“I’m going to Warsaw” was my answer to “so… where’s next for you?”.
The revelation of these holiday plans weren’t exactly greeted with squeals of wild wanderlusting, more a slight creasing of the forehead and a somewhat dazed, puzzled look whilst they tried to figure out where Warsaw was or why anyone would want to go there. “..Oh, okay… sure – have fun…”
Sure, Warsaw is probably erring on the side of quirky as a choice of city break for the average holiday-goer, but I’d had a whole lot of fun (partly fueled by Polish beer and lashing of Wodka) in Gdansk and Krakow, and found them both culturally interesting places, plus I fell head of heels in love with the cuisine! So naturally, I didn’t want my explorations of Poland to end there. For me, Warsaw was the next logical step.
Palace of Science and Culture
As Poland’s capital, Warsaw is vast, so we needed our first day to muddle-out where we were and how to get around.
Arriving from the airport via the train, we surfaced in the financial district under the shadow of the Palace of Science and Culture. The tower, which was a gift to the city from Stalin in the 1950’s still boasts its accolade of being one of the tallest buildings in Poland, it’s fat, oppressive and completely unapologetic.
Image Credit (left): culture.pl
At the time it was built Warsaw was still in tatters after the war, yet Stalin ordered the construction of this grotesque palace. Unsurprisingly the ‘gift’ was not warmly welcomed, and I believe the general view is the locals are still pretty opposed to it. There’s now many other skyscrapers in this area, tall glass-fronted office blocks and hotels, like ours, across the road; the Novotel Warszawa Centrum. But the Palace of Science and Culture still stands boldly; an eyesore on the landscape, but also an important part of the city’s history.
But after gathering our bearings it was time to hunt out some of that fabulous Polish food, and attempt to bat off of the November chill! Not wanting to venture too far as we were keen to get rid of our luggage in an hour or two once check-in opened, we headed off to Szpitaln in search of E.Wedel.
E.Wedel, Polish Chocolate Shop
Now, my research prior to this trip had coughed up the usual suspects; milk bars, building of heritage, parks, visits to old town, walking tours etc, but many sources kept mentioning the Polish chocolate shops. Not wanting this to slide past me, and never one to say ‘no’ to an opportunity for chocolate we entered this cute cafe and placed an order for a couple of hot chocolate drinks (‘bitter’ chocolate with a puddle of salted caramel sauce in the base).
To say this was the best hot chocolate i’d ever tried would be completely true! Guys, this is the the dream of chocoholics! It’s impossibly thick, smooth and one thousand per cent addictive. I had one of these every day of my holiday, which probably accounted for my entire daily calorie in-take in one glass, but hey, it’s that good!
After checking in to our hotel and succumbing to a nap (or chocolate induced coma) we wanted to take a walk towards the old town after dusk and find a pierogi house for dinner. This was something i’d been most looking forward to; finally getting some real polish-made pierogi again! I’d lived off them when I visited Krakow this time last year, and since made do with cheap English alternatives whilst back at home, but they just weren’t anywhere near as good. There’s just something about these polish dumplings…
Passing by the tomb of the unknown solider and making our way into the old town, Warsaw was quiet on a Friday evening but we found Zapiecek, which is a chain of restaurants that specialise in this famous polish dish.
A cheese plate, mulled wine and two plates of meat dumplings later we were stuffed, happy and ready for bed!
We rose early to the call of Charlotte Bistro. Our hotel had inquired into whether we wanted to opt into the breakfast buffet provided downstairs, but after discovering the Parisian Café chain Charlotte’s in Krakow last year and hailing it the best breakfast I’d ever eaten I knew my mornings for the next few days would be spent happily dining on pastries and preserve in their Warsaw branch! I’m such a creature of habit…
There’s two branches in Warsaw, but we visited the one on Plac Zbawiciela. Already busy we nestled onto a large wooden communal table and knowing exactly what we fancied, promptly ordered two ‘Charlotte breakfasts’; a basket with various wedges of artisan breads and a croissant with a choice of whatever preserve we wanted! And it’s the preserve that does it for us; served in chunky jars you can dip in for however much you’d like. Two firm favourites of mine? The raspberry and the white chocolate!
It’s no secret that Poland flourishes in the Autumn, so keen to enjoy the season in all of it’s red, brown and gold our best bet was to head over to Warsaw’s largest park, Park Łazienki, which was a short walk from Charlottes.
Literally translated as ‘Baths’ the meaning becomes clear as you discover the Park Łazienki’s main draw, which is the Palace on an Island, originally a bathhouse and then in later years brought by Poland’s royals who converted it into a private residence; it’s now a museum!
Luckily for us, visiting over the first weekend of the month we were able to catch ‘Admission Free November’ so we could enter the royal residences at no fee! Thanks to Warsaw Tourism for tweeting me about that one!
We spent a few hours walking around the park, visiting Łazienki Palace and the Old Orangery and going nature spotting; finding a few of the resident peacocks, red squirrels and mandarin ducks, and jumping around in piles of leaves, because, erm, Autumn!
Warsaw’s Old Town
After taking a local bus up the ‘Royal Route’ and alighting at Old Town it was time to explore the area by day!
Warsaw’s old town is unique in the fact that it isn’t really ‘old’ at all. As mentioned earlier, Warsaw was severely hit in the World War and huge portions of city were destroyed, in fact it’s reported that around 85 per cent of Warsaw was reduced to rubble.
It was an act of sheer defiance that called for the decision to be made to reconstruct the city from the ground.
Town planners looked on the opportunity to develop new areas of Warsaw; spaces were re-designed to incorporate wide promenades and lots of green spaces, but it was decided that the old town should be re-built to reflect it’s pre-war self and retain part of it’s former identity.
Everything you see in Warsaw’s old town is a modern-copy of how the building once looked, and actually only around 40 years old!
I can’t quite pin down the atmosphere in the old town, it’s just a little bizarre to walk around knowing the incredible upheaval the area has been through. Some have coldly labelled it soulless, I’ve read that others have referred to it as a ‘Disneyland’ because of the ‘new buildings that look old’ thing; though I wouldn’t say it was either of those. For me it’s fascinating, maybe sad, yeah, but also, similar to the feelings that I got when walking around a city like Berlin, which has its own recent horrors. Warsaw breathes re-invention and has the air of gutsy determination – acknowledging the past but fighting back against atrocities.
Without dwelling too much on the history of the city just now (more on that later!) I noted that with Warsaw, similar Krakow and Gdansk, it’s clear that the fun to be had is tucked away behind the heavy wooden doors in the restaurants and pubs! Warsaw has quite the epic offering of beer houses and traditional restaurants so take an hour and wander the cobbles to find a cosy corner and some mulled wine!
Yup, this is exactly why I came to Poland!
Old Town Observation Terrace
Feeling much more settled and keen to learn more about the city we again headed for Old Town to meet up with Orange Umbrella tours, who meet regularly for tours in Old town square. Before grouping up with the rest of the tour, we had half an hour to spare so paid for a ticket for the observation terrace to check out the panorama from the top.
Our November weekend didn’t bless us with the best of weather, so it was a bit hazy and grey from where we were standing however, it was worth the thigh burn from the spiral staircase and the few zlotys we’d paid to reach the tower’s peak and score that money shot of the old town from above!
Jewish Free walking Tour with Orange Umbrella
A free walking tour was on my ‘must-do’ list for Warsaw since I booked my flights, I find these invaluable! And with a city like Warsaw that has a complex history I wanted to cram some learning into my holiday. As much as I love Poland’s food and drink scene, I wanted to understand a bit more about the city itself.
Orange Umbrella tour grouped us in the middle of the Old Town’s square, and considering it was a pretty cold, grey November afternoon with the forecast of rain I was surprised at how popular the tour was! Us and about 20 to 30 other plucky tourists, bobble hatted and gloved up were ready to embark on the 2 hour Jewish Walking Tour.
What I liked most about this tour was that our guide took us to areas I would never have visited had I not been on the tour. Although it started in the popular Old Town, we quickly branched out towards residential areas, learning about where the Old Jewish Getto was located and how life would have been only a few short decades ago. Our guide showed us old black and white photographs of how the city looked before, and how the Jewish community thrived; there were shops on either side, the streets were buzzing, happy and profitable.
Now, after the Jewish community was compressed into the Jewish Getto and finally demolished, the street is unrecognisable and all that is left is the two tram tracks on the cobbles. The content was heavy, but our tour guide was passionate about getting the information across to us; he wanted us to understand the volume of destruction that happened in Warsaw and how the pain is still incredibly raw.
