For years regarded as the dark side of Warsaw, the Praga suburb now finds itself enjoying a remarkable renaissance - read on to discover the true Pearls of Praga!
Beat… The Buzzer
Designed by the same dude responsible for Hala Mirowska and Hala Gwardii, the building at Kłopotowskiego 38 has long been known as home to what many hail to be Poland’s most beautiful staircase.
Starring in countless films (among them, The Man With The Magic Box, a Polish Academy Award winner about a janitor that travels in time), you’ll need to use your guile to get past the gate and see it for yourself. Once decorated in peeling green paint – an effect that brought to mind a weird David Lynch flick – the spiraling stairwell has now been restored to its original state and looks all the more stunning when shafts of autumn sunlight slant through the windows.
Over the last decade or so Praga has become an incubator for grass roots artistic expression, with the most visible evidence of this provided by the large-format murals that have been splashed onto many of its disintegrating tenements.
To create your own mural safari plot a route using the interactive street art map at: puszka.waw.pl
Be… A Vodka Connoisseur
A fundamental cornerstone of the Koneser complex, The Polish Vodka Museum (muzeumpolskiejwodki.pl) features five thematic rooms that do a slick and entertaining job of documenting the national tipple.
High points number a smart collection of salvaged bottles and an interactive room in which visitors learn can test their knowledge on a quiz machine and strap on some trippy goggles to experience the effects of being completely sloshed. Now you’re an expert, try the drinks for yourself in their onsite bar.
Move… To The Beat
Befitting of its status as a crucible of alternative cool, Praga’s reputation for leftfield sounds and experimental venues precedes itself.
In this regard, the grungy courtyard at ul. 11 Listopada 22 is the area’s pounding heart with Skład Butelek, Hydrozagadka and Chmury offering a wide array of gigs covering a range of spectrums: from ‘stoner jams’ and minimal synth to bands with names like The Murder Capital or Nashville Pussy. The atmosphere is electrifying.
Walk… The Wild Side
Trumpeted by local government as one of Europe’s best riverfront boulevards, the revamped left bank has had positive press aplenty. In direct contrast, the Praga side offers wild, untamed nature that looks all the better in autumn’s golden glow.
Of the city’s more enduring urban myths is the tale of a Japanese delegation asking the Mayor how much the city had spent on creating the illusion of such natural glory. “What amazing landscaping,” they are said to have gushed. Though strictly apocryphal, the story says much for the environmental wonder that is the Wisła’s right rump.
Find… Hidden Shrines
Approximately 300 courtyard shrines await your discovery in Warsaw, of which around 120 sit in the battered backyards of the Praga district. Embellished with flowers, greenery, twinkly lights and assorted miscellaneous add-ons, the history of these so-called kapliczki is related to the country’s tortured past.
Principally appearing during the Nazi occupation, they were created at a time when courtyards were regarded safer places of worship than churches. Always carefully tended, and occasionally elaborately (and eccentrically) decorated, that they have survived for so long speaks much for their importance.
Join… The Singing
Formed five years back in response to growing disillusionment with the way the domestic game was being run (and supported), ZŁY – which translates as bad – stand out as Poland’s first fan-founded, democratic football club. Plying their trade in the lower leagues, games are played in Praga’s Don Pedro Arena and supported by a colorful and eccentric band of fans that value diversity and tolerance.
Despite their short history, they’ve already earned international recognition having been recently named by UEFA as Europe’s “best grassroots club”. How covid-19 regulations will effect their season (and support) remains to be seen, so keep your eyes peeled on their Facebook.
Drink… on Ząbkowska
For many, Praga’s nightlife revolves strictly around two boozy bastions on Ząbkowska. Founded in 2001, Łysy Pingwin (Ząbkowska 11) was a pioneer of local nightlife and maintains a rugged aesthetic that feels pleasingly Bohemian. Then, W Oparach Absurdu (Ząbkowska 6), a quite marvelous excursion into vodka-fueled madness.
Somewhere, buried deep beneath the creaking antiques and moth-eaten Persian rugs, you might be lucky to find a wood-carved bar. With craft beer balanced in one hand, and six vodkas on a saucer in the other, good luck bulldozing through a crowd gathered to listen to Balkan rock and Afro-Latin bands. Delve deeper still to discover a cramped smoking room that will linger long in both your memory and hair.
Taste… The PRL
State-subsidized canteens known as milk bars (bar mleczny) enjoyed their peak during Communist PRL era, and although the fall of the Iron Curtain threatened them with complete extinction, some have doggedly clung on – not least in Praga.
