Warsaw, Poland is about a two and a half hour flight from Dublin and is thus an ideal weekend city break destination. We spent 48 hours exploring all that Warsaw has to offer. Here are my recommendations on how to spend a packed weekend meeting Warsaw's famous residents and steeping in the history of this fascinating place.
Stare in Awe at Warsaw's Palace of Culture and Science
We arrived in central Warsaw late on Friday afternoon on the Modlin bus (Ryanair flies into Warsaw's Modlin airport, about 45 minutes from the city). The bus parked in the shadow of the Palace of Culture and Science. As I disembarked, I looked up in awe at the imposing Art Deco inspired skyscraper built by a Soviet architect in 1955. Warsaw's Palace of Culture and Science stands out on the skyline and is a great landmark by which to orient yourself when exploring the city.
Learn About Warsaw's Favorite Pianist at the Chopin Museum
Not long after we arrived, we met Warsaw's first famous resident, Frédéric François Chopin (born Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin). Warsaw's Chopin Museum sits in a charming building surrounded by more modern looking (and less elaborate) neighbors.
Inside, the Chopin museum, we learned about life and music of this world famous pianist. We learned three major things about Chopin:
- Sadly, he was generally sickly and ultimately died rather young.
- Despite this, he was very popular with the ladies. Many of the exhibits explore his relationships and trysts in detail.
- Chopin left Warsaw to pursue his musical career in the sitting rooms of Paris but his homeland was always in his heart. He even composed a type of music, the polonaise, as a tribute to Poland.
We also learned that you can experience Chopin all around Warsaw via musical park benches. Just sit and press the button and 15 seconds of Chopin's music will wash over you as modern city life goes on around you.
Admire Warsaw's Street Art
We were also very impressed with Warsaw's street art. A number of buildings close to the Chopin Museum were entirely covered in colorful creations.
Stroll Warsaw's Nowy Świat Street and Meet Copernicus
We found two things that lit up the sky on Nowy Świat, one of Warsaw's main arteries. The first was a beautiful series of street lights with ornate iron work.
The second was another of Warsaw's famous residents, Copernicus, who lit up the sky figuratively with his controversial views (for the era) which suggested that the earth revolves around the sun. Copernicus' statue sits in a prominent place along Nowy Świat, not far from the University of Warsaw.
Slip Inside the Gates of the University of Warsaw After Dark
As we were walking on Nowy Świat, we encountered a pair of bright white gates. Intrigued, we walked inside and found ourselves on