Where do I even start?! 5 short days in Warsaw left me with so many photos I don’t know which to share first. It also left me with an even bigger impression, one that I just can not shake. In short, Warsaw proved to be everything I thought from my prior trips and so much more. I definitely want to spend more time there, live there, interact with the culture and generally be part of this booming city in ways I never thought possible. I must admit I have been selling Poland short in my mind. I have talked to a some of my friends from back in Szczecin a few times and the standard of living seemed pretty grim. Mind you this was Szczecin ie. the city that has basically been forgotten by the rest of Poland and I was working an office job. Creatively I didn’t know what I wanted and a 9-5 salary plus benefits seemed to rank pretty high on my priority list. Oh how things change! Fast forward 7 years, I can truly say that I love my job, I have grown into myself a little more and I’m looking at the world through my own eyes (instead of those of my parents), plus, since the passing of my dad I’ve been trying to make a real effort of getting closer to my roots.
So one day when I got an email from KLM about booking my next trip (here’s a 10% off coupon or some equally unattractive attempt at a promotion) I took the plunge and booked (almost two months i advance!) a trip to Poland. No stop overs in western Europe, a, as direct as possible, flight to Warsaw! The last visit here was with my mum, we spent the majority of the time visiting with family friends and arguing over weather or not, at the age of 23, I was competent enough to take public transit on my own ha! The little that I saw from that last trip wet my appetite enough to want to come back and explore the city that already looked like the big European capital that it is. Aside from how historically important Warsaw is, now I will first and foremost think of it as a cultural hub of modern Europe. It literally has everything: art, architecture, amazing places to eat and shop, diversity and rich history. It also, unlike western Europe at the moment, feels safe and stable. Who knew you could EVER say that about eastern Europe! Something else that makes Poland in general very unique is the way they learned to embrace their communist past. Oppressed as the country was during that time it did leave some interesting marks on the appearance of the cities themselves, as well as the society. The place where it appears most often is art, surprisingly. The younger generation, not having experienced life under the iron curtain are able to look at the architecture and the symbols of communism in a non biased way. As a result you see a very very special thing happening, the preservation of those symbols, that, just as it happens, are really aesthetically pleasing. This post is all about the things and places we discovered, there are many more start on my map that didn’t get checked off so a trip back to Warsaw is inevitable. Stay tuned, it might be sooner than you think.
Where to go
Belvedere & Łazienki (eng. Royal Baths Park)
One of the most beautiful and breathtaking places in Warsaw is the Łazienki Park & Summer Palace. Depending on which direction you are coming from you are more than likely going to pass by Belvedere, and you should at least stop for a snap. It is the presidential palace in Poland, probably known more for the Vodka than it’s actual use but it is still very much occupied and used by Polish officials.
When you enter the park, especially in the summer, and it is in full bloom you will see the statue of Chopin (yes he was Polish) surrounded by beautiful flowers, fountains and public spaces. It’s worth sitting down on the ‘playing bench’ to listen to some of Chopin’s famous compositions, it’s a great place to pull out wikipedia and learn some more about the artist. Pause, Reflect, Repeat.
The Palace is probably one of the most beautiful spaces I have ever been to. I am still in awe of how much beauty is possible to fit into a fairly small space. The palace was almost destroyed during WWII when the Nazi’s packed the walls full of Dynamite upon leaving the city, thankfully it never went off and this oasis was spared. It serves as a public space for performances, pedalling on the lake or just taking a leisurely stroll. Definitely a MUST SNAP… SEE!
Neon had a huge impact on the culture of Warsaw under communist rule. It was used as a form of propaganda by the government and then eventually embraced by the people as almost a form of entertainment. Ilona Karwinska took it upon herself to salvage all and any of the communist era neon signs in hopes of preserving these beautiful works of art, many of them have been getting thrown out in lieu of billboards and led screens. The nostalgia here was pretty strong for me, even though I did not grow up during communism, many of these signs appeared on the regular in my childhood. Much like Croatia it really feels as though Poland is only just starting to get it’s footing back, but it’s doing it so well that the city has already been coined the new Berlin! The neon museum is a little out of the city centre so you will need to cab here. The gated community where its located is called the Soho Factory and is on it’s own a sight to see. You can also enjoy a really amazing, and polish no less, meal at Warszawa Wschodnia (East Warsaw aka. the name of a train station from which the sign for the restaurant was salvaged) while you are here. And since the theme of the trip was learning we also picked up a great documentary while on our visit here called, what else… ‘Neon’.
