Where: Warsaw, capital of Poland.
When: We spent five days in Warsaw in November 2011.
Why: I went to Warsaw for a date with my then boyfriend (now husband). At the time he lived in South Korea and I lived in the UK and Warsaw seemed to be a perfectly reasonable place to meet in the middle.
Jeff and I love Poland. We think it is one of the friendliest countries in the world. It is great value for visitors and they have amazing history, food and booze.
I was in Primark in Coventry, just pottering around, wasting time whilst waiting for my Korean teaching visa to come through, when Jeff texted me and said would I meet him in three days, either in Kiev or Warsaw? So I said ‘Yes!’ We looked at flights and because we would have an extra half a day together in Warsaw, we chose to meet there.
Warsaw is a great capital city. It is easy to access, easy to navigate, it has a beautiful, old centre, lots of great shopping, bars and restaurants galore and great parks to stroll in. It’s a wonderful, livable city and a good place to go for a weekend break.
Warsaw is often overshadowed by Poland’s second city, Krakow. And, to be honest, if I had to choose which city to visit I would go to Krakow first – but that’s not to denigrate the wonders of Warsaw. It’s a great place which I feel we only scratched the surface of.
Before the city was decimated in the war, Warsaw was a wonderful, powerful city with great universities, castles, churches and trade. It was an important city and a great city, though a city that was badly located between the superpowers of Russia and Europe. Warsaw (and Poland) has been a pawn that has changed hands and sides again and again throughout history. Despite that, it was built up into a beautiful city.
In the Second World War, the Nazis decimated the city. They destroyed everything – just for spite. The city fought back – so they burnt it down – even though the city was already defeated. Then the Communists came and they built their concrete conurbations and their Stalinistic monuments to great Russian power, but somewhere along the way they also rebuilt the old city – piece by piece – so that today everything is almost as it was, and the old glory has been brought back to life.
Before I visited, I did wonder what there would be to see in Warsaw – would all of the historic sights be gone? Well, they are not and they are wonderful and the fact that they have been rebuilt does not denigrate from them at all. In fact, in some ways, the rebuilding has added a freshness to the old buildings – even though they look just like the originals.
The communist buildings have now become something of a cliché and have been adapted with Polish humour into something fun and non-threatening – and though there is still a lot of concrete, there are also a lot of beautiful sights to contrast it with.
We visited Warsaw just before Christmas and so we were able to indulge in mulled wine and street markets etc., and the shopping was great.
I highly recommend a visit to Warsaw. Flights there are cheap, accommodation in the city is great value, there’s lots to see and do and it’s just a great place to be. It’s a great city to wander and explore and somewhere that I hope I’ll visit again.
I flew from Luton to Warsaw with Wizz Air. It cost me £100, which is actually pretty expensive for this route. There are often deals for £50 or under.
Warsaw Frederic Chopin Airport is small but nice. It has a good café and supermarket in the arrivals area.
To get to the city centre from the airport, we caught bus 175. We bought our tickets on the bus and they cost 3.6 PLN (about 70p). The journey to the city centre took us about ¾ of an hour.
Since our visit an airport rail link has been built and this is apparently now the best way to get to the city centre from the airport.
Warsaw has a great public transport system with trams, buses and a metro. We only used the buses and trams, but they were easy to navigate and cheap. A 20 minute, unlimited journey ticket cost us 2.6 PLN (about 50p).
You can buy the ticket from machines on the platform or machines on the bus. You have to validate (i.e. stamp) your ticket when you get on the first mode of transport.
Bus 175 ran in a loop from the airport to the old town, past all of the major sights. This is the bus that we used the most.
Next to the Palace of Culture and Science is Centrum, which seemed to be the heart of the transport network and which is a great interchange for trams, metro and buses. It’s also next to the main train and bus stations.
Apart from this, we mostly walked as Warsaw is a very walkable city.
Zarząd Transportu Miejskiego runs all of the public transport in Warsaw. Their website is fantastic and has great route maps, a travel planner and ticket information, all in English: www.ztm.waw.pl.
What we did on our holiday
Wandered the old town (Stare Miasto)
Most of the old town in Warsaw was destroyed in the Second World War, but it has been rebuilt, piece by piece, to be pretty much exactly as it was before the war; and it is gorgeous.
For the first two nights, we stayed in an amazing apartment that overlooked the market square in the old town (Rynek Starego Miasta). The location couldn’t have been better. The 14th century old town square is the place that you will usually see on the tourist brochures advertising Warsaw. It’s a wonderful square of old, colourful, burghar houses. The Christmas market takes place here. It feels like the centre of the city and is a lovely place to be.
Another huge square on the edge of the old town is Castle Square (Plac Zamkowy). The castle square is a lovely, wide square with a huge column in it (see the photo at the top of the page). The castle is bright orange. This is a nice place to hang out and it also feels like the centre of the city. There was also a mini Christmas market here.
