With a name that sounds a little… morbid in English, I wasn’t really sure what to expect of Warsaw before our trip. Truth be told, I knew that Warsaw had seen the terrible events of World War Two and I imagined it to be a mundane, depressing city without much character.
James and I chose last-minute to go to Poland for a couple of days simply because the flights were cheap on Skyscanner. The reason I love Skyscanner so much is because you can select your departure airport (London Stansted or Luton are best for me) and then set your destination as ‘Everywhere’. So much choice!
With our flights booked, I began researching what to see and do. Part of me loves the feeling of travelling to a place you have no previous impressions of, as you are almost always pleasantly surprised! And where is the fun in having your entire trip planned out before you go? I much prefer to make it up as I go along.
So, with the help of some online blogs and my Lonely Planet Eastern Europe Guidebook, I tried to get an idea of what was to come. But during my research, I found that everybody seemed to say that Krakòw (the former capital) is in fact the place for history and charm and Warsaw is worth missing from your itinerary completely. Had we made a mistake in booking flights to the capital? Was Warsaw really not worth visiting? We were about to find out…
How to spend two days in Warsaw
If there is one thing I recommend you do before visiting Warsaw, it’s reading up a little on the history of the country. You don’t need to trawl through a whole book devoted to it, but perhaps just skim through a few pages on Wikipedia or at least read the history section in your guidebook. Knowing a little about Warsaw’s past before you visit will entirely change how you feel when you see the city for yourself.
Day 1 – Sightseeing
Weather-wise, we had one day of beautiful clear blue skies, and one of constant rain, which, although a bit annoying, meant we could plan our itinerary easily. On our first day in Warsaw, we made the most of being outside; although it was cold, we were able to appreciate the beauty of the city’s buildings and open spaces.
The Old Town
The Old Town (Stare Miasto) is a must for any visit to the Polish capital, as this area of the city holds a history more saddening than other parts of Warsaw. It was completely destroyed during the Second World War so many of the buildings that stand today are not the originals. In 1949, construction began to rebuild the capital to its former glory, keeping many of the historical styles and features as accurate to those lost in the war as possible. Most importantly, though, the Old Town has retained its charm.
- Old Town Square
Not to be confused with the Castle Square, which is aptly located right next to the Royal Castle, the Old Town Square (Rynek Stare Maisto) is a central hub of markets, cafes and souvenir shops. The buildings here are beautiful and, at first glance, it’s hard to believe that they aren’t originals – but if you look closely you’ll notice the paintwork is near perfect and the statues and murals are a little too well-preserved. Still, the Old Town Square is notably captivating, and do be sure to wander through the cobblestoned streets for some more renovated charm.
Cost: free | Address: Rynek Stare Maisto
- The Barbican
This age-old fortress is the second largest in Poland (the largest is in Krakòw) and is distinctive because of its red bricks. It was built in 1540 and used to completely encircle the city, but after being partially damaged in the war, it’s now more of a semi-circle with the main entrance on ulica Nowomiejska. You can see where the moat used to run around the walls too.
Cost: free | Address: ulica Nowomiejska
- The Royal Castle
The residence of the former Polish monarchs was completely destroyed during World War 2, and has been rebuilt as a complete replica of the original. Previously, the castle had stood proudly over the square (Plac Zamkowy) since the 14th century, although it was made of wood back then. Its golden era was the 1600s, when it was known as one of Europe’s most splendid residences. Today it’s used as a museum, containing artwork and furniture.
Cost: 22 zł per person | Address: Plac Zamkowy 4 | www.zamek-krolewski.pl
- St Anne’s Church
Overlooking the Castle Square, St Anne’s Church is arguably one of the most ornate and beautiful in the city; luckily it escaped with only minor damage in World War Two. You can climb the swirling staircase to a viewing platform at the top of the church, where you are rewarded with panoramas of the city and Old Town.
