“Paris of the North”, The Phoenix City”, “The city that has risen from the ashes”
Time for an entire remake of this travel guide for what it really deserves a city such a Warsaw, one of the most historical and beautiful not just in Poland, but in Europe itself. Yet considering how nice is always return here, this is merely my 3rd time, and very long time ago since the previous trips back in 2012 and 2004. I must say I’ve been quite busy trying to discover as many new cities as possible hence why I kept postponing a return to Warsaw, and plenty other great cities elsewhere in many other countries; however now that I am done with the 51 countries that form Europe as continent I’m glad for taking some further quality time returning. Not the last time either that’s for sure.
Now something I can say from comparing these 3 spacious in time visits is the enormous and sometimes radical change the city has experienced. An amazing gentrification and restoration with fine attention to detail in all that related the UNESCO listed Old Town area, and the incredible and fast growing shiny business district with plenty of ongoing projects to come adding to an already imposing skyline, mostly designed by world renown architects.
I recall being one of the few tourists wandering the city back in 2004, and now struggling to find local people that many years later among the hordes of tourists. Let’s not forget Poland is, over all, a very desirable tourist destination with lots to offer, and so much it has given the world in culture, the arts, astronomy, physics, science, medicine, mathematics, chemistry, biology, music, telecommunications… name any field no matter which, and there is certainly an inventor, a pioneer or a genius excelling at any of these. Are any of this familiar just as some examples?: Maksymilian Faktorowicz (founder of the Max Factor cosmetics company), Józef Hofmann (a pianist who invented paper clips), Ignacy Łukasiewicz (designed and built the world’s first oil refinery and oil well), the Warner Brothers (yeah the biggest media corporation and film studio), Frédéric Chopin (the composer), Nicolaus Copernicus (mathematician and astronomer), Marie Curie. Or stunning cities such as Krakow, Katowice, Gdansk, Torun, Poznan, Wroclaw.
However not everything is been glorious for Warsaw. What once was referred as “the Paris of the North” because of its incredible beauty and refinement in its people, it all crumbled down after the WWII and Nazi occupation translated in the almost entirely complete destruction of the city. Just few buildings were left standing but in ruins, not to mention the horrific hundreds of thousands of people killed in the country. It’s very hard to get any visual evidence of this past since all was beautifully reconstructed, mostly using anastylosis. It’s such the fact that you would not believe the buildings are not more than 60 years old as they look perfectly as they were during the Medieval times around the old town.
In the other hand, one do not need to get too far to encounter a radical change in the image and style of construction. The communist blocks, more known as commieblocks. This are the huge blocks, all of identical design clustered together; built out of fast and cheap concrete materials were much needed for the high demand of people in the port-war years. New avenues were laid, often buildings and entire neighbourhoods demolished to make way for such urban plannings, and nowadays something you can see at any East European country, especially ex-Soviet nations.
A building comes out as an outstanding exception, this is the massive Palace of Culture and Science. It was a gift to the city by the Soviet Union, entirely in Stalinist style, matching in design, size and importance to the ones you can see in Moscow, 7 no less, the “Seven Sisters”, but also in Riga, Kiev and Prague. Construction was not without polemic, people simply did not like it and with the years was even threatened with demolition. Thankfully, it’s been since listed a protected building, and fully renovated, currently standing as one of the most recognised landmarks in the city.
When talking about food, I cannot avoid in pretty much copy and paste the same as I use to do with what relates to this subject for any city I visit in Poland. It’s definitely one of my all time favourite, that’s for sure. Pierogi (dumplings), borsch soup (made of beetroot, served hot), chlodnik soup (similar to borsch but cold, served with boiled egg), bigos, the many sausages and lots of cheeses to name a few. Yet although there are plenty of restaurants, watch out for the prices; anywhere around the old town can easily be as much as double if not more than nearby streets for absolutely the same, and it does not even have to mean better quality either. Not because a place looks fancy is always a good choice, majority of times this will end up in being the most expensive choice, and probably the worst value for money and smaller portions. Something unbeatable is to search for a good pierogarnia, you will never regret!. But bear in mind something, these places could be as tiny as a small corner with barely any place to sit, however, the quality of their hand-made pierogi is amazing and totally worth it.