Hallmarked by their stale, fetid air and cheap plates of stodge, they’re an anthropological experience that take you back decades. On this side of the river, Bar Ząbkowski and Rusałka have earned a legendary reputation among their devoted clientele.
Explore… The Bizarre
Inaugurated in 1882 by pharmacist Julian Różycki, the Bazar Różyckiego marketplace is entrenched in Praga folklore, playing a central part in the development of the local dialect, culture and general way of life.
Currently in its death rattle, many of the 250 stalls have closed, leaving only a handful selling rusting junk and low-value clothing: walking down the largely deserted tangle of alleys as wedding dresses dangle from their hangers dancing sadly in the breeze is one of Warsaw’s more surrealistic experiences.
Fall… In Love At First Bite
Back when Bazar Różyckiego was a social melting pot, it was something of a tradition to sneak a nip of vodka and order up some tripe-filled dumplings (pyzy) squashed into little glass jars brimming with pork scratchings and fried onions. To this day, you’ll be able to enjoy this practice at Pyzy Flaki Gorące (Brzeska 29/31), a ramshackle eatery that’s firmly ensconced itself in local legend.
The Gothic revival that swept Europe in the 19th and early 20th century did not exclude Poland, nor the Praga area. Though the cathedral remains the most latent example of this spooky faux medieval style, others include the turreted entrance of Koneser and the reliefs of winged creatures at Okrzei 26.
But perhaps best-suited to the district’s smudged look and charcoal skies is the ominous, crescent-shaped Praski Hospital (Solidarności 67). Slated for destruction as the Germans fled the incoming Red Army, it survived only because more explosives were needed to obliterate the nearby cathedral.
Walk… The Dog
So named because of its snaking length, as opposed to the local fondness for sausage-shaped dogs, the Jamnik (Dachshund) counts as Poland’s third longest residential building – completed in 1973, and 508 meters in length, this gruesome apartment block achieved a brief moment of fame when it featured in the Travis video Love Will Come Through.
Home to 1,200 people, it’s initial unveiling was greeted with rapture in the press, though since it has become better-known as one of the capital’s cult eyesores – ironic given that it was first built to shield people arriving at Wschódnia from the knackered buildings behind. Of its other nicknames, find locals also referring to it as the plank, the ant and the tapeworm. Jamnik, mind you, remains the favorite, a point affirmed by the presence of a sausage dog mural that was added to the side in 2017.
Reach… For The Heavens
Standing on the district’s frontline, the Cathedral of St. Florian & St. Michael on Floriańska 3 is, quite literally, Praga’s spiritual gateway. Built between in 1888 and 1901, construction of this bastion was a retaliation to the ongoing Russification of Warsaw.
Built to hold 10,000, the cathedral sparked a wave of imitations across Poland. Distinguished for its 75-meter towers, it was dynamited two days before the Germans withdrew from Praga – all that survived, miraculously some say, were a pair of statues of the Cathedral’s patron saints. Beginning in 1947, the rebuild took a staggering 23-years.
Feel… The Blue
Appearing on Ząbkowska in 2010, Marek Sułek’s jolly blue angels have, by many, been interpreted as a homage to the courtyard shrines so characteristic of the area. For Sułek, a multi-disciplinary artist specializing in sculpture, photography and painting, they’re something else: “They aren’t meant to be religious,” he shrugs, “they’re simply the guardian angels I once dreamt about when I was five.”
Ironically, they could do with their own guardian angel. Repeatedly targeted by vandals, the 40-kilo fiberglass works have come up against paint attacks, theft and even decapitation. Buy one for home at the gift shop in the Museum of Praga or at Sulek’s studio in Centrum Praskie Koneser.
With summer in full swing, Praski Park presents itself in one delicious bang of verdant green colors: prowling about, find extras such as a 13-meter stainless steel sculpture of a giraffe – a leftover reminder of early 80s Poland, it was designed by Władysław Frycz as a gift from the zoo to the children of Warsaw.
Compatible with nature, the giraffe’s spots were purposefully switched out for gaps in which passing birds could nest and rest.
Touch… Scars Of War
Like the rest of the city, Praga too rose in rebellion against the Nazi occupation on August 1st, 1944, the difference being that it took only a few days of fierce fighting for the divisional commander, Lt. Col. Żurowski, to realize that the slaughter was one way. His order of August 4th commanding his troops to stop fighting is credited with saving Praga from outright destruction, yet even so evidence of the fighting can still be seen on the bullet pocked walls.
