Warsaw: the city that would bring me back to Poland in a heartbeat.
So I sadly can’t say I got to spend too much time in Warsaw, or really have a recommended itinerary after my whirlwind time there (including a missed flight and a night that lasted until 7am -those are whole other stories). But it was just enough to make me want to come back again and again, and discover even more of Poland. Note: I was there in October 2015, just as it started to get colder and the air a bit crisper.
First off: Poland is cheap. Like, really cheap – despite being the 2nd biggest economy in Central Europe and 6th biggest in the EU. It also has amazing food and really friendly people. And, compared to Krakow, Warsaw is like its hipper, younger cousin (my opinion). A lot of people say you prefer one or the other: like a San Francisco/Los Angeles or Berlin/Munich rivalry, and in this case, Warsaw reminds me of Berlin – I loved it.
Breakfast was a lazy morning at Croque Madame, a little French cafe right on Nowy Swiat. French food in Poland? Check.
After debating next stops (the Warsaw Uprising Museum, the National Museum of Warsaw, and the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews were some options), we headed towards the Palace of Culture and Science. As the tallest building in Warsaw and the 8th tallest in the EU, it’s known as a symbol of Socialist architecture. “Imposing” and “beautiful” are definitely 2 words I would use to describe it, which makes sense given that some of the architectural inspirations are Polish historicism and American art deco. In the 1950s, when it was built and given to Poland as a gift from the Soviet Union, it was known as the Joseph Stalin Palace of Culture and Science, but that name came down during destalinization. In 1967, the Rolling Stones performed here in the first major performance by a western rock band group behind the Iron Curtain. I loved reading some of the nicknames for the building while writing this: “Pajac” (meaning ‘clown’), “Peking” (short for its abbreviated PKiN), and even “Stalin’s Syringe” or “Elephant in Lacy Underwear.”
It’s definitely worth going up to the top for a small price. Like at the Empire State, you get views from each of the 4 sides, with panel descriptions of what you’re looking at in each direction. If you have change on you, there’s a little Polaroid booth at the top, too.
Just outside of the building is a food cart that I’m told serves some pretty epic Zapiekanka (a long open-faced baguette with melted cheese, meats, and ketchup). We tried it, but I can’t say it was worth getting. Apparently I just hit it on a wrong day, so it’s still something worth keeping on my culinary bucket list.
What I can whole-heartedly recommend, though, is Piw Paw. I can safely say I would be happy moving in here. Piw Paw calls itself a “beer heaven” and it definitely deserves that name – with over 60 beers on tap, and way more bottles in the fridges. Almost all the beers are Polish or at least European, and it’s a wonder I didn’t stumble out of there or try every beer. It’s obviously pricier than most bars in Poland, but if you like beer, and like trying local beers, it’s well worth it. I got a dark, creamy baltic porter there that I swear I still dream about.
Since that beer pitstop ended up (happily) lasting a bit longer than expected, we grabbed the last two beers for the road and made a run (a literal run) for the free tour that started at Sigismund’s Column. Wiped out, we got there a bit late, but caught up with the group in the Old Town Market Place nearby. We got a tour of the square, of Marie Curie’s birthplace, and of the Warsaw Uprising Square. Even looking back over the itinerary and the other free tours now, it makes me want to go directly back to Warsaw and explore some of the other areas and learn about some of the other things I missed.
Quick historical background for those who are like me and had sadly never even heard of the Warsaw Uprising before getting there: the Warsaw Uprising was the largest single military effort undertaken by any European resistance movement during WWII. Under the threat of a German round-up of any able-bodied Poles and with the rest of the tension going on, the uprising officially started on August 1, 1944. Poles depended on the help of the Soviet Army, but they never showed, and the Polish Resistance was able to fight for 63 days without support. During urban combat, 25% of the buildings in Warsaw were destroyed, and 16,000 Poles lost their lives. Along with earlier damage, over 85% of the city was destroyed by January 1945. 85% – that’s astounding. A glimpse of this is seen in The Pianist, but I hope to be able to track down some of the movies made about it that have aired in Poland.
Unfortunately, like anywhere around the world, the monument and the severity of what it represents, including family members of people on our tour, are always a bit tainted by the tourists with selfie sticks, posing and smiling. As much as I understand wanting to prove you’ve been somewhere, there’s a time and a place, and I’m not sure it’s by these monuments like the Warsaw Uprising Monument or the 9/11 Memorial.
The time in Warsaw ended with an unbelievable dinner near Sigismund’s Column – including pierogi, bigos (a stew of sauerkraut and meat), borscht (my new favorite soup, made with beetroot), 2 flights of vodka, hot wine, and a very full stomach. We can skip the missed flight story that extended my trip in Warsaw by an extra 16 hours and took me out to Łódź for a rescheduled flight.
If you’re heading to Warsaw, I highly recommend the Lull Hostel. It’s pretty new, but it was really quiet while I was there, insanely clean, and had a great, artsy/modern feel to it. It’s also right across the river from where you’ll probably be spending a good amount of time. And I’m told in the summer the underside of that bridge is a great space to hang out with a bottle of wine and food and watch the sunset.
I first off highly recommend you get yourself to Warsaw. Period. Once there, make sure you allow for a lot more time than I had by the end of my 6 weeks. There’s so much to see here, and the 5 different free tours can be a great place to start. Don’t undervalue the time to taste a lot of the food. And, as always in Polish cities, don’t forget to end your night at a Pijalnia…