For example, some places I can strongly recommend would be Pierogi na Chmielnej 13, as the name suggests in Street Chmielnej 13, not far from the Palace of Culture. Very traditional, great prices and fantastic value for money (count give or take 25 zl for 9 pieces). They have every kind of pierogi and chinkali and pielmieni. A mouth to mouth recommended pierogarnia is GOŚCINIEC Polskie Pierogi, near the Hotel Bristol along the main Krakowskie Przedmieście Street. Excellent quality and cheaper prices at around 20 zl for 9 pieces. While a highly rated pierogi chain is Zapiecek. You will find it at most cities in Poland, with many outlets in Warsaw alone. The price is the same, around 25 zl for 9 pieces, so this can definitely be another good option.
Bar Bambino, recommended by my Polish friend from the city was truly amazing. Here you will proper Polish dishes, not just dumplings. Although the entire menu you see in the bar is in Polish, they do also have a translated version. Prices are incredibly good and so is the quality and portions! And so is a great place to go in the evening the Hala Koszyki, south from the Palace of Culture; a food court market place in the style and trend that most capital cities across Europe are creating. Plenty of eateries, more of a fusion and trendy, but all accompanied by great architecture, design and ambience.
For more information about the city check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Poland’s currency is the Złoty (PLN). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in the Warsaw:
- Praga District On the east bank of the Vistula River, home to many nice apartments and hotels at a better value for money than across the river. Very residential however home to some great architecture pieces.
-Koneser Vodka Factory The most interesting industrial building within the city. Although not producing vodka anymore, the complex has been transformed into a multicultural space with museums and art spaces.
- Nowe Miasto – New Town Although the name might imply new buildings, it’s not the case. It is as old as the old town core, beautiful and historical. Located at the north, parallel to the Vistula River.
-Freta Street The main street through the district where most of the sights are.
-New Town Market Square The major public space in the district, surrounded by nice buildings and the St. Kazimierz Church, completed in 1692 designed in Palladian Style, although rebuilt after its destruction in 1944 by the Nazi occupation, like every other church.
-Saint Hyacinth’s Church Along Freta Street towards the Old Town, was completed in 1639, blending renaissance and baroque styles.
-Holy Spirit Church Across the street from the previous church just few meters ahead, right next to the Barbican, completed in 1717 in baroque style was built atop the 15th century original Gothic structure.
-Krasiński Palace Before entering the Old Town, not far west from the Holy Spirit Church along Dluga Street. One of the finest baroque constructions in the city, from 1683 (rebuilt after 1944). The gardens behind are some of the finest too. Nowadays home of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts.
-Field Cathedral Overlooking the Palace, was completed in 1701 (rebuilt after 1944). It’s the representative cathedral of the entire Polish Army where all military religious feasts are held.
- Stare Miasto – Old Town On the west bank of the Vistula River, is the core of the historical city, perfectly rebuilt after the almost complete destruction during WWII and Nazi occupation thereafter. Listed by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Everything is within walking distance on a sequence of squares, small streets and little alleys, enclosed by the former city walls.
-The Barbican The main northwestern gate, perfectly restored, access point between the Nowe Miasto and the Stare Miasto.
-Medieval walls Not much remain except for the entire north, west and south, enough to give you an idea on how powerful strong defences the city had centuries ago.
-Market Square The main square in the old town, and where to find the symbol of the city, the little mermaid statute in the centre. It’s hard to believe that just 2 arches on one of the houses were left standing after the bombings during WWII. Today you can see every building perfectly reconstructed to the very same shape and original design.
-Mermaid The Syrena, symbol of the city which can be found in statues, monuments and the coats of arms. This monument in the centre of the square is one of the most famous and most visited.
-Kanonia Square (Cannon Square) Crossing Market Square along its northeastern side onto Jesuit Street you will reach this triangular shaped charming square, with one of its fronts being the back of the Cathedral.
-Cathedral Square At the opposite side of Cannon Square, along the narrow arched alley Dziekania.
-Cathedral of Saint John One of three cathedrals in the city, and one of Poland’s national pantheons. Built in the 14th century in Masovian Gothic style (similar to Hanseatic architecture of the same era), destroyed several times being the last in 1944, and rebuilt to its original design.
-Jesuit Church Adjacent to the Cathedral. Completed in 1626 (rebuilt after 1944) is one of the finest pieces of mannerist style. Its high slender tower can be seen from many points in the city.