Other marks of war include a German bunker on the corner of Panieńska and Jasińskiego as well as a monumental statue at the top of Okrzei honoring the Kościuszko Division’s attempts to aid insurgents fighting on the left side of the river. Weighing 48-tons, cheeky locals have renamed it the “five beers” statue due to its likeness to a geezer placing a bar order.
Notoriously once dubbed “the most dangerous street in Warsaw”, there are stretches of Brzeska that remain uncomfortable to visit – at any time of day.
But though historically deprived and neglected, shoots of recovery can be noted and nowadays the area between Ząbkowska and Bazar Rożyckiego can tout a vibrant scene thanks to venues like Pallone, Praska and Offside.
Head… To The Zoo
Whatever your attitude to keeping animals in confinement, there’s one big reason to visit the zoo (zoo.waw.pl) and that’s to traipse through the modernist villa once inhabited by director Jan Żabiński. Restored to its wartime look, it’s in the cellars here that the Żabiński family sheltered 300 Jews from persecution. Book your tour via zoo’s website.
Shiver… At Russia
Reminders of Russia’s presence have, for the most part, been discreetly removed, but some have proved just too big to airbrush: for Exhibit A, refer to the onion-domed Orthodox Cathedral of St. Mary Magdalene on Solidarności 52.
Built in the 1860s to “mark the influence of the Russian people on Warsaw”, its interiors are a feast of excess and feature mosaics recovered after the 1920s demolition of the immense Nevsky Cathedral that once towered over what is today Pl. Piłsudskiego. Theological students once studied next door, though following the war the building was used as a place of torture by the NKVD – a somber plaque remembers the victims.
Seek… The Back Story
Striking a balance between traditionalist and contemporary approaches, the Praga Museum (Targowa 50/52) chronicles the area’s story in a way that feels charmingly irresistible. Of the highlights is the so-called Flying Carpet, a vertical strip festooned with trinkets and treasures that’d you’d have once seen being sold on the streets: dodgy hairdryers, dangerous toys and the kind of gold heels you’d see on a hooker.
A trove of quirky curiosities, finish off by heading to a viewing platform positioned right above the patchwork stall roofs of Różycki Market.
Be… Part of a Revival
Though still looking rough and ready, there are some that tip Stalowa to be the new Ząbkowska. Home to six galleries and art studios, a sprinkling of large format murals, and a boutique hotel, hopes are high that this street is on the verge of opening a new chapter.
If any further proof was required, then let it be Rano at No. 47. Looking – and smelling – like you’d imagine an artisanal bakery to be, the standard is such that a number of the city’s top restaurants have begun ordering from here. You will as well.
Trace… The Jewish Past
Prior to WWII it’s estimated that approximately 20,000 Jews lived in Praga, and traces of this presence can be viewed at the Museum of Praga where the wall reliefs decorating a former prayer hall have been painstakingly restored. On the streets, several other remnants exist, among them a building once housing a mikveh (Kłopotowskiego 38) and a gloomy looking former Jewish student dorm (Sierakowskiego 7) that later served as HQ for the local branch of the NKVD. For the more eagle-eyed, Brzeska 21 bears a flaking pre-war sign advertising the services of a tailor that the history books record as being Pan Rubinsztajn, while Ząbkowska 12, once occupied entirely by Jews, has a holder in the door jamb used for a mezuzah.
Browse… For Vintage
No Warsaw district has a higher headcount of vintage stores than Praga – at least so it seems. Root among vinyl records at Plyty Gramofonowe (Ząbkowska 11) or else head to the numerous second-hand design stores that have deluged the area.
Tied as the Insider’s favorites: Sklep Lata 60-te (11 Listopada 54) and Look Inside (Wileńska 21). It’s impossible to leave without some treasure under arm.
Finish… At Centrum Praskie Koneser
In many respects, the opening of Centrum Praskie Koneser was a coming of age for the area – a litmus test to see if Praga was ready to take the next big step forward. The challenge has been relished. Originally built in 1897, for years the complex housed a vodka distillery which had the simple remit of keeping the city’s Tsarist garrison supplied with their booze ration.
Now relaunched as a spectacular mixed use project, find this Neo Gothic former factory alive with offices, apartments, stores and galleries – and, arguably most importantly, acting the role of one of Warsaw’s most important food and drink hubs! Aesthetically pleasing, vibrant and dynamic, it is everything that the capital of future wishes to become – and here it is in Praga.