Expat's Guide to the Best of Warsaw
After living in Warsaw for a year, we've decided to compile a list of recommendations for anyone who is visiting. This is a list of places we like to take our guests, so if this is your first time in Warsaw or if you're considering moving here, I hope it will be helpful.
What to see
Old Town - Warsaw's Old Town was almost entirely destroyed by the Nazis during WWII, but it has been rebuilt with impressive accuracy. It's considered one of the most incredible reconstructions every made and is a UNESCO site. The best way to see it is with a free daily tour by Orange Umbrella. The newly opened Warsaw Museum is also worth a visit.
View from St. Anna - after your tour of the Old Town, climb on top of St. Anna's church to get a bird's eye view.
Warsaw University Library roof - instead of having a boring old roof, the University Library has a garden. The library building is surrounded by a sculpture park and is quite unique in its own right. This is one of our visitors' favorite highlights from Warsaw, so don't miss it.
Palace of Science and Culture - this is Warsaw's landmark building that you will see from everywhere. Since it was built by the Soviets and is a copy of similar buildings in Moscow, it's not beloved by all Warsavians. Still, I think it's pretty cool and is worth a closer look. The Palace is a huge complex where you can see a play, walk around an art gallery, watch a movie in the cinema, listen to live music at Cafe Kulturalna or climb on top of the Palace for a bird's eye view of Warsaw.
Łazienki Palace - Europe is full of palaces and Warsaw is by no means a leader. That said, however, I find European palaces overwhelming - they are usually too big and too gilded, making it hard to imagine someone actually living in them. Łazienki Palace is the exact opposite - the residence of Poland's last king (who lost his country to his lover Catherine the Great) - is a tiny palace that makes you feel like you've just hung out at a king's house. Comes with an audio-guide.
Secret Village - Jazdow village is my favorite place in Warsaw because even though it's located right in the center of the city, it is a total secret. Many people who've lived here for years have no idea it exists! A village made of pre-fabricated Finnish wooden huts constructed after the war when there was a huge shortage of housing, it has kept its village feel despite the fact that it's surrounded by embassies. Some of the houses are privately owned, but the majority have been given over to different nonprofits and student organizations. There's a gardening club, a winter garden, an architecture students' workshop and many others. Look out for concerts, reading and other events happening there.
What to do
Tour Warsaw in a Polski Fiat - the Fiat is the tiniest car you'll ever squeeze into and Warsaw Tours, the company providing the rides, has great guides to make your tour of Warsaw very interesting. For our tour, we chose the Communist Theme and learned a ton of interesting facts we wouldn't have picked up anywhere else.
Chopin Concert in Lazienki Park (summer only) - every Sunday at 12pm and 4pm, hear an accomplished pianist perform music by Warsaw's native son Frederic Chopin underneath his enormous statue. Get there early to grab a chair or come with your own picnic.
Stroll the Vistula River - in the summer, the river bank is full of food trucks, lounge chairs and fun bars that throw parties that last till morning. But even in colder months, the river is worth a look.
People watch on Plac Zbawiciela - this round square dominated by a beautiful church is a popular hangout in any season because it has a dozen restaurants and bars. Come here for lunch, an afternoon ice cream break, a drink at night or for breakfast (see Restaurant section for recommendations).
Bargain for veggies at Hala Mirowska - this is Warsaw's main farmer's market and is always a great scene. Wander the outside and inner stalls to marvel at all the amazing food this country (apparently) produces.
Time travel in Praga - Praga is the right side of the Vistula river, a unique neighborhood that wasn't destroyed during WWII but wasn't really rebuilt that much either. If you've ever seen a WWII movie, chances are it was filmed on Praga's streets because here it still looks like it's 1946. If you want a look into the future, check out SOHO Factory with its Neon Museum and Warszawa Wschodnia restaurant (see below), one of the best in Warsaw, or spend a day working at the Google Campus in the Koneser vodka factory. Praga is also where you'll see Warsaw's best graffiti.
