Warsaw, the capital city of Poland has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of Communism and reinvented itself yet again as a vivacious vibrant city with a buzzing night life scene. This is not the first time the city has been reborn, it was completely destroyed by the ravages of World War II when most of the city’s buildings were reduced to piles of rubble and Warsaw’s primarily Jewish population had either perished in the horrific Nazi concentration camps or had emigrated to escape the horrors of War. The Soviet occupation of the city from 1945 to 1989 saw the picturesque ‘ Old Town’ of Warsaw being restored to somewhat its former glory so much so that UNESCO put in on its World Heritage list in 1980. Since the fall of communism, however the city has developed somewhat haphazardly but rapidly and continues to change and grow even today.
Warsaw is located in the Mazowieckie province of Poland, on the banks of the river Vistula which the river divides the city into two parts. The Right bank was populated first but the Left bank of the river today has the main tourist sites and the trendy Praga district as well as the Central district called Srodmiescie (inner city). The entire city is divided into eighteen districts with the Srodmiescie and six other districts forming what is called the Centrum. For a tourist however the important sites lie along Ulica Marszalkowska and the ‘Old Town’ which is located at Rynek Starego Miasta (Old Town Square). One should try and explore the city on foot as public transport though cheap tends to be a trifle crowded. Most of the tourist sites are concentrated on what is called the Royal Route a 4 kilometer drag from the Royal Palace in the ‘Old Town’ to the kings former abode at Wilanow Palace which was modeled on the palace at Versailles. The Royal way also passes along the royal gardens of Lazienki Park and other verdant spots of the city.
Warsaw is indeed a transformed city after the Communist era. The Warsaw of today is a city with many parks, gardens and outdoor cafes dotting its landscape. These parks and gardens are centers of entertainment especially during the summer months.
Warsaw has a climate which is akin to the climate of the other European cities located on the continent. The summer months see mild weather with temperatures ranging between 9º C and 22º C (47ºF and 73ºF) while winters can be bitterly cold with much snowfall. The temperatures in the winter often below 0ºC, the temperatures in the winter range from - 4°C and 6°C (25°F and 42°F) with January and February being the coldest months of the year. Warsaw receives rainfall throughout the year however the heaviest rainfall is usually in the month of July. The main tourist season is between the months of May to October.
The official language is Polish but English is widely spoken and understood.
The Polish economy is essentially a ‘cash’ economy with the use of plastic not being very widespread. The Currency is called Zloty which is divided in 100 groszny. ATMs are slowly beginning to penetrate the system and there are ATMs available at the airport.
Getting to Warsaw
Warsaw’s international airport Okecie Airport also known as Fredyrka Chopin Airport is located to the south east of the city center at a distance of 7km. The Airport serves as the hub of the Polish national carrier LOT which operates on routes to North America and Europe. The airport is served by other international carriers as well. The airport has modern facilities such as a bank in the departure hall, bureaux de change, post office, duty free shops, restaurants, cafes and snack bars.
The Tourist Information center is in the departure hall. Flight and airport information can be accessed by dialing (0) 22 650 9431.
The Airport also has a hotel called Falcon Transit Hotel located in the Departures hall as well as a new Courtyard Marriott Hotel located close by.
Getting to the city from the Airport
An airport shuttle bus operates every 20 minutes. It departs from Terminal 1 and makes frequent stops at Hotels and the Central Railway station. The local Municipal buses numbers 175 and 188 also go to downtown Warsaw. The tickets for these buses are available at the RUCH kiosks and the Tourist Information Center. However one must be vary of pickpockets on the local buses.
One can also get to the city by Taxi but one must avoid the unscrupulous taxi touts who wait for unsuspecting tourists in unmarked cars outside the arrivals hall, better still one can call a radio taxi by dialing 22/919 or getting a taxi from the taxi stand. A taxi trip should not cost more than 25 zl for a journey which takes about 20 minutes. One can also request a hotel car pick up from one’s hotel.
Major car rental agencies like Avis, Hertz and Budget are located at the airport and the road to the airport is along aleje(avenue) Zwirki i Wigury and ulica Raszynska.
Buses operate between most European cities and Warsaw. Buses are cheaper than trains and tickets for long distance buses can be purchased from an agency called Anna Travel (Tel:22/825 53 89).Long distance route buses depart from the main bus station called Dworzec PKS Zachodni in Warsaw located near the Central Railway station . The Polski Express is a private long distance bus service which connects Warsaw to other Polish cities. It departs and arrives from Jana Pawla located between the Central Station and the Holiday Inn.
Auto theft is extremely common in Poland and though other countries on the continent can be easily accessed by road, rental agencies in other European countries do not allow their cars to be taken to Poland. If you are driving to Poland in your own car you have to have insurance that covers damage in a country which is not your own.
Warsaw has three train stations, the most important of which is the Central Train Station called Warszawa Centraina. There are direct train links from here to other European cities. The train station is located bang in the midst of the city between the Holiday Inn and Marriott Hotels. One must be vigilant of muggers and pickpockets at the station. The other stations in Warsaw are Warszawa Srodmiescie and Dworzec Wilenski these two stations are used by domestic trains.
