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Warsaw for first timers

Palace of Culture and Science

The 60 year old Palace of Culture and Science at Warsaw’s navel is also its most recognizable (but divisive) monument

Surely you cannot wait to arrive in Warsaw so by now you’ve browsed through a guidebook or google (how else would you land here?). And so you’re probably already aware of the major attractions: the ‘old’ town and the royal palace, the Palace of Culture and Science, the Jewish history museum, the Warsaw uprising museum, maybe the Copernicus Science Centre (if you’re with kids or teenagers). They’re all worth checking out. Really.

But if you wish to explore Warsaw on your own here are a few other, slightly less obvious options, beginning with food.

Wandering through the Old Town or walking down Nowy Świat, or its offshoots, you might come across some restaurants offering so-called traditional Polish cuisine. But like in other touristic spots around Europe these are often pricey tourist traps.

Instead, your better lunch option would be one of Warsaw’s many milk bars (Bar mleczny). Despite the name they are neither pubs nor dairy-only. These are basically dining rooms, a remnant of Poland’s communist era, that have become a cultural institution. Most of them look like they haven’t changed since the 1980s or earlier, but it’s probably one of your best shots at some authentic, unpretentious Polish cooking. Plus, they are seriously cheap – you can easily fix yourself a hearty meal for less than 15 zloty. Just bear in mind, there are no waiters – queue up to choose and pay for your dishes from a long menu (in Polish…), pick up your order from the ladies in the window, and don’t forget to clear your table when you’re done.

Two of my favourites are Bar Prasowy (Marszalkowska 10/16, Mon-Fri 9.00-20.00, Sat-Sun 11.00-19.00), and Bar Mleczny Wilanowski (Belwederska 2, Mon-Fri 8.00-20.00, Sat-Sun 9.00-18.00). But if you’re already on Nowy Świat you can also try Familijny (Nowy Świat 39, Mon-Fri 7.00-20.00, Sat-Sun 9.00-17.00).

Another good restaurant to consider – with good Polish food, nice atmosphere and decent prices – is Kameralna (Foksal 11, Mon-Thu 11.00-00.00, Fri-Sat 12.00-2.00, Sun 12.00-23.00). It’s also close to Nowy Świat, but beware that strangely enough, there’s another restaurant with the same name just around the corner.

If you’re already there, do check out Piwpaw (Foksal 16) across the street. This pub has more beer taps than you can count, and it’s open 24 hours a day.

Bigos at Podwale 25

The touristic version of Bigos, a sauerkraut and sausage stew, in Podwale 25 is a pretty good value for money

The Polish capital has museums of all kinds, but in my view, beyond the main attractions few are actually recommendable. Nevertheless, those into contemporary art actually have three places they really shouldn’t miss: the Zachęta National Gallery of Art (Małachowskiego 3, Tue-Sun 12.00-20.00, 15 zloty, free entrance on Thursdays), the Modern Art Center at Ujazdowski Castle (Jazdów 2, Tue-Sun 12.00-19.00, Thu until 21.00, 12 zl, free entrance on Thursdays), and the Museum of Modern Art (Pańska 3, Tue-Sun 12.00-20.00, free).

Warsaw also has quite a number of markets if you’re looking for bargains — or a good photo shoot. Hala Mirowska (Plac Mirowski 1, usually closes around 15.00), an indoor shopping complex with fruits and veggie stalls outside, is arguably the most famous one, and surely the one closest to the city centre.

You’d need to travel a bit to reach Bazar na Kole (on the corner of Obozowa and E. Ciołka, Sat-Sun 6.00-15.00), but this antique market with all sort of bric-a-brac is well worth the hassle and it’s likely you find there some treasures.

For an old-fashion but lovely farmers market, head to Bazar na Dołku (on the corner of Komisji Edukacji Narodowej and Filipiny Płaskowickiej, Sat-Sun 8.00-15.00), and if you’re looking for a more hip, trendy version visit the BioBazar (Żelazna 51/53, Wed 10.00-18.00, Fri 16.00-20.00, Sat 8.00-16.00), which is at least worth checking out for the atmospheric industrial hangars housing it.

If you’re more into shopping, there are also a number of western-style malls but I’m afraid that’s not really my department.

Nowy Swiat

On spring and summer weekends, Warsaw’s most iconic streets, Nowy Świat and its northern leg Krakowskie Przedmieście, turn into a pedestrian mall connecting the city centre and the Old Town.

At this point you might be in need for some time off the busy streets and a bit of fresh(er) air. Warsaw is unfortunately notorious for air pollution but it does have several large parks. The Royal Łazienki Gardens (main entrance on Ujazdowskie Ave., daily dawn-19.00, check the website for the opening hours of the different museum buildings, free entrance on Thursdays) are an excellent place for a lazy stroll or a picnic. If you happen to be there sometime between mid-May and end of September you can check out the Sunday piano recitals (12.00-16.00, free) by the Chopin monument.

Another, lesser known oasis in the city is the wonderful rooftop garden of the Warsaw University’s library (Dobra 56/66, May 1 – Sep 30 daily, 8.00-20.00; Nov 1 – March 31 daily, 8.00-15.00; Apr & Oct daily, 8.00-18.00).

On summer weekends you could try a relaxing sail on board the water tram on the Vistula river for a different perspective on the city (departs from a pier north of the Poniatowski Bridge at 11.00, 13.00, 15.00, 17.00, 18 zloty). Or you can just go for a drink in one of the many pubs along the river’s western bank.

Another summer attraction, to the foot of the old town by the river, is the multimedia park fountain. Between May and September, every Friday and Saturday evening (21.30-22.00) hordes of people congregate by this elaborate fountain complex for a rather kitsch light and sound show. Far from a must-see it can be amusing to watch.

All these should keep you entertained for a few days, but if you’re short on time and looking for nothing more than a concise introduction to Warsaw, or at least one of its aspects, you can join one of the tip-based guided tours.

Otherwise, if you’re staying longer, or it’s not your first time to the city, there are plenty of quirkier, alternative spots – ask me.

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