“Resilience” is a word that often comes to mind when walking around Warsaw. Almost all of the historic-looking buildings – creamy neoclassical churches and palaces lining the Royal Route, the red-brick royal castle with its teardrop-shaped turrets, the houses of medieval merchants in the old town – are a faithful reconstruction after the destruction virtual total of the Polish capital during the Second World War.
But the city’s phoenix rise goes beyond the facsimile. For every museum unpacking its beleaguered past, there’s a speakeasy, vegan cafe, or rooftop park to discover. Along the wide boulevards lined with skyscrapers, in the nightclubs lining the Vistula River and through the craft breweries and art galleries occupying Soviet-era factories, it’s palpable: the creative energy and exterior facing of the new power plant in Central Europe.
▶ There is no missing Palace of Culture and Science, a 237 m high mastodon donated to Warsaw by Stalin. As of 2022, it’s not technically the tallest structure in the city anymore (that badge now goes to the nearby Varso Tower), but it’s worth going up to the 30th-floor terrace for panoramic views that s extend to the outskirts of the city (£5; pkin.pl).
▶ Not all the delights of the Centrum district are so obvious: a walking tour with local guide Izabela Danil shows you the hidden gems of the city center (warsawguide.info). Inside an unassuming building is a Warsaw Fotoplastikon, where an antique stereoscopic machine displays 1920s street photographs in 3D (£2; fotoplastikonwarszawski.pl). A nearby courtyard hides a rare surviving 19th-century wooden thatched cottage, dwarfed by the brick walls that have sprung up around it.
The Old Town of Warsaw
▶ The best way to appreciate the transformation of Warsaw’s UNESCO-listed Old Town is to stand in Zamkowy Square and grab Google images of the state of the square in 1944. Today oday, the royal castle (£7; zamek -krolewski.pl) and intricately patterned bourgeois houses look like illustrations from a medieval fairy tale. But keep your eyes peeled for nods to more recent history, like the World War II tank track set into the wall of St. John’s Cathedral.
▶ The millennial history of Polish Jews unfolds in rich and immersive detail in Polin. Surprises inside the modern museum, which stands on the site of the 1943 ghetto uprising, include a reconstructed 17th-century wooden synagogue vault in all its ornamental glory. Crucially, the interactive exhibits here don’t just dwell on heartbreaking periods of persecution, but also pay close attention to the myriad cultural contributions of the people (£5.50; polin.pl).
▶ Park life is easy to come by in Warsaw, with a quarter of the city covered in green space. The leafy promenades and baroque statues of the Saxon gardens lend themselves to a quiet weekend stroll. Meanwhile, the Warsaw University Library was doing living architecture before it was fashionable; climb its landscaped rooftop gardens to observe the city skyline.
Koneser Center, Prague
The coolest neighborhood
Few tourists cross the Vistula to Praga, unless it is to discover the two streets (Mala and Konopacka, to be precise) where The pianist was filmed. However, this working-class neighborhood in the east, a city apart until 1791, quietly displayed its artistic muscle. Think of the street art murals splashed across apartment buildings and old factories converted into cultural hotspots. The Neon Museum sees a former munitions factory lit up with Soviet-era street signage (£3; neonmuzeum.org), while a new Google campus, vodka museum (with tasting experience) and fashion boutiques rub shoulders in a former distillery, the Koneser Center (koneser.eu).
Where to eat and drink
Local, seasonal ingredients and traditional recipes undergo a refined contemporary makeover at the hands of Chef Konrad Kowalski. This includes inventive, sweet and savory pre-desserts, such as baby pumpkin with goat cheese ice cream. The dining room, with its elegant and subdued atmosphere, is just as pleasing to the eye. In fact, Wallpaper magazine named Opasly Tom one of the five most beautiful restaurants in the world (mains from £14, tasting menu £56; kregliccy.pl).
Pierogi – gyoza-like dumplings stuffed with savory or sweet fillings – are ubiquitous in Warsaw, but some of the tastiest can be found at the pretty pastel-hued café Syrena Irena. Even better, you can watch your batch being made in the open kitchen. Add a warming cup of zurek (a sour, fermented rye soup) and you’re all set for sightseeing (from £3 for six pierogi; instagram.com/syrena.irena).
Sakebar by Nobu
Sakebar by Nobu
Tapping into the cosmopolitan and increasingly outward-looking character of Warsaw, Nobu’s temple for all things sake landed in September 2022, showing that there’s more to drink in this city these days. Ci than vodka and beer. Enjoy your rice wine straight from traditional chirori silver jugs or mixed with drinks, including the hajikami ginger martini (cocktails from £11; warsaw.nobuhotels.com).
Pyzy, Flaki Gorace!
This cozy, no-frills cafe takes its name from the phrase that street vendors used to call at local markets. “Pyzy” are gobstopper-sized potato dumplings – served in a jar of jam and topped with fresh pesto – while “flaki” is tripe soup and “gorace” simply means “hot”. There is a branch in Praga, another in the city center (area from £4; pyzyflakigorace.pl).
Of the 18 restaurants in Koszyki’s historic indoor market, CMA stands out for its industrial-chic, bright interiors and modern takes on Polish comfort food. It serves everything from tapas-style plates to hearty dinners to divine cocktails. And don’t miss the chance to try a glass of solaris, a delicious Polish white wine (main course from £10; mateuszgessler.com.pl).
Wine pairings? Pa. The dishes in this gourmet restaurant are accompanied by stronger dishes – the vodka, of course. Small-batch distiller sips, unusual flavors (anyone for quince or espresso?) and a potato vodka specialty accompany a menu of Polish-inspired opulence, like dumplings truffle and buckwheat pancakes with caviar (dishes from £10; domwodki.pl).
A room at Raffles Europejski
Where to stay
If the white stucco walls of this iconic property could talk, they would whisper Belle Époque balls, Hollywood star getaways and Rolling Stones after-parties. Still pretty on the Royal Mile, its charms extend to a swanky underground spa, marble-clad Long Bar (try the Warsaw Ginger Fronde), and a museum-worthy collection of modern and contemporary Polish art. , which you can visit with the concierge dedicated to art. Floor-to-ceiling windows, separate living rooms and deep soaking tubs make the heritage and iconic suites particularly opulent (B&B doubles from £221; raffles.com).
You couldn’t wish for a more convenient location for exploring the city center, opposite the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw. The heart of the hotel is its Metro Jazz Bar & Bistro, which offers all your day-to-night food and drink options, while the modern rooms have a hint of Scandi minimalism about them (the B&B doubles from £50; hotelmetropol.com.pl).
Boutique Hotel H15
Boutique hotels are rare in Warsaw; H15 has bags of character with pop-art prints and bold patterned wallpapers, courtesy of interior designer Mariola Tomczak. Its 47 apartments and rooms occupy a former Soviet embassy building on a busy street lined with restaurants (the B&B doubles from £124; h15-boutique.com).
If you only do one thing
Attend a Chopin concert. Music by the town’s beloved maestro is played daily inside the royal castle (£11; timeforchopin.eu). In the summer, free outdoor recitals are held every Sunday in Royal Lazienki Park (lazienki-krolewskie.pl).
Estella Shardlow was a guest of Warsaw Tourist Board (warsawtour.pl) and Raffles Europejski Warsaw (raffles.com)