Tour the Warsaw Ghetto - Warsaw used to be the home of more than 300,000 Polish Jews, making it the second biggest Jewish city after New York. Then, the war came and now only about 30,000 Polish Jews are estimated to live in Poland (see my article on today's Jewish community on Culture.pl). Because the Jewish ghetto, which stretched through a huge part of Warsaw, was reduced to rubble and so there is little to actually "see" if you're just wondering on your own. But it's worth getting a free tour by Orange Umbrella to see certain sites and understand this crucial part of Warsaw's history.
Make a perfume - want a reminder of your trip to Warsaw? Then stop by Mo61 Perfume Lab, tucked between the upscale boutiques of Mokotowska Street, and create your very own scent.
Get out of town - if you're staying in Warsaw for a while and the many city parks are no longer cutting it for you, check out our guide to Best Forests Around Warsaw. If you want a cultural day trip, here is my article on Culture.pl about Best Cultural Day Trips from Warsaw.
Warsaw Uprising Museum - the Warsaw uprising against the Nazis in 1944 is a huge deal to Poles, even though many foreigners know little about it. It's crucial to understanding this city and how its citizens view themselves, so don't miss this experiential museum that tells the saga. The visit should take you about 1.5-2 hours.
POLIN Museum - the Museum of the History of Polish Jews tells the story of a 1000-year history of Jews in Poland. It's not a Holocaust museum, though of course there is a section dedicated to that. Even though it's focused on Jews, I found that it's actually the best guide to Polish history as well. Plan 3-4 hours to tour it. They have an excellent cafeteria, so get lunch there after.
Fotoplastikon - In the early 20th century, a Fotoplastikon was a popular device to watch three-dimensional images. There used to be ton of them before the arrival of the cinema, but the one in Warsaw is one of the very few remaining in the world. Check out photos of pre-war Warsaw (or they have other exhibits of vintage photos from around the world). Takes less than 30 minutes.
If you're an art lover, see Polish paintings at the Royal Castle in the Old Town or the National Museum. For more current stuff, check exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art, Ujazdowski Castle Center for Contemporary Art, or Zacheta National Gallery of Art.
Bar Bambino - milk bars are a Communist-era institution in Poland, but that doesn't mean they're a low class joint to feed the people. The best milk bars attract everyone from families to businessmen to tourists with their filling, homey lunches. Our favorite is Bar Bambino that is located in the center, has a classy decor and delicious food (Mr. ate there several times a week). Don't worry if you see a line out the door - it moves fast.
Warszawa Wschodnia - don't miss this 24-hour restaurant with a gorgeous open kitchen created by Warsaw's star chef Mateusz Gessler. Located in the uber-hip SoHo Factory in Praga, its menu will make you appreciate Polish cuisine like never before.
Green Bar - if you're a vegetarian, you may be worried that in Poland you'll be stuck eating potatoes and cabbage all day long. But Warsaw actually has an extremely diverse vegetarian and vegan scene (one can say that it even borders on obsessive). Our favorite pick (even if you're not a vegetarian) is Green Bar on Szpitalna street. Order a main (like a young beet tart) and it comes with a mountain of salads.
Lukullus - Warsaw's movers and shakers consider Lukullus the best bakery in town. That means that besides the truly delicious desserts, you can also enjoy watching out for who's who of Warsaw.
When you don't want Polish food
We love Polish food, but how many pierogi and pork can you really have, right? Here are a few other options when you're craving something else.
Georgian - Warsaw is a great place to try the delicious Georgian cuisine. Check out Rusiko for a more upscale experience (they have live piano on some nights) or for a casual quick lunch, stop by Chinkali Cafe.
Mediterranean - Sofra is our favorite place for a Greek/Turkish meal. Classy setting in the very center.