Cost: 5 zł | Address: ulica Krakowskie Przedmeście 68
Strolling from the Castle Square, the historical ‘Royal’ route follows ulica Krakowskie Przedmeście and ulica Nowy Świat to Al Jerozolimskie. En route, you’ll see many statues and beautiful buildings. There’s the Presidential Palace, the ornate gates of the University of Warsaw and a number of churches such as the Church of the Holy Cross, where there is a statue of Jesus hauling a giant cross up the stairs at the front, and where the ashes of the legendary musician Chopin are kept. This route leads to Łazienki Park, detailed below.
Cost: free | Addresses listed above
These huge gardens are a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the city and are simply beautiful year-round. Once used as a hunting ground, the park is still home many animals and birds such as peacocks and deer. There is a palace, amphitheatre, and the famous statue of Chopin, the legendary musician. You can enjoy a free Chopin concert here on Sundays in summer.
Cost: free | Address: ulica Agrykola | www.lazienki-krolewskie.pl
The Palace of Culture and Science Viewing Platform
A “gift” from the Soviet Union in the early 1950s, at 231m high you cannot miss the Palace. It towers above the rest of the city, and you can whizz up to a viewing platform on the 30th floor in the elevator. I always think viewing platforms are best at sunset as the views of the city are best when the light changes. The view from St Peter’s Church in Riga at dusk was nothing short of magical! Warsaw is a much more industrial city that Riga, so it wasn’t as charming with its lack of tiny snow-capped pointy roofs, but this is still a must. With the sun setting in the distance and a light fog rolling in, I felt like we were in Dubai, not Poland!
Cost: 18 zł | Address: Plac Defilad 1 | www.pkin.pl
Day 2 – History
Our second day in Warsaw was rainy, foggy, and very cold – miserable weather but a good excuse to stay indoors and explore some of the museums in the city. Be prepared to be on your feet for a long time and make sure you set aside at least a couple of hours for each museum listed below; they provide such a vast quantity of information and stories and are really worth every minute you spend there.
POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews
Another absolute must, this museum does what it says on the tin. Learn about the history of Polish Jews since they first came to Poland as merchants way back in the 10th Century, their stories during the war (some of it is quite heart-wrenching; be prepared!) and the Jewish community in Poland today. You need to visit to understand the horror of WW2 for Jewish people. With interactive exhibits and themed areas, this museum is one of the best I’ve been to.
Cost: 25 zł | Address: ulica Mordechaja Anielewicza 6 | www.polin.pl
Warsaw Rising Museum
One of the best museums in Warsaw and recommended by Lonely Planet, this is one you cannot miss. I got an audioguide but I don’t feel they are necessary as the exhibits are very informative. The Warsaw Rising Museum will teach you all about the rise of the Polish against the Germans invading their city in 1944, and how it failed. Polish Jews were forced into tiny, unsanitary parts of the city cordoned by 10 foot high walls, whilst their non-Jewish neighbours went about their ‘everyday’ lives dealing with the more common horrors of the war such as rationing. These walled areas became known as the ‘ghettos’, from which there were weekly “excursions” to the gas chambers.
Cost: 20 zł | Address: ulica Grzybowska 79 | www.1944.pl
Biobazar Weekend Market
Technically we went to the market on our third day in Warsaw, but I’ll include it in this section as you should have time to visit the market and aforementioned museums in one day. Weekend markets are very popular in the capital, and you can easily see that, as well as being the local place to buy your weekly fruit and veggies, they’re also a great spot for locals to catch up with friends for a chat. I loved going to the market every weekend in Wellington so we made sure to visit at least one in Warsaw before heading to the airport on Saturday afternoon.
The Biobazar Market sells just about everything: fruits and vegetables, cakes, meats and fish, honey, cosmetics, bread – there are even some vegan stands! There are different halls for different products and you can see the metal tracks on the ground from where the buildings were originally used as a factory. We had a look around the stalls and got a delicious vegan oat & berry slice from a stand called ‘Vege Kiosk’.
