The Palace of Culture and Science ((Pałac Kultury i Nauki in Polish) was originally built by and named for its creator, Joseph Stalin. Much hated by the Varsovians, during the “destalinization” of Poland, Stalin’s named was effaced from the palace. It has many nicknames – Pekin (its abbreviation, PKiN, sounds similar); pajac (meaning clown), Stalin’s Needle, or my favourite, Chuj Stalina, which means (you guessed it) Stalin’s Dick. It is a hated monument. Varsovians joke that the Palace of Culture and Science offers the best view of Warsaw because it’s the only place in the city where the Palace itself doesn’t ruin the view! Erected in 1955 and meant as a “gift” from Stalin to the Polish people (thanks Stalin, much appreciated…), it was built in the Communist totalitarianism style common in USSR-controlled territories (the most famous being the Seven Sisters of Moscow). After WWII, Poland was under Russian rule. The war destroyed some 85% of Warsaw, leaving massive piles of rubble, en masse homelessness and thousands of displaced families. It was the Communist Russians who rebuilt the city (the Old Town is really only half a century old, though based on what the city looked like with smuggled blueprints, paintings and memories). But outside the old town, much of Warsaw has the typical “communist look” – concrete functionalist totalitarianism style favoured by the USSR – with the Palace of Culture and Science the biggest and baddest of all the Stalinist architecture. Today, the palace hosts exhibits, office space, an omniplex, museums of technology and evolution, a pool, a university, shops and of course the observation tower. Though some say that the Palace of Culture and Science is a symbol of Warsaw’s rebirth, persistence and strength in face of adversary, if you want to see this controversial tower, we suggest that go now as many have called for its demolition.
Pro tip: Want to know more about Warsaw in WWII? Visit the fantastic Warsaw Uprising museum. Then take a walk through what used to be the Jewish ghetto (marked with brass lines on the street) to get a wider sense of everyday Soviet-era architecture. There is also a memorial to a Gestapo prison in this neighbourhood (Muzeum Więzienia Pawiak). And of course as mentioned above, take the chance to get the lift to the 30th floor for the panoramic view of the city.
The destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral on April 14th 2019 has sparked a series on rebuilt structures. Of all the rebuilt places in Europe, Warsaw remains the crown jewel. During WWII, the city was decimated by the Germans, helped along by the Soviets (through inaction). 85%-90% of the city was flattened into shapeless rubble (largely a punishment/result of the Warsaw Uprising against the Germans). Most of the people of Warsaw were gone or dead – those who remained hid underground in the rubble. When the city was being rebuilt by teams of everyday Warsaw residents (with the “help” of the Soviets), debates ranged – how should we rebuild it? Should it look like it once did, or do we rebuild it using modern styles, or something in between? But the Polish and the Varsovians in particular are proud, and they wanted their city back – the same city they’d had for generations. The decision was made then to rebuild Warsaw as it was before. But how to do that? Luckily, though much was lost and the city itself was a pile of broken rubble, some of the blueprints had been saved by architecture students. Paintings that had been hidden away too were used, as were memories in some cases. Can you imagine? That door painted blue simply because someone remembered it being like that. In any case, Warsaw’s old town and new town were rebuilt in all their former glory – resembling the 18th and 19th century paintings used as a model more than anyone ever imagined possible! Today, the city centre of Warsaw (the whole city in fact) is less than a century old though you’d never know it. Authentic in its spirit, beauty, history and resilience, it is a testament of what can be accomplished through the pride, sweat and gumption of the residents who call this wonderful city home.
Pro tip: Interested in learning more about this period? Visit the Uprising Museum. Walk the streets of the Wola district and keep your eyes out for the markers in the sidewalk showing where the Warsaw Ghetto once was. In town, try eating at one of the traditional Milk Bars– the kind of eatery where workers of 20th century Poland would have eaten.
