There are many cities such as Paris, Budapest and New York where individual districts are known for specific traits, and these play a major role in defining the city's character. Warsaw was once the same (and it may well be again) but at the moment the city's districts are in the process of renewal and modernization. How they will end up is anyone's guess, but the pace of development and change has been rapid and shows no signs of slowing.
Warsaw's districts suffered along with the rest of the city's inhabitants during the dark days of the Second World War. Completely flattened, most of the city was rebuilt at about the same speed and at roughly the same time, with architectural styles and trends appearing in every district simultaneously.
Starting from the north, on the left, and predominant side of the river, Warsaw has three main districts. They are Zoliborz (the most northerly), Centrum and Mokotow. The other side of the river (the east side) is referred to in its entirety as Praga. Within these areas, there are numerous smaller districts, whose nooks and crannies are usually only known by long-time locals. Some of these smaller areas are worth a specific mention though, and will be pointed out later.
Zoliborz, often called green Zoliborz, suffered less than the other districts during the war. In fact, this is where many of the participants of the failed Warsaw Uprising escaped to (using the sewer system) once they realized all hope was lost. In certain parts it retains a peaceful suburban atmosphere, with interesting-looking houses and groups of flats surrounding parks and open spaces. Zoliborz is also home to the grave of the now world-famous priest, Jerzy Popieluszko, who was murdered by the secret police in 1984 for his opposition to the communist regime. Old Zoliborz meets new Zoliborz at plac Wilsona, named for President Woodrow Wilson, which under Soviet rule following World War II was officially renamed the Square of the Paris Commune. However, none of the locals ever called it that: to taxi drivers and residents it always remained Wilson Square. Zoliborz is an extremely pleasant neighborhood with its large parks and leafy tree-lined streets.
Sródmiescie is the main area of interest for visitors to Warsaw as it includes the central business district, the fashionable shopping of
Marszalkowska Street, built in 1757, meets Jerozolimskie, at what could be called Poland's main crossroads. From there, the opera, theaters, shops and restaurants can all be reached by hopping on one of the many red and yellow trams that criss-cross the busy downtown boulevards. Further to the north, you will find
Continuing south, the next district is Mokotow. This large area has several different feels to it: some beautiful pre-war mansions still remain standing (now occupied by businesses or embassies), as well as some typically Socialist rows of dull gray apartment blocks. Five of Warsaw's institutes of higher education are found in this district, including the Warsaw Polytechnic University and the School of Economics. There are also large areas of green, including large parks that interconnect. Access to the city's single subway line is also here.
To the west of these three districts, still on the left side of the Vistula, you will find Wola. This district is predominantly the site of corporate office parks and emerging housing developments, but amidst these campuses you will find many historical sites worth visiting. Wola is primarily an industrial area that is seeing some revival. Amidst the old factories, you can find several museums such as the
The other side of the river (the east side) is commonly referred to as Praga, infamous as the place where the Soviet Red Army was stationed and stood in wait as the Germans crushed the 63-day Warsaw Uprising and Hitler vowed to erase the city off the map in retribution just before the end of the Second World War. It was only after the Germans were defeated that the Soviets crossed over to reclaim Warsaw. For this reason, Praga was spared much of the war's destruction and a historical tension developed between the right and left banks of the river.
Praga has a slightly dubious reputation among locals for crime, dangerous streets, the Mafia, car theft and so on. Although this is true in large part in only a few specific areas, they have seen dramatic improvement in the last few years. Popular among artists for the low rent available in this district, Praga has become home to many studios and workshops for the new avant-garde. Cafes, pubs and clubs are popping up to cater to Warsaw's bohemian crowd. Saska Kepa is an upper-class haven running down to the riverbanks. Its narrow tree-lined streets are wonderful to walk through and admire the villas that were once home to Tsarist ministers. Now these structures instead belong to private owner, embassies and international schools.
Ursynow is another area that has gained a degree of infamy. A massive and sprawling example of Socialist planning, it emerged as block after characterless block of gray, dull flats. However, this area too is changing with the times. New shops and services are opening up, cinemas and entertainment complexes have arrived, restaurants and community centers are active and busy, and there are plenty new schools. This once depressingly gray and dull area is finally coming to life, and its future looks bright, especially since the metro cuts right through it.
