There’s a type of traveler drawn to destinations with a history of tragedy. I’m one of them. For me, it’s about learning from the worst moments in human history, drawing lessons, and seeing how people have since attempted to move on. (Of course, there’s a fine line between thoughtful travel and exploitation that we must always be cognizant of.)
The Western worldview tends to generally lump the whole of Africa into that conversation, specifically South Africa and Rwanda, and parts of Southeast Asia and Central America. This all happens within the same biased viewpoint that says Europe has had and continues to have their shit together, more so than the Asian and African continents.
In reality, Europe has been plagued with war as far as back as written history goes. Within that context, not many places in the world have experienced tragedy like Poland–most especially Warsaw. Ninety percent of the city was decimated by the end of World War II when Soviet troops came marching in to write their own tragic chapter with the Polish people once again playing the victim. 400,000 Jews were imprisoned in the Nazi-created Warsaw Ghetto with an estimated 300,000 killed by gas or firing squad. Another 92,000 perished as victims of hunger-related fatalities, as casualties in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and in the Nazi’s ultimate destruction of the Ghetto.
Suffice it to say, if you’re drawn to those destinations that have been through hell and back, then Warsaw should be at the top of your list. Few places in the world have had the comeback story Warsaw is still writing and now is a particularly exciting time to see the Polish capital in action.
WHERE TO GO
This district stretches from the southern border of the more touristy Old Town to residential corners where you’ll be hard-pressed to find any regular throngs of tourists. I stayed at Autor Rooms, an apartment within a residential building converted into lodging by local artists and designers. Only a small sign outside of the building lets you know that you’ve arrived. Few places gave me the sense that I’m briefly living in a new city like Autor Rooms, made all the more welcoming by their management and cook who serves breakfast every morning–even preparing something in advance for the Easter Sunday I was there.
From Autor Rooms, you’re surrounded by a plethora of excellent dining options. Every local I met indicated that nobody who lives in Warsaw eats in Old Town. Instead, most of the favorites are in this corner of town. La Sirena: The Mexican Food Cartel offers some of the best Mexican cuisine I’ve experienced on this side of the ocean and is just a block away from Autor Rooms. Tel Aviv Food & Wine (vegan and vegetarian-friendly) is just a bit further north up the road with Israeli eats that made for the perfect arrival meal. Then across the street, the Kraken Rum Bar hit my growing taste for an energetic cocktail bar with a palpable local ambiance. And if you want even more Mexican, there’s Secado just east of the latter two establishments. PiwPaw was the place to go for a late night craft beer, which I’m proud to say I spotted out on my own and received praised for by a local guide, who offered that it’s where he goes for his late night drinking, too.
A debate I’ve consistently found in European cities destroyed by World War II (Dresden comes to mind) is the merit of rebuilding the historic old town. Some members of the contemporary generation find these redesigned centers to be fake, like a Disneyland. Others will concede that they look nice, but it’s not where they hang out with their friends. While it’s hardly my place, I can still muster a heartfelt sentiment that rebuilding seems to be the far better choice than to simply wipe away what fascism destroyed. The redevelopment of Old Town Warsaw is remarkable when you consider that it was redesigned exclusively from old blueprints, memory, and (some say) pre-war paintings of the city center by Italian painter, Bernardo Bellotto.
Indeed, walking Old Town Warsaw is a treat. Yes, there are tourists and the occasional flag-led groups, but it’s hardly the catastrophe of mass tourism that continues to plague more traveled-European capitals. Old Town Warsaw can easily be walked in an hour or two and is thus more than worth the time. (I straddled the fence by staying on the neighborhood border at Hotel Bellotto one night, probably one of the more affordable five-star hotels in all of Europe with an interesting history of its own.)
Vast green spaces are a necessity in a healthy city and Warsaw has one of the best I’ve ever seen in Łazienki Park. Seventy-six hectares of urban respite complete with walking trails, public art, and even a floating palace–any visitor to Warsaw would be smart to spend a considerable amount of time here. Bring a book, something to write in, or just breathe the fresh air while relaxing on a park bench or maybe keep an eye out for a public concert.
