Warsaw Travel Guide
A phoenix risen from the ashes, Warsaw has a lure that’s difficult to define. The Polish capital suffered terrible levels of destruction during World War Two, followed by almost 50 years of Soviet occupation. But far from being a city down on its luck, Warsaw displays unexpected joie de vivre best represented by its stunningly beautiful and entirely reconstructed Old Town, the heart of Warsaw’s tourist attractions. The city—as with the rest of Roman Catholic Poland—remains socially conservative, with civil unions and gay marriage yet to make it onto the statute book. That said, the first Europe-wide gay pride parade held in a former Eastern Bloc country has been running annually in Warsaw since 2006, and attracted 45,000 revellers in 2018. That, and an increasing number of gay-friendly venues, only add to Warsaw’s growing allure.
The best hotels in Warsaw
Hotel locations don’t get much better than that of the five-star Hotel Bellotto, situated within the 400-year-old Bishop’s Palace in the heart of the Old Town. Its classical exterior leads to 20 luxuriously spacious rooms and suites, each carefully finished with masterly attention to detail. The nearby high-rise Hotel Warszawa is anything but the faceless insurance building that once occupied the same site. Its rooms sport an unflinching contemporary design that highlights richly-toned woods, reflective steel, and sparkling glass. Globally-sourced patterned marble adds the same wow-factor to exquisite en suite bathrooms. Also situated in the Old Town, within the former embassy of the Soviet Union, is the H15 Boutique Hotel. Its selection of 47 rooms, suites, and apartments are equipped with vintage furnishings and works of contemporary art that give the elegant classical interior a unique modern twist. Facilities include Nespresso coffee makers in each room, and a spa and wellness centre.
Taking a holistic approach to guest accommodation, the boutique Hotel SixtySix offers up-to-the-minute interiors in a historic house on Warsaw’s famed Royal Route, Ulica Nowy Świat. The music and fragrance are carefully altered throughout the day to enhance the hotel’s ambience for the total wellbeing of guests, and it’s a short stroll from the main Warsaw points of interest, including the Presidential Palace and Castle Square. Promising a unique blend of excellence in design and subtle indulgence, Between Us Bed and Breakfast also effortlessly combines classic nineteenth-century architecture with the individually-designed contemporary interiors of its sleek white rooms. With breakfast served in the popular Między Nami Café on the ground floor, Between Us is as much a place to see and be seen as a traditional bed and breakfast!
A visit to the Wedel factory is a must for chocolate fans, with plenty of chances to sample the sweet stuff on daily tours and in the on-site café
Things to do in Warsaw
The history of Warsaw is intimately linked with that of the city’s Jewish population, as POLIN, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews on the edge of the former Jewish ghetto seeks to testify. Its eight galleries tell the story of how the city became home to the largest population of Jews in Europe thanks to centuries of religious tolerance, before the tragedy of the Holocaust took hold. The Palace of Culture and Science has a rather more controversial history in the city. Hated by some because of its links with the Soviet occupation of Poland—the soaring monolithic structure was gifted to the city by Josef Stalin —it can be seen from almost everywhere in Warsaw. Still Poland’s tallest building at 237 metres in height, its 42 floors contain the 3,000 seat Congress Hall auditorium, four theatre companies, a multi-screen cinema, and two museums. An observation terrace on the thirtieth floor provides unparalleled views across the city.
If the Palace of Culture and Science is unmissable simply because of its sheer size, the Zachęta art gallery is one of the unmissable places to visit in Warsaw due to its impressive collection of 3,500 artworks. Nurturing the Polish art scene since its foundation in 1860, the gallery contains works by Poland’s leading artists, including Tadeusz Kantor, Edward Krasiński, and Erna Rosenstein, as well as those from up-and-coming artists. The art of chocolate can be both appreciated and devoured at the Wedel Chocolate Factory on the banks of the Vistula River in the city’s rejuvenated Praga district, meanwhile. As the most recognisable of Polish chocolatiers, a visit to the Wedel factory is a must for chocolate fans, with plenty of chances to sample the sweet stuff on daily tours and in the on-site café. But if the sugary aromas of the Wedel factory don’t leave your head spinning, the sublime performances of the Polish National Opera undoubtedly will. Offering a spectacular alternative to Warsaw’s gay bars, the Teatr Wielki is one of the largest and grandest theatres anywhere in Europe, with world-class performances of favourites such as Bizet’s Carmen at a fraction of the price of other European capitals.