Running alongside Ursynow, beside the river, is Wilanow. Most visitors to Warsaw will want to come out here to visit the renowned
In a sense you really have to be a local to appreciate the subtleties that distinguish many of Warsaw's districts. With time, they are slowly taking on new character. However, Warsaw's original districts were a casualty of the Second World War. As the city continues the rapid development that began soon after the fall of communism and was accelerated by Poland's joining the European Union, its districts are coming back to life with a vitality that is evident to any visitor. Being able to witness the transformation is part of what makes Warsaw such an interesting place.
Warsaw is a pleasant city to explore. The fabulous Old Town is instantly rewarding and two of the city's parks are absolute must-see destinations. Most of the main sights can be covered in two or three days.
The city is split in two by the Wisla (also known as the Vistula). The eastern side of the river is known as Praga. Most of the destinations of interest to tourists and visitors are on the western side, in the Centrum or downtown district.
The Old Town- UNESCO Heritage Site
The natural place to start discovering Warsaw is in the Old Town. Begin at plac Zamkowy (Castle Square). This large cobblestoned square, home to King Sigismund's Column and the Castle (more a palace, actually) is instantly intriguing. You may wish to explore the castle which could take several hours.
Take a walk down Swietojanska, a beautiful pedestrian street. On your right you will pass St. John's Cathedral and the Jesuit Church. These two buildings are excellent examples of the varying architectural styles which are so prevalent in Warsaw.
Following along the same path (leaving the narrow alleyways for later) you will soon reach the Old Town Square. This is one of the most beautiful market squares in Europe. While gazing around at its near perfect presentation, it's a good time to consider that the square, the churches, in fact every building in the Old Town was completely rebuilt, brick by brick and stone by stone, at the end of the Second World War. The reconstruction was an astounding feat, and the whole area is now on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.
The square is an excellent place to stop for a drink. If you're hungry, some of the restaurants here are very famous. Fukier is the oldest restaurant in the city (it opened in 1610) and the nearby Gessler is popular for its stylish Polish food.
The New Town
When you're ready to leave this charming square, continue along Nowomiejska. You will eventually reach the Barbikan. This is the fortified gate of the outer wall of the Old Town. In 1408, the city officially expanded beyond these walls, taking in and developing what is now called the New Town (Nowy Miasto). At 600 years old, it is one of the most ancient "new towns" in the world!
Continue walking, and on the left you will pass the Pauline Church of the Holy Spirit which was completed in 1717. A yearly pilgrimage to the city of Czestochowa starts from here. On the right is the popular coffee shop Pozegnanie z Afryka, where you may want to stop off for a break. The street now becomes Freta. On the right you will see a Dominican Church (St. Jacek's) which is a baroque building completed in 1639 after a construction period of thirty five years.
Just past this church is the house where the Nobel prize winner Marie Sklodowska was born. This woman was later known as Marie Curie. She actually won the Nobel Prize twice—in 1903 and 1911—and was the only person ever to have done so. The house (Number 16) is now a museum dedicated to the woman and her work.
Continuing along you will reach the peaceful and quiet New Town Square. The beautifully proportioned white church is the Church of St. Casimir. It was built by Queen Sobieska to honor her husband. He was the victor in the famous battle against the Turks in Vienna in 1683—a decisive moment for all of Europe which ended the Turkish advances once and for all. This church was also destroyed at the end of the war, with rebuilding ending only in 1955.
Anyone who appreciates style and innovative décor will want to visit the Nowe Miasto restaurant. It is one of the most elegant vegetarian restaurants anywhere in the world. There is a wonderful sun-soaked patio which is open during the warmer months.
Returning to plac Zamkowy where the tour began could be something of an adventure. Go back through the Barbikan, and then why not wander down any of the appealing small side streets and cobblestone alleys? You may come across small churches, the Kamienne Schodki (Stone Steps) that lead down to the river or Zapiecek Square with its beautiful alcoves and entrances. The side streets of the Old Town can be very quiet, and there is a palpable feeling of having stepped back in time.
The Royal Way
The Royal Way is the ceremonial name given to the road that runs, more or less in a straight line from the Old Town through the city to the Wilanow Palace. It is made up of five different streets and is some ten kilometers long.
Like so much of the city, large parts of this magnificent stretch of road (especially the sections closest to the Old Town) were completely destroyed in the Second World War. Unsure how to rebuild, the architects and engineers used paintings by Canaletto. His faithful rendering on canvas of what the street looked like (albeit much earlier than at the end of the war) is partially responsible for how it looks today.