-Piwna Street At the other side from the Cathedral Square, is another of the historical streets within the old town you can walk making zigzags before reaching the Castle Square.
-Castle Square Pretty much the landmark and symbol of Warsaw for its incredible beauty and history on every building surrounding it. It marks the southern entrance to the Old Town proper.
-Royal Castle The best known symbol in the city. The former residence of the polish Monarchs and seat of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 16th century until the partition of Poland. The world’s second oldest constitution was signed here in 1791. The complex nowadays is a museum.
-Copper Roof Palace Attached to the Royal Castle at its southern part. Although originally was a private patrician house, it was incorporated to the castle complex in the 18th century.
-King Sigismund’s Column Built in 1644 in Baroque style, towards the southern part of the square.
- Śródmieście District Starts right by the Royal Castle, outside of the city walls of the old town, yet still part of the historic core.
-Senatorska Street One of the major thoroughfares leading away from the old town at Castle Square connecting to Bank Square at its western end.
-Hotel Bellotto Housed in the former impressive Primate’s Palace.
-Grand Theatre Teatralny Square down Senatorska Street. One of the largest opera houses in the world. Opened in 1833 with Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. (Rebuilt in 1965 after 1944 destruction).
-Bank Square The major transport hub and one of the largest squares surrounded by classical revival style buildings.
-Ministry of Revenues and Treasury The first of the buildings along the western side, together with the rounded corner one.
-City Hall The next building along the west side.
-Błękitny Wieżowiec The Blue Skyscraper as it is known, because of the colour of the glasses covering it.
-Arsenal At the northernmost side of the square. Nowadays the National Museum of Archaeology.
-Krakowskie Przedmieście Street The second major thoroughfare departing from Castle Square southwards towards the University and terminating at the Staszic Palace passing through numerous sights.
-St Anne’s Church Right at the confluence with Castle Square. One of the city’s oldest buildings from 1454 (rebuilt after 1944), and finest neoclassical facade, added in 1788. From the adjacent bell tower, you can get some of the best views of the city.
-Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and of St Joseph Yes that long name for a church. Completed in 1681, with its neoclassical facade added in 1783. This was one of the very few buildings spared in the destruction of 1944.
-Presidential Palace Adjacent to the church. Few reincarnations existed before the last version built in the 19th century and reformed after the war.
-Bristol Hotel Built in time for the reconstruction of the Presidential Palace back in 1901 as one of the top luxurious back in the days.
-Potocki Palace Right across the Presidential Palace. Home to the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.
-University of Warsaw Continuing down along the street. Founded in 1816, almost the entire campus here located have their faculties in beautiful neoclassical palaces.
-Holy Cross Church One of the finest barque churches in the city. Within one of the pillars, an urn containing the heart of Polish composer Frédéric Chopin was immured.
-Copernicus Monument Marking the end of the street right at the front of the Staszic Palace. Unveiled in 1830 it has stood ever since, bearing the years it was removed for scrap by the Germans in 1944, but found in 1949 and brought back in-situ.
-Staszic Palace Home to the prestigious Polish Academy of Sciences.
-Saxon Garden and Palace Located in the quarter delimited by both Senatorska street in the north and Krakowskie Przedmieście along the east. Occupies the area where the grand Saxon Palace once stood until its destruction in 1944. Today, only few arches remain where The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is guarded 24h. An ongoing project to rebuild the palace still standing, and might come the time where it becomes a reality.
-Metropolitan Building At the main front of the Saxon Palace and Gardens, behind of the Grand Opera. The latest addition created by Norman Foster.
- Business District Southwest from the Old Town, it’s the image of the 21st century Poland. The economics and financial motor of the country.
-Palace of Culture and Science Perhaps the most iconic building in Warsaw. Built in 1955, a gift from the Soviet Union in pure Stalinist style like the ones you can see in Moscow (the 7 Sisters buildings), Riga, Kiev and Prague. A gigantic complex of theatres, cinemas and museums, and the best views 360 degrees from high above the viewing platform, open from 10.00am through 20.00pm. 20PLN.
-PAST Building Considered the oldest “skyscraper” in the city, one of the first structures made with reinforced concrete. Along Zielna Street, by the northeastern corner of the Palace of Culture site.
-Cosmopolitan Twarda 2/4 The second highest residential tower in the city. Located along the northwestern corner of the Palace of Culture site.
