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Brimming with lush parks, dainty townhouses and endless energy, it’s all too easy to fall head over heels in love with Warsaw, Poland’s picturesque and hip capital. But you can’t truly appreciate the city’s bright colours without remembering its darkest days. During WWII, Warsaw was systematically wiped off the face of the earth by Hitler’s occupying forces, only to be liberated by the Soviets, who essentially finished what the Nazis had started. But if you think that Warsaw’s meticulously rebuilt Old Town is a symbol of loss and defeat, you’re utterly mistaken. It’s a reminder of the heroic strength and unbroken spirit of its residents that catapulted its Stare Miasto to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 1980. And that drives Warsaw to continue moving forward to this day.
Warsaw’s history can be traced back to the 9th century, but it wasn’t until four centuries later that the city was founded by the Prince of Płock, Bolesław II. It has changed hands quite a few times, starting with the Swedish, Brandenburgian and Transylvanian troops in the 17th century, followed by the Russians in the 19th century. The scars Warsaw gained during WWII and the gloomy years of Communism cut deep, but they didn’t last. Warsaw’s Old Town might not be very old, but it draws more and more visitors each year. Poland’s first city proudly showcases its struggles in the sobering Warsaw Uprising Museum and its royal past in the halls of the Warsaw Royal Castle. It houses some 100 parks and just as many pieces of mind-blowing street art. It celebrates Chopin and more recently, craft beer. And whatever you’re into, it welcomes you with open arms.
Walk the very streets the TV series was shot on and learn about the real-life hell and heroes of WWII. Housed in a former tram power station, the Warsaw Rising Museum pays homage to Poland’s heroic attempt to oust Nazi forces between August and October 1944. Give yourself ample time to go through the photographs, recordings and personal accounts of life before, during and after the Warsaw Uprising’s fateful days. The POLIN Museum guides you through the 1,000-year history of Poland’s Jewish community. The 13,000-square-metre building, designed by Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamäki, is a stunning piece of contemporary architecture, blending copper- and glass-clad façades with dynamic lines and heavy symbolism. Warsaw’s UNESCO-listed Old Town is a must-see and must-get-lost-in. Passing the Old Town square, say hi to the Mermaid of Warsaw, Warsaw’s guardian and symbol since the Middle Ages. Enjoy the melodies of Poland’s famed composer, Frédéric Chopin, wherever you go, or sit for that matter: just push the button on any of the black Chopin Benches peppered across the city. The Copernicus Science Centre, named after the Poland-native founder of modern astronomy, is guaranteed edutainment for all tastes, backgrounds and ages, with hundreds of interactive exhibits, mini-workshops and science shows.
Warsaw’s gastro scene is every bit like the city itself: proud of its heritage but not afraid to reinvent itself. Those sugar-sprinkled, golden buns you’ll see all across the city are the MVP of local gastronomy, called pączek. Pierogi is practically synonymous with Polish cuisine: the flagship dumplings are filled with Poles’ favourite ingredients like potatoes, onions and cheese, and make for an extremely satisfying treat. Zygmuntówka is one of the city’s greatest and latest inventions, blending chocolate mousse, almonds, cranberries and whipped cream into one mouth-watering dessert. Warsaw is also the epicentre of the country’s food revolution. Case in point: Marta Gessler’s Qchnia Artystyczna. This impossibly stylish newcomer to the Varsovian culinary scene breathes creativity, and its take on pierogi is a sin to be missed. Want a side of character with your food? Head to Cafe Kulturalna, a café-meets-bar-meets-club in Warsaw’s iconic, Socialist-realist Palace of Culture and Science. If you’re looking for a traditional milk bar experience, Bar Mleczny Prasowy is calling your name. It serves up affordable food and an ambience that is just as hearty and unpretentious as it was in 1954 when the place opened.
Shopping in Warsaw is whatever you want it to be. Going after size and big names? Check. One of Eastern Europe’s largest shopping centre, Arkadia houses 200 shops on some 300,000 square metres on Jana Pawła II Avenue. Don’t mind if your spending spree takes a bite out of your wallet? Find your favorite designer labels peppered around Trzech Krzyży Square or among the bounty of boutiques on the Neoclassical Nowy Świat Street. Up for a real treasure hunt? Hit Koło Bazaar to browse the most precious gems the country’s basements have to offer, from pre-war posters through Chopin busts to gramophones. Haggling is non-negotiable. Head to the Praga district and you’ll find yourself letting loose with the locals at the city’s bustling hipster hotspot. Fans of outdoor drinking will feel right at home on the banks of the Vistula river, fringed with lively beach hang-outs, pop-up terraces and riverside parties. Make your way to Smolna and dance the night away on its dance floors throbbing to techno and experimental electronic music. Dance club-cum-record label Luzztro is Warsaw’s no. 1 after-party venue spinning everything that’s worth spinning in electro house, minimal and psychedelic music. For a more fancy experience, book a table at Europe’s highest sky bar, Panorama Bar & Lounge, perched on the 40th floor of the Warsaw Marriott Hotel.
Warsaw's largest green space, Łazienki Park or Royal Baths Park, is an absolute must-see. The lavish park-and-palace complex houses all kinds of music and cultural events, and just as importantly, peacocks. If that isn’t regal enough for you, there’s also the Classicist-style Palace on the Isle, taking up a whopping 76 hectares of the city centre. Want more nature? Hop on a public bus and get off at the Kampinos Forest just outside the city. Nested in the ancient valley of the Vistula basin, this untouched, primeval woodland is part of the Kampinos National Park, a mix of towering pine and spruce forests, sandy dunes and marshes. Or make the most of your Warsaw adventure and take on the entire Mazovia region. Throughout its chequered history, Mazovia has polished its local traditions to the point that it’s now in a league of its own within Polish culture. Poland’s heartland has no shortage of dreamy castles, cathedrals and palaces, with the most impressive ones scattered around Płock, spreading out on the banks of the Vistula river, and Pułtusk by the Narew river. Are you more of a lake person? How about 2,000 of them? This is exactly how many ponds the Masurian Lake District or Masurian Lakeland boasts, stretching out over approximately 52,000 square kilometres.
Warsaw has a nice continental climate, with warm summers, sunny autumns and harsh winters. Most visitors schedule their Warsaw vacation for the period between mid-spring and early autumn, when the weather tends to be the most tourist-friendly. Don’t get us wrong, a snow-clad Warsaw is just as stunning, but only if you’re wrapped in several layers of warm clothing, especially in January and February. The chance of rainfall is pretty much the same no matter the season, with July being the most rain-prone month.
Warsaw Chopin Airport (WAW) is located roughly 10 kilometres south of the city centre. Trains depart every 20 minutes or so from Warszawa Lotnisko Chopina station to connect visitors with Warsaw, but regular buses will also take you to various parts of the city. Alternatively, car rental and taxi services are also available.