Warsaw: Where East Meets West

explains why the Polish capital is fast becoming a favourite for travellers

Image: James Hare

Before reading this, I advise one thing. Take a moment to go onto your musical streaming service of choice, and play David Bowie’s Warszawa. It’s a little thing, but it helps to set the mood – and perfectly encapsulates the story of the city I was so happy to call home for what was sadly just too short a time.

Now that the formalities are done, let me get to the heart of the matter. You may be wondering why you should visit Warsaw – after all it doesn’t have the reputation of Krakow or Prague, nor the familiarity of a Western European city. Yet it is more accessible than its competitors, a budget flight from Doncaster or Leeds away – sometimes as little as £20 each way. As tourism hasn’t taken over the city yet, prices are low and slipping into attractions without a queue is to be expected.

An old Polish adage about the Paris-Moscow Railway sums Warsaw up perfectly. A Russian gets off his train in Warsaw, and meets a Frenchman heading in the opposite direction. The Russian turns to his Gallic acquaintance and asks “Is this Paris?” and the Frenchman replies “Clearly not – this must be Moscow!” Warsaw is in effect where east meets west, and like the other frontier cities of that type in Europe (Budapest and Belgrade spring to mind), it boasts exactly the kind of sights and architecture one would expect. Bright colours and grand structures proliferate throughout the Old Town, at the end of Nowy Swiat and Krakowskie Przedmiescie – the royal route up from the beautiful palace in Wilanow.

But that is only part of the Varsovian narrative. The Second World War brought massive destruction to the city, leaving only one single building standing in the entire centre, with the historic Old Town totally destroyed. Bowie recorded Warszawa to try and capture this devastation in song. A number of incredible museums pay testament to those troubled
times – the POLIN Museum tells the tale of the Polish Jews through history, and the Warsaw Uprising Museum is saddening but provides an enriching educational experience. For the city as a whole, rebuilding followed the war based on a series of paintings from the 18th century, but with this also came the chance for Soviet planners to leave their fingerprints on the city.

Nowhere is that more apparent than when looking up to the skies. Stalin, in his infinite wisdom/megalomania, decided that the Poles needed a gift – it came in the form of the gigantic Palace of Culture and Science (Palac Kultury i Nauki or PKiN in Polish), which looms large over the city. The viewing gallery is well worth a visit, as are the bowels of the Palace, with a nightclub and an incredibly affordable cafe/restaurant/bar (depending on the time of day) offering up the chance to recover from the stress of ascending to the viewing gallery in a somewhat claustrophobic lift with a grumpy Polish lift operator. The PKiN also helps you situate yourself in the city, as no matter where you are, you will be able to see it. Combined with the communist predisposition for building cities around a grid system, this makes it impossible to get lost in Warsaw (I didn’t manage it once in nine months) which is ideal considering the prospects for inebriation. Yes, I know why most people read the travel section of a student newspaper, don’t worry.

Poland is generally a cheap place to buy alcohol – or indeed anything – but Warsaw is cheaper still than Krakow and Gdansk, due to not attracting as many tourists/stag parties. So while I always advocate responsible drinking, the fact that in Pijalnia you have a chain of bars offering a beer, a glass of wine, or a shot of vodka for just 4zl (about 80p), makes that a little more challenging. For those wanting something a little classier, Pawilony (a pavilion of bars just off Nowy Swiat) offers a variety of relatively inexpensive options, and if you spend more than £2 on a drink in Warsaw, it’s fair to say you’ve been ripped off. Be careful though, drinking in public is illegal – except for in summer on a section of the beach by the Vistula River, a little slice of the Mediterranean dropped off in the Central European plains.

Of course, one shouldn’t indulge in a drink without some food in their stomach first. Typical Polish foods can be found at Zapiecek (or for a fancier take, at Folk Gospoda) with pierogi – dumplings with your choice of filling, sweet or savoury – definitely a must-try for any visitor to Poland. This will prepare you well for a night of Zubrowka, or the fruit flavoured vodka of Soplica for the more adventurous among us. Alternatively, try one of the many international restaurants that provide a quality of food superior to that of the UK for half the price – Banja Luka (Balkan food), Aioli (American and Mediterranean) and Cafe Metropolitain (crepes) are my personal pick of the bunch.

To conclude then, Warsaw offers all the plusses you would expect of a major city – it is after all the eighth largest in Europe – but without the drawbacks such as flight costs, highly priced food and drink, and drunken British stag parties. It’s the kind of place where you can find history on every corner, be it in the Old Town, in the former Ghetto, or just wandering around the gigantic gardens of the Royal Palaces. But don’t let me just tell you about it – go see it with your own eyes.

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