains are building new accommodations. Lower on the price scale, options remain restricted. Bed-and-breakfast accommodations are difficult to find. In summer there are generally more options because student hostels rent out their spaces. Demand is high, so book well in advance.
Warsaw is a small city, and the location of your hotel is not of crucial importance in terms of travel time to major sights or night spots. Many hotels are clustered in the downtown area near the intersection of ulica Marszalkowska and aleje Jerozolimskie. This is not an especially scenic area; nevertheless, the neighborhood doesn't exactly become a "concrete desert" after business hours, since there are many residences, restaurants, and nightspots. Note that with a rising crime rate in the city, it is best to be cautious when strolling downtown at night—although the greatest hazards usually turn out to be uneven pavement and inadequate lighting.
The hotels on plac Pilsudskiego, which is close to parks and within easy walking distance of the Old Town, offer more pleasant surroundings. Most of the suburban hotels have no particular scenic advantage, though they do provide immediate access to larger tracts of open space and fresh air.