You can visit the Royal Castle, though sadly we didn’t. It has permanent exhibitions on the history of the castle, an exhibition about how it was rebuilt and exhibitions of art and treasure. You can also take guided tours of this royal palace. Find out more and get ticket and opening hour information from the castle website.
Between the market square and the castle square is St John’s Cathedral, the Jesuit Church and St Martin’s Church – all enclosed in tiny, cobbled streets. The cathedral is very dark and very gothy. It has great doors. The Jesuit Church also has great doors, which have three angels on them. Outside the Jesuit Church is a statue of a bear and apparently if his true love kisses him, he will turn back into a prince (sadly, Jeff is not his true love).
All around the old town are the old town walls – which are a nice place for a stroll. On the other side of the town, overlooking the river is the Bastion (a fortress area). This is very pretty.
We walked into the new town from Castle Square, along the street Krakowskie Przedmieście, which although not a major road felt like the most important thoroughfare in the city to me. Part of the street is the old Royal Route and so there are many important buildings along this road.
On Krakowskie Przedmieście we walked pass some beautiful old churches, the university and the Copernicus monument. (There’s a statue of him and the planets of the solar system are laid out on the floor. It’s great fun to walk on the moon).
There are also lots of shops and restaurants on this street (including an amazing bakery that we went in every day).
We also saw a mini changing of the guard ceremony here – which was just three guards marching about, but it was still fun to watch and giggle at.
Krakowskie Przedmieście turns into Nowy Swiat (New World Street) further down towards the new town. Nowy Swiat is so significant that it has its own Wikipedia page, if you would like to find out more.
The Palace of Culture and Science (Pałac Kultury i Nauki)
The Palace of Culture and Science was a ‘present’ from Stalin to the people of Warsaw. It’s the huge building that you seem to be able to see from anywhere in the city and so it feels like the heart of the city. It’s a great point to use to navigate.
If you take away the communist connotations, this is actually quite a pretty building. It looks slightly like the Empire State Building, built of stone that glows golden in the setting sun.
One of the first things we did in Warsaw was to go to the top of the Palace of Culture and Science, so we could get some context of the whole city. The Palace of Culture and Science is the tallest building in Poland, and so you get great views from the top. At least, it was the tallest building in Poland when we were there – though there are some around it that seem to be catching up.
The actual building does seem to be very official and looks like government offices, although I think it’s actually an exhibition hall now. However, you can just walk in and you can visit the viewing platform on floor 30. The ticket office is located to the right of the lobby and tickets cost 20PLN (£4).
The viewing platform is outside and is very pretty. You do get great views of the city here, and the day we were there there was a great little girl doing dinosaur impressions. I don’t think she’s a permanent feature though.
The main tourist information centre for Warsaw is located at the base of the palace, on the bus station side.
Shopped in Złote Tarasy, the ace Eden project like shopping centre
At the bottom of the Palace for Culture and Science, by the bus station, there is the most amazing shopping centre which appears to be built in Eden Project style glass bubbles. At the bottom there is a huge supermarket and Jeff and I spent a lot of time in here buying amazing Polish food and vodka.
On the other side of the Palace of Culture and Science there are a number of large high-street stores, including C&A, TK Maxx, Marks and Spencer’s, Peacocks etc. and as we were doing our Christmas shopping, we spent some time in here. This is where we bought the surprisingly heavy gorilla, who has become a wonderful friend in our life. Prices for clothes and stuff seemed to be pretty similar to the UK.
As we were in Warsaw about a month before Christmas, we were there as they were setting up the Christmas markets. There was a lovely crafty/ local food market by the castle (where we bought ace local sausages. Nom nom). The main Christmas market was in the old town square, where we stayed – though this hadn’t opened when we were there. There were also a number of mulled wine and hot dog stores dotted around the city – and strangely, a mini Brandenburg Gate (?).
Visited the Warsaw Uprising Museum
In Warsaw in the war, 400,000 Jews were rounded up into the Jewish ghetto and then this was sealed off from the rest of the world. Walls were built up across streets to block the inhabitants into this huge jail. Thousands of Polish Jews and gypsies were also rounded up and brought into the ghetto jail. Virtually nothing was allowed in and nothing was allowed out – and hundreds of thousands died of starvation or disease in this cramped small area of the city.
But this wasn’t enough for the Nazis – so they also deported hundreds of thousands of people to the extermination camps. 250,000 people were executed in this way. Realising that the people were being killed, rather than just moved, the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto decided to stand up and fight and in 1943 there was the Warsaw ghetto uprising. The Nazi reaction was to liquidise the ghetto: they literally blew up and burned the ghetto, block by block, murdering anyone they found alive – and so a further 50,000 people were killed. All together, out of a population of 400,000, 300,000 were murdered by the Nazi regime.
