To get to the bottom of Warsaw’s heart and soul, it’s these essentials you need to tick off…
Three years have passed since Covid ripped the heart out of Poland’s tourist sector, but having just about survived the lockdowns (remember them?), the country was hit by the impact of war next door. Only now, finally, are numbers returning to their pre-Armageddon level.
With that in mind, we’ve suspended normal operations to instead present our bucket list for summer ’23, our red-hot rundown of the essential sights that every newcomer needs to know. Hung mainly around things to see, of course do remember that last issue’s epic rundown of the top summer bars and restaurants can be found online as part of our Best of Summer.
When it comes to having the most murals (and most spectacular), it’s probably a toss-up between Praga, Wola and Ursynów. But the most celebrated, you could argue, is actually found up in Żoliborz. Depicting David Bowie, and painted shortly after his death, David Celek’s work on Marii Kazimiery 1 celebrates the singer’s unlikely association with the area – during a routine stopover at Warszawa Gdańska train station in 1976, the ‘thin white duke’ made the most of his spare few hours by walking up to Pl. Wilsona with Iggy Pop. Whilst there, he visited a record store and bought a few albums, including one by the Polish folk band Śląsk. Inspired by what he saw, the same year he wrote Warszawa, a brooding instrumental that featured on his album Low.
Commonly referred to as ‘the Polish Versailles’, the baroque masterpiece that is Wilanów Palace was built for King Jan III Sobieski – a man noted for saving Europe from Ottoman invasion at the 1683 Battle of Vienna. An indulgent exercise in monarchical bling, today its vast halls offer up a plethora of regal treasures. For many, the gardens are the true highlight – after, head to the adjoining lake to hire a boat to paddle the inky waters.
Palace of Culture & Science
Described by many as “a tyrannical phallus”, Stalin’s gift to Warsaw is no longer the tallest building in the country, but it remains the most famous – and, arguably, the most loathed. Formally opened in1955, everything about this Socialist Realist megalith is mind-boggling. Home to 3,288 rooms spread out over 46 floors, standout features include the 30th floor viewing platform and the retro Museum of Technology. To really learn the secrets of the Palace of Culture though, join one of the tours that take you to its basements – it’s here you’ll find prowling cats, secret passages and Soviet banners left over from days yore.
Although not as wild as previous years due to the construction of a pedestrian bridge spanning the river, the boulevards that run on the left side of the Wisla can’t be beat for their dynamic sense of hedonism. Offering something for everyone, these include floating beer barges, swanky cocktail dens, cheesy open-air dance clubs and all manner of street food points. Come with no plan and an open mind – let the chaos suck you in.
Warsaw’s youthful energy is one of its biggest selling points, but all that going out can take its toll – chill out by exploring the right side of the river. Rare as it is to find a major city with an undeveloped riverbank, discover an entire swathe ribboned with wooded paths and nature trails that gaze out across the water and onto the built-up metropolis beyond. A haven of wildlife, it feels totally unique for its escapist value.
The national drink shouldn’t need an introduction, but it’s back story probably does – the Polish Vodka Museum in Praga’s Koneser development does exactly that, presenting the history of the drink in five slick thematic rooms that involve a striking display of salvaged decorative bottles and an interactive hall that allows visitors to feel the effects of a few too many by strapping on some VR goggles!
After decades spent living in a controlled environment, the new freedoms offered by the 90s saw a temporary but collective loss of sanity in Poland – plunged headfirst into a bewildering capitalist world, Warsaw became a tapestry of colour, chaos and contrasts. Physically manifesting itself by way of the city’s architecture, the years that have followed have seen many of these buildings negatively judged resulting in the demolition of many. Fortunately, many of these landmarks still survive and you can plot your own tour of these beauties and beasts by checking the interactive map at: archiwumlat90.pl.
For the record, we dig the silvery Nautilus on Nowogrodzka 9, the tacky spires that crown the apartment building on Twarda 44, the merger of new and old that is Powiśle’s Grey Villa on Wybrzeże Kościuszkowskie 47, and the sheer, overwhelming ugliness of the Atlas Tower (pictured above) on Jerolimskie 123A – likened to a cross between a Red Bull can and a portable shower, it says much for the Dynasty aesthetics of the era!
Vegan Square Mile
The depth of Warsaw’s food revolution is reflected by its booming vegan scene. Rated by the HappyCow portal as the ninth most vegan-friendly city in the world, the offer is particularly strong in the south-central area where, hidden amid the surviving pre-war streets, all manner of vegan options thrive: for the very best, check our listings online.
You haven’t visited Warsaw just for her fountains, but while here a visit to the Friday / Saturday night multimedia fountain show should be considered mandatory. Now in its twelfth year, the show has updated its theme to celebrate Disney. Incorporating elements of Frozen, the Lion King and Moana, the audio-visual shows take place each weekend at 9.30 p.m. and draw around a million people per year. Arrive early to stake out a spot on the grassy embankment that leads down from the New Town, before enjoying a staggering display capable of displaying 16 million colours and firing 30,000 litres of water per minute. Spanning an area of 2,850 sq/m, the fountains are equally impressive outside of regular showtime.
Rooftop bars are numerous, but for those that are saving their drinking head till later, other options exist for a quiet walk conducted at an altitude higher than the ground – by the riverfront, the Copernicus Science Centre is topped with a rooftop garden whose twisting paths are designed to mimic a volcanic landscape; practically next door, the BUW Library at Dobra 68/70 has a park filled with sculptural art, futuristic walkways and picturesque pergolas. Up north, combine a visit to the Jewish Cemetery with a trip to Forest, a fancy office development with a 2,100 sq/m garden that offers grandstand views of Warsaw in front.
