While certainly not an eye-sore, Warsaw probably won’t make you go back home to report, “It’s certainly one of the better-looking places I saw” while eating your mom’s homemade cold-slaw.
But what the Polish capital—whose proper name is the much less pun-centric Warszawa (var-sha-vah)—lacks in architecture it makes up for in history and a relaxed, vibrant atmosphere. A city that was effectively leveled during World War II and lost nearly 30% of its population in the Holocaust, the Warsaw you see today is a replica of its former self, reconstructed and ruled, along with the rest of Poland, by a communist government until 1990. Institutions such as the Warsaw Rising and History of Polish Jews museums remember the war, and many of the buildings, most noticeably the Palace of Culture and Science, serve as relics to the period of Soviet influence. With over a thousand years of history but only around three decades of independence, Warsaw is an exciting blend of old and new. It’s just as easy to find a vegan burger place as a traditional Polish restaurant, a futuristic one meter-wide house as a royal castle, a man wearing regular shorts as a man wearing early-2000s three-quarter jean shorts. Spend your days roaming around museums, parks, and cafés, your nights along the Vistula River, and the months afterwards thinking how stupid you were to judge this place by its looks.
Just like your guidance counselor in high school, nearly every neighborhood in Warsaw is worth visiting at least once. Along the west bank of the Vistula River—which separates the more metropolitan part of the city from the grungy, less glamorous (but arguably cooler) Praga district—you’ll find the Old Town (entirely rebuilt after WWII), the Powisle district (the student district), and Lazienki Park (filled with palaces, Chopin, and an art museum). Powisle, in particular, contains some of the best restaurants in the city as well as Plac Zabaw, which refers to a bunch of bars and food trucks on the river. Head further west into the city from Powisle to enter the city center, which subtly announces itself with the towering Palace of Culture and Science. If you follow ul. Marszaalkowlska south in the direction of hipster haven Plac Zbawciela, restaurants and bars will jump out as if you’re walking through a very un-scary haunted house. Trams run horizontally and vertically along most main roads, and two metro lines, one adjacent to the river and the other perpendicular to it, intersect at ul. Swietokryzska, one street north of the aforementioned palace.
From Chopin Airport’s Terminal A, take the SKM S2 train to the Środmieście station and the S3 to Warszawa Centralna station (single-trip public transport tickets 4.40zł). From the budget airline-friendly Warsaw-Modlin Airport, take one of the green or yellow shuttles to Modlin Train Station, from which trains run into Warszawa Centralna station. If you’re traveling by train, you’ll likely disembark at Warszawa Centralna station as well. A bus journey into Warsaw will drop you off at the main bus station along Aleje Jerozolimskie, which is either a 15min. train ride from the nearby Warsaw West station or a 12min. bus ride (#127, 158, 517) east into the city center.
The public transport system consists of trams, buses, and two metro lines running north-south (blue line M1) and east-west (red line M2). A night bus runs after 11pm until 5am, and the metro runs from 5am until 11am on weekdays, and until 3am on Friday and Saturday. Public transport tickets (single ride 4.40zł) are valid for all three modes of transport, and can be purchased from green and yellow kiosks or anywhere with a “Bilety” (“ticket”) sign. Unless you’re traveling to the outskirts of Warsaw, you’ll only need a Zone 1 ticket, which includes the Chopin Airport. 24hr (15zł), 72hr (36zł), and weekend (24zł) tickets are also available. You cannot board the metro without validating your ticket, but this isn’t the case when riding a bus or tram. However, if a plainclothes police officer catches you without a validated ticket, you will be fined 266zł. Ubers are available in the city, and reliable taxi companies include Glob Cab Taxi (666 009 668) and VIP Taxi Warsaw (791 550 525).
Tourist Offices: Old Town (Rynek Starego Miasta 19/21/21a; open daily May-Sept 8am-7pm, Oct-Apr 8am-6pm).
Banks/ATMs/Currency Exchange: ATMs are found throughout the city at most banks and by the arrival terminal at the airport. Use ATMs instead of currency exchanges at the airport. In the city, currency exchanges are known as “kantors,” some of which give better rates than ATM machines. Avoid kantors with English signs and those in touristy areas. The kantors in Złoty Tarasy and Arkadia shopping malls offer reasonable rates.
Post Offices: Poczta Polska, and two branches are located near to aleje Jerozolimskie, right next to the Palace of Culture and Science.
Internet: Most cafés, restaurants, and fast food restaurants have free Wi-Fi available. This website (www.wifispc.com/poland/mazowieckie/warsaw) provides a map of all the available Wi-Fi hotspots in the city.
BGLTQ+ Resources: Although Poland’s government doesn’t offer many legal rights and protections for the BGLTQ+ community, Warsaw is generally considered an BGLTQ+ friendly city. Here are some resources:
- Counseling for BGLTQ+ people at the offices of the Campaign Against Homophobia (ul. Solec 30A; 22 423 64 38; kph.org.pl; firstname.lastname@example.org).
- Poland-wide BGLTQ+ helpline Lambda Warszawa (22 628 52 22; open M W Th 6pm-10pm, Tu-F 6-9pm).
Emergency Number: 112; Poland Tourist Emergency Hotline (22 278 77 77 and 608 599 999; open daily 8am-6pm, June-Sept 8am-10pm)
Police: Komenda Główna Policji (Puławska 148/150; 22 621 02 51).
US Embassy: There is a US Embassy in Warsaw (al. Ujazdowskie 29/31; 22 504 2000; open M-F 8:30am-5pm).
Rape Crisis Center: The Feminoteka Foundation serves as Poland’s primary rape crisis helpline, providing legal and psychological support to victims of all kinds of violence (731 731 551 (helpline/support), 720 908 974 (admin); open Tu-Th 1pm-7pm). The foundation is based at ul. Mokotowska 29a, nearby plac Zbawiciela (open M-F 11am-7pm).
- Szpital Kliniczny Dzieciątka Jezus (Children’s Hospital of Jesus) (Williama Lindleya 4; 22 502 20 00; open daily 24hr).
- Lux Med. Al. Jerozolimskie 65/79 (Nowogrodzka 45; 22 33 22 888 (general hotline); open M-F 7am-8pm).
Pharmacies: Pharmacies are identifiable by the green cross on or protruding from their façade, and are called aptekas in Polish.
- Apteka Franciszkańska (ul. Franciszkańska 14 lok. 102; 22 635 35 25; open daily 24hr).
- Apteka Mirowska (pl. Mirowski 1; 22 620 02 66; open daily 24hr).