Tips for your trip to Warsaw
Essential Know Before You Go
- The currency in Poland is the zloty – often abbreviated to zł or PLN. It’s pronounced “zwots”. £1GBP is equivalent to around 5 złoty, see current rates of exchange on xe.com.
- The country code is +48 and the emergency number is 999 for ambulance & police, 998 for fire.
- The main language is Polish and it helps to learn a few essential phrases before you go, but most people speak English.
- Visas aren’t required for citizens of the EU, US, Canada, New Zealand or Australia; check on your country’s immigration website before you go.
- Don’t forget your travel insurance! I always use World Nomads.
Where to stay in Warsaw
We stayed in a fully furnished apartment in Wola, a suburb close to the city centre. We were only a 5 minute walk to the Warsaw Rising Museum and the closest tram stop; the tram to the city took around 20 minutes. This was a real gem of a find as it is a private apartment rented out by the owner. I would highly recommend it and would stay here again.
How to get to Warsaw
Buses run regularly to other big cities within Poland and further afield; the Polski Bus is a cheap and popular means of transport. Domestic and international trains depart regularly from numerous stations in Warsaw, most depart from the central station (Warszawa Centralna, Al Jerozolmskie 54). There are two airports in Warsaw: Chopin, the larger of the two, and Modlin which is 35km north of the city. Modlin is only serviced by Ryanair.
How to get from the airport to the city
From Chopin Airport, take commuter SKM rail service train 53 to Warsaw Central Railway Station (cost: 4.40 zł). Bus number 175 terminates near the Old Town and costs 4.40 zł. A taxi should cost around 50 zł.
From Modlin Airport, you can either: take the Modlin bus (33 zł), take the train (the shuttle bus to the station takes 10 mins, departs just outside the airport exit, and is included in the price) to Warsaw Central Railway Station (19 zł), or take a taxi (we were quoted 150 zł).
How to get around in Warsaw
Warsaw has a great network of buses, trams and the metro, so you can get from A to B very easily. Our accommodation was in Wola, which is around 45-60 mins walk to the centre, so we used the tram a lot. You can buy a 24 hour ticket for unlimited travel on the buses, trams and the metro for just 15 zł (equivalent to around £3) within zone 1 (and zone 1 is massive; unless you book accommodation really far away you’ll only need this ticket.)
James and I use always use our offline GPS map when we’re in a new city. Here We Go is an app by Nokia which allows you to download maps of certain cities/ countries when connected to wifi which you can then use without data or a mobile network. You can type in your destination and it will bring up a list of options on public transport, by car or by foot, to get there. We just typed in where we wanted to go and then took the trams that the app advised – easy! It works on iOS and Android and has got us out of sticky situations numerous times – we even travelled the whole of New Zealand using it!
Here are some useful links:
Looking for somewhere to eat in Warsaw? Read this post!
I’m glad we came to Warsaw with no expectations or knowledge of the city beforehand, and I was pleasantly surprised. I’m a romantic: I love narrow, cobble-stoned streets filled with stories, small, quaint towns with hidden cafés and family-run businesses. With Warsaw’s combination of modern, high-rise skyscrapers and bleak, Soviet-style apartment blocks, the city isn’t what I normally fall in love with upon first glance. In fact, I would even go as far to say that it’s a little depressing – particularly if the weather isn’t at its best.
But I’m not one to judge a book by its cover. Warsaw is an industrial hub, laced with remnants of the country’s past – but if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find a thriving art and food scene, quirky neighbourhoods and nightlife that apparently rivals that of Berlin (apparently). It seems to be constantly changing and I’d love to visit again in a few years. I wish we’d had a little longer in Warsaw to discover further hidden gems, but our two days was enough to see the major attractions.
And as for the question of whether Krakòw is better than Warsaw, I have no idea, as I’ve only visited the latter – but I can say that I definitely recommend a trip to the capital!
Would you like to visit Warsaw? If you have already been, did you love it or hate it? How do you think it compares to Krakòw?
Thanks for reading & happy travels
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Most of the photos in this post were taken by James – you can follow him on Instagram here.