-Spektrum Tower Just west from the Cosmopolitan. A composition of cylinders and cuboids shapes.
-Q22 Another of the recent additions in the skyline, following the trend of great design and unusual shapes. It’s Deloitte’s Polish headquarters. Behind Spektrum Tower.
-Financial Centre On the west side corner of the Palace of Culture site on Emilii Plater Street corner with Świętokrzyska. Designed by A. Epstein & Sons International and Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, completed in 1999.
-Rondo 1 Behind the Financial Centre tower, designed by Larry Oltmanns from the architectural studio Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM)
-InterContinental Designed by a team of architects under the leadership of the late Tadeusz Spychała, with an unusual shape in order to let the light pass through and not block the buildings below. Currently the 3rd tallest hotel in Europe.
-Złota 44 A completely residential skyscraper designed by Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind.
-Golden Terraces Designed by Jon Jerde Partnership it quickly became a new symbol of the modern Warsaw with the incredible bubbly glass roofs. It’s a shopping mall within the surrounding towers.
-Central Station Across the road from the Golden Terraces. Designed by Arseniusz Romanowicz, its construction began in 1972 and was completed in 1975, becoming a landmark back in the days.
-Varso West from the train station. Currently under construction (June 2019) it will become the tallest tower in Warsaw and the entire European Union. Designed by Normal Foster.
-Centrum LIM Or more commonly known as the Marriott Tower. Across the road south of the train station. One of the first skyscrapers built in the area, bearing the Palace of Culture just opposite.
-Oxford Tower Behind the Centrum LIM. Completed in 1978 in an international style appearance.
-Warsaw Spire In a different cluster of buildings, northwest from the previous towers. Constructed by the Belgian real estate developer Ghelamco, a 220 metres high tower with a hyperboloid glass facade.
-Trzech Krzyży Square (Three Crosses) Southeast from the Palace of Culture site itself, within walking distance. Very charming and historic.
-St. Alexander’s Church Completed in 1825 in neoclassical style resembling the Pantheon of Rome, to commemorate Tsar Alexander I of Russia.
-Parliament Farther south from Three Crosses Square along ul. Wiejska. Although not much you can see since it’s heavily guarded at the gates.
- Wilanów Palace Located far south east of the city, it is a very beautiful and large palace with great landscaped gardens. Designed as a small model of Versailles in Paris was constructed between 1677 and 1696 in baroque style for King Jan III.
The city is served by 2 international airports, being the largest, Frederick Chopin, the one with the largest number of routes not only international across Europe, but inter-continental ones too. It’s merely 10 kilometres from the city centre. The secondary airport, Modlin, serves exclusively low-cost carriers and is located 35 kilometres from the city.
From any of both airports you can reach the central train station at the very heart of the city by train or bus. Very frequent and comfortable, this train in fact connects both airports through Warsaw.
Coming overland from anywhere else in Poland and beyond the neighbouring countries is straightforward by bus or railway. One can wonder the destinations board at the Central Train Station such as Berlin, Frankfurt, Brest, Minsk, Smolensk, Moscow, Pardubice, Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, Vienna…
Within the city there is a great network of public transports formed of buses, trams, metro and commuter trains covering absolutely every district and way beyond the metropolitan area. It’s very efficient, reliable and cheap, and while from the point of view of an average tourist visiting the city; everything within the old town and the business district is easy to navigate on foot. Rarely will be the need for taking any public transport since distances are not too big, the city is very compact, and the sights are everywhere near each others hence nothing beats your own foot.
There is a great choice of hotels in general in the city. Being the second most visited city in Poland due to its history and also strategic location serving as a base for numerous other places you can get to, tourism is increasing yearly with plenty new properties opening too. From the very top luxurious to the more modest ones and all in between, a range for everyone and anyone’s pockets. The usual recommendation is to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers. Anything not found there will be difficult to be found elsewhere however if your budget is still not met, there is a good selection of properties through airb&b and the likes of course.
We stayed at the Platinum Towers Country 2 Country. Booked through hotels.com it was great. Not only the building itself, beautiful from the outside and inside, but the level of care in the apartment. As described, very spacious, bright, quiet and super comfortable, with everything available to make your stay perfect. Will definitely not hesitate in staying there in the future, and for longer if possible.
Pictures taken during winter 2012: