As we re-enter the world from our quarantine, there’s no better time to rediscover all there is to love about the Polish capital: covering the four corners of the city, we bring you the undisputed glories that everyone needs to know beginning with the city center.
Learn A Secret
So-called ‘urban explorers’ have a wealth of sites to bust into, and they don’t come weirder than SKRA, a huge sporting complex home to a rundown 35,000-capacity athletics stadium and four swimming pools long since swallowed whole by nature.
Take Blast To The Past
Detailed in its captions, witty in its presentation and comprehensive in its content, the Museum of Life Under Communism (Piękna 28/3) is a place where normal items such as aftershave bottles, postcards, clothing and crude household appliances are allowed to shine on a totem and tell their own story. A haven of trinkets and collectibles, it is inside this phenomenal museum that an understanding is gained of what life was once like.
You can’t throw a stick in the city center without it landing on a neon sign of some description or other. You’re aim will have to be pretty true to hit the volleyball player that stands high on Pl. Konstytucji though. Without doubt the most famous neon in Warsaw, it was unveiled in 1961 to signpost a sports store down below and depict a female volleyball player tossing a ball in the air over and over again.
On The Walls
For the most part the murals to be found in the center are often frequently creative commercial adverts from the cannon of Good Looking Studio – nonetheless, others are to be found and these number the ‘Puppet Soldiers’ painted by Blu in 2010 on the side of Sienna 45. Recognized as one of the city’s earliest murals, recent plans to cover it were scotched after drawing city-wide protests. No matter what time of the year, it’s Bruno Althamer’s depiction of the musician Kora (Nowy Świat 18/20) that has earned the most plaudits. Positioned next to a tree, it’s placement is such that the mural appears to grow and lose its hair with the passing of each season.
When you’re done with feeding those damned peacocks of Łazienki Park, cut from the weekend crowds to instead prowl around the Finnish Houses. Named so because they were built using materials requisitioned from Finland, this neighborhood of timber chalets and flourishing greenery feels like a secretive, fairy tale world. Not dissimilar to entering a lost, rural village, the area is at its best in summer when the resident NGOs ramp up their community activities. Find it behind the French Embassy.
If it looks good from the outside, then it’s even better from within. Heavily influenced by the Italian renaissance, exploring the echoing cloisters of the Polytechnic is a breathtaking buzz. Capped by a glorious glass ceiling that covers ornate, zig zagging stairwells, there’s a good reason it’s become an Instagram fave. And how’s this for a bit of trivia: the fictional character Ernest Stavro Blofeld earned a degree in Engineering and Radionics from the Poly before going on to become the greatest supervillain in the history of Bond!
First appearing in the middle of December, 2002, Joanna Rajkowska’s artificial palm tree in the center of Rondo de Gaulle’a lit the touchpaper for a horde of artists to follow in her wake and experiment in public, whilst simultaneously handing the city a work that would become every bit as iconic of the post-communist capital as the skyscrapers blooming upwards.
Warsaw’s architectural smorgasbord is especially rewarding if you like modern glass units or the Stalinist style, but do also pay a thought to the post-war modernism you’ll find in abundance. Where this is concerned, the prime example is the Eastern Wall, a vast urban project that looked to counter-balance the Palace of Culture opposite by filling the gap between Świętokrzyska and Jerozolimskie with department stores and tower blocks. Some call it ugly, but at the time it was visionary: “This must be the Warsaw of the future,” wrote Architektura magazine, “a place full of cars, helicopters, scooters and fast life.”
Take A Square
Penned in by an ever-growing forest of skyscrapers, Pl. Grzybowski feels architecturally eclectic, socially diverse and perfectly primed for summer. Revived in 2010, what had hitherto been an overgrown park was reinvented as a shining new plaza filled with water features, benches, granite and greenery, and being here presents a rounded view of Warsaw through the ages: a stone’s throw are Jewish and Catholic houses of worship, ugly post-war towers, daring, modern skyscrapers and, on nearby Próżna street, a stretch of pre-war tenements that survived the destruction of the Ghetto.
At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, the Palace of Culture’s viewing platform cannot be beaten (at least not until work is completed on the EU’s tallest building, the nearby Varso Tower). After, do what most people forget to do and explore the rest of the complex: what awaits includes the strange, eccentric world of the Doll House Museum on the ground floor, the artsy Bar Studio and Café Kulturalna as well as tours of the secretive subterranean passage that you’ll find guarded from vermin by a squadron of cats. There is more to the Palace of Culture than meets the eye – explore it.
Join The Cult
Temporarily moved to Foksal 17 whilst its spiritual home on Nowy Świat is renovated, there are no city center hangouts more cultish than Amatorska (ok, maybe we’ll give you the center’s plant entangled Parana). Successfully transplanting its inimitable atmosphere to the new location, the sheer disparity of its clientele veers from flouncy theater types and old school hacks to working class heroes with vodka in mind. A hub of whispered dissent, it was in places like Amatorska, claimed British journalist Ed Vulliamy, that the seeds of Poland’s revolution were born in the early 1980s.
As popular with undercover chefs as it is with queue-jumping pensioners wielding walking sticks like sabers, the accessibility of Hala Mirowska’s price tags is bettered only by the rich bounty of produce that awaits those who visit. But there’s more to it than just local fruit and veg. In the streets outside the flower market is a legend, while towards the back, Hala Gwardii – a former boxing gym – has been revived as a weekend food hall crowded with dozen of ethnic food stands.
Naturally, bars and restaurants weigh down the city center like Mr. T’s chains. Micro areas have emerged though, and these include the craft beer scene that thrives around Nowogrodzka, the cool bars and bistros of Poznańska, the Hala Koszyki food hall and the so-called vegan square mile: occupying the south central district that it attracts international vegan tourists says it all. If hedonism and cheap lager are your idea of a good night, then ‘the Pavilions’ behind Nowy Świat offer Poland’s largest concentration of seedy, loud dive bars.
The Miniature Park (Krakowskie Przedmieście 66) is more than just a cute, engaging model world, but a trip back through time that allows visitors to feel the atmosphere of the city as it was in 18th and 19th centuries. The detail is incredible and the scale models – of which there are around fifteen of mainly, non-existing former city landmarks – are utterly enchanting. Just how much Warsaw lost in the war becomes strikingly apparent.