He showed us where the old Jewish Getto walls once stood and then took us to see the Monument of the Getto Heroes outside the POLIN museum. The story behind the monument again displayed the fighting spirit of the Poles; how there was group of Jews who refused to go down without putting up a solid attack.
It was hard hitting, but it was the most amazing tour. Our tour guide commented on how most people or tourists recognise the stories from Auschwitz but it’s not popular knowledge to know about the extent of the horror happening in Warsaw; It’s so important to understand what Warsaw has been through to fully appreciate where the city is now.
Beer, Beer and more Beer!
After our tour, feeling as though we might need some time to fully digest what we’d been told we headed back to the Old Town in search of drinks.
Being a big fan of Delirium in Brussels, I’d found out that they have a Belgium Beer place that they call the ‘Elephant Pub’ (a nod to Delirium’s famous pink elephant logo). Okay, so I know I’m in Poland drinking Belgian Beer, but the pub turned out to be really awesome! Don’t go expecting it to compare to the three floored brew palace that is in Brussels, but they have a very decent amount of beers on tap and a great cheese board!
Understanding that we should probably venture elsewhere, we took off down the road and by chance found Same Krafty Multitap, which was a fabulous yet tiny Craft Beer house. I tried an Orange and Cream ale and only wish I had room to fit in one of their pizzas, they looked incredible, but I’d already treated myself to Polish Street Food staple; Zapiekanka!
On the way home towards our hotel we stopped off at Browarmia, a German style beer hall with excellent beers! Piw Paw – Beer Heaven, which has an entire wall of beers on tap! They appear to change them up when barrels run dry, so make this place your regular haunt when in Warsaw! And finally rounded off the night with a Czech inspired bar/restaurant (Ceska Restaurant) where we indulged in a beer cheese small plate and Kofola, my favourite Central European soft drink!
Yeah! That’s Warsaw done right!
Final walk around the town… and more Pierogi!
Three days in a city allows you to get to know the place pretty well, but four days allows that nice bit of extra time to take it a bit slower. Hence of final day being a good few hours of walking and dining! Perfect way to end the trip!
Starting off with a wander down the Royal Route, a road we’d only seen via the bus window so far, to get some final photos of the city. I half tried to find the roof-garden that I’d heard is housed in the University, but without good WiFi to tell us where to go we ended up having to ditch that idea. Perhaps it was closed for the winter? Or I’m just a bad tourist!
Winding down before the flight we ducked into a restaurant for a final pierogi, we went for some traditional meat dumplings but also some fried dumplings stuffed with Camembert with a cranberry sauce! Perhaps a bit festive for November, but it was delicious and so, SO filling and the best way to say farewell to Warsaw!
It seems perhaps unfair to compare Warsaw to Poland’s other cities; Krakow and Gdansk are vastly different to this metropolitan town. However, if you’ve been to the gorgeous city of Krakow you’ll know that it is quite ‘tourist friendly’, which by the way is by NO means a negative review. It’s a popular place, and rightly so!
Warsaw on the other hand feels grittier and has more ‘real-city’ soul, a comment you’d probably also make about parts of Berlin or London. It’s BIG. People live here, study here, do business here, and Warsaw has been through some real shit in recent times, and so it feels a little bit more like you’re stomping on ‘local’ turf rather than feeling lost in a sea of other travelers, which is kinda nice.
The fact of the matter is, arguably Warsaw doesn’t have the big draw of hosting bucket list attractions, maybe it doesn’t have anything like the Eiffel Tower, The Colosseum, The Brandenburg Gate, so really the place isn’t dripping in tourists. But the real joy is immersing yourself into the city, sitting around in the parks, having coffee at a regular cafe, falling in love with polish food, having a wild night out, embracing the general ebb and flow of the city and digging around at its history; learning about the sad past of Warsaw and being left in awe over its story of re-birth.
So, how much will a long weekend in Warsaw cost me?
Warsaw is one of Europe’s more affordable city’s, so this one won’t break your budget too hard.
For your trip we paid £66 for a pair of return flights from Luton to Warsaw Chopin via Wizz Air, £115 for a three night stay for two at the centrally located Novotel Warszawa Centrum and £250 spending money for the four day trip, including all transport around Warsaw, food, drink and tips for the free walking tour.
In total that’s £215 per person for four day trip to Warsaw inclusive of all costs, traveling as one half of a couple. Pretty damn affordable, if you ask me!
Find out more from Warsaw Tourist Board