Things to see in Warsaw
A popular weekend leisure spot for Warsaw’s residents, the 76-hectare Łazienki Park occupies a major space in the city’s cultural life. Whether you opt to enjoy a relaxed picnic; take in the splendour of the ‘Palace on the Isle’, the summer residence of eighteenth-century King Stanisław II Augustus; or stroll between the park’s many follies, Łazienki provides a window into what makes Warsaw Warsaw. But Łazienki is far from the Polish capital’s only green space for those wondering what to do in Warsaw. Dating back to 1727, the Saxon Garden off Piłsudski Square was one of the first public parks in the world and has existed in its modern form of an ‘English Garden’ since the nineteenth century. More contemporaneously, Warsaw University Library Garden sits on two levels among the city’s ancient rooftops. Spanning an entire hectare, the garden remains largely unknown beyond the city’s student population, providing a laid-back wonderland with gently trickling water, rustling leaves, and fine views to the River Vistula from its elevated position.
The views are also renowned from the 147-step bell tower of Saint Anne’s Church, adjacent to Castle Square. A miraculous survivor of more than one major conflict over its 500-year history, it is also worth a visit for its spectacularly over-the-top baroque and rococo interior, which pointedly contrasts with its later eighteenth-century neo-classical façade. For a further perspective of the city, mingle with the steady stream of residents enjoying the urban beaches on the banks of the Vistula. With volleyball and food pavilions, the riverside also hosts a regular cycle of free concerts from some of the country’s best young musicians. Warsaw’s most famous musical son, Frédéric Chopin, is also rightly celebrated throughout the city. In addition to a monument in Łazienki Park, and nightly concerts in Nowy Świat’s music centre, more casual fans can turn their ear to snippets of the composer’s best works at a series of polished black stone benches. Simply hit the button, relax, and enjoy!
Situated in the same building as the Frédéric Chopin Museum, Tamka 43 takes its inspiration from the composer’s favourite foods
Where to eat in Warsaw
The first restaurant in Poland to be awarded a prestigious Michelin star, Atelier Amaro is also a leading light in the slow food movement. Its celebrated chefs use only the freshest of seasonal local ingredients in the creation of its six- and nine-moment menus, so named because each dish is concocted around the available ingredients of the moment. With no fixed menu, Senses is equally dependent on the accessibility of seasonal Polish produce for the majority of its dishes, with head chef Andrea Camastra having developed his skills as sous chef at Atelier Amaro. Emphasising the importance of each of the five senses in cuisine, the resulting experimental combinations include an Aperol Spritz, onion ring, and olive starter; and scallop, liver, and onion main course.
Situated in the same building as the Frédéric Chopin Museum, it may be no surprise that Tamka 43 takes its inspiration from the composer’s favourite foods. Its menu spotlights Polish delicacies with a French twist, such as zander (a type of perch) served with red cabbage and watercress; and asparagus à la polonaise with sorrel granita and hollandaise sauce. Meanwhile, the art deco stylings of Salto are found on the ground floor of the Hotel Rialto. About as far removed from traditional Polish cuisine as it’s possible to get, Argentine chef Martin Gimenez Castro combines the flavours of his South American birthplace with those of Japan.