The street was home to many families of the Polish nobility. The president, for example, today lives in the Radziwill Palace which was at one time a residence of the famous Radziwill family. There are many other famous sites along this street including the Copernicus statue, the monument to Adam Mickiewicz, the Academy of Fine Arts, the Carmelite Church (a rare war survivor) and the Le Royal Meridien Bristol. The best thing to do is to simply stroll along it at your leisure. For night owls staying at the Royal Meridien, the clubbing option of choice is the nearby Riviera-Remont.
Lazienki Park and Wilanow Palace
If you continue walking you will arrive at Nowy Swiat Street (the street changes name with no visible indication). Nowy Swiat means "New World" and appropriately enough, this is now the city's chic shopping street. Many big names such as Estee Lauder have flagship stores here. Recently made more pedestrian friendly, the street is open only to buses and taxis. There are many cafés and restaurants here as well as shops. Blikle — Warsaw's oldest café — is nationally famous and the Viennese-style Nowy Swiat Café is definitely worth a visit. More restaurants and cafés are opening up here all the time.
Nowy Swiat continues until the picturesque plac Trzech Krzyzy, after which it becomes Aleje Ujazdowski. Trzech Krzyzy, (or Three Crosses Square) has the delightful and perfectly proportioned St. Alexander's Church at its center. This is also where the Sheraton Hotel is located. Some trendy bars and cafés have sprung up here recently as well.
Aleje Ujazdowski has many fine buildings, but if you've walked this far, you may now want to catch a bus to Lazienki Park, as the sights become less interesting in a block or so. Buses 116 or 195 will take you there in just a few minutes.
Lazienki Park is one of Europe's classic palace and garden complexes. It offers everything from museums to boat trips on the lake and Chopin concerts in a picturesque rose garden. There are busts of Roman emperors, an Orangery and pleasant walkways in every direction. The open-air concert stage is a popular venue and there are plenty of cafés to be found here as well as the famous Belvedere restaurant. You could easily spend anything from an hour up to a whole day out here.
When you're ready to continue, you will need to take a bus (180, 519 or 522) or taxi for the final six kilometers to Wilanow.
Sculpted gardens and vast areas of parkland surround this magnificent palace. There is a Chinese-style pagoda, a footbridge built on the Roman model and weeping willows that dip down into the lazy waters that run through the park.
The palace itself is stunning. If you look at its very center you can see how it began as a small one-story home. Section by section was added until it finally looked the way it looks today. The work was undertaken in stages from 1677 until the mid 1800s. Fortunately, the palace was not destroyed during the war, making it all the more precious. Taking a tour is highly recommended.
Also on the premises is the lovely St. Anne's Church, a popular place for special Sunday services, as well as the world-renowned Poster Museum.
It would be easy to spend an entire day in either Lazienki or Wilanow, but at this point you may wish to return back to the busier sections of the Royal Way. Shopping, cafés, culture and restaurants all await you...if you still have the energy!
Warsaw has a very dynamic and fast-paced restaurant scene. New places seem to open weekly and the choice is considerable. Some of its restaurants have become well known abroad as well.
However, there was a time when a typical Warsaw waiter would tell you that none of the items on the menu were actually available! Another option was a Socialist-era "milk bar" where you were served cafeteria-style, sharing your table with a stranger. Fortunately, those days are long gone. Warsaw now boasts restaurants that make it into European top ten lists—and competition is fierce.
Everything from Chinese to Mexican, Italian to vegetarian is on offer. There are a lot of deluxe establishments, fast food places on almost every corner, as well as street stalls offering hot dogs, Vietnamese noodles and falafel.
Those seeking chic and trendy eateries will find that these are a Warsaw specialty. Restaurants are the place to be seen. One of the most stylish and hip places is 99, which is a world-class restaurant. In the same category is the recently opened Boathouse. Similarly trendy bars are Zanzi Bar and Rabarbar. These all offer sophistication and exclusivity.
One of Warsaw's specialities is its Italian restaurants. The presence of a large Italian business community means that quality and standards are high. Some of the best Italian cuisine in the region is cooked up here. Venezia is locally famous and Balgera, a relative newcomer, offers exquisite northern Italian dishes. Chianti is one of the most romantic restaurants, while Roma Café is intimate and charming. Verona offers style and good food and Vera Italia attracts lots of Italians. Parmizzanos in the Marriott Hotel uses only the finest ingredients while San Marzano provides fast service and creative dishes.