Built in 2011 to house the 2012 UEFA Europe Cup, Stadion Narodowy or the National Stadium is Poland’s biggest – with seating room for around 58,000 spectators! (Other UEFA stadiums included Poznan, Wrocław, Gdańsk and Kiev). Red and white like the Polish flag, is has a retractable roof (Poland can get chilly and snowy at times as seen in the image!), and stands proud on the Wisła River, one of Poland’s (and Warsaw’s!) main arteries. Located in the Praga district, this once-seedy area of the city has seen fantastic urban revival in the past decade, and is now one of Warsaw’s hippest new neighbourhoods with the modern architecture of Stadion Narodowy the crown jewel. The Polish people are enormous football fans, and very proud of both their national teams as well as their own local teams (friendly rivalry between regions is common!). On a games night, the National Stadium, and indeed much of the Praga district, explode and rock with noise, support and red and white flags! One of the best ways to connect with the Polish and immerse yourself in the culture no matter how brief your visit, is to catch a match with the locals! Stadion Narodowy is the best place to watch as nothing beats its ambience, but if you can’t get there, don’t worry – head downtown to one of the many sporty bars to see the match and root for the national team!
Pro tip: Even if you don’t manage to get a Polish football jersey, be sure to get yourself a Polska football scarf before your match! Not only are you showing your support, it makes for a great souvenir!
The fantastic Jabłonna Palace (pronounced yah-bwoana) inhabits a lush, green estate-turned-park on the outskirts of Poland’s capital of Warsaw. Built in a joint neoclassical and baroque style in the 1770s by the Polish King Stanislaw’s brother, it was meant from the start as a stunning royal palace and park complex to stun and awe Poland’s elite. Like most of Warsaw – and Poland – the building is newer than it looks. Jabłonna Palace was burnt by angry Germans in 1944 and the resilient Polish of Warsaw reconstructed it as accurately as possible in the years following the war. Today, Jabłonna Palace’s beautifully Baroque ballroom, elegant dinning areas and classy guest rooms regularly hold concerts, art exhibitions, scientific shows, conferences and – you guessed it – weddings, as well as being open to the public. Even if you aren’t attending a wedding or concert, the grounds of Jabłonna Palace make for a great escape to the outdoors. Offering a much-needed breath of fresh air from the hustle and bustle of Warsaw, Jabłonna Park is a perfect place to spend a spring or fall day to jog, stroll, picnic or simply relax.
Poland’s Central Park, Łazienki Park (pronouced “wa-djane-key”), or the Park of the Royal Paths, meanders serenely through the urban jungle of central Warsaw. Designed in the 17th century by a local nobleman, one century later it was reconfigured to fit a king – King Stanislaw August, to be exact. Palaces, follies, monuments, statues, lakes, bridges, and forest paths were installed in all the royal might Warsaw could muster. Though royalty in Poland has long since ceased to be (in fact, Poland itself ceased to be for a whole 123 years!), Łazienki Park is still there, a little less royal and open to all us common folk, but an amazing park nonetheless. Populated by semi-wild peacocks (yes you read that correctly!) who wander through the park’s 76 hectres, the park is a special place. In the summer, it hosts open air Chopin concerts (because yes, Chopin was Polish!). And in the autumn, it erupts in vivid splendour – flames of yellow and orange, gold and red. Łazienki Park is a lovely place for a stroll, a picnic, a day at the park, a concert or a bit of sports and exercises – but it is loveliest in autumn amongst the golden canvas.
The Warsaw Mermaid Statue in Warsaw’s Old Town, Poland
There are multiple mermaid statues flopping their way through Europe. Completely unrelated to the mythical selkies of western Ireland and only loosely related to Copenhagen’s The Little Mermaid, the Syrenka, or Mermaid of Warsaw, is the official symbol of Poland‘s capital. Popular legend has it that while swimming by Warsaw, the Mermaid decided she liked it so much that she would stay. Local fishermen were frustrated with competing with her for fish, so they attempted to catch her, but like most mermaid stories, the men fell in love with the mermaid’s song and let her free. She was then captured by a wealthy merchant, but upon hearing her cries, the fishermen rushed to her rescue, and ever since, she’s been a warrior mermaid armed with sword and shield ready to protect Warsaw. A lesser-known version claims that the mermaid came to the rescue of a lost prince and he founded Warsaw in her honour. A final version and tie-in with Copenhagen is that the Danish Little Mermaid and the Warsaw Mermaid are sisters from the Baltic Sea, separated by their respective capitals. No matter which legend you favour, the Mermaid remains Warsaw’s symbol and protector, and there is a small but lovely statue in her honour in the centre of the Stary Miasto (Old Town square) for visitors to pay homage to the city’s protector.
