Warsaw took me by surprise.
I feel like the Polish capital is a really well kept secret that very few travellers know about (even I was out of the loop until my recent visit). However, what I found was a really cool city with an up-and-coming art scene, lots of unique attractions, and a bit of a Soviet edge. Visiting Warsaw made me think of a younger version of Berlin before it became popular. In my eyes, Warsaw is just as cool, it’s brimming with possibilities, and it won’t be long before others also realize it and start flocking there.
Here’s a look at what I got up to during my week there, and I hope it’ll inspire you to give this city a visit because it turned out to be one of my favourite European stops of the summer.
Take a historical tour in a Nysa Van
I have to admit, prior to travelling to Warsaw, I knew very little about Poland’s history so joining Adventure Warsaw proved to be a great way to learn the basics. Our guide managed to pack several hundred years of history into just a few hours, but what made it stick in my head was that he showed us rather than told us.
We visited streets that showcased what Warsaw’s architecture looked like before the war, we saw where the dividing walls that marked the boundaries of Warsaw’s Ghetto stood, and we stared at the bullet holes that still scar many walls. Also, our guide knew a thing or two about keeping us (his learners) engaged so he kept asking us question that forced us to think and look at the clues in front of us to figure out the answer. That’s a sign of a good teacher (and I can say that confidently having just graduated from teacher’s college myself)!
Also, can I just point out that we were driving around Warsaw in a bubblegum pink Nysa Van from the Soviet era. That was a pretty cool experience (right up there with riding in a bright orange Trabant during my recent visit to Germany).
After the historical tour of Warsaw, we stopped off at Czar PRL, which is a small museum that depicts life in Poland under communist rule; it reminded me a lot of the DDR Museum in Berlin, though on a much smaller scale.
Have lunch at a Milk Bar
Milk bars are the best thing ever! The name is a little misleading because you don’t go there to drink milk, nor do you go there to drink alcohol. A Polish milk bar is kind of like a cafeteria where you can eat simple dishes, many of which are dairy based. (You can also get a few non-dairy dishes, so don’t let that keep you away!)
The first milk bar in Warsaw opened up in 1896, but they became even more popular after the First World War since they offered cheap but nourishing food. Its popularity soared once more after the Second World War, and now they are once again trendy.
A milk bar isn’t like your average restaurant. How it works is that you order your food, pay for it at the cash register, grab a tray, pick up your order through a little window, and then take everything back to your table. Super casual and also extremely affordable! On my first milk bar experience I got to sample potatoes with meatballs, coleslaw, a pink beetroot soup, and fruit juice. I recommend trying Bar Prasowy.
Shop for Communist-inspired clothes
Communism is back in style? When it comes to fashion, it is.
Having minored in German Studies when I was in university, one of the things I found fascinating was the concept of Ostalgie – the nostalgia East Germans felt for life under the Soviet system once the wall came down and the system collapsed.
Well, it appears that the East Germans are not alone because Poland has been experiencing its own wave of nostalgia for all things Soviet and nowhere does this manifest itself more clearly that in the fashion. Soviet chic is now in style. (The same can’t be said about politics.)
Pan Tu Nie Stał is one of the clothing stores leading the trend, and it means ‘You weren’t standing here’. The store’s name is a reference to the long lines people got used to standing in during the Soviet era.
Visit the Warsaw Uprising Museum
If you want to learn a bit more about Warsaw’s history and how the people fought back during the Second World War, you should check out the Warsaw Uprising Museum.
The Warsaw Uprising took place in 1944 and it was an operation led by the Polish Home Army to liberate Warsaw from Nazi Germany. The two main goals of this operation were to: 1) drive the Germans out of the city, and 2) to try to liberate Warsaw before the Soviets did so that the Poles could maintain sovereignty and the Soviet-backed Polish Committee of National Liberation would not assume control.
The Warsaw Uprising was perfectly timed so that it would coincide with the Soviet Union’s Red Army approaching the eastern suburbs of the city, but well, the Soviets stopped short just on the other side of the river and kind of left the Home Army hanging. Only 1,200 men from the Red Army crossed over the river bank into the city (many of them Poles fighting in the Red Army), but these numbers were never reinforced. The Soviets ignored Polish attempts to establish radio contact, and meanwhile the Polish Resistance Army kept fighting for 63 days (on an operation that was meant to last just a few days) with little to no support from the outside. Today the symbol of the Warsaw Uprising can still be seen in flags across the city.
I could go on about the history, but if you want to learn a bit more for yourself this website is a good place to start.
Stare at the bright lights inside the Neon Muzeum
The Neon Muzeum is one of the most unusual museums I have ever visited. It was started by David Hill and Ilona Karwinska, who are on a quest to save Polish Cold War Neon.
During my visit I learned that during the 60s and 70s Warsaw experienced an era or ‘neonisation’, which illuminated the city and also changed its aesthetic. These days neon isn’t quite as popular so many of the historic signs are being torn down, which is why David and Ilona are trying to save and restore these, because these signs essentially chronicle a very unique period in history.
Their museum is located in SOHO Factory over in Praga, which is on the other side of the Vistula River. Not many travellers venture there, but if you want to explore the heart of Warsaw’s up-and-coming art district, this is a place that you don’t want to miss.
