Eight years ago, when I visited Poland for the first of many times, I didn’t know enough about the country to even conjure up a tired stereotype. I arrived with no iconic sights pre-burned into my imagination. None of my friends had rhapsodized about a tour I needed to take, or a restaurant I had to try. I didn’t even have a well-defined reason for visiting, other than the all-powerful traveler’s call: “Why not?”
Perhaps that lack of familiarity is why Warsaw failed to evoke love at first sight for me. I had a nice -- albeit somewhat forgettable -- time. But one thing stuck with me: the Poles are so friendly and so hospitable and so fun, I just had to return. Gradually, with the help of my newfound friends and more than a few splashes of vodka, I untangled the mystery of this fascinating metropolis -- and fell in love with it.
Warsaw is overlooked by American tourists, perhaps because of the antiquated belief that Eastern Europe is somehow behind the times. This is a thriving modern city, with a colorful Old Town (reconstructed after World War II) lined with pierogi shops and family-owned local restaurants. English is spoken in most places, but overall, Varsovians don’t go out of their way to cater to outsiders -- and that’s part of the appeal.
Warsaw is unique because they’ve successfully repurposed their history
Warsaw has a rich and dramatic history, and has been in a constant state of flux for centuries. It’s easy to forget, but Poland is still only 30 years out of Communism. Going further back, it was occupied by the Nazis during World War II, during which time The Warsaw Uprising attack flattened most of the capital. And before that, it was conquered and reconquered by squabbling aggressors on all sides, in a series of power struggles between 1795 and 1918.
Result? The city has become an architectural patchwork. There are a slate of newer buildings, including basket-like National Stadium (Warsaw is home to several football clubs including Legia, Polonia, Gwardia, and Hutnik), and Arkadia shopping mall (the biggest in central Europe). These sit next to large Communist apartment buildings (often painted in Wes Anderson-worthy hues) and buildings that have cycled through a series of identities over the years. One of those is Mielżyński, an upscale ivy-covered wine bar, housed in an old textile factory in the newly emerging Burakowska district. Although it has changed hands and functions several times, the collective Klub Pogłos has likewise emerged as a creative pushback against the right-wing government, presenting live drama, punk shows, vegan dinners, and drag queen bingo nights.
But the king of repurposed buildings is the Pałac Kultury i Nauki, or Palace of Culture, a castle-like building in the exact center of the city. Originally a gift from (and monument to) Stalin, the building has been transformed to house two bars/creative gathering hubs Bar Studio and Kulturalna, a theater, viewing platform, and conference space. Think of it as the ultimate cultural “up-yours” to the former oppressors.