Rynek Starego Miasta (Old Town Square), Warsaw, Poland
Caught up in Cold War era stereotypes of a cold, grey Poland, most people don’t realise that Warsaw has surprisingly hot and sunny summers. To get out of the heat but still enjoy the sunshine, Warsaw’s city centre becomes alive with outdoor cafes, markets, beer gardens, and terraces during summer months, such as these ones in the Rynek Starego Miasta, or Old Town Square, in the centre of Warsaw’s old town. (The same is true for the party boats on the Wisla River). Banners on the terraces promote a Polish beer called Zywiec, distilled in a town of the same name in southern Poland near the Polish Tatra Mountains. Nationalised after the war and today part of the Heineken group (one of the Big Five breweries), the Zywiec Brewery was once owned by the famous Hapsburgs, who sued for copyright infringement after the fall of the Berlin Wall and communism. Zywiec is still a point of national pride for the Polish, and is one of Poland’s most delicious beers. A pint is best enjoyed outdoors in Warsaw’s city centre, as Warsaw slowly becomes known across Europe for its restaurants, cafes, festivals and nightlife. For outdoor terraces, grab a drink in any of the bars or terraces in the old town. For cheap drinks hit up the so-called 4 zloty (1€) bars on Nowy Swiat Street. For fancy elegance, try the Hotel Bristol on Krakowskie Przedmieście Street, and for gritty student nightlife head over to Pawilony Street hidden behind Nowy Swiat. The hipster bar/club Plan B in Plac Zbiawciela or nearby Czech bar U Szwejka for enormous and cheap beers are also two favourites. There are also plenty of good bars in the up-and-coming Saska Kepa district or the still-seedy Praga district. So many choices, eh? Warsaw is not a city to lack for watering holes, that’s for sure!
Other Great Places to Drink a Beer Outdoors in Europe
This beautiful pink palace in downtown Warsaw has been the seat of the Royal Court of Poland since the 16th century until what is known as the Partitions of Poland. For those of you not up to date on your Eastern European history, the Partition was a series of three divisions of the Polish-Lithuanian Empire at the end of the 1700s. Summed up, Poland-Lithuania’s neighbours basically chopped up the kingdom in sizable chunks, claiming the land for themselves. Between the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia and Habsburg Austria, Poland as a state ceased to exist for 123 years, instead becoming integrated into these various nations, including Warsaw and it’s royal castle, which became part of Prussia. Despite all, the castle has stood the test of time. It has seen the ratification of one of Europe’s oldest constitutions, Constitution of 3 May 1791; it has been used as an administrative centre by the Russian Tsar; it housed German Governor-General during WWI; it has been burned and looted by Nazis; it has been damaged during the Warsaw Uprising; it was nearly destroyed during the War, only to be rebuilt in the 1950s. Warsaw and its beautiful castle have seen a lot things over time – and yet, here they still stand proud.
When people talk about the ‘Great European Capitals,’ they tend to think of the Big Four: London, Paris, Rome, Vienna. Sometimes Madrid, Berlin, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Amsterdam and Brussels occasionally get tossed in. In Eastern Europe, Budapest and Prague come to mind. But what about the rest? What about the other capitals that apparently don’t make the cut? The EU currently has 28 members – meaning 28 capitals – and the European continent has 51 countries (if the Caucuses are counted, which it seems now they are) – meaning 51 total capitals. So, what about the other 39 capitals that get ignored, that aren’t considered a Great European Capital? Warsaw is one of those capitals, forgotten on too many itineraries, forgotten to be considered ‘great.’ I suppose this comes from the bad reputation spurred by the war, not to mention the communism that followed. But all that is past now, and Warsaw is – and deserves to be considered as – a Great European Capital. For one, it is beautiful. The Old City has been reconstructed the way it used to look, with as much historical accuracy as possible, now recognised by UNESCO. It is cosmopolitan, and home to Poland’s best universities. The people are absolutely great, welcoming towards foreigners and with a spectacular command of English. Beer is cheap, and the parties are all-nighters. Food is cheap too, not to mention hearty and filling. Warsaw also has a surprising art, music and hipster scene. And the Poles are very proud of their heritage. So, let’s not forget Warsaw, because it’s pretty great too. PS – did I mention there’s a mermaid in the bottom left-hand corner of that photo?!