No Warsaw round-up can be complete without a mention of the Finnish Houses. So named because they were constructed using materials requisitioned from Finland as war reparations, this charming micro-district was built right after WWII to house architects and engineers working on Warsaw’s reconstruction. Bounded by Trasa Łazienkowska directly east, and Park Ujazdowski to the south, it’s the definition of cottage-core – amid the city’s hustle and clamour, discover a fairy tale world of little lanes, flourishing greenery, pops of public art and scenic timber chalets – dozens have survived the march of time, and many of these function as NGOs that welcome visitors.
When time is precious, a visit to Pl. Grzybowski allows you to say you’ve “done” Warsaw in one fell swoop. From the shiny plaza in the middle, all one needs to know is to turn on the heel to see the different complex layers that make up the city: from ghastly post-war blocks to stunning futuristic skyscrapers, within a stone’s throw you’ll be able to view the city only surviving pre-war synagogue, the soaring Palace of Culture, and the Renaissance-style All Saints’ Church. Down the road, check Próżna, a gentrified street of pre-war tenements that survived the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto.
The Museum of the History of Polish Jews is a staggering work – architecturally, it wows with its immense glass form, whilst culturally it has engaged both locals and visitors alike with workshops and tours (this summer, check out their walking tours of Ghetto hiding spots). Currently, the temporary exhibition sheds light on the civilian experience during the 1943 Ghetto Uprising, but the museum’s biggest triumph has been on how it has focused on so many other aspects of Jewish life rather than just the Holocaust. Fully-geared towards international visitors of every age, its one of the most important institutions not just in Warsaw, but the entire country.
The Neon Museum has no competition when it comes to the hippest museum in the city – filled with salvaged neon signs from the Communist era, its as appreciated as much by millennials looking to fill their Insta feed as it is by those drawn to the funky design ethos of the era. But Warsaw should also be thought of as a living museum, and spectacular neons – often painstakingly restored – now generously sprinkle the city. Of the more notable, check the volleyball player that shimmers over Pl. Konstytucji or the serpentine squiggle splashed over SMYK on the corner of Bracka and Marszalkowska.
Museum of Warsaw
The Museum of Warsaw in the Old Town Square attacks visitors with an almost bewildering array of exhibits displayed in a non-linear format. Although this approach can initially confuse, the abundance of strange items make it a joy – detail driven, just walking the stairs of this creaking collection of tenements is an adventure and concludes with the best view imaginable of the square down below.
If the Old Town’s square is famed for its mermaid statue, then think of that as an imposter for the original one, designed by Konstanty Hegel in 1855, sits inside the Museum of Warsaw.
Warsaw’s favourite son is celebrated in fitting style courtesy of the magical Chopin Museum on Tamka, a place that mixes interactive multimedia with traditional displays to brilliant effect. But aside from this, check the mural dedicated to him at Tamka 45A, or take a tour past sites related to his life by checking out the 15 musical benches positioned by core Chopin locations – these include the resting place of his heart, the Church of the Holy Cross. Don’t think you’ll see his ticker though, it lies encased inside a column in a crystal jar filled with cognac. Last, but definitely not least, it’s criminal to visit Warsaw and bypass the Sunday piano concerts that take place underneath the Chopin statue in Łazienki Park.
According to myth, Warsaw owes its very foundation to a mermaid – as such, for centuries she’s been adopted on the city’s coat of arms as the official mascot. Three statues celebrate her: one of the Markiewicz viaduct (itself a photogenic crossing bookended by twisting cobbled streets), and one in the Old Town Square. The most storied, though, stands by the Świętokrzyski Bridge. Cast in bronze, it’s alleged to be the last monument to be unveiled in Warsaw before the Nazi occupation. The sculptor, Ludwik Nitschow, used a 23-year-old poetess, Krystyna Krahelska, as his model. Serving as a medic in the Home Army, she was mortally wounded on the first day of the Uprising. The statue survived, albeit with 34 bullet dents that are visible to this day.
Warsaw’s love for public art was born in 2002 when Joanna Rajkowska unveiled an artificial palm at the centre of Rondo de Gaulle’a. Scandalising the city at the time, it has become a much-loved feature of the city in the two decades since. Now, however, Rajkowska has returned with another installation, that being a giant egg on Plac Pięciu Rogó. Emitting hatching sounds, it’s already become a favourite. Rajkowska herself says: “It’s my intention that this surreal object places us in a completely different space-time. Specifically, the kind of space-time that birds know.”
The shadow of communism looms as heavily over Warsaw as the war, but at the PRL Museum a lighter angle is taken to make the exploration of the past a far more light-hearted experience. Run as a private passion project, the extraordinary collection includes a diorama of a typical apartment, a canteen, and personal keepsakes that shed light on the absurdities of the period. Running also highly recommended tours of Communist Warsaw in an array of old bangers, it’s highly fitting that the museum look out on Pl. Konstytucji, a Socialist Realist showpiece square.
Let all roads lead to the Old Town Square. Celebrating its 70th anniversary of reconstruction in July of this year, the square is more than just a photogenic place in which to chill out with a beer whilst accordionists busk in the distance. It is, to all intents and purposes, a symbol of Warsaw’s indomitable spirit.
Use your time in Warsaw to learn more about the oft-lauded Polish School of Poster. Back in the 50s and 60s, the government’s decision to ban Western film posters saw Polish artists come up with their own interpretations, and so a powerful new artistic movement was born. These retro gems can still be viewed, enjoyed and purchased alongside more contemporary creations at places such as the Polish Poster Gallery on Piwna 28/30 or Galeria Plakatu Polskiego inside the library building at Dobra 56/66.