If you're after a fun and festive atmosphere, Warsaw has that as well. Blue Cactus has established itself as one of the city's favorite get-together locations. Santorini, with its wonderful Greek décor is also lively. El Popo is close to several trendy bars and feels alive on any night of the week. Grand Kredens—decorated in an artistically put together mixture of styles—is also a great choice for a group. Bars with a similar atmosphere are Lolek, Klub Harenda and Lokomotywa.
If you like Asian food, Warsaw has a lot to offer. The Japanese restaurants are all excellent: Tsubame has style and great sake, Tokio is popular and flies in fresh seafood weekly, while Akasaka has tasty tempura and noodles. Dong Nam is a huge restaurant that offers several different Asian cuisines. Pekin is small and the food is great, while the Oriental (at the Sheraton Hotel) is a popular business choice. Fans of Indian food will want to visit Club Tandoor, which has a dedicated following.
The Lebanese restaurant Le Cedre is one of the more interesting and delightful restaurants in the city. Vegetarians will love Nove Miasto - one of the most elegant and classy vegetarian restaurants in the world. Café Ejlat offers Jewish fare, while Varna has Bulgarian cuisine covered, along with some of the best wine bargains in town.
But what about Polish food? Of course Warsaw has that! Fukier, in the Old Town is a must for anyone who wants to experience traditional Polish cuisine. Also famous are Bazyliszek, Gessler and one of the most appreciated of them all, Restauracja Polska. Less expensive is Klub Aktora, a local favorite, along with Literacka and Kmicic.
In a league of its own is Belvedere, located in Lazienki Park. This is the destination of choice for presidents and the rich and famous - it's well worth a visit. Also unique is the Chef's Table, a private dining experience in the kitchen of the Sheraton Hotel.
If you're heading for the National Theatre, opera or visiting a gallery, La Boheme would be a fabulous choice. It mixes class and elegance with great cuisine. Also popular is Qchnia Artystyczna, one of Warsaw's true bohemian locales.
After your meal, you may want to visit the Column Bar in the Le Royal Meridien Bristol if you are looking for refinement and elegance. For an ongoing party try the Irish Pub or Morgan's. The Panorama Bar at the Marriott Hotel has the best views of the city. Prohibicja is fun and trendy, while the John Bull Pub is quiet but popular.
Warsaw also has some very special cafés. First among these is Blikle, one of the capitals most loved establishments. The Nowy Swiat Cafe is a beautiful Viennese-style establishment. Café Brama is hip, with excellent food and Café Europa is a pleasant place to stop for a break in the Old Town. The Café Bristol is wonderful. Still more fun are Miedzy Nami and the trendy Modulor Café. Local celebrity Stash Pruszynski has done extremely well with his recently opened Radio Café.
Whatever you're looking for, Warsaw probably has it. And if it's not there this week, it may well be there next! It's worth keeping your ear to the ground as new places are opening up all the time. Do make a reservation, as many places are almost always packed.
Warsaw now has some of the most contemporary and exciting restaurants in Europe. The places that you visit may well be famous in a month or two. It's a real thrill dining out in such a fast-paced and competitive restaurant environment. Bon Appetit!
Needless to say, Warsaw's hotel scene has undergone a drastic makeover since the fall of communism. Whereas before it may have been difficult to find accommodation that satisfied Western standards of comfort and modernity, the last two decades have seen massive investments in state of the art hotels whose unique attributes range from towering architectural attractions to renovated historical masterpieces. These days the amount of hotels aimed at providing the best quality service to tourist, business jet-setter, and backpacker alike is so abundant that the choice is sometimes difficult. The variety ranges from high-end chic to hosteling camaraderie, with several world-class hotels in between.
If money is no object, there is only one place to consider: Le Royal Meridien Bristol, an establishment in a class of its own. Considered one of the best hotels in the world, the Bristol reopened after decades of disuse to reclaim its place as Warsaw's—and indeed Poland's—leading deluxe hotel. Standing along the fantastic Royal Route overlooking the Presidential Palace and amidst other examples of Warsaw's reconstructed 16th century architectural splendor, Le Royal Meridien Bristol is the epitome of classical elegance.
