We found ourselves in Poland almost completely unplanned; our visit was completely due to costs. The reason we’d been in Europe in the first place was to attend a conference in Ostrava, in the eastern Czech Republic. The cheapest way for us to fly into this region was via Poland. So simply in a stroke of luck, we found ourselves in a fascinating new city we hadn’t even planned on visiting. And because we flew in early, we had a few days to explore Warsaw!
It was raining as the plane touched down at the small airport outside of Warsaw. This stands out to us as it was the first precipitation we’d seen in weeks. It had been hot and dry during our short visit to Canada and we hadn’t seen even a single drop in the three weeks we had just spent in England.
Forgetting about Language Barriers
Seeing as we had just spent several weeks in English-speaking countries, landing in Poland was a harsh reminder of how sad our language skills are. Even in the many months previous, we had a fairly easy time getting by on our meagre Spanish. The simple act of buying a train ticket from the Airport into the city centre was a battle that involved five helpful locals and two translation apps.
Soon enough, however, we were rolling along the tracks, headed for Warsaw.
The Communist Era Remains
As we checked into our apartment for the week, it was clear immediately that we were in unfamiliar territory. Although we have spent time this far east in the past, we typically found ourselves in the city centre of our destinations. On this journey, however, we stayed on the outskirts of town.
Tall, featureless, concrete apartment blocks stand side by side as far as one can see. These relics of the Communist years were built for functionality, not aesthetics. The cavernous staircases echoed with every step, all eight flights of them. While the elevator functioned, it’s reliability appeared questionable.
Taking the Trams into Town
Following a quick snack and a much-needed travel day beer, we hopped on the tram and made our way into the centre. Trams are by far the cheapest and most convenient way to get around Warsaw. They’re frequent and move quite quickly.
The fares vary, depending on how long you plan to ride, but the tickets are valid on many trams and buses, as long as you’re riding within the time window. A 20-minute ticket costs 3.80zt (0.88€), but transit police check regularly and fines can be steep. Considering a 75-minute ticket costs only 4.40zt (1€), there’s hardly a reason to not spend the extra few cents.
For unlimited travel on weekends, from 8 pm Friday to 8 am Monday, you can also purchase a pass for 24zt (5.60€), which is perfect if you’re trying to cram a bunch of sightseeing.
Catching Up with an Old Friend
As is common with travel days, we often neglect to eat a lot. We either don’t have the time or are simply too stubborn to pay the outrageous costs for some soggy sandwich in the airport. Needless to say, by the time we made our way to the city centre, we were famished.
Thankfully, a good friend had plans for us.
We originally met Eliza a few years ago while she was working as a tour guide in the Balkans. These days she’s sticking around home and sharing her local expertise through her own tour company.
Once downtown, we found Hala Koszyki, a huge, indoor food court featuring restaurants serving everything from traditional Polish fare to international favourites. This modern and funky hipster spot was a fierce contrast to the aged concrete walls we’d just left. It’s a popular spot for locals and is a clear example of how young Varsovians are keen to embrace the international scene.
Falling in Love with Polish Food
While Eliza enjoyed some Indian samosas, Kylee and I went a more traditional route, with a simple schnitzel and Polish classic recommended by our friend: Chlodnik.
Comparable to nothing I’m familiar with, this cold, yogurt and beet soup was simply outstanding. It was rich, yet not heavy, and just thick enough to stand out as a meal. The yogurt brought in just enough acid to contrast the earthy beets, while a less-than-subtle hint of dill held it all together better than Lebowski’s rug. Throw in the obligatory boiled egg (that seems to accompany every soup in Poland), and our first meal in Warsaw was nothing short of spectacular.
Following a few pints of beer and a visit to several vodka bars (I’ll get into that later), we called it a night.
Following some much-needed rest and a little bit of catching up on work, we spent the next couple of days exploring the city centre.
The Warsaw Old Town
Initially, we were quite surprised at the state of these centuries-old buildings. It seemed as though the years had treated them well, they were all in immaculate condition. The unfortunate truth, however, is that the majority of the old city was only built within the last 60 years.