The City of Warsaw has efficient and cheap public transportation. This consists of buses and trams and a single line metro system. The modes of transport operate between 5am and 11pm and the tickets consist of a single ticket which can be used on all modes of transport. These tickets are to be punched within the corresponding mode of transport with each change. The tickets for all journeys can be purchased from Ruch Kiosks, post offices and hotels. Apart from single tickets, day travel cards, travel cards valid for three days and weekly travel cards are available. The metro connects the suburbs to the city center. Metered Taxis are another available mode of transport but these taxi services have a variety of complicated surcharges and this sometimes results in a tourist getting overcharged. The call a cab service is often cheaper.
Hotels and Restaurants
One of the best hotels to stay in Warsaw is the Hotel Rialto on Ulica Wilcza. The website of the hotel for rates and availability can be accessed at www.hotelrialto.com.pl. This is a charming small boutique hotel furnished with art deco furniture. The Polonia Palace on Aleje Jerozolimskie has been recently renovated and information for this hotel can be accessed at www.syrena.com.pl.
Restaurants are reasonable with a dinner for two with drinks costs about 90 zls. Miedzy Nami on Ulica Bracka and Forteca on ulica Zakroczymska are worth visiting. The latter is located in a fort and provides an interesting dining ambience.
Old town and Warsaw Historical Museum
The Old Town which is located at Rynek Starego Miasta square was restored by the communist regime after its annihilation during the World War. The Buildings surrounding the old square are a hub of activity as they contain restaurants, stalls selling arts and crafts and also the Historical Museum of Warsaw. The Museum screens a documentary on the history of Warsaw every day. There are four mansions built in the renaissance style on the northern side of the Old Town. There is a sculpture of a black slave on the façade of house no 34 which is called Negro House. The Old town has charming cobbled streets and alleyways as well as The Royal Castle which is a 17th Century palace. The Castle is now a museum with displays of furniture and paintings.
Holy Cross Church, Royal Route
This church is a beautiful baroque church which is topped by giant ornately carved crucifix. Frederic Chopin Poland’s famous composer is buried here.
St Annes Church, Royal Route
It was constructed in 1454 by the Princess Anne of Mazovia in baroque style. Pope John Paul II in 1980 held mass in this church on his first visit to Poland after being elected Pope.
Adam Mickiewicza Museum of Literature, Stare Miasto
This museum is dedicated to the works of the famous romantic Polish poet whose banned work Forefathers’ Eve provided the inspiration for the movement to topple the Communist government. The museum contains manuscripts and portraits of the poet and other Polish writers.
Wilanow Palace, Wilanow
It was built between 1681 and 1696 by King Jan III Sobieski . It has a false moat and a baroque gateway. The Palace is now a museum with a display portraits and furniture but what is magnificent about this palace is the park located at the main entrance which has pagodas and hot houses and a bridge which is built over a lake. An Italian garden is also located in the park as is gallery of contemporary Polish art as well as the Polish poster Gallery called Muzeum Plakatu
Located in the vast green space of the Lazienki Royal Gardens, the palace is built in neoclassical style and it is one of the restored palaces. This Palace has a wonderful collection of furniture as well. This formed a part of the art collection of King Slanislaw August Poniatowski.
Palace of Culture and Science, Royal Route
This building is an ugly massive building belonging to the communist era which typifies Stalinist architecture. The view from the top of the 30th floor encompasses all of Warswaw and is breathtaking. The museum also has within its folds the Museum of Science and technology and the Teatr Lalek an entertaining puppet theater.
Presidential Palace, Royal Route
The Palace is the official residence of the Polish President. The Warsaw Pact of 1955 was signed here. The Palace was built by the Radzwill Family in the seventeenth century.
National Museum of Warsaw, Royal Route
Housed in a drab building built in the 1930s the National Museum of Warsaw has a magnificent collection of Polish and European paintings and antiques.
Ostrogski Palace, Royal Route
This Palace contains the Frederic Chopin Museum and is the world headquarters of the Chopin society. It is the venue for Chopin concerts and a showcase for his work which was influenced greatly by Polish folk tunes and sounds.
Located on ulica Okopowa is the Jewish Cemetery, a mute witness to the Jewish culture and heritage of Warsaw which was almost wiped out by the brutal Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II. Many of the headstones commemorate prominent Jews who contributed much to Warsaw’s history and culture in the nineteenth century.
Jewish Historical Institute and Museum, Muranow
This Museum is located on the site what was the largest synagogue of Warsaw the Tiomackie Synagogue. The Museum has a exhibition of Jewish artifacts and mementos as well as an archival service which is manned by English speaking staff who can help locate ones antecedents.
The Monument to the Heros of the Warsaw Ghetto, Muranow
A monument dedicated to the resistance movement of the Jewish District which was annihilated by the Nazis is located at ulica Mila 18. It was at Mila 18 that the doomed resistance was orchestrated and subsequently crushed by the Nazis and the Jews sent to their death to the various Nazi concentration camps and gas chambers.