weekend away - Warsaw
Written by Denise Grollmus Illustration by Vesa Sammalisto
The dynamic city of Warsaw, the largest in Poland, is saturated in complex layers of history, and boasts one of the most vibrant contemporary art scenes in Europe.
Ever since King Sigismund III moved his royal court from Krakow to Warsaw during the 16th century, the city has functioned as Poland’s geographical and political centre. Still, the story of contemporary Warsaw really begins four centuries later, during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, when German forces destroyed more than 80% of the city. Since then, the city has been in a perpetual state of rebuilding, rendering it a fascinating mix of old and new.
One would never know that the Old Town was entirely rebuilt throughout the 1960s and 70s. The historic centre’s blend of Gothic and baroque architecture appears to be straight out of the 13th century, when it was founded. Wandering along the narrow, cobble-stoned streets of shops bursting with amber jewellery, antique stores, and traditional restaurants, one feels transported to the pre-war past.
From here, it’s easy to make your way back to the present along Nowy Swiat, a bustling shopping street where you can stop at Café Blikle and then peruse the exquisite custom-made leather shoes at Jan Kielman. If you’re visiting you’ll notice that most Varsovians prefer to be outside after the winter. One of their favourite spots is the Lazienki Royal Park, where you’ll find peacocks roaming freely among sunbathing Poles, who also come to watch outdoor concerts at the rose-lined Chopin monument.
Directly adjacent to the Royal Park is Ujazdowski Castle, which now houses the city’s Centre for Contemporary Art, one of the most exciting displays of Warsaw’s cutting-edge art scene. Inside the castle, the Qchnia Artystyczna serves up a modern take on classic Polish cuisine and a breath-taking view along the castle’s regal veranda.
Warsaw, Eastern-Bloc Style
Under Communism, ‘milk bars’ were subsidised by the state and served up no-frills food at Soviet-approved prices. Today, Bar Bambino is the best of these throwback institutions, offering visitors a slice of Varsovian life. During the lunch rush, well-suited businessmen and penny-pinching students alike line up to order Bambino’s extensive selection of unadorned Polish staples, from pierogi to barszcz, served up cafeteria-style in a minimalist, retro-chic setting.
Where to stay
Between the Old Town and Nowy Swiat, the Hotel Bristol has functioned as Warsaw’s most famous hotel since it was first opened in 1901. Its stunning neo-Renaissance façade, art deco décor, and 5-star amenities are situated in the heart of the city, boasting the Presidential Palace as a neighbour, and most of the city’s major sites within a ten-minute stroll.