At first, I wasn’t a fan of Warsaw at all. I thought it was dull and it didn’t quite charm me with its warmth. But it wasn’t long until I stepped outside the usual tourist trappings and found myself loving the idea of being a temporary Varsovian. Poland is a relatively cheap destination (especially from London). And it’s intriguing, surprising, a real city of corners and towers, it shatters your expectations and in a fulfilling way. These days I’m a mini-ambassador for Warszawa: it’s a beautiful city worthy of your weekend and not enough of my crew here have checked it out.
Back when I was in high school I was fortunate enough to have visited Krakow as part of our time in Europe. Over twelve years on I’ve returned to check out the capital Warsaw on a lazy European weekend. My vague memories of Poland suggests it’s a beautiful place steeped in history. The city of Warsaw particularly sticks out as a narrative of survival and rebirth – there was almost complete destruction at the end of World War II. Gothic architecture and Soviet influences are littered over the city for dramatic visual contrasts. And these days Warsaw has become a modern city of glass and steel, this makes for a dynamic landscape of old and new.
This was my first batch of flights with Ryanair, leaving from Stansted Airport. No dramas, lucky to report. After the last weekend in Zurich where I missed my flight, I made sure to triple check my plans to ensure that wasn’t the case this time! When booking with Ryanair, they offer transfers at both airports and this was the only upsell I said yes to. I’m not 100% sure if it comes out cheaper/ same price than booking direct (with National Express) but any difference would be minute. The bus from Victoria takes a whopping 1 hour 40 minutes normally. We were slightly ahead of this due to quiet early morning roads. As an airport Stansted is all fine, other than being a bit of a crowded corridor feel inside the terminal.
We were flying into Modlin Airport, which is the newer of the two airports in Warsaw. It’s also an ex-military one, so nothing fancy at all. It was very efficient for me, my fastest exit to date. I prebooked the Modlin bus (9zł) and it was nice, cheap and easy. I was lucky with timings but you do need to go to the counter to swap your ticket before you can board.
A tip: Modlin Airport is notorious for crowding in the evenings so make sure to get there with plenty of time. I’ve heard and personally seen airport staff going through queues to filter people likely to miss their flights (as a result of the wait). This is due to the sheer wait time getting through security. Toilets are in short supply but one tip is to wait until you’re at the gates, those ones are generally empty and sans the queues.
I stayed at an Airbnb this time, and the service is starting to test my patience. My Airbnb host wasn’t friendly, the bedroom (which was the lounge), wasn’t as nice as pictured and full of cat hair. So it felt gross. And the keys didn’t seem to work either. I could have leave a negative review, but I don’t want to deal with the drama that comes with that. Also, I was always taught only to say something if it was positive (yes, I know it might have helped someone else). The room was cheap though, and I could walk there from the other parts of the city.
In fact, I did the whole weekend on foot. This may not have been a smart decision. But I did rack up almost 100K steps in the space of two days. Safe to say, I was a little bit intense. The network did seem quite efficient but I decided to give it a skip so I had one less thing to figure out. I’m sure it would have me plenty of time though. And some attractions like the Uprising Museum are a bit out of the way, as is the old town. The weather was incredibly patchy but I managed to avoid most of the rain which was only occasional.
One of the landmarks you’ll get used to seeing in Warsaw is the Palace of Culture and Science. This 60-year old building towers above the city and brings about a lot of history. It was originally a gift from the Soviet Union to the Polish people. It’s the tallest building in Poland and these days provides a scenic view of the city for an easy 20zł. The queues and crowds aren’t too bad, though chain walls don’t make it my favourite of the tower lookouts I’ve done. One of my first points of interest was the Fryderyk Chopin Museum. I’m not sure if I found it the most interesting, the site itself is small and I didn’t quite get the full narrative. If you’re more familiar with his works you might find it more engrossing than I did.
And one I did enjoy. I would very high recommend checking out the Copernicus Science Centre. This was my Sunday morning and this is a good time to visit. It gets crowded with kids later on in the day (as you can expect) and the interactive exhibits mean minor waiting. I’m a contented science geek. And there is so much to see here. I could have easily spent three hours checking out everything and it’s all fascinating, functional and well explained. Only a small number of exhibits weren’t working but it was a joy to have spent some time there. And I love that there is an “adults-only” section. Nothing particularly rude mind you, only more political/ advanced topics. This made for a nice reprieve from the screaming masses. And across the road from the Copernicus Science Centre is the Warsaw University Library. This has a popular public lookout so you can get some nice panoramas of the city. The entrance is on a weird side from memory, took me two tries to find.
A city old and new
It’s immediately clear when you arrive at the Old Town part of Warsaw. The buildings are incredible and there’s an air of real history in the area. It also becomes much more touristy, so souvenirs shops and tacky food outlets are a plenty. Whilst in the area, it’s worth a quick stroll through Warsaw Castle. If it’s a Sunday the admittance is free, but instead you have to endure a wait. I’ve seen a few castles in my time, so I would’t say I thought it was worth paying for.
The Old Town also becomes incredible in the evening as the buildings light up. One of the evening activities in the summer is the Multimedia Fountain Park. The blasts of water and shifting colours will delight the young and it has a community vibe as well. It does get busy with tourists and locals alike, but that adds to the atmosphere in a way. The show is on Fridays and Saturdays over May – Sep at 9.30pm (9pm over Sep). Not a must do, but a worthwhile use of free time, for free if you’re near the area.
One of my afternoon missions was to head along to the Lazienki Palace, and I stumbled upon the University of Warsaw Botanical Gardens on the way. I didn’t realise this had an entry cost, but it’s nominal. It’s quite a quirky garden at that. There’s a lot of weird sculptures and arrangements so not your typical. There’s a lot more personality, perhaps overshadowing the plants themselves. You can tell the designers have a wicked sense of humour and that’s worth it for the entry fee. The palace and lake are also tranquil and charming and can take up another hour or so of strolling time.
Time for a bite
I was impressed with the food culture in Warsaw. There’s some great dining establishments, these seemed to require some research to find out what and where they are though. The community on Zomato is quite busy and I based my targets on their feedback. I would say most of these sat outside the Old Town part of Warsaw and required some navigating to get to. Interestingly, the top restaurants in Warsaw were ramen and Israeli food. I do tend to agree after sampling myself. Best of all, food is very affordable across the spectrum. I ended up paying less than £8 for all my main meals, which is impressive in itself. Water is paid for (like a lot of Europe) but that and the alcohol is always cheap. I found the garnish-centric cocktails at Max & Dom quite fun. And the cakes at either Batida or Odette are great for an afternoon treat.
I’d recommend Warsaw for a visit, it’s so historical yet has a lot of character in the old meeting the new. I can’t quite compare to Krakow as I haven’t been there this decade, but either of the two big cities is a must for Poland. After being acclimatised to London pricing the affordability of holiday life over here is also refreshing, anoher extra bonus for enjoying a fantastic city that offers so much if you look for it.