Head back in time to the long-lost epoch of horse-drawn carriages in Poland’s charming capital. Whether you take an old-fashioned cab such as this or navigate the narrow, windy streets or Warsaw’s Stare Maisto (old town) by foot, you’ll feel as if you left behind the 21st century. Duck into a post-war Milk Bar where you’ll find traditional Polish food for mere pennies, step into the rebuilt (though you’d never know it) royal palace for a view of what royal life was like, or even walk into one of Warsaw’s many churches to experience the religious side to Polish culture. Listen to cheerful street musicians, bite into a savory Polish crepe, stop by a bar for a quick pint of Żywiec or Tyskie, enjoy a trolley-ride on one of the city’s old-fashioned trams, or even just wander the streets in silence. Whether sunny or snowing, cold or warm, there is always something magical and nostalgic about the air in Warsaw’s Stare Miasto!
Snow falls softly on this silent, barren town. The chilly air has driven most of the locals inside and kept most the tourists away. What’s special about this place is that this little town straddles both Eastern and Western Europe. Warsaw is the political and economic centre, Krakow, the cultural capital, and Gdansk, the gateway to the Baltics. While many imagine these places as the dark and somber Eastern Europe, little by little they are becoming more and more modern, upscale, and integrated with the western half of the continent. Lublin, however, feels exactly what you’d imagine from an Eastern European town, right down to the little houses, market squares, and light snowfall. Walk its small streets, feel the snow land on your head, and duck into a local establishment for pierogies and beer!
Leaves turn vibrant shades of red, gold, and orange as the air becomes crisp and cool. And slowly, like leaves do all over the world, they begin their annul downward spiral towards earth. As summer disappears, so do the party boats that line the Wisła (or Vistula in English) River in Warsaw. During summer nights, the left bank of Warsaw’s river is the place to be to find a great party. Students, tourists, locals of all ages and walks of life–it feels like the whole of Warsaw congregates on the banks of the river. Boats moored to the shore provide music, cheap drinks, and dancing. But as the leaves fall and the air grows cooler, the Poles return to indoor bars in the centre of town. The Vistula suddenly becomes quiet once more, entertaining only the occasional jogger, fisherman or happy couple as the breeze works to create a red-gold carpet of leaves on the now-abandoned pathways. It is hard to imagine a more peaceful or quiet place in centre of Poland’s bustling capital city than the banks of the beautiful Vistula River.
Złote Tarasy Mall (as seen from outside & inside), Warsaw, Poland
While a mall might not be the first thing you think of when the words “beautiful places” and “Europe” are combined in the same sentence, that doesn’t mean they don’t qualify! While most malls are rather mundane and follow the same generic formula, some break the mould; some make you look around and notice the building itself, not just the stores and shops and stands indoors. This particular mall in downtown Warsaw, located a stone’s throw away from Dworzec Centralny (the central train station), and the Palace of Science & Culture (a sturdy specimen of Stalinistic architecture, erected in many cities he “conquered”), is modelled after a waterfall – a cascade of water breaking a damn and spilling over into central Warsaw. Somehow, it seems fitting – the waves crash over the barrier, threatening to drown Stalin’s tower (which so many see as a vestige of Communist oppression, a period in history they’d like to put behind them). While at the end of the day, Złote Tarasy is a mall like any other when it comes to shopping and fast food-dining, it’s still quite an artistic place to buy a new pair of shoes, eat pierogies, or see a film!
