There are so many things to love about Warsaw. It’s got so much history and character – you can see it in the streets, in the mix of architecture, and in the diversity and friendliness of the people. Just walking through the city is enough to win you over, with beautiful buildings, cafés and small businesses scattered through the old and new streets. It is especially beautiful covered in snow, as it was during my visit in January 2016.
If I’m being really honest, Poland wasn’t initially on my list of ‘places to see’, amongst the myriad of better known or supposedly more trendy destinations in Europe. I kind of decided on a trip to Warsaw because, well, why not? The return Wizz Air flights from our then-home base of Malmö, Sweden, were around $15 AUD, accommodation was very cheap, and we had some free time in our travel schedule. Well, I am so, so glad to have been. Warsaw is incredible.
Below are some ideas of what to do and see (including indoor recommendations, suitable for the not uncommon -12C January days), as well as some cool places to eat, grab a coffee and have a drink.
As for accommodation, we stayed in a cheap and very well located Airbnb apartment just off the northern end of Marszałkowska, one of the main streets that runs through the city. There were plenty of similar apartments online, or similarly inexpensive hostel options. It’s really easy to get around the city via the public transport system, so as long as you stay somewhere in town, location isn’t that important.
To Do and See
Of course, the ‘touristy’ type things really are worth a visit, and they’re popular for a reason. The Palace of Culture and Science is particularly notable, because of its central location and sheer magnitude – it also has a pretty interesting history. It was constructed in the 50’s as a gift from the Soviet Union to the people of Poland, and it’s still pretty controversial today. There seems to always be something interesting happening there. When we went, it was an exhibition of live rare spiders from around the world.
Another visit I’d suggest making is to the ‘Historic Centre of Warsaw’, or Old Town, at the northern end of the city. Sure, it’s very touristy, and you’ll pay way too much for a coffee, but it really is incredible. The whole area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the medieval architecture is really stunning. Some of the highlights are the Royal Castle, St. John’s Cathedral and the Old Town market place, which dates back to the 13th century. You’ll want to take photos of absolutely everything.
The best thing I can recommend for seeing the city is just exploring Warsaw by foot, because there is so much to look at. Something to take notice of as you walk around the city is the street art. It isn’t uncommon to see amazing full-wall murals on the side of buildings, especially around the universities just off the river Vistula – definitely something to look out for. There’s a great mural just near STOR café, on Tamka, which is definitely worth a visit.
Another thing to mention is that museums in Warsaw are really, really good, especially if you’re into quirky history and contemporary art. Many haves times during the week where admission is free, and that’s always a bonus.
Some that are definitely worth a visit are:
Zachęta National Gallery of Art: this is a great and fairly large contemporary art museum in central Warsaw. There are permanent and temporary exhibitions changing often, and it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re into the idea of checking out work by Polish artists. Make sure to take advantage of the free entry on Thursdays from 12:00-20:00 if you can.
Muzeum Neonów/ Neon Muzeum: a little way out of town (25 mins by tram), this small privately owned museum is seriously amazing. It showcases decades worth of neon signs from around Poland that have been preserved and are displayed for visitors to admire. It’s very cool, and definitely a good alternative Polish history lesson.
Muzeum of Modern Art in Warsaw: a brilliant small museum/gallery/bookshop/café with free admission every day, friendly staff and really interesting exhibitions. The exhibition that was on during January was The Second Polish Exhibition of Graphic Symbols, a showing of iconic Polish graphic design history from 1945-1969. Check out the website for what’s showing currently, it changes pretty frequently.
Eating and Drinking
One of the best things about travelling around Central Eastern Europe is how cheap it is compared to the west or the north. Cafés, restaurants and bars have been opening up everywhere in Warsaw, and the cost of a night out can be really decent. Five Australian dollars is about 14 Polish złoty, and you’ll easily find a meal for that much or less.
Another great thing about food in Warsaw is that it’s heaven for vegetarians and vegans. I’ve never seen so many great vegan places anywhere! There is so much choice and the standard is really high. I could go on about how good the food is… I’ll just leave a list and some links, but if I can say one thing: make sure to go to Lokal Vegan Bistro, whether you’re vegetarian or not. It’s always busy with locals, and their takes on traditional Polish cooking are something you can’t miss.
The best thing about the city centre is that it really does give us that beautiful thing that many European capitals do: it is small enough, interesting enough and exciting enough to just to walk until you stumble across something you’ll love. Warsaw is definitely an underestimated European destination, and it’s easily a place you can spend a few days getting lost in.