During the onset of World War 2, much of the city centre was destroyed by the Luftwaffe. Throughout the occupation and resulting uprising of 1944, nearly every remaining building in the old town, tragically, was completely destroyed.
Easily the most popular tourist spot in Warsaw is the beautiful Old Town. The cobbled streets lined with medieval-styled buildings of pastel greens, yellows and reds, are often crowded with tourists throughout the day. Like many great European sites, the Old Town is something worth waking up early for, to avoid the masses.
Knowledge Bomb at the Marie Curie Museum
This one caught us off-guard. Though ultimately it’s my own ignorance that is to blame, I’ll throw the western education system under the bus for this one. Marie Curie, it’s all I’ve ever heard her called until visiting Warsaw. I had assumed, like her French name, she was French. It turns out I was quite mistaken.
Maria Sklodowska, discoverer of radioactivity and first female to win a Nobel prize, was only called her western name after moving to Paris and marrying her French husband, Pierre Curie. Marie, of course, is the French pronunciation of Maria.
The very interesting museum right in the heart of the Old City, explains all of this and a ton more.
Milk Bars – The Best Budget Food in Warsaw
Our favourite spots to grab an inexpensive and delicious lunch were at milk bars. These cafeteria-like restaurants were the common working-class eatery during the communist era and typically had a menu of dairy-based items and vegetarian fare. These days, though cream and cheese dishes are just as popular, many aspects of Polish cuisine commonly appear in milk bars.
It’s not uncommon to have an entire meal for only a few dollars. This would include a main dish, soup, salad and a juice, and could easily be shareable if you wanted. Though we tried a few during our time in Warsaw, our favourite spot was Mleczarnia Jerozolimska. We enjoyed turkey meatballs in a dill cream sauce, boiled potatoes swimming in butter, a selection of pickled slaws, and our beloved Chlodnik, for only 18zl (4€ / $5).
The Music of Chopin
Back into the streets, we were greeted with the music of another famous Varsovian, and one that you’ll be unable to avoid hearing while in town. The music of legendary composer Frederic Chopin can be heard in venues all across the city. From small cafes to open-air concerts, pianos will be heard playing his wonderful compositions.
While you can find these shows at seemingly all hours of the day, it was the evening performances in the park that really caught our attention.
A Little More
There are a ton of sights and activities to seen and do in Warsaw, though sometimes it’s the simple things that stand out. Eating Zapiekanka, for example, an open-faced sandwich found on nearly every street corner was a must for us. As well, standing in awe beneath the Palace of Science and Culture, a Communist relic that truly exposes the duality of such a regime.
A few of the more powerful experiences revolved around some of what Warsaw is, unfortunately, most known for in the west. We visited memorials dedicated to those who died during the great Uprising of 1944, an event that demonstrates the fierce spirit of the locals. And of course, wandering those streets near the former Jewish Ghettos – contemplating humanity at it’s worst.
Given our limited time in the city, however, we barely scratched the surface. There are so many incredible museums and galleries, including the Neon Museum that I really wanted to visit. Needless to say, we have plenty of reasons to return.
That being said, there was one more fantastic highlight that one cannot skip during a visit to Warsaw: drinking vodka at a shot bar.
Shot bars are exactly as they sound, they’re bars that pretty much only serve shots of vodka. Some will serve a handful of other drinks, but why would you drink beer in a vodka bar when there’s perfectly good vodka to be had?
Now, the general idea of a shot bar is to stop in for a few minutes, take a shot or two, and move on to the next bar for a little more. Our friend Eliza took us out for a bar crawl one evening where we sampled a bunch (too many?) local vodkas. Much like a tap selection at a craft brew pub, shot bars have a vast selection of different vodkas, ranging from classic, unflavoured vodka and rich hazelnut, to sweet, fruity varieties and spicy chilli.
To make things even better, shot bars typically have a very simple menu of Polish drinking snacks like pork sausage with mustard, or pickled herring with raw onions.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “That sounds disgusting!”
Can pickled fish be a good thing? Imagine a cold slab of sweet, sour flesh on a chunk of crusty bread. Now top that with the sharp, bittersweet sting of freshly chopped raw onions.
The simple answer is yes.
Yes, it can.
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