If anyone ever tells you that Warsaw—or for that matter, any of Poland’s major cities aside from Lodz—is grey, dark, depressing, or ugly—tell them to try visiting it first, because they obviously haven’t. Warsaw was mostly destroyed by the Second World War (something like 85% of the city was razed and the population hovered around 1,000)—but it has made a full recovery, at least aesthetically. Rubble became carefully constructed buildings. Plans were carefully executed, mimicking the way it looked before the war. Sadly, this was only done for the Old and New Towns, which became a UNESCO site. “Warszawa 1935,” a wonderful film released in 2012, uses the powers of modern technology to generate a 3D film of what Warsaw once looked like (evidently, something like Paris, Vienna and St Petersburg combined). The Soviet Era was not kind to Warsaw, and the city still suffers those scars. But in the centre, these bright, beautiful buildings here—these are its legacy. Due to a combination of colours, patterns, design, and simple Polish resilience, this square has—and will always be—the most beautiful part of Poland’s often-overlooked capital.
Nope, not quite a castle. This fortified structure is the Barbican, originally built in 1540 in between the Old and New cities by Jan Baptist the Venetian, an Italian expat living in Poland. Of course, no sooner had the workers finished their project than this type of fortified barbican became archaic in light of the recent invention and explosion of artillery weapon usage. (Only once was it used to defend the city; in 1656 against the formidable Swedish Army). Almost entirely destroyed during WWII (like roughly 85% of Warsaw), it was later rebuilt by the Polish government based on 17th century etchings under the theory that it would bring in tourism dollars. Today, it still serves little purpose other than making a dramatic way of walking down ul. Nowomiejska in the middle of the old (although it’s rebuilt, so actually quite new) centre of Warsaw.
The sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, palm trees loom in the city centre as people happily stroll down the streets, and everything covered in the lovely golden glow of the afternoon sun. Where am I? California? Florida? The Caribbean? The Mediterranean? Spain? Portugal? Italy? Thailand?! Nope, nope, nope. Believe it or not, this palm tree is in Warsaw. Poland. But isn’t Poland really cold? Isn’t it mostly landlocked? Isn’t it snowy and grey and miserable?! Well…not always. It can be warm and sunny and blue-skied, if you know when to go! That said, this palm tree isn’t real. It’s a plastic statue built by artist Joanna Rajkowska as part of the Centre for Contemporary Art. It was only supposed to be displayed for one year (Dec 2002-Dec 2003) but it was so popular that it stayed. While it’s fun to confuse the newcomers (“just head south through the old town, turn left at the palm tree and cross the bridge”…huh!?), it does get pretty bizarre and even a little depressing in winter when the tree’s fantastic palms become snow-laden and hidden in fog.
I have to admit, I hate showing Poland – especially Warsaw – this way. But when I hear the word “abandoned,” “building” is the second word that comes to mind, and hunting through my arsenal, this one was the photo that portrayed it best. Once an apartment building, the city of Warsaw started tearing this building down in order to build the new metro line. One day there was a building there, a few days later, there was this. Then it snowed, and construction had to slow down. And so it became abandoned, making it a constant traffic jam as rubberneckers passed by, wondering what this abandoned building was doing less than a mile from Warsaw’s central train station and glitzy central business district. Nowadays, the building is gone and work continues on the metro, with hopes of finishing it this summer (but we all know how accurate construction plans are). Warsaw was almost completely destroyed in WWII (85%), and hundreds of images looking a lot like this one show what the city looked like in the 1940’s. Thankfully, the Poles are a resilient people, and they rebuilt their city as a monument to its former glory. Today, this one abandoned, destroyed building is massively outnumbered as modern Warsaw continues to grow up and thrive around it.
*Update: as 2015, the second metro line is up and running!
It gets cold in Poland; everyone knows that. And, okay, five months of the sun setting around 15h does get annoying after awhile. But you have to hand it to the Polish – they do a good job at making the best of their long winters. For example, around Christmastime and extending through January and February, Warsaw’s streets, squares and other public places are decorated with brightly-lit, fun-shaped decorations. Christmas markets in Central and Eastern Europe are worth the time spent in the chilly air. Certain days, there is light show in the main square. People sell hot wine on the streets. This past year, they set up a small light maze at Wilanow, the former Summer Palace (now part of Warsaw). The theme at the time (2013) was “games” – hence the giant cards and figures representing the different suites, chess pieces, a Magic 8 ball (which for reasons unknown actually said “7” – perhaps it is only supposed to represent a pool ball), etc. With the over-sized, over-simplified objects, all game pieces from a hodgepodge of games, one feels bit like Alice walking through a very cold and very dark Wonderland. Bizarre, a little, but still. You have to appreciate the effort. Just because it’s cold and dark doesn’t mean that Warsaw or anywhere in Poland has to be miserable.