Zachęta – National Gallery of Art
In our search for beautiful architecture we stumbled upon the National Gallery of Art and while I’m not a huge museum goer I absolutely loved exploring this building inside and out. There isn’t a lot of traditionally ‘old’ Europen architecture in Warsaw, mainly because it was all destroyed in WWII and this gallery is one of the few structures that came out unscathed. The collections, many by Polish artists, are equally worth checking out as they are inspiring. We got lucky and came on the right day, Thursday, when the entry is free, worth taking note if you are able to plan your visit ahead of time. The bookstore, among many in Warsaw was also worth a stop over, making me wish we had only brought more suitcases.
Other than being one of the main intersections in Warsaw, and the home of some beautiful buildings, there is little significance to this square. Continue north and you will end up at the Palace of Culture, to the east you will find Łazienki Park and to the south you will ed up at one of the oldest, and most popular milk bars in Poland (see below). It’s a pretty central landmark and a good point of reference for those who are up for some exploring.
Stare Miasto & Nowy Świat
The old town in Warsaw remembers very tragic history, watch ‘The Pianist’ to get a glimpse of what happened here during the war, you will quickly recognize the lamp posts lining the streets here. It is still one of the more impressive and beautiful places to visit, regardless of how authentic everything really is. Established in the 13th century (!!!) it was fortified and the original settlement of the capital city. The rebuilding efforts after the war followed the drawings of Bernardo Bellotto, parts of the city said to have been actually changed as a result of his artistic liberties. Go up the tower of Saint Anne’s church for beautiful panoramic views and go into the main square to get a photo with one of many statues of the Warsaw Mermaid, the symbol, and guardian of the city. Legend has it that the Warsaw Mermaid is Copenhagen’s Mermaid’s sister, who went their separate ways at the Baltic Sea (CUTE!).
Where to shop
Warsaw is a gold mine when it comes to boutique shopping. It was actually quite bizarre to experience their high end designer department store Vitkac. Shopping along smaller street shops or concept gallery like spaces seems to fall more in line with it’s overall vibe. Mysia 3 is one of these places and home to COS, Muji, Leica gallery, elementy, She’s a Riot, another one of those wicked book stores I just couldn’t get enough of (see below) and many more. It’s one of those places that inspires the inner artist and fashion enthusiast, it’s a little intimidating at first but at the same time also provides an excellent glimpse into what modern Warsaw is all about.
Warsaw Sneaker Store
Check it! I’m by no means a sneaker head (see my most recent Nike post), but I CAN appreciate good design when I see one. Warsaw sneaker store is by far the coolest sneaker store I’ve been to, all the way from the decor to the product. I only wish we had one like it in Canada, or even the US (tips anyone?). Think the most limited edition sneaker from any brand you can think of, they have it. The prices in Warsaw blew me away a little bit as I honestly did NOT think that an average Polish salary was capable of going so far but at the same time someone must shop at these places so I stopped asking and was just a happy observer.
Vitkac is Poland’s answer to Selfridges, it’s actually way more high end than anything we have in Canada. It’s kind of insane to think back to my parents owning clothing stores in Poland. Looking at the state of things then vs. now, it’s nearly unrecognizable. Not that I’m complaining, who doesn’t like looking at beautiful things. And Vitkac… well they have it ALL, complete with a beautiful restaurant on the top floor for you to enjoy after a days worth of serious retail therapy.
In search of a very specific Warsaw city guide, one that I spotted at a lingerie shop at Mysia 3, we came looking for Bęc. Turns out it’s actually an organization supporting artists and culture around the city, that also happens to have a pretty kick ass (and pretty tiny) book store, filled with all the inspiration you can handle. The space is pretty neat, houses an astonishing amount of books and stationary and is one of those places that instead of conforming to the rest of the world, in turn celebrates the things that make Poland so unique. We sent ourselves a box of books after shopping here because choosing was not an option.