My time in this neighborhood across the river was regrettably limited, worked into my schedule on a last minute whirlwind walk before hopping on the bus for the airport. But it was important for me to visit this neighborhood because I had just watched The Pianist about Władysław Szpilman’s efforts to stay alive while hiding during Nazi occupation. A local guide noted on a map the street in Praga where Szpilman hid, also noting that it was one of the very few sections of Warsaw that wasn’t completely obliterated due to the Nazi’s keeping their offices in this area.
As promised, Praga gives off a completely different vibe than either Śródmieście Południowe or Old Town. Buildings here still feature prominently bullet holes that date back to the war. “Grit” doesn’t even begin to describe the essence here. The best I can do is say that it would seem to fit right in within a Rust Belt neighborhood, like Detroit or Cleveland.
While I certainly wanted to pay my respects to Mr. Szpilman, I must admit that his hideout on Mała Street is just around the corner from Zakład Mięsny, a brewpub that had been wholeheartedly recommended to me. This was worked in to be my last stop in Warsaw with just enough time for a high-alcohol craft beer.
The 188 bus or the S3 tram will get you into the city from Chopin Warsaw Airport in less than 30 minutes, depending on where you’re looking to end up. Veturilo is a fantastic bike-share option to travel from neighborhood to neighborhood with stations at any sight you’d want to visit. Just make sure to download the app and register in advance to make getting your rental an easier process. The central train station is right in the heart of the city and walkable in and of itself to a number of the hotels and restaurant you’ll want to see.
The Palace of Culture and Science (Pałac Kultury i Nauki) is a Soviet-era architectural monument in between the Old Town and heart of Śródmieście Południowe. Look up opening hours and go early to beat the crowds. You’ll see tour buses starting to roll up for opening hours, but you can still beat them in before the tour leaders round them up and head in. Inside you can head up to the top floor for a panoramic view of the city, a stark juxtaposition to the old world aesthetic of so many other European cities.
Hop on a Vetruilo bike and head west to the Warsaw Rising Museum for a walk through World War II Warsaw and the events that led to the Uprising when the Polish Resistance Home Army fought the Nazis for 63 days without outside support. The Soviets stopped their advance short of the city, allowing the Nazis to demolish the uprising and the city. I’m not typically a museum guy, but this is one worth visiting.
If you’re looking to get out of the city for some hiking, Kampinoski Park Narodowy is one of the largest national parks in the country and is a short bus ride from the city. A proper map was hard to come by, so I followed a local’s advice and took it over to Laski on the southern end of the eastern end of the park. The signs aren’t clear from the bus stop, so I tracked my little blue dot on Google Maps until I hit a trail. Overall very simple, but do make sure your traveling with a charged phone and perhaps a power bank.
More. Time. In. Praga. They say this is where the hipsters and “cool kids” are moving, but I was really drawn to the gritty atmosphere of the neighborhood. Beyond that, next time in Warsaw, I need to finally get to a milk bar and explore some more neighborhoods. Maybe a full, sunny afternoon in Łazienki Park.
BEFORE YOU GO
There are a couple of podcasts to check out that will give some background on Warsaw’s history and experience through World War II. One to listen to is 99% Invisible’s “New Old Town” episode about the destruction of Warsaw’s Old Town during the war, its reconstruction, and how modern Poles feel about it. Estelle Laughlin shared her experience during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising when Nazi forces intended to liquidate the Jewish ghetto on April 19, 1943 and were met by an armed uprising of Jewish fighters. Her story (told within 10 minutes) is part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s First Person Podcast series. For some modern Polish music (not talking the kind with accordions), check out Dawid Podsiadło.
Disclaimer: Portions of this guide were made possible with support from the Warsaw Tourist Office. As always, all opinions are my own.