This is what I mostly knew about Warsaw, and so I wanted to find out more and to pay tribute to those who died – and I thought that the Warsaw Uprising Museum was a tribute to the Jewish ghetto uprising.
What I wasn’t aware of, was that at the end of the war, the city fought back again – and paid a heavy price for it, again. At the end of the war, Warsaw rose up and fought back against the Nazis. It wasn’t just the Soviets who liberated the city – the people actually liberated themselves – and were made to pay for this by both the defeated Nazis, who pretty much razed the city to the ground in revenge, and the incoming Soviets who wanted to claim the victory and crush any independence.
The Warsaw Uprising Museum was created to pay tribute to and to remember the uprising, and it is a collection of artefacts and mementos from the time, and recordings of those who took part. They even have a whole aircraft in the museum.
The museum is quite dark and is in a huge industrial building. I learnt a lot at the museum, but I found the layout and the amount of items shown to be quite overwhelming and a little confusing: there didn’t seem to be a coherent system or time line to the museum; everything seemed to be quite jumbled up and so I got overwhelmed quite quickly. Maybe I was just tired, but I just didn’t have the patience to read and look at all of the hundreds of tiny exhibits. I did like the old films though – and like I said, I did learn a lot about what happened.
I’m glad we went as we did learn about a very important event in the city’s history, but we only stayed an hour here. Maybe the visit would have been better with a guide who could have told us what happened and who could have added context to our visit.
Our ticket cost us 14 PLN each (about £2.80). Entrance to the museum is free on Sundays.
After we had visited the museum, we walked back to our apartment in the old town and we passed lots of communist apartment blocks, some amazing churches, we found the best restaurant in the city (see the ‘where we ate’ section for more information) and we walked back through the market hall which was very pretty and interesting.
Not much remains today from the Warsaw Jewish ghetto: there is one part of the old wall and a small section of the little ghetto remains on Prozna Street – this is the focus for remembrance events. I wish there was a museum just for this uprising, as I think the courage shown by these people was momentous and I think there should be somewhere we can go to learn more and pay tribute.
Day trip to Plock
To be honest, we mostly went to Plock because we thought it had a funny name (we have a habit of travelling to places for that reason only – see Jigi Beach in Taiwan).
As we were going to be in Warsaw for a few days I looked at possible day trips out of the city, as we wanted to see more of Poland. I would have loved to have gone to Malbork Teutonic Castle, which looks amazing, but this seemed to be a little bit too far for a day trip; so instead we caught a bus to the ancient capital of Plock.
Plock is a very pretty, stereotypical, Polish town, about two hours drive away from Warsaw. It has a nice old square, great, dark meaty-beery pubs, some pretty churches and old buildings and a nice pedestrianised area – and that is it. We just sort of wandered around looking at things and went to the pub. It was incredibly cold there though.
Plock was the capital of Poland for 60 years, in the 11th century, under the rule of Polish monarchs Władysław I Herman and Bolesław III (Coleslaw the 3rd). Their tombs lie in Plock’s Cathedral. Sadly, this was closed when we were there so we didn’t get to see their tombs.
Plock lies on the Vistula River (the same river that runs through Warsaw), and the old town sits on a hill high above the river, with parks running along side it. I think in summer this could be very pretty, but the day we were there it was very misty and cold, and the river just looked quite industrial and depressing – so we headed back into the old town to find a pub.
To be honest though, I think our trip to Plock was more about the journey and getting out of Warsaw to see more of ‘normal’ Poland – and this was very interesting. We drove through the communist tower block outskirts of the city and into flat, seemingly empty, misty countryside. Every now and then we would stop at a small, rural town to drop old ladies off or to collect some more. It looked very rural and, to me, had quite a desolate feel about it – though I think this was due to the landscape rather than the towns or the people.
We caught the bus to Plock from Warszawa Zachodnia bus station. It was a private bus run by PKS. It took about 1.5 hours and cost 20PLN. We could have caught the train there, but the bus seemed to be faster and just more convenient. When we came back, we were dropped off by the central bus station.
What we didn’t do on our holiday
A long walk in the park
There are a number of large parks in Warsaw, and I really fancied going for a walk in Lazienki Park, where there is a mini-white house, lakes and an old Royal Palace. I thought it would be wonderful and romantic to walk in the crisp, cold air, drinking mulled wine and looking at ducks – but somehow, we never found the time. We did intend to go to the park but I think we got distracted by milk bars. Oh well, next time.
Visited a museum
There are a large number of galleries and museums in Warsaw, including museums dedicated to some of their most famous residents: Chopin, Marie Curie and Copernicus. If we had had more time in the city I think we would have gone to visit some of these museums, rather than just pottering about having fun.