The high-ceilinged casual dining of Kameralna evokes the ambience of a long-lost but much-loved meeting place called Kamera. Light pours in through the floor-to-ceiling windows, reflecting off the black and white tiled floor, shining brass, and polished wood. Specialising in Poland’s traditional cuisine, this restaurant’s goulash, pierogi dumplings, and apple-stuffed duck can’t be missed. Another great place for sampling local cuisine is the romantic exterior terrace of Dawne Smaki, whose menu ranges from jellied pig’s trotters to the surprisingly tasty zurek (sour rye soup). With more than ten locations across Warsaw, Kuchnia Za Scianą serves freshly-prepared Polish cuisine from a keenly-priced menu that changes on a daily basis, dependent on what produce is at its best that morning. But whenever you visit, you’ll find soups such as zurek, and main plates including kotlet schabowy (pork cutlets). For flavours that span the globe, there’s Momu, a gastrobar with a menu dedicated to international street food and a cocktail list that’s just as varied and enticing.
Shopping in Warsaw
Warsaw may not spring to mind as a premier shopping destination. However, the shopping scene has developed extensively since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Fit for London’s Saville Row, Redford & Grant is a high-end menswear outlet that boasts collections from the world’s most on-trend brands. Bringing Eastern Europe’s finest designers and artists to the forefront is Warsaw’s longest operating concept store, TFH Koncept. This centrally-located melange of clothing, gadgets, jewellery, and books promises ‘anything you would ever want’, and its meticulously curated collection certainly doesn’t disappoint.
Personal style is just as important at 8288 Concept Store, a shop that is as much an art gallery as it is a fashion house. The simple industrial interior and period look of its furniture create the perfect canvas on which to explore its chosen designers, whether their world is one of paint or of fabric. If anything, Pan Tu Nie Stal takes the unity of art and fashion one step further. Its collection of clothes, homeware, and accessories features strong and often ironic slogans originating from the difficult years of the Soviet occupation. The store’s name itself means ‘you didn’t stand here, Sir’, a rye reference to an era that saw many hours lost queueing for basic commodities. Away from the hubbub of the city centre, in the quieter district of Stare Bielany, you’ll find Slou. An antidote to the online shopping age, Slou creates an inviting atmosphere where simple, all-natural Polish products can be purchased in a calm environment where physical contact between buyer and goods is not only welcomed but encouraged.
To sample the best vodka the city has to offer, pull up a chair at Dom Wódki, beside the Opera House
Nightlife in Warsaw
You certainly shouldn’t need any encouragement to dive straight into Warsaw’s nightlife. Begin your evening at the ever-welcoming Ramona Bar, which is one of the city’s most popular gay bars thanks no doubt to its casual atmosphere and low prices. Snapping at its heels is Klub Plan B, an LGBTQ-friendly bar that attracts an artsy and alternative crowd to its nights of electronic dance music.
To sample the best vodka the city has to offer, pull up a chair at Dom Wódki, beside the Opera House. You’ll be there long after the fat lady sings should you even attempt to try all 120 vodkas hailing from Poland, let alone the other 200 varieties jostling for space on the shelves behind the bar. It’s the clientele who jostle for space in the outlandishly popular cocktail bar Kita Koguta (Cock’s Crest). Its regularly changing drinks menu is as tasty as it is creative; its pair of highly-talented bartenders mix up the likes of ‘Candy Man’, which sees bourbon and whiskey blended with Polish berry liqueur and white chocolate syrup.
If it’s hardcore dancing you’re after, you’ll be in luck at Mekka Klub, whose three dance floors don’t clear until well after dawn come the weekend. Revolution Warsaw has a similar vibe with its monthly men-only dance parties, boasting guest DJs flown in from around the world, and a different venue each time. But if all this hard-partying becomes a little too much, respite can be found at Lodi Dodi, a cosy gay club right in the city centre, where it’s possible to chat over local music and equally local beer at the two bars or on the snug mezzanine-level.
Photo: Krystian Krzewinski
Photo: Jacek Dylag
Photo: Ac Almelor
Old Town | Photo: Jimmy Mmoon
Most Gdanski | Photo: Agnieszka Cymbalak
Roots Bar | Photo: Jakub Dziubak
Photo: Priscilla Du Preez
Polish Tart | Photo: Artur Rutkowski