Warsaw is one of Eastern Europe’s great capitals of culture.
For a long time, Warsaw was relegated to second-city status when it came to tourism in Poland. Branded as too Soviet, too sprawling, or too scruffy, travelers often bypassed the Polish capital for quaint, old-timey Krakow—no longer. Now, its streets are lined with chic cafés, cocktail bars, galleries, and boutiques. Yet despite the recent renaissance, Varsovians haven’t lost sight of their city’s war-torn past, chronicled in a number of sobering museums. Whether you’re a history buff or a hipster, there’s a reason to visit Warsaw: from underground clubs to drool-worthy street food to cozy coffee houses, here are our top reasons to visit now.
You’ll want to lick your fingers after trying oscypek, a smoky, salty sheep’s cheese that’s grilled over an open flame to gooey perfection and dolloped with lingonberry preserves. Find it, along with plump Polish donuts called Pączki, in the stalls along Krakowskie Przedmieście, the stately avenue that leads to the Old Town. After sundown, get your street-food fix at Nocny Market, a permanent night market that breathes new life into the defunct Główna railway station. With all the bearded-and-bunned vendors hawking ice-cream sundaes, vegan “steaks,” and Kobayashi dogs, you might as well be in Kreuzberg, Berlin.
There’s no set menu at Kita Koguta, a refreshingly unpretentious cocktail bar where denim-aproned bartenders mischievously inquire, “What’s your poison?” before whipping up tailor-made libations based on your mood. Ask for something smoky, and you might get a mezcal gimlet garnished with cacao oil; request something citrusy, and you could end up with a puckering, ice-cold mix of gin, basil, peach liqueur, and champagne. Traditionalists, on the other hand, will feel more at home at Bar Koszyki, a buzzy drink stall in the newly renovated Hala Koszyki market known for its French 75s and negronis.
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For a reminder of Poland’s Soviet past, just look up: the Palace of Culture and Science—the eighth-tallest skyscraper in the EU—looms large on the horizon from almost any vantage point. Though the building houses a number of important museums, theaters, and cultural centers today, the fact that a Stalinist monolith continues to dominate the skyline remains contentious among Varsovians, some of whom think the building should be torn down for the oppressive past it symbolizes. The “PKiN” may hog Warsaw’s architectural spotlight, but there are subtler Communist-era buildings worth tracking down as well such as the Desa Unicum contemporary gallery, with its façade of eight towering bas-reliefs, and the Party House, the boxlike former seat of the Polish United Workers’ Party.
Poland’s unsung umami-rich soup, żurek is the ultimate comfort food. Its complexity comes from zakwas, a sour mush of fermented rye, water, and garlic, to which sausages, root vegetables, horseradish, and fresh herbs are added. Though żurek was originally an Easter treat, nowadays you can find the dish on menus year-round at restaurants like Radio Café and Pikanteria.
New “Old Town”
To the untrained eye, Warsaw’s Old Town looks convincingly authentic with its arched alleys, Mansard-roof buildings, and cobblestone squares—but it’s actually a 20th-century reconstruction. After being razed in World War II, the district was painstakingly rebuilt, in many cases using original bricks and materials recovered from the rubble. The architects were so successful in capturing the Old Town’s essence that the district earned UNESCO status as a World Heritage Site. Immerse yourself in Warsaw’s erstwhile grandeur at Raffles Europejski Warsaw, the latest outpost of the luxury hotel chain located next to the Presidential Palace.
To get a sense of the devastation and misery that Poland endured in the 20th century, pocket some tissues and head to a museum. The Warsaw Rising Museum, which opened in 2004 to commemorate the largest European act of resistance against Nazi Germany in World War II, chronicles the lionhearted actions of the Polish Underground State to combat German occupation. The videos, photographs, and artifacts—plus an original B-24 bomber—illustrate the tragic arc of the conflict, which ended in the death of approximately 200,000 Poles. Another somber reminder of the tragedies of war can be found in the POLIN Museum of History of the Polish Jews, a 43,000-square-foot tribute to Poland’s once-vibrant Jewish population (prior to World War II, it’s estimated that there were 3.5 million Jews in Poland), most of which was extinguished in the Holocaust. But it’s not all gloom and doom here: The museum also celebrates the country’s rich Jewish culture from the Middle Ages through the present via colorful art, engaging videos, and hands-on exhibits.
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That overcast European climate is bearable in Warsaw, thanks to a thriving coffee culture. At Ministerstwo, a pocket-size third-wave coffee shop just off Savior Square, warm up with single-origin flat whites and pour-overs. It fills up fast; for camping out with a newspaper or a laptop, grandmotherly Prózna, with its comfy couches, soft lighting, and Polish pastries, is a better bet.
Warsaw leaves Krakow in the dust when it comes to partying. In the summer, the riverfront comes to life with open-air dance parties (Hocki Klocki is the current favorite), while year-round venues like NIEBO usher in constant crowds with DJ sets enhanced by psychedelic videos projected on the wall. If you’re just getting started when the lights turn on, keep the good times rolling at Luzztro, a dark-and-deep after-party that blasts techno and house music till daylight.
Serviced by competing budget airlines Wizz Air and Ryanair, you can often find intra-European flights to Warsaw for well under €100. Once you’re on terra firma, a generous exchange rate means many of the city’s top restaurants, boutiques, and nightclubs are in reach, even on a shoestring budget.
You can’t leave Warsaw without inhaling platterfuls of pierogies, pillowy dumplings glistening with bacon fat. Venture outside the standard half-moons of potato-and-cheese at Gosciniec with spinach-and-garlic and bean-and-bacon renditions, or spring for dessert variations like apple-cinnamon or blackberry-cottage cheese at Pierogarnia na Bednarskiej.
Despite being under Soviet rule for decades, there’re a surprising number of parks and outdoor venues in the city. Royal Lazienki Park is Warsaw’s green lung with nearly 200 acres of gardens, lawns, and trails, plus an Instagrammable amphitheater and 17th-century “Palace on the Isle.” For a leisurely afternoon off the tourist track, head across the river to Skaryszewski Park, popular for its burbling waterfalls and tree-lined paths.
Easy Day Trips
It’s worth tacking on a day or two to explore Warsaw’s scenic environs. A two-hour drive south of the city, Kazimierz Dolny boasts some of Poland’s most gorgeous Renaissance architecture. To the northwest, the medieval city of Torun, where Copernicus was born, is an impeccably preserved jewel box of 14th-century churches, red-brick buildings, and ornate Gothic mansions. It’s also home to the Living Museum of Gingerbread.