To many American travelers, venturing east of Berlin doesn’t usually fit the bill of the perfect European getaway. Places like Warsaw edge off the radar when it comes to planning a trip to Europe, possibly falling under a stereotype of a gray, somewhat uninviting Eastern Europe. However, while the entire continent bears scars of the last century, and Eastern Europe wears them perhaps most consciously, its cities continue to persist with irreplaceable character, merging their histories with contemporary culture and creativity.
“Legend has it that the city was born from the love of Wars and Sawa, a poor fisherman and the mermaid he became enamored with while working on the river Vistula. Together, their names merged to create the city of Warsaw. Somewhere along the way, Sawa began to take on another character, this time of defense and patriotism in the face of war. Wander on foot and you’ll come upon countless armed mermaids watching over the city, their raised swords and alert expressions set in stone and marble.”
I spent a month in Poland to explore its largest cities, see how the country was responding to the conflict raging across its eastern border, and, perhaps most importantly, re-visit a country I had only known occasionally, as a child. This time, my visit was planned with intent- I was ready to truly notice the urban landscape as I moved through it. The insights I collected are meant to guide future visitors to Poland through its capital, but also illustrate how strongly the not-so-distant past permeates the look, feel and rhythm of the city.
Poland is a nation filled with as many contradictions as it is with historic relics, gorgeous city centers and dishes that reflect centuries of cultural exchange. To put it bluntly, Warsaw does not have the iconic identity of, for example, Paris, London or Rome. Almost entirely rebuilt after the Second World War, the city is suspended in a moment between past and the future, yearning for the title of metropolis yet never quite reaching the standard set by other European hubs. Legend has it that the city was born from the love of Wars and Sawa, a poor fisherman and the mermaid he became enamored with while working on the river Vistula. Together, their names merged to create the city of Warsaw. Somewhere along the way, Sawa began to take on another character, this time of defense and patriotism in the face of war. Wander on foot and you’ll come upon countless armed mermaids watching over the city, their raised swords and alert expressions set in stone and marble.
Turning the city’s corners and meandering through its neighborhoods, you’ll notice countless monuments, memorials and plaques honoring either those who fought, those who died, or both in the very place you’re standing. Whether addressing victims of massacres, resistance fighters from the famed Warsaw Uprising, or, ‘blood spilled’ in a specific location, these inscribed, sculptural objects evoke a certain permanence in a city that never really boasted one. You’ll have to look for these historical reminders, but once you notice one, they will become easier to spot. I was constantly on the lookout for plaques coming out of the woodwork, knowing I’d have to stop for each one and, if nothing else, simply acknowledge its presence for a moment.
Warsaw’s skyline is sparse, meaning there’s no way visitors will miss the Palace of Culture and Science, the city’s most famous building and a perfect example of its contrasting symbolism. An infamous gift from Stalin, the Palace lives a controversial existence. Hated by some and revered by others, the building is the face of the capital and an embodiment of Poland’s communist era. It also happens to be younger than many Polish grandparents, which puts the country’s recent timeline into perspective. The city’s center moves outwards from the base of the palace- consider this its “downtown” district, complete with department stores, a busy mall, hotels, restaurants and the main train station. Venture east on foot or by tram (the city is incredibly walkable and the tram surprisingly reliable), and you’ll pass the Fryderyk Chopin, Polish Army, and National Museums, all within a few city blocks of one another. You’ll also end up on the bank of the Vistula, which is lined with riverfront walkways, bars and five city beaches. On any given summer night, the beaches light up with bonfires and chatter, creating a loose, organic outdoor alternative to Warsaw’s magnetic nightlife and music venues.
Like so many cities around the world, Warsaw is rapidly experiencing gentrification in the form of new development, re-imagined housing and influxes of wealthier residents into less affluent neighborhoods. Separated from the city center by the Vistula, eastern districts are at the forefront of the wave of change. With that said, neighborhoods like Praga continue to work to maintain their cultural character and remain affordable for generations of locals. Much of the area survived WWII, and the district’s hulking apartment buildings are one of its most distinct symbols. Walking through Praga is an intimate glimpse into quotidian life in Warsaw both now and then, especially when taking in small touches like the homemade Catholic shrines dotting courtyards across the neighborhood. While in Praga, I stopped by the Neon Museum, which works to preserve some of Warsaw’s most iconic neon signs. Seeing such a small space lit up in the colors of another era was striking, especially in the way the space emphasized the symbolism and aesthetic soul behind Warsaw's nighttime cityscape.
The PRL Museum is another curious institution in a country that has tried hard to separate itself from its formerly communist government. This museum, also set in Praga, capitalizes on the nostalgic element of Polish life under communism. Filled with relics and references from post-war Poland, the site is a small time capsule- the interesting part is that when considering the big picture, those times were not so long ago (think 1950’s through the end of the 1980’s). Most of the country’s younger generations have parents who remember that era vividly, and the concept is not as foreign to them as it may be to an international tourist. If you step out of the museum and disappear further into Praga, notice hints of that same timelessness embedded into the city- say, for example, a traditional lace curtain peeking out from a window or the facade of cafeteria eateries from decades ago known as milk bars (Don’t miss the extremely affordable Bar Pod Barbakanem)!
Warsaw’s museums do a great job cataloging the overlooked, but the best way to truly feel the city is, as expected, to get lost in it. Come upon something like Bazar na Kole or Bazar Rozyckiego and find yourself surrounded by people peddling their wares, foreign goods and antiques much like they had done for centuries in a crossroads like Warsaw. Or, stumble upon the former apartment building of Lejb Osmos, which once housed Jewish families and is one of the original homes remaining in the area of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Warsaw is a city I had to pay attention to in order to not miss a beat. The capital won’t reveal itself to you immediately- it thrives on its historic and cultural institutions that preserve the past for future generations, but also on the history is hidden out in the open, among crumbling walls, hole in the wall businesses and riverside hideouts. Given a chance, it emerges like a dandelion from a crack in the sidewalk- unassumingly, brightly, and almost overnight.