Pan tu nie stał
A hilariously named clothing and accessories store, Pan tu nie stał (literally translates to you, sir you were not standing here…) will really resonate strongly with those who have a sentiment to the Poland of the earlier decades, which to some isn’t even that long ago. Slogans, sayings and labels of days past are now adorning t-shirts, beanies and fanny packs. Not surprisingly, there is an excellent selection of books to be found here as well. The shop is originally from Łódź, the countries centre for textile manufacturing but you can also shop online at pantuniestał.com
Located on Koszykowa Street this is one of the newer additions to the cityscape. Koszyki, simply put, is a market. You can find trendy home decor shops, book stores, coffee shops and awesome restaurants. There is a grocery store here as well. The overall feel is rather Scandinavian. Little known to us at the time we actually sat down to breakfast with the head architect at Autor Rooms (see below).
Where to eat
The ultimate cross over between great shopping and great food. You want to make sure you visit the Koszyki market when you visit Warsaw, it’s one of those great spaces that utilizes old Polish heritage and modern design. One of the most interesting things about Warsaw is that because of heavy communist architecture, a lot of that old heritage already has a very modern look to it. I bet no one ever thought of it as a blessing before.
Prasowy bar mleczny
Hands down our FAVOURITE FAVOURITE food on this trip was at milk bars. They are all over Warsaw, serve traditional polish food and are DIRT CHEAP! I’m talking $4 for a full, home cooked meal. One of the most popular (and oldest) in the city is Prasowy. One of those examples of what’s old is new again paradoxes, by being trapped in the past it has actually transcended into the future. Restaurants are now trying so hard to look like this place, and yet Prasowy has probably only seen very limited amount of renovations over the last 60 years. Milk bars are very popular among working professionals who don’t want to cook when they get home after work, students, who can’t afford to eat anywhere else, and anyone who is into traditional polish cuisine, with no frills but with all the character.
Manekin came recommended by a lot of you and I must say while we came for the food we stayed for the atmosphere. Coming from North America having pancakes with M&M’s isn’t really novel. We opted for the more traditional crepes and zurek (on repeat the entire trip). Make sure you come hungry, the portions are massive and be ready for a line up. The first time we walked by this place it was around the block!
Odette Tea Room
I found Odette on Instagram a few weeks back and had to pay a visit. The pastries were a pleasant surprise and the staff appropriately somber. It’s nice to have an alternative to all the coffee shops and as someone that doesn’t really drink coffee this is always appreciated. It was strange that being here didn’t even feel like being in Poland. Huge props to the owners for creating such a gorgeous space.
Even though Warszawa Wschodnia is celebrity chef owned and run (like what?!), it was hands down one of the best spots we’ve eaten on our visit. The food was excellent, traditional polish cuisine and despite hosting a plethora of businessmen and ‘VIPs’ the staff was incredibly friendly and helpful. The bar seating made for a very efficient experience and the cooks were freely chatting and offering their insight. It’s right next door to the Neon Museum so you can easily make a morning/afternoon out of it. Oh and did I mention it’s open 24/7!!
Where to stay
Where accommodations are concerned Warsaw was great! Super affordable, big spacious apartments and hotels are everywhere, the choices are so many you actually don’t know which one to chose. Out of all the noise however, one particular place REALLY REALLY stood out. We found Autor Rooms in a super random, round about way actually, and I will admit it was NOT where we stayed, mainly because we found out about it AFTER we had already been in the city for a few days. Not all is lost, however, as it will be the first place I will be booking on our next trip there.
I actually spotted the Autor Rooms Warsaw city guide book in one of the shops at Mysia 3. I was on a lookout for a good/alternative source of reference of where we should go and visit while on our trip. As a result I actually ended up finding more than I expected. The hunt took us to Bęc and helped us discover quite a few of the spots in this guide.
Autor Rooms is an old pre-war apartment converted into a b&b type of hotel. There is no reception area and if you have a big enough party you can rent out the whole apartment (aka the dream). It makes you question anything you ever thought was cool. Run by an artist collective it offers an incredible alternative to a boutique hotel. Close to all the best shopping and exploring, this is the spot everyone should experience at least once. This is the first hotel of this kind that I have had a chance to visit and the stamp of approval was quickly given by Przemo Łukasik, the architect of the famous Bytom Loft (and also Koszyki) who was staying here the same night we decided to crash. Like a cherry on top of a sweet polish cake. Mind blown!