If you read my recent post about my favorite European capitals, you may have been surprised to see Warsaw quite high up on the list. Not many travelers venture to Poland, let alone Warsaw – it's just not a place that you read a lot about. And yet Poland's capital city really surprised me. It's a COOL city, so long as you take the time to get to know it.
So what makes Warsaw so awesome?
I'll give you 7 reasons.
Not unlike Berlin (another of my favorite cities in the world), Warsaw has quite a painful recent history. In 1944, toward the end of WWII, resistance forces in Warsaw decided to rise up against the Germans. The Warsaw Uprising largely failed, however, and the Nazis decided to punish the city by making an example of it — which meant essentially obliterating it. More than 80% of the city center was flattened following the Uprising, and the city's population plummeted from 2 million to about 1,000 because people simply had nowhere to live and were forced to leave the city.
Best place to learn more about this history: The Warsaw Uprising Museum.
Thanks to the Uprising and resulting destruction of the city, most of Warsaw is actually new – well, “new” as in built since 1945. Despite its name, even the “Old Town” is new, having been completely rebuilt after WWII. This makes for quite an interesting downtown area. You have the “new-old” Warsaw Castle and the colorful Old Town contrasted by Soviet-era buildings like the Palace of Science and Culture and more modern architecture like at the Złote Tarasy shopping center (it looks like waves of glass!).
Best place to experience the old-but-new: Warsaw Castle's “The Royal Castle – from Destruction to Reconstruction” exhibit. Inside the castle, you can also see the collection of paintings of the Old Town that architects used to help reconstruct things almost exactly as they had been before.
The green spaces
For a city that was nothing but rubble 69 years ago and was then under Soviet rule for years, one doesn't necessarily expect to find a lot of green spaces (no offense to the Soviets, but I only think of drab, gray things where they're concerned). And yet Warsaw is FULL of parks and gardens and other green spaces. Lively green spaces, too. While walking through Łazienki Park (the Royal Baths Park) one chilly Sunday afternoon, my Warsaw-dwelling friend Kami and I stumbled upon a live Chopin concert beneath the memorial dedicated to the native composer – with hundreds of spectators. I also stumbled upon greenery at Saski Park (the Saxon Garden), at the Jewish Cemetery (where the greenery is overgrowing), and even on the rooftop of the library at the University of Warsaw (more on this later).
Best place to find greenery: Check out this list of parks in Warsaw.
As someone who grew up eating lots of Polish and Slovak food, I couldn't get enough of the food in Warsaw. I had some tasty pierogi my first night in town, and then let Kami drag me around to as many “milk bars” (Bar Mleczny) as possible. Contrary to their name, milk bars do not serve up milk – they serve up traditional (and very cheap) Polish food, cooked by cranky old Polish ladies and dished out on plastic flatware. Even though I have no clue what most of it was (and even though most of it didn't look very pretty), everything I tried was delicious.
The little quirks
Warsaw has so many little quirks that I loved: The milk bars that are morphing from sad Soviet staples to hip, cheap places for university students to eat. The gritty neighborhoods with shrines to the Virgin Mary hidden down alleyways. The beautiful rooftop garden on top of the University of Warsaw's library. The little Neon Museum that displays old neon signs that used to adorn Warsaw's streets. There are so many cool details to be found in Warsaw – and I think these details are what made me fall in love with the city the most.
Best place(s) to experience these quirks: My top picks are the Neon Museum and the Library's rooftop garden.
The famous residents
As far as art and science goes, Warsaw actually has contributed a lot! Composer Fryderyk Chopin was born here. All over the city you can find benches that will play his music when you walk by/sit down on them. And (perhaps coolest of all) physicist/chemist Marie Curie also called Warsaw home. Not only did Marie contribute a ton to the study of radioactivity, but she was the first woman to ever win a Nobel Prize. Hell YEAH!
Best place(s) to experience these famous residents: You can often hear live Chopin concerts in Łazienki Park on summer weekends, and you can visit Marie Curie's birthplace (though I suspect it's been rebuilt) at 16 Freta St.
This last point is more difficult to describe than the others. Warsaw just has a vibe to it that I really connected with. A mixture of the old and the new; the touristy bits and the gritty bits and the hip bits and the modern bits. There's a square in Warsaw that's known colloquially as “Plac Hipstera” – Hipster Square – because of the coffee shops there and the hipster-like clientele. There are big, modern shopping centers alongside milk bars and old Soviet buildings. There are parks, trams, and wide sidewalks. There is a large university-aged population, which perhaps adds to the atmosphere of a city that is evolving.
Overall, Warsaw is a great and interesting city. It's not especially touristy, yet still offers up all the amenities a tourist would need. An ideal destination to me.
So, if you're looking for a slightly-less-obvious place to visit in Europe, consider Poland — and, more specifically, Warsaw!
Have YOU ever been to Warsaw? If not, is it a city you'd like to visit?