There’s more to Warsaw than meets the eye – this year, challenge yourself to go below the surface to uncover Warsaw’s biggest (and not so big) secrets…
Open only sporadically to the public, the Filtry waterworks (Koszykowa 81) are home to a stunning vaulted processing plant that was first constructed in 1886 by the Englishman William Lindley. Looking more like the crypt of a Gothic cathedral, this subterranean world is an ethereal site with the reflections on the water creating a dreamy kaleidoscope effect that feels almost hallucinatory. The reverential silence and still, cool air combine to stop you in your tracks as you admire this feat of engineering.
The Lost Picasso
When Picasso visited Warsaw in 1948 his schedule took him to the WSM Housing Estate. Visiting an apartment inside ul. Deotymy 48, he whipped out a pen and sketched the Warsaw mermaid on the wall. Measuring 1.7 meters by 1.8 meters, one witness was left flabbergasted: “my God, her bosoms were like two big balloons!” News of the work spread like wildfire, and even President Bierut knocked on the door to view it. Fed up with the constant intrusions, the owners applied for the removal of their private ‘Pikacco’ (sic). “Who on earth did that,” said the workman that turned up. “My brother-in-law could do better.”
The Roman Empire
Some called him The Prince of the Streets, others The Cosmic Wanderer. All, however, knew him best as Czarny Roman. Passing away in 2017, this eccentric became known for prowling Chmielna and Nowy Świat in immaculate black clothing (occasionally replaced by a pink onesie), shouting about impending meteorites and admonishing underage drinkers. A cult figure, he once turned his attentions to a group of right-wing nationalists, advising them to take-up yoga rather than bothering the public. When he died, obituaries filled the national press, with one commentator even likening his importance to Warsaw to that of King Zygmunt II. Now, this everyday street hero has been remembered via a series of stencils around Chmielna.
The King Of Neon
For neon overload you could visit the brilliant Neon Museum, but to really feel the magic of Warsaw’s neon you need to see it in its natural habitat. At Szpitalna 6, view what is without fail the most beautiful in the city. Revealed in 1926 after being commissioned by Jan Wedel – the Willy Wonka-style heir of the Wedel chocolate empire – the neon sign crowning the firm’s flagship store was the work of Italian artist Leonetto Capiello. Often regarded as ‘the father of modern advertising’, Cappiello’s design featured a boy on a zebra carrying chocolate bars on his back. Said to symbolize happiness and joy, and consisting of 61 separate neon tubes, the 1.2 ton neon was finally restored to its perch a couple of years back.
Art Asks Questions
Walk behind the Marriott and you’ll no doubt happen across a neon enigmatically announcing, ‘All The Things That Could Happen Next’. Created in 2020 by British artist Tim Etchells, it marks the spiritual entrance to Komuna Warszawa (komuna.warszawa.pl), an art collective based in an abandoned school. Known for its on-edge repertoire, this Berlin-style squat project is a secretive hive of alternative and artsy happenings that will often leave you bewildered and inspired in equal measure.
Once numbering 60, today eleven cats guard the Palace of Culture against rodents and other nasties, and they can be found living down in the lower levels of PKiN. Heroes they might be, but the curious moggies have also been known to cause trouble. One year, the building’s entire electricity supply was shut down after one feline chewed through a cable. Another, meanwhile, found itself inadvertently strolling onto the stage while Marlene Dietrich performed in 1964. The incident received more column inches than the concert, prompting to the diva to vow to never sing in Warsaw again.
Take The Step Up
Looking like something from an M.C Escher painting, beat the buzzer at Kłopotowskiego 38 in Praga to find yourself at the foot of what is known as Warsaw’s most beautiful staircase. Certainly, it does boggle the mind. Spiraling endlessly upwards, it’s starred in countless films (among them, The Man With The Magic Box, a Polish Academy Award winner about a janitor that travels in time) and is one of the area’s top secret attractions. Once decorated in peeling green paint – an effect that brought to mind a weird David Lynch flick – it’s now been restored to its original state.
The King Of Kong!
Of the hundreds of murals that decorate Warsaw, there can’t be many that seem more random or modest than that by the KS Wesola stadium. Dedicated to the American adventurer Merian C. Cooper, this ace pilot was based in Warsaw for a while and played a key role in the Polish-Soviet War before being shot down over enemy territory. Undeterred, he escaped Russian captivity to walk 500-miles to freedom. In later years, his life was no less extraordinary and he survived pirates, a tiger attack and numerous other dramas before one day finding himself walking through New York: “I looked up at a skyscraper,” he later recalled, “and immediately thought of a big ape at the top being strafed by planes.” Within a few years, Cooper had written and directed the film that would come to be known around the world as King Kong.
