Paul and I ended up in Warsaw unexpectedly. We were visiting Prague to attend a wedding and after deciding to add another destination to our trip we looked at where to fly to next and found Warsaw to be the cheapest (the Europa Cup Final football game taking place in Warsaw that week was also a big draw for Paul!). Warsaw is a city I might not visited otherwise but I’m very glad we did. There’s many interesting things to see and do, its history is fascinating and it has fantastic nightlife. Wandering around the city I kept thinking of it as a smaller Berlin; it has the same harsh communist architecture and uber cool bar scene. Here’s five things I loved about Poland’s capital city.
Whenever we visit a city I always do a bit of research into whether it has any interesting neighbourhoods we could stay in rather than immediately booking accommodation in the city centre. When I looked into Warsaw everything I read said the coolest neighbourhood was Praga, an area which appeared to have followed the familiar gentrification pattern of previously dodgy, now hip and creative, with dive bars, warehouse galleries and impressive street art adorning its red brick buildings. I found Praga just as cool as described and loved exploring the creative spots dotted among its crumbling grey streets (Praga was one of the few areas in Warsaw to avoid being flattened in the Second World War so its buildings are among the oldest in the city). We stayed in a little airbnb which bizarrely had a statue of the Virgin Mary in the courtyard just outside our window. I have since Googled this and found out many of the apartment courtyards in Warsaw have Virgin Mary shrines and statues in them. It felt a little disconcerting to have her watching our every move, I have to say.
The Old Town
Warsaw’s Old Town is the opposite of Praga in every way; it is picturesque, with squares, museums, fortress walls and a castle. Basically, all the things tourists traditionally like to see. It was completely destroyed in the Second World War and rebuilt from scratch so even though the buildings look like they date back to the 13th Century they actually only date back 70 years. Despite this, the Old Town isn’t too Disneyfied and is a pretty area to wander around. The huge Old Town Square is particularly impressive.
As so much of Warsaw was destroyed in the Second World War most of the city centre was built during in the 1950s, 60s and 70s when the Soviet Union ruled Poland. The result is a city made up of tower blocks, harsh lines and communist architecture, all in shades of slate grey or drab brown. From what I’ve read, Warsaw residents’ opinions of the Soviet architecture seems to be polarising; understandably many Poles don’t want to be reminded of the dark days of communism but others claim these buildings have architectural merit and are part of the country’s national heritage. As an outsider, I found the architecture very striking. Many would call grey, concrete Warsaw ugly but what you consider to be ugly of course depends on your perspective. I liked it.
Even though I’d been told Warsaw has a great bar scene I was still surprised at how many brilliant bars there are in different areas of the city. There were three places we went out in: Praga (as referenced above), the Nowy Swiat pavilions and Plan B. Hip Praga is known for its cool bars and we went to several but my favourite was W Oparach Absurdu which actually turned out to be my favourite bar in Warsaw. W Oparach Absurdu is dark and cosy, with mismatched furniture, fairy lights on the walls and a great drinks selection. It had such a relaxing, welcoming atmosphere, and it was very enjoyable to sink back in one of their armchairs ad sip a glass of red wine. The Nowy Swiat Pavilions is a courtyard of small bars just behind the main city centre street of Nowy Swiat. There are around 20 bars in the courtyard and each one is tiny and uber hip. As the bars as so small, most of them spill out onto the courtyard area. The third bar we went to was Plan B which, when I Googled nightlife in Warsaw, was mentioned in almost every article I read; it seemed to be a must visit. Due to time restrictions we went during the day but we we were still able to get a clear idea of how cool it was with its grungy vibe, graffiti clad walls and regular gig and dj performances. Plan B is situated on a square called Zbawiciela Square which is apparently known as Hipster Square! Supposedly during the summer the drinking in Plan B spills out onto the square giving it a block party vibe.
The Palace of Science and Culture
Those polarising buildings I mentioned before? Warsaw’s Palace of Science and Culture is the biggest one. The tallest and most famous building in Poland, built in the early 1950s, was a “gift from the Soviet people” from Stalin, hence why it is so polarising. Many locals hate its history and fussy design, nicknaming it the ‘Elephant in Lacy Underwear’ among other unflattering things. Designed to mimic the Empire State Building, The Palace of Science and Culture is hugely impressive on the outside and on the inside – it has marble floors, staircases, chandeliers, and has a cinema, museums, swimming pool, an actual university, and a congress room which used to hold Congress Party meetings and now hosts gigs by bands like the Rolling Stones. Its terrace on the 30th floor also has fantastic panoramic views of Warsaw’s grey urban sprawl.