Seafood - Kraken Rum Bar is a super popular hangout for expats and locals alike. As the name suggests, rum cocktails is their specialty. But it just so happens that they also serve delicious seafood. Great option for lunch or dinner.
Burgers - Warsaw has a gajillion burger joints, but we like Burger Bar, located on Krucza 41/43. Don't be thrown off by the fact that besides burgers, their menu includes ramen and burrito. They're all good, but the burgers are definitely excellent.
Kosher - JCC Warsaw hosts one of the funnest Sunday brunches in town called Boker Tov. The food is fresh, kosher at shared at communal tables. Great place to make friends over a meal.
Crepes - Manekin is a small chain with a couple of locations in Warsaw. Poles like to eat crepes for lunch (not breakfast), so expect a long line on the weekend afternoon. They offer a million giant stuffed crepes for a super cheap price (about $9 for two people, including drinks). We recommend the crepe with potato, onion and cheese or the sweet, gooey, farmer's cheese one.
Hala Koszyki - Hala Koszyki is a fancy food court with a well-heeled crowd, a couple of upscale restaurants as well as a food court with Indian, Thai, Mexican, Spanish, and Israeli options. There is a beautiful bar in the center and a DJ spinning every Friday and Saturday night. Opened at the end of 2016, it's been popular at all seasons. After dinner, don't miss the gelateria.
Sushi - unless you want cream cheese on every single one of your rolls, stay away from sushi while in Poland (or anywhere else in Eastern Europe for that matter).
Weles - Weles is our favorite fancy cocktail bar in Warsaw because it has a dark, sexy decor, good retro DJ on Friday nights, and is hidden in the corner of a gloomy communist-era courtyard. The cocktails are absolutely spectacular and, for Warsaw, are spectacularly expensive (think San Francisco or New York level). Great people watching.
Charlie - Charlie is the newest fancy cocktail joint to pop up in Warsaw's center. Located in an old apartment building, it has multiple rooms with decor, inspired by turn-of-the-century cruise ships. Caters to a fancy crowd in their 30s and 40s. Ask for their secret perfume-inspired cocktail menu. (Disclaimer: Charlie is owned by our friend)
Palmier - just around the corner from Weles, you'll find this upscale cocktail place with a classy atmosphere. It's also a restaurant, so feel free to grab a bite.
Plan B - one of Warsaw's first bars, this place is legendary and always full. Located on Plac Zbawiciela, in the warm season, the youngish crowds spill out on the street. Fun place to start the night.
If you want a bar or club with a view, our friend and travel blogger Sasha compiled a great list of Warsaw's places with a panoramic view.
Warsaw has a ton of coffee shops, from the Green Nero Caffe chain (which is conveniently open on Sundays and has decent cakes and sandwiches if you can't find anything else around) to a wife range of funky, sleek or even fancy-pantsy coffee shops. But here are our favorites:
Ministerstwo Kawy - considered the best-quality coffee in Warsaw, Ministerstwo is located next to the popular Plac Zbawiciela. The brews are solid and they sell their beans too. They also have chess boards and cake. The wifi works fine, but has to be renewed every half hour.
Etno Cafe - spacious, newly opened cafe in the very center. Etno has good wifi, good coffee, and plenty of tables. It's open on Sundays and many holidays, which is a rarity for a Catholic country. One word of advice, though - don't eat there.
Charlotte - this popular French bakery is Warsaw's answer to Le Pain Quotidien. There are two locations, but we like the one on Plac Zbawiciela, which offers a great view on the church. Besides a variety of croissants and pastries, you can also get eggs, yogurt, and classics like croque madame. Charlotte's bread basket comes with fun spreads - raspberry jam, honey and (Poles' favorite) white chocolate.
Labour Cafe - located near Nowy Swiat, this cute coffee shop that bills itself as a "coworking cafe" has great lunches and solid wifi. It's not huge, but if you need to host a small group, head to the back to find a secret back room.
For more coworking-friendly cafes throughout Warsaw, check out our friend Sasha's list here.