Where we ate
Oooooo – we ate a lot in Warsaw. There are a lot of very good bars and restaurants in Warsaw – and they’re all pretty good value.
The Inn Under the Red Hog (Czerwony Wieprz)
The Inn Under the Red Hog used to be called the Iron Inn, and it was a popular eating place for communist dignitaries and the bourgeois. Now, it is a wonderful micky-take restaurant that serves great Polish portions of good Polish food.
I’d read about this restaurant previously, but I didn’t think we’d actually make it there, as it isn’t in a central location, but then we accidentally walked past it on the way back to town from the Warsaw Uprising Museum, so we decided to pop in.
The restaurant is a funny mix of splendour (gold chandeliers) and communist workers unite posters. The menu is very funny with meals for dignitaries (the more expensive stuff) and meals for proletariats (the cheaper eats). Jeff had ribs, I had duck – both were amazing and afterwards we swore we would never eat again (we swore that a lot in Poland). Although this is a very touristy place (Bruce Willis ate there), it is a lot of fun and still good value. I think it was about £10 each for food and drink.
Another place that we liked was U Szwaja, which was close to our hostel. This is a chain restaurant that again serves great value food and huge portions, plus great wine and beer. In some ways, it was a perfect European brasserie – except that it was super busy every time we went there and very hard to get a table. It was a lot of fun though and again, we swore we would never eat again after eating here because the portions were so huge! I had the pork knuckle and Jeff had another meat platter. They were very good. I seem to remember we got free bread and dips for a starter too and we had carafes of wine (I love a good carafe).
Jeff and I really like Polish milk bars. These are fantastic, canteen like restaurants that serve super cheap, traditional food – such as soups, stews and perogis. We found a great milk bar on Krucza and there’s a ‘chain’ milk bar on Nowy Swiat, although there are a lot of others dotted around the city.
Supermarkets/ Christmas markets
Because we had kitchens in our apartments we self catered a few days. In Poland you can get amazing bread, cheese, sausage and wine. We found a large supermarket in the shopping centre by the Palace of Culture and Science (Złote Tarasy) and a smaller supermarket on the road running from Centrum towards Nathan’s Villa Hostel.
Specialities included vodka, cherry brandy, sausages and lovely rich, doughy bread.
We had a lot of fun pottering around the Christmas markets, drinking mulled wine and eating hot dogs.
Patrick’s Irish Pub
Pub wise, we went to a great Irish pub called Patrick’s Irish Pub (that’s how we knew it was an Irish pub), which had a great atmosphere and good value beer and wine. However, Friday night in Warsaw we found the bars and pubs to be packed! (the restaurants too) and so we didn’t go to many more places. We mostly just drank coffee laced with cherry brandy in our apartments.
Where we stayed
Old Town Apartments
Jeff got the accommodation booking award with this one. Somehow, he managed to find us an apartment, on the main Old Town Square, for about £40/ night. A whole apartment for us, in the heart of the city. And it was a nice apartment. We had a wonderful bathroom, power shower etc.; kitchen, living room, stereos, great bedroom – it was wonderful. And it had the best views over the old town square. I actually wish that the apartment was one of my homes… Maybe if I win the lottery.
The guys who administer these apartments were really friendly and helpful and couldn’t have been nicer. We got a bus to their office and then they paid for us to get a taxi to our accommodation.
We had a bit of a niggle with finding the office contact number, so we could phone them to tell them what time we would be arriving – but apart from that, this accommodation was amazing value and the staff gave great customer service. I’d highly, highly recommend them.
The company who administered this apartment was called Old Town Apartments, although we actually booked the apartment through Expedia. A lot of companies offer apartments to rent in Warsaw and these are a great way of having luxury, self-catering accommodation, in the city centre, for low prices. Another company to check out is Warsaw Apartments, who have apartments across the city.
Nathan’s Villa Hostel
We only booked the apartment for two nights and then we had to move for the second two nights. Although we did seriously consider staying in the first apartment, our budget wouldn’t allow it. So we moved to Nathan’s Villa Hostel which was to the south of Centrum, about ten minutes walk from the Palace of Culture and Science.
Nathan’s Villa Hostel was a really nice place to stay. We had our own small self-catering apartment. It was warm and cosy, the staff were friendly and it was in a good location. Sadly, however, the hostel closed in 2016.
I downloaded the Triposo guidebook android app for Warsaw which we found to be really, really useful and informative. It had great maps and information about all of the major sights, bars, restaurants etc.
Warsaw Tour is the official tourist portal for Warsaw: warsawtour.pl.
The brilliant In Your Pocket has a Warsaw guide. This website is great for restaurant, bar and event listings.
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is my own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
If you think I’ve missed something important or have got something wrong, please let me know in the comments section below.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.