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Warsaw breaks the mould of Eastern Europe’s major cities. The vibrant Polish capital offers an engaging blend of old and new, from grand palaces and pristine parks to modern museums and bold architectural projects. Currently undergoing a considerable economic boom, Warsaw’s rebirth follows a turbulent 20th century which saw the city virtually destroyed in World War II then painstakingly reconstructed during decades of communism in Poland and, more recently, European Union membership. The result is a distinctive, forward-looking and increasingly chic city, which also boasts a burgeoning nightlife and restaurant scene.
No visit to Warsaw is complete without experiencing its charming Old Town near the banks of the Vistula River. Known locally as Stare Miasto, this heritage district is filled with fine Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic architecture dating back to the city’s founding in the 13th century. Those with a taste for historic buildings will love the Royal Castle, city walls and 14th century St John’s Cathedral. The centrepiece is the delightful Old Town Market, which is lined with tall townhouses. Amazingly, most of the neighbourhood had been wiped off the map in the latter half of the 20th century. It was meticulously recreated after Nazi troops razed it to the ground during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Starting with an almost blank canvas of a cityscape, Varsovian planners took inspiration from 18th century paintings of the district when carefully designing their models for its reconstruction. The project earned World Heritage Site status for the Old Town in 1980.
Easily reached by metro, bus and tram, the Old Town is a good base for those enjoying a city break in Warsaw because it’s brimming with hotels to suit all budgets. Foodies will also enjoy the abundance of restaurants where they can sample the cuisine of Poland, including traditional dishes like pierogi dumplings, bigos stew, kielbasa sausages and hearty meat dishes.
Loved and loathed in equal measure by city residents, the Palace of Culture and Science dominates the skyline of Warsaw. This hulking example of socialist realist architecture is the tallest building in Poland and was given as a gift of friendship from Stalin’s Soviet Union. It harks back to a bygone era of communist rule and is one of the city’s remaining links with decades of Soviet influence. If your hotel is in downtown Warsaw there’s a good chance you’ll get a good view of the palace, or at least its tower. Unsurprisingly, locals have mixed feelings about the building as it once represented Soviet power. But now, many have come to embrace it as an iconic symbol of Warsaw, even if unflattering nicknames like Stalin’s Syringe or the Russian Wedding Cake have managed to stick. When the palace was constructed in the 1950s, the city lay mostly in ruins. Nowadays, it invites visitors to discover trendy bars, cafes, museums and theatres plus the grand Congress Hall and cinema. The observation deck on the 30th floor rewards visitors with excellent panoramas of central Warsaw and the bold, modern buildings that have appeared in downtown in recent years.
Another popular Soviet-era throwback is the Inn Under the Red Hog restaurant in Żelazna Street. Located at the edge of downtown Warsaw, this fun eatery prides boasts a carefully-preserved 1960s atmosphere, featuring kitsch red banners and amusing paintings of communist leaders. On the menu are many Polish favourites, separated into affordable options for proletarians and more luxurious dishes for the bourgeoisie.
Wilanów Palace thankfully escaped the wanton destruction of World War II. Located in the southern suburbs of the city, the Baroque 17th century palace gives visitors an indication of Warsaw’s splendour in the time before Poland was first partitioned in the late 18th century. There’s also a sprawling park, perfect for whiling away lazy afternoons. Alternatively, kick back and relax in Łazienki Park. Located just south of downtown, Warsaw’s largest park is a major draw for families with its beautifully-maintained green spaces and peacocks. Summertime visitors can even enjoy outdoor classical music concerts on Sundays. Naturally, the music of Polish-born composer Frederic Chopin features heavily. His life’s work is also celebrated at the Chopin Museum, boasting modern, interactive exhibits within the elegant Ostrogski Palace at the eastern edge of downtown.
Indeed, there’s an abundance of excellent museums across the city. The Warsaw Rising Museum in the Wola district is just a short walk from Rondo Daszynskiego metro station. Using archive films and photographs, it conveys the mounting sense of dread Varsovians felt as they bravely decided to resist the Nazi German occupation of their city in 1944. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Muranów district is also well worth a visit. Built on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto, it houses multimedia exhibits lifting the lid on the story of Poland’s Jewish community, spanning the Middle Ages, the Holocaust and the modern day.