Enjoy a stroll down Łazienki Park
Łazienki Park is the largest park in Warsaw and the name means ‘Baths’ thanks to the bathing pavilion that was located on these very grounds. The park is also part of the Royal Route, which was a communication route that ran southward from the Old Town back in the days when snail mail was the only way to get urgent messages across.
The park itself is stunning and it’s home to many landmarks like the Palace on the Water, the Theatre on the Isle, the Old and New Orangery, and many others. If you’re lucky, you might even find an incredibly regal peacock roaming around. It’s a nice place for a bike ride, or even a picnic if you have the time.
Soak in the city views from the Palace of Culture and Science
The Palace of Culture and Science is a building that’s loved by some and hated by others. It is a behemoth of Stalinist architecture and it’s kind of hard do miss considering there aren’t many skyscrapers to impeded your view.
The building was given as a “gift from the Soviet people to the Polish nation”, but in reality it was a form of propaganda and the Polish people also had to absorb the construction costs. You can see why they aren’t big fans… However, while the building is a grave reminder of the past, it’s also a heritage building and quite a, dare I say, beautiful structure.
If you’re interested in learning a bit more about Soviet era politics and seeing some of the rooms where key meetings took place, then a guided tour is a really great way to hear the stories and see the areas that would otherwise be off limits. After the tour you can ride the elevator up to the 30th floor where you get some nice views of the city.
Visit the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews
The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews sits on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto and it documents the history of Polish Jews in a chronological timeline. The exhibit starts out with a focus on the traveling merchants that came to Poland during the medieval period and it spans several hundred years through to the Holocaust and the Post War Years. It’s a really moving museum that will leave you close to tears in more than one spot.
Take a Polish cooking class and learn to make pierogi
I’m a major foodie, so taking a Polish cooking class where I learned to make pierogi from scratch was a lot of fun. The class started with a big meal (you can’t have people in the kitchen going hungry!) where we sampled a Polish spread that included breads, cheeses, deli meats, pickled herring, and vegetables. Once we couldn’t eat any more food, it was time to start cooking.
The chef, Michal, taught us to make 3 different fillings for our pierogi: ground beef and onions, cheese and potatoes, and strawberries for dessert. It took us about 3 hours to prepare all the food and then we devoured it in a matter of minutes. Our pierogi may not have looked perfect, but they tasted oh-so-good!
Take a boat trip down the Vistula River
The Vistula is the longest river in Poland and it runs right through Warsaw. There are a lot of different water sports you can try during the summer months (we saw so many kayakers!), but we opted to take a small wooden boat for a leisurely ride. It just so happened that the water levels were extremely low during our visit, so it turned into a bit of a punting outing but it was still a lot of fun.
Check out the rooftop gardens at the Warsaw University Library
A university campus doesn’t often end up on a list of top attractions, however, Warsaw’s University Library is an exception. They have a created a beautiful little oasis on top of the library and you don’t have to be a student to access it. Just follow the steps leading up the slope on the left side of the building’s main entrance and you’re there.
Check out the food scene
Because I’m such a foodie and apparently eating at milk bars and learning to make pierogi wasn’t enough for my taste buds, I also got check out the emerging food scene around Warsaw. Two of my favourite places were Na Lato in Park Marszałka Edwarda Rydza-Śmigłego and Warszawa Wschodnia by Mateusz Gessler in SOHO Factory.
Na Lato means “for the summer” and it’s a place that started out as a summer venue for food and drinks. I really liked that their meals were light, fresh and appropriate for summer dining. I also got to eat at Warszawa Wschodnia by Mateusz Gessler, which is a really cool dining spot if you find yourself in Praga. They had a nice mix of French and Polish food on the menu.
Experience the nightlife with a Pub Crawl
I haven’t been on a pub crawl in a very long time. I kind of like quiet evenings spent at home with a book in hand, so if you give me the choice between a wild night out or an early night in bed with furry pyjamas and a warm duvet, I’m going to choose the latter. However, Warsaw is meant to boast quite the nightlife, so off I went to see what the fuss was all about.
For this outing, I joined the Warsaw Pub Crawl and met a very international group of travellers from Morocco, Portugal, India, Australia, Germany, and Poland. There was even a blog reader in the mix who recognized me at the first bar!
The first stop of the night was a little underground bar in Nowy Swiat, where we got to know each other and it was quiet enough that we could have a conversation without screaming over the music. After a couple of drinks there, we headed down to the Vistula River, where little bars set up on the sand during the summer months. It was actually a really nice area with a mix of lawn chairs and wooden crates for furniture, and a really relaxed and easy going vibe.
Explore the Old Town on foot
I’m leaving the Old Town for last because this is likely the first place that visitors to Warsaw are drawn to. The Old Town is a beautiful place and believe it or not, 85% of it had to be rebuilt after the Second World War because little to nothing was left standing. Despite being a “new” Old Town, it’s definitely a place you’ll want to make time for, but if this is all you visit during your time in the city, you’re missing out on another completely different and really cool side of Warsaw.
Have you been to Warsaw?
Can you recommend any other things to do in Warsaw?
Many thanks to Fall In Love With Warsaw who helped organize part of my visit to the city. For more info on travel in Warsaw you can visit their Facebook page.