Time’s A Healer?
Although not as prevalent as even just ten-years ago, the scars that attest to Warsaw’s wartime trauma can still be found via wartime signs warning of mines, grave markers and, even, graffiti rebelling against the Nazi occupation. More commonplace, however, are the bullet wounds that still pit many of the city’s pre-war buildings. Interestingly, several of these – such as those found on the side of Hala Mirowska – have been discreetly patched with band-aids as part of an artistic initiative to bridge the past with the present.
Welcome To The Colosseum
Completed in 1888 and 1912 respectively, but collectively nicknamed the Wola Colosseum, the twin brick rotundas that pierce the horizon by Zachodnia served as gas tanks capable of lighting 92,000 homes. Hit by German artillery in 1939, and then damaged again in 1944, they resumed production after the war until being decommissioned in 1978. Currently empty (despite ambitious plans to transform them into luxury apartments), today these decaying hulks attract nosey urban explorers keen to photograph the hollowed-out interiors. When shafts of light seep through the windows, the visual impact is surreal and strangely unsettling. To see for yourself, you will be trespassing, but that hasn’t stopped thousands of people before you – tread carefully, for security and booby traps (read: big holes in the ground) lie in wait.
The Girl With A Gun
Look around the EMPiK building on the corner of Jerzolimskie and Nowy Świat and you’ll find, to the side, a 1960s mosaic designed Władysław Zych depicting, among other things, a girl with a pistol. Weird, huh? Actually, it honours two wartime attacks by the People’s Guard on a café-bar that once stood on this spot. Frequented by German military top brass, both actions did little more than injure a handful of officers, but these acts were later lionized by a Communist government desperate to find wartime heroes that followed Communist ideology.
Friendship Never Dies
Ever asked yourself where the workers that built the Palace of Culture lived? Of course you haven’t, but the answer doesn’t just make for a nice piece of trivia, but also an enchanting place to visit. Titled Osiedle Przyjaźń (the Friendship Estate), this sprawling complex of timber chalets in Jelonki was reportedly constructed using dismantled materials sourced from the Stalag IB Hohenstein prisoner of war camp. After the completion of PKiN, it housed over 2,500 students and college employees, among them, even, the future President of Mali, the colourfully named Alpha Oumar Konaré. A hotbed of anti-Communist resistance in the 80s, today the wooded paths make a wonderful weekend walk.
Welcome To The Machine
Known locally as Hong Kong, the Bliska Wola Tower is a sure-fire winner when it comes to deciding the prize for Warsaw’s most horrific example of modern architecture. The work of JW Construction (a.k.a. JW Destruction on account of their aesthetic style), the devastating ugliness that is this housing project will ultimately house 10,000 people, many inside apartments reputedly no larger than 18 sq/m. But although its battery-farm approach to living has been met with widespread alarm, the twin 19-storey towers have already become a hit with urban photographers looking to capture Warsaw’s dystopian side.
In The Footsteps Of… Blofeld
If the Polytechnic (Pl. Politechnika 1) looks majestic from the outside, then it’s positively jaw-dropping inside. Designed after the architects toured 11 universities in six countries within a three-week window, what sprouted was an awesome structure inspired by the Italian Renaissance. Opened in 1901, the main building was defined by a cloistered pentagonal courtyard fringed by ornate staircases and capped by a stunning glass ceiling. As you walk around, consider this – alumni include the fictional 007 villain Ernest Stavro Blofeld. According to the books of Ian Fleming, Bond’s nemesis earned a degree in Engineering and Radionics from here during the inter-bellum.
Dubbing itself ‘an interactive museum’, Pinball Station (Kolejowa 8A) glows up inside to reveal dozens of machines from our pre-digital age. Filled with relics in the truest sense of the world, the oldest treasure is a Brillant Torero machine produced in Germany in 1938. A thrilling blast to the past, this cavern-like space is one for the nostalgist. For a flat fee, test your talents on machines such as Dirty Harry, Buck Rogers and Dr. Dude & His Excellent X-Ray (“If you’re ready to get hip,” reads the display, “turn on, power up and drop into my kinetic clinic!”).
Step Back In Time
Anyone who loves a kebab at Efes (and show us someone who doesn’t!) will have noticed the intriguing black-and-white photos of Celina Osiecka that are plastered on the column close by. They’re there to advertise the services of this legendary photographer, a snapper whose studio lies around the corner at Zwycięzców 25. Something of a time capsule, its functioned continuously since 1975. Eschewing modern photographic techniques, Osiecka’s analogue pictures – each of them hand-processed – have made her one of the legendary old school artisans working in modern Warsaw.
Hey, Hey, We’re The Monkeys
Completed in 1753 for Count Jan Klemens Branicki, the Rococo-styled Pałac Branickich has regained its luster after being revived as the Hotel Verte (Podwale 3/5). But more than just a stunning stay, its roof is home to one of Warsaw’s most obscure legends. Look to the corner and you’ll see the stone figure of a banana-clenching monkey – when Warsaw was destroyed, the palace’s reconstruction was based upon a historic painting by Canaletto. Little did builders realize, though, that the monkey had never actually stood on the palace before. Instead, the artist added it to his painting as a sly joke – apparently, he had a strong dislike for the lady whose bust actually occupied this spot, so switched her likeness for that of a hairy ape.
Follow The Bear
Inspired by Wrocław’s now internationally famous trail of gnomes, the suburb of Bemowo has unveiled its own light-hearted version: six jolly bears modelled on Bemiś, a mascot first coined by the district’s former Mayor. Costing PLN 9,000 each, the bronze figures have each been assigned their own unique look so as to celebrate local landmarks and achievements. With a paper airplane in his hand one, for instance, is a tribute to the local airport (where Michael Jackson once performed); another, sporting headphones, references Bemowo’s transatlantic antenna that stood until it was destroyed by German bombing.
The Long & Winding Road
Walk down Karowa from the Bristol Hotel and you’ll suddenly find the street breaking into a helter-skelter thrill of hairpin bends and bumpy cobbles. At its climax, the Stanislawa Markiewicz Viaduct is the iconic mouth of Powiśle with its ornate sculptural embellishments making it a favorite landmark among serious photographers. Opened in 1904 (though the date under one of its statues wrongly declares 1905), it was actually never intended to be such a beauty – originally, it was designed to fulfill a more prosaic function and to simply act as a shortcut for those transferring loads and garbage.
Hey, Good Lookin’
All gentlemen will know Zaremba, a bespoke outfitter that’s been doing business since 1894. Achieving cult status when he fitted an officer’s suit with hidden armor for a duel, the skills of the founder, Edward, soon featured in the style columns of Moscow, Vienna, Paris and London. Not even communist harassment could keep this family-run atelier down, and it continued to thrive using smuggled British wool that was kept hidden in the store. When the British serial Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson was filmed in Warsaw in 1979, Zaremba were naturally selected to produce the outfits. Elements of this rich history are remembered via the photographs that adorn the walls of the Zaremba cocktail bar on Nowogrodzka 15. Across the road, meanwhile, visit their expanded clothing store to stand in front of a vintage mirror first used by Tadesuz Zaremba in 1956.
Move On Over
First built in 1712, the Lubmirski Palace (Żelaznej Bramy 10) is one of Warsaw’s truest oddities. Rebuilt between 1947 and 1950 after being gutted by the Luftwaffe, two decades later it became the subject of a crazy and ambitious project to spin it around to make room for the housing estate being built around it. So it was, on March 30th, 1970, the 8,000 ton structure was mounted onto ten hydraulic jacks, lifted onto a support structure, and then rotated by 78 degrees courtesy of sixteen steel rails. Forty-nine days later, the project was announced as having succeeded.
The Home Of Street Art
An attempt to “reconcile the independence, spontaneity and anarchy of street art with the limitations enforced by an enclosed exhibition space,” the inception of Galeria Forty/Forty helped transform Warsaw’s alternative arts scene. Taking shape inside Fort Bema – one of the numerous Tsarist forts built in the 19th century to defend Warsaw – the walls became a rich tapestry of stickers, murals, posters and graffiti. The only rule, was that there weren’t any rules. Attracting now legendary names such as NeSpoon, Szum, Chazme and Maniac, this living gallery flourished between 2011 and 2015. But whilst the project came to a close years ago, today its creepy corridors and junky chambers remain a favorite for atmospheric photo shoots.
Rust In Peace
You don’t have to be child or a nerd to enjoy Warsaw’s Railway Museum (Towarowa 1), and that’s thanks to a heap of brilliantly weird things such as complex model trainsets featuring crash scenes and display cases filled with curiosities such as vintage train menus. But outside is where it gets weird, filled as the yard is with German armored trains as well as the sumptuous wagon belonging to Poland’s first post-war leader. As appealing as these are, what really grabs the attention are the rotting carcasses of scores of unloved trains that have been left to die. A remarkable locomotive cemetery, poking around here is a joy in itself.