Warsaw might not be everyone’s cup of tea because of its painful past, but it’s a fascinating city to visit from socio-cultural and architectural perspectives.
And yet, that’s not what I’m going to share with you today.
Instead, I’ll take you on a tour of Warsaw strictly from a tourist point of view. Old Town Warsaw is the best part of the city, along with the Jewish Quarter, both good reasons to visit Poland’s capital.
Warsaw made an impression on me because it’s very different compared to other European capitals I’ve visited so far.
The highly contrasting city landscape mingles jungle-like areas with well-kept market squares and a mix of building styles worthy of an architectural study.
Sky scrapers rise in the city’s skyline either from the banks of Vistula or right above the old town, the Socialist-Realist building of the Palace of Culture and Science dominates the heart of Warsaw, and the communist apartment buildings scattered around add to the contrasts of this city.
On the socio-cultural aspects, one thing you should know, at least for now, is that everybody whispers. You’ll probably be tempted to do the same just to keep a low profile.
Whether it’s on the crowded streets or in the busy trains and subways, you can actually hear a fly because of all the silence. It felt a bit creepy to me.
And it somehow doesn’t bring to mind a feeling of calmness of its people but rather speaks of a peculiar fear which Vlad pointed out as the collective memory’s involuntary response to past oppressions. But let’s get back to the beautiful side of Warsaw…
Warsaw’s Old Town, set on the west bank of Vistula River, is where most tourists spent their time, so I’ll go over some of the city’s attractions, hidden gems and must-have experiences in this city.
Top 10 things to see in Warsaw
One interesting thing about Warsaw’s Old Town is its age – it’s not actually as old as it seems.
Since most of the real old town was destroyed after WWII, what we can admire today is a reconstruction, close to a restoration, but not quite. Some of the buildings were reconstructed using paintings as models (cityscapes), and details were left out. Therefore, Old Town Warsaw is pretty new (some corners were finished mid-1960s, others in 1984).
Still, this new “old town” has earned its place as a UNESCO Heritage Site.
Rynek Starego Miasta / Old Town Market Square – Dates back to the 13th century, is the heart of the Old Town and the place where you can admire the painted facades or relax in one of the many coffee shops and restaurants around the square.
The Mermaid Statue in the middle of Rynek Starego Miasta is impossible to miss. Since an instagram friend of mine asked about it, I’ll also tell you that it’s one of the many mermaids scattered around the city because it’s the symbol of Warsaw (present on the city’s coat of arms).
Plac Zamcowy is an iconic market square in Warsaw, next to the Royal Castle and surrounded by charming streets that lead to Rynek Starego Miasta. You can admire its colorful architecture from above in the tower of St. Anne’s Church.
Barbakan Warszawski (bastion) – 16th century defense castle, offering a good panorama over Warsaw, and a lovely place to walk around at dusk. The streets and houses around it are very beautiful, so don’t miss it when touring the city.
Dzwon Na Kanonii – the pastel-colored square of the whishing bell
Chopin Museum – It was a bit disappointing for me because there was no audio guide to accompany you on the tour of the museum (unlike the splendid audio guide at MIM Brussels).
Bazyilika Archikatedralna W Warszawie – old church between Rynek Starego Miasta and Plac Zamcowy
Shrine of Our Lady of Grace – very close to Bazyilika Archikatedralna W Warszawie
Copernicus Statue & Science Academy/Staszic Palace
Copernicus is one of the personalities Warsaw prides itself with, so there’s a statue of him in front of the Science Academy and a science center dedicated to him. After all, he was a great mathematician and astronomer, but also the first to consider the Sun as center of the universe.(1)
Copernicus Science Center is a good place to visit, if you’re spending more days in Warsaw than us and when traveling with kids.
Marie Curie Museum on Freta Street
She’s an icon in the scientific world and pioneered the first research on radioactivity, but also the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (and twice).
A visit to her memorial house and museum in Warsaw would be a great addition to your Poland trip. The museum was closed at the time of our visit, but maybe you’ll get to visit it.
Royal Castle in Plac Zamcowy
Hidden Gems in Warsaw
Even if we only took a day tour of Warsaw, we reserved some time for aimless wanderings, as we usually do in each trip. Warsaw’s Old Town occupies a rather small area, so we had plenty of time to discover some places that weren’t on our must-see list.
Warsaw University of Technology
Warsaw is a tech development hub, so a visit to the beautiful Warsaw University of Technology is a must. The white building is mesmerizing, revealing different viewpoints as you move around its circular main hall.
At the time of our visit (September 2017), there was a huge tech conference being organized in the city, so it was a bit difficult to capture its beauty from the many architectural points of view it provides.
Most Beautiful Cobbled Alleys in Warsaw: Dawna blue passage, the colorful Brzozowa Street and Kamienne Schodki’s picturesque stairs are some of the most romantic places we found outside the old town market square.
Szeroki Dunaj is a beautiful little square with painted facades and a good place to take a break from the crowds gathered in the nearby Rynek Starego Miasta.
Chmielna Street is a street full of secret passages and hidden gems leading to many of Warsaw’s beautiful pubs. That’s where we found Raj w Niebie, a colorful restaurant in Warsaw.
Architecture lovers will be delighted by the doors of Poland and Warsaw. Just look at this Rococo detail of the Tenement House / Kamienica Pod Okrętem on Swietojanska – a beautiful street leading to Warsaw’s Old Town.