Plenty more luxury hotels abound in the city which pay tribute to the Warsaw's royal history and Poland's legendary hospitality. Among them are the, Hotel Sofitel Victoria a historical landmark in Warsaw which, following major renovations, emerged as Warsaw's first five-star hotel. Located centrally for city exploration, the Sofitel overlooks the Saxon Gardens and is a short and pleasant walk away from the Old Town and the National Opera. The Hyatt Regency is a newer hotel, located in a quiet area nestled between the breathtaking Lazienki Park and downtown, which offers both tourists and business travelers alike a dreamlike stay with its luxurious rooms and Club Oasis Health Centre and Spa. The Hilton Warsaw Hotel & Convention Centre is the newest addition to Warsaw's luxury lineup, where guests can experience world-class drinking and dining, as well as spectacular views of the city. A stay at the Rialto is a carefully crafted five-star experience. As Warsaw's first boutique hotel, the hotel is designed with an Art Déco theme, with each room uniquely furnished with hand-picked antique European furniture and artwork to recreate this stylish period of early the 20th century.
For business travelers, Warsaw has many options in comfortable accommodation equipped with all the necessary high-tech facilities. The Marriott Hotel has sparkled in the heart of the business district and since its arrival on Warsaw's hotel scene as one of the first major hotels in the post-Communist period. At the time, this modern skyscraper set the standard for Western-style service in Warsaw for its international clientele, and since then has enjoyed its reputation as the business hotel of choice. Located directly across from the Palace of Culture, the hotel offers plenty of spacious rooms, meeting spaces, and a Panorama Bar on the 40th floor offers some of the best views in the city.
However, these days the Marriott has some impressive competition. The Sheraton Hotel along the Royal Route has grown popular both for its superb stays and its hip restaurant and bar, popular among locals and visitors for socializing any night of the week. In the busy Centrum, the Holiday Inn is an excellent choice in value and location.
The French-owned Mercure Frederyk Chopin is another fine hotel close to downtown, and a classic choice for tourists and business people alike for its comfortable rooms and ample conference facilities. The Novotel Warszawa Centrum is also popular with tour groups and business travelers, offering plenty of meeting space and a location not to be beat close to buses, trams, and the major city artery at the intersection of Jerozolimskie and Marszalkowskie. For those looking for a convenient stay near the airport, several excellent choices are available. The first view for many visitors arriving in Warsaw by air is at the Courtyard by Marriott, located directly across from the lobby of the Frederic Chopin Airport. This hotel offers top-notch comfort, meeting facilities, and a first-class restaurant. The Airport Hotel Okecie is another good choice for business travelers, offering economical rates and up-to-date facilities. Novotel Warszawa Airport is also very close to the airport, and offers comfortable rooms, an outdoor swimming pool and garden, and all the amenities for a reasonable price.
Another group of hotels, mid-priced and historically interesting, such as the Polonia Palace Hotel, with its original pre-war façade, and the next door Metropol Hotel, an example of late Socialist architecture, attract people eager to have a more authentic experience. Also interesting is the MDM Hotel, situated on the side of a busy downtown square. It has also been undergoing renovation, and offers a fantastic location at a reasonable price.
The Praski Hotel is an fashioned hotel located in the Praga district on the right side of the river. Though modest, it has a great location in this less hailed district of Warsaw, across from the large Park Praski, Warsaw Zoo, and St. Florian's Cathedral. A view of the Vistula River shows the backside of the Royal Castle and Old Town, where La Regina is the only hotel offering a five star historical experience. This hotel is housed a building renovated to the style of an 18th Century palace full of fine artwork, designer interiors and impeccable personal touches that add up to a uniquely sumptuous experience. Its geographic location as the gateway between Eastern and Western Europe makes Warsaw a strategic stopover for backpackers traversing Europe. Travelers will be pleased to find several pleasant options in hosteling that are inexpensive, clean, and quaint social alternatives to hotels. The staff is usually friendly and helpful for those unfamiliar with the city or the language. The Oki Doki is a funky and fun place located in the heart of downtown, putting Warsaw directly at the feet of those backpackers eager to dive into the madness of Centrum without worrying about arranging transportation. Another nice option is Nathan's Villa Hostel, a franchise of clean and friendly hostels throughout Poland that are both inexpensive and great social hubs for those looking to meet other travelers.
The Garden Villa Hostel is located in the quieter district of Mokotów, but offers a quaint garden, amenities like a small bar and WiFi access, and space for up to 60 people in a lovingly renovated pre-war building. Finding the appropriate type of accommodation in Warsaw is now much easier. From the deluxe Bristol to youth hostels, there is now a wide range of selection to choose from. However, it's still wise to book ahead: while many new places are open and ready for business, Warsaw's popularity could mean a shortage of available spaces for that perfect experience.