Despite a turbulent past, Warsaw's restored old town and wide green spaces exude a sense of beauty that undermines the stark severity of the city’s communist structures
Overshadowed by its prettier older sister, Kraków, and still dealing with a raw past, Warsaw has some identity issues. But this fascinating city is slowly emerging from the shadows of its war-torn and communist past. The construction of new buildings, roads and stadiums is accelerating as Poland gears up to host the 2012 European Championship football finals along with Ukraine.
King Zygmunt III Waza moved the capital to Warsaw from Kraków in 1569, and over the centuries the Swedes, Russians and Germans have all attempted to destroy the city. But nothing affected the city’s soul like the Nazi occupation, the aftermath of which is still palpable. Warsaw commemorates the suffering of its inhabitants with a series of understated yet powerful monuments. While parts of the city remain grimly communist, in places it is incredibly alluring – beautiful parks, striking architecture and buzzing bars and cafés.
What to do
Set out from Stare Miasto (old town), a Unesco World Heritage Site, and marvel at the reconstructed merchants’ houses, churches and Royal Palace. Visit the Warsaw History Museum and Warsaw Uprising Museum to learn more about the destruction and tragedy of the wartime occupation, and the reconstruction that followed.
Churches abound in this devoutly Catholic city, including St John’s Cathedral, a fascinating rebuilt 15th-century structure where a piece of track from one of the Nazi tanks that destroyed it is mounted on a wall. Next, walk the Royal Route along the elegant thoroughfares of Krakowskie Przedmiescie and Nowy Swiat, stopping to climb the bell tower of St Anna’s Church to get your bearings. Beneath, the River Vistula divides the city in two. Most sights are on the left bank, including the Palace of Culture and Science (a ‘gift’ from Stalin in 1955), which still dominates the skyline.
Across the Vistula, the Praga district has some of the city’s oldest buildings and a burgeoning arts scene, where galleries occupy redundant factories and warehouses.
Where to stay
Skirting the old town, Le Méridien Bristol is the grande dame of Warsaw hotels, which miraculously survived the war. Originally opened in 1901, it evokes the pre-World War II past. In the centre of the old town, Mamaison Hotel Le Régina provides modern five-star digs in a recreated 18th-century palace. A little closer to the commercial centre, you’ll find the city’s first boutique hotel, Hotel Rialto. The turn-of-the-century townhouse is now a lovely kooky hotel that is stuffed with original art deco pieces.
Where to eat and drink
Watch the horse-drawn carriages clatter around the cobbled square in the old town as you sip Zywiec beer or Wyborowa vodka in Stacja Rynek (Rynek Starego Miasta 15) and sample a tasty selection of modern European and Polish dishes. U Dekerta (www.udekerta.com.pl) offers good, simple cooking, such as crayfish soup with smoked fish, Polish sausage served with mead, or roast goose with red cabbage and potato dumplings.
Head to U Hopfera (Krakowskie Przedmiescie 53) for pierogi (ravioli-like parcels) with every conceivable filling. Café Blikle (Nowy Swiat 33) is legendary for its glazed doughnuts filled with a rose jam and studded with candied orange peel. Its delis stock all manner of Polish goodies. Opposite the National Theatre, Pedzacy Królik, meaning the running rabbit (ul Moliera 8), has a kitsch Alice in Wonderland interior - sink into a pink armchair as waitresses in frilly aprons deliver plates of blinis smothered with smoked salmon, sour cream and cucumber.
Taste new Poland with a sumptuous dinner at Sense (ul Nowy Swiat 19), an intimate candlelit space serving fabulous fusion-style Asian dishes and killer cocktails. For late-night drinks and food, try sleek post-modern bar and café Szpilka (Plac Trzech Krzyzy 18), and its neighbouring sister bars, Szparka and Szpulka.
Time running out?
Stroll round Łazienki Park with its tree-lined walkways and boating lakes. See the peacocks, visit the Palace on the Water or catch a performance at the Theatre on the Island.
Buy a Warsaw Tourist Card (either for 24 hours or for three days) from the tourist office, Central Railway Station, as well as a number of hotels. This will give you free admission or reduced entry to museums and galleries, includes a public transport ticket, and offers discounts on hotels and restaurants.
Currency is the Polish zloty. Warsaw is one hour ahead of GMT and a two-hour 20-minute flight from London.
EasyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) flies from London Luton. LOT Polish Airlines (0845 601 0949; www.lot.com) has daily direct flights to Warsaw from Heathrow.
Warsaw Tourist Office: 00 48 22 4741 142; www.warsawtour.pl.
This guide first appeared in Food and Travel magazine.