Top 5 things to do and experience in Warsaw
Take a Food Tour to sample the best Polish dishes
We went on a short food tour in Warsaw & Gdansk, with Warsaw as our main stop. You can read all about it in my previous article, so I’ll just mention a couple of restaurants here: Kafe Zielony Niedzwiedz (fine dining) & Zapiechek (restaurant chain).
See the city from above – 3 great viewpoints in Warsaw
The tower of St. Anne’s Church will offer a great viewpoint over Warsaw’s Old Town – Plac Zamcowy.
One other great view point over Vistula and the city is Gnojna Gora – Taras Widokowy, where we arrived by chance while wondering the streets around the old town. A lovely detail noticed here is that Vistula has these tiny sandy beaches on its banks, so I bet they’re great places to chill during the summer.
Palace of Culture and Science also offers a panorama over Warsaw, but we didn’t have the time to climb up its tower.
Coffee Shop Hopping
Milk Bars might be Warsaw’s trademark, but if you’re into interior design and styling, then you must visit their restaurants and coffee shops instead.
Raj w Niebie & Krem are two great places to start your tour of the most stylish coffee shops in Warsaw.
Interior styling fans will surely appreciate the bold décor statements and the creative mélange of textures, colors and light design. The first is a Hawaiian Restaurant, the second a coffee shop that also serves light food.
Admire the Street Art in Warsaw
Street Art in Poland and Warsaw is rooted in their culture and it gave some of the world’s most prominent artists. My favorite Polish street artists are Etam Cru, whose works I’ve admired in Portugal, and Natalia Rak.
Tamka Street is the best-know place for street art in Warsaw, and when you visit Chopin’s Museum, you’ll surely notice the large mural behind it – it’s dedicated to the Polish culture and represents its most important artists.
Take a Historic Tour in Warsaw
Warsaw’s tumultuous history shaped the city’s architecture but also the socio-cultural profile of its inhabitants. Therefore, taking a short tour of Warsaw’s historical landmarks will reveal the raw side of the city.
Warsaw Ghetto Border is one painful landmark, but I think travel shouldn’t be all about the beautiful side of things. You can find it on a 10 minutes’ walk outside city center, at the crossroad of Nowiniarska and Swietojerska streets.
POLIN – Museum of the History of Polish Jews
Since you’re in the neighborhood, a visit to Polin, Museum of the History of Polish Jews is a must, especially for history aficionados.
Vlad is a history geek, and my interests were more of an architectural nature – I wanted to see the reconstructed vault and bimah inside and the architecture of this rather new museum (2013).
Even if it was closed the day of our visit, we got to see the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes just next to it.
Pałac Kultury i Nauki / Palace of Culture and Science
You really can’t miss this one as it dominates the city center and it welcomes you at the main railway station in Warsaw. This colossal reminder of the former Russian impact in Poland was a gift by Stalin. It’s also the tallest building in Warsaw and offers panoramic views over the city.
Travel Tips for Visiting Warsaw
Accommodation in Warsaw
Even if we only spent a full day in Warsaw during our trip through Poland, we got to spend 3 nights at 2 different hotels in the city.
Our first hotel was Campanille Warsaw – great location and staff, clean and cozy room, close to city center, and a few minutes’ walk from the main railway station. In addition, their bistro is pretty good and at reasonable prices.
We weren’t so lucky with our second booking in Warsaw – Partner Hotel. It’s by far the creepiest hotel I’ve ever experienced in Europe!
13 km away from the city center might sound like a bad setting, but that wasn’t the worst thing about it.
This part of the city looked like the middle of nowhere because of the vast deserted land spread across from it, as if you could bump into wild animals at any time (few street lamps and lots of jungle-like bushes).
Also, “across the street” earned a new meaning for me with this Warsaw hotel – there was this grand maze of highways looking roads that we had to pass under in order to get from the train station to our hotel.
Really, this looked and felt like a horror movie scene! I was in no mood to take photos, so you just have to trust me on this (or head to Google street view/Google Earth).
Later on, we found out that this hotel was full of local tourists in town for the Tech Conference, and they all came by car.
Walking inside Partner hotel could have been a better experience, but instead we were welcomed by a kitsch room at the end of a long, spooky hallway (general hotel décor was also full of kitsch items).
To add to my misery, the staff refused to serve us a coffee 10 min. before breakfast time, even if we asked them nicely and mentioned we were on our way to the airport.
So my travel tip for you is to watch out for tech or other types of conferences in the city before planning your trip in Warsaw in order to get a good hotel. It’s a big city, and the city center covers a rather small area, so it’s better to book closer to downtown. There is no price difference between them.
Getting around Warsaw & Airport Transfer
We spent most of our time in Warsaw around the Old City and the Jewish Quarter, so we used public transport for getting there from our far, far away hotel (Partner), but also took the cab at night (in order to avoid the awful train station near the hotel).
On the local transport budget: a bus ticket goes for 4PLN/1€ and a cab ride for 30 or 40 PLN / 10€.
Taxi fare form Partner Hotel to Chopin Airport – 100PLN / 24€.
Interesting enough, when first arriving to Chopin Airport, it took me a few moments to realize that I’m really in Warsaw because of the striking similarity between Bucharest’s Otopeni Airport and Warsaw’s Chopin Airport.
It’s a strange experience to arrive at an airport that mirrors the one you just left from (Bucharest to Warsaw is a 2 hours flight).
Can’t say for sure if I liked Warsaw or not, but it was an interesting city to visit in our Poland trip.
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