This month modern-day Poland turns 100 and its capital, Warsaw, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s home to royal palaces, mermaids and Europe’s largest collection of neon signs.
Day 1 – PHOENIX CITY
St Anne’s bell tower offers panoramic views of Castle Square, bordered by multicoloured townhouses, hotels housed in heritage buildings, and cafés that spill out onto the square.
Though 85% of the town was destroyed by German troops during World War II, the historic city centre was rebuilt from memory, photographs and textbooks using the shattered rubble, which earned it the moniker “Phoenix City” and status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After exploring the Royal Castle, walk the cobbled streets to the Old Town Market Square in search of Warsaw’s patron. Legend has it that after swimming down the Vistula River from the Baltic Sea, a mermaid rested on the banks, only to be captured by a merchant. After being rescued, the Syrenkapromised to protect Warsaw’s residents with her sword, shield and vigour.
Once you’ve spotted her, walk along Warsaw’s medieval defensive walls lined with artworks, to the 16th century Barbican. Once the city’s northern gateway, today it divides the capital into old and new.
Lunch at the Art Nouveau Koszyki food market hall, renowned for its original steel latticework, where you can sample both Polish and international flavours. Think Polish sausage, Hawaiian poke bowls, Asian street food, chicken tikka masala, an oyster bar and vegan delights.
Suitably fuelled, take a walk in history’s footsteps on the free, two-hour Warsaw at War walking tour. It follows a timeline of Poland’s six-year occupation during World War II, with a guide narrating the 63-day long Warsaw uprising of 1944, drawing on survivors’ accounts and photos.
Next explore another era on a visit to Poland’s tallest building – the 237m Palace of Culture and Science that stands in the city’s economic heartland. Built in the Stalinist architectural style popular during Soviet communist rule, it boasts 360-degree cityscape views from the viewing deck on the 30th floor that illustrate why Poland is Europe’s golden child.
Day 2 – ACQUAINTED WITH NATURE
The city has 5 000 public bikes and a 530km-long cycle network with 88 parks, 242 town squares and 12 nature reserves to discover. Cycle to the western bank of the Vistula that’s lined with riverine beaches, walkways and bicycle trails. These riverside boulevards include public artworks, free sport and recreational facilities, fountains and pop-up food stalls. Join a game of beach volleyball or dig your feet into the sand as you read on a deck chair.
Picnic in the luscious gardens of the 76-hectare Royal Łazienki Palace, where each Sunday during summer, Fryderyk Chopin’s concertos are performed at midday and 4pm. Go squirrel and peacock spotting, before exploring the 17th century palace with its opulent décor and collection of paintings.
End the day at the two-level garden on the roof of the University of Warsaw Library, which covers a hectare and is one of Europe’s largest. Its stream, pathways, fishpond and fountain overlook lower Warsaw, the national stadium, and Praga district.
Day 3 – ALTERNATIVE WARSAW
The Alternative Warsaw Free Walking Tour crosses to the Vistula’s eastern bank and the district of Praga, known for its bohemian atmosphere, graffiti and gentrification. Also known as the “Hollywood ghetto” because it’s been used as a backdrop for many films – Andrzej Wajda’s Korczak and The Pianist. To name just two – the tour passes through Różycki Bazaar, the city’s oldest market, which sells fresh produce, clothes, stationery and kitsch homeware.
The nearby private Neon Museum is worth a visit too, housing a collection of over 100 Cold War neon signs in a renovated warehouse located within the Soho Factory arts complex. These neon signs once flickered outside railway stations, shop fronts, libraries and restaurants during the Eastern Bloc’s great neonisation.
Enjoy a fusion of gourmet Franco-Polish cuisine at the 24-hour Warszawa Wschodnia where one can sit at a table that literally looks into the kitchen or learn to cook a Polish meal.
Later, walk off the duck dumplings, roasted deer or rabbit stew along the district’s streets, past post-industrial buildings that have been converted into galleries, art studios, apartments and bars. You can go in search of its street art and the reason why it has been called one of Europe’s coolest neighbourhoods.
Download the free WarsawTour app for Android and iPhone.
WORDS Iga Motylska