The historic centre of Warsaw, while having a lot of history, is not actually all that old. In fact, it only dates back 50-60 years. After the second world war, in which roughly 85% of Warsaw was destroyed and most of its inhabitants either fled, hid, died, or were arrested, the proud Polish citizens decided to rebuild their city from the rubble – using photographs, drawings, paintings, and even people’s memory, as most of the original blueprints were long lost. As the symbolic and historic (though not modern) centre of town, this square has been the sight of many important events, including patriotic manifestations before the January Uprising, usually entered around Sigismund’s Column in the middle. Due to its meticulous reconstruction, Plac Zamkowy, like the rest of the Stary Miasto (Old Town), is recognised by UNESCO. And this is Poland – so almost half the year, it’s covered in snow. And, it’s also my favourite place in Warsaw!
There’s something romantic about walking through an old city and hearing the twinkling sounds of an accordion gliding through the streets. Accordions are romantic, remainders of bygone times. As you walk through Plac Zamkowy, the centre of Warsaw’s Old Town, you might stumble across this accordion player and momentarily be transported back in time. There was once a time when Warsaw was a beautiful city, a reigning queen. Of course, like the rest of Poland, WWII destroyed it. The Poles rebuilt their capital city from the fallen rubble to resemble what it once was, though outside of the the very centre, one must use one’s imagination. Yet, little details like horse-drawn carriages, little cafes, and the accordion player all help to remind the wayward traveller of what this Eastern European once was.
Welcome to the still-practiced Polish tradition of parading around the streets in your formal wedding attire. So, you though the French liked PDA? You clearly haven’t been to Poland yet, because they are even bigger fans. From couples kissing on overcrowded metros to girls sitting on their boyfriend’s lap on almost-empty trams to couples insisting on waltzing down busy streets hand in hand, to awkward restaurant dates. The Poles tend to marry young. And weddings are a big deal, though unlike Americans, the Poles don’t plan these magnificent, expensive, 500-person weddings 700 miles away from their hometown. They stay right here in Warsaw, and following tradition, spend the rest of the day parading through the city and letting people take photos of them.
I have fallen in love with a new European nook–Tallinn, Estonia, a place that most people don’t even know exists. This fog-laden Nevski Cathedral isn’t exactly old, only dating back to about 1894. Built during the Russian occupation of Estonia, it is of course built in the Russian Revival style, giving the city a fairy-tale look (it has been said that it resembles St. Panteleimon’s Cathedral in Kiev. Also as a side-note, I just learned that there used to be an impressive Alexander Nevski Cathedral in my former city of Warsaw, demolished 1920. I lived there 1 year, and this was the first I’ve heard if it! A shame too–it looked beautiful). Not that Tallinn needs too much help at looking beautiful or charming; much of the city walls, towers, and gates have survived the wars, and as a result, the remarkably extensive old town becomes a sea of 800 year-old stone and red-clay roofs lost in the clouds! Tallinn is truly straight out of a book of fairy tales!
The Kazimierz Górski National Stadium was home of the Euro 2012 football championship, the 14th Euro championship so far, (soccer for you Americans). Co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine, it was the first time that either country ever hosted the Euro Cup. Being chosen was a big deal for these two nations which have both worked so hard to attain their freedom, recreate, rebrand, market and promote their cities and nations from the rubble left behind by the Germans and the Russians, and find their unique national identity after WWII flattened them. Co-hosting Euro 2012 and building the now-iconic, retractable-roof, red-and-white National Stadium (and various satellite stadiums) is certainly proof of just how far Poland has come.
Sadly, 85% of Warsaw was destroyed in WWII, including these colorful buildings. All of the buildings of the Stare Miasto (or Old Town) had to be rebuilt from the rubble that remained. As few blueprints survived, the buildings, which were rebuilt out of the original stones, had to be re-created by the proud Poles using paintings, photos and even people’s memories. This shows how determined the Polish people were that they could not bear their capital be rebuilt as anything but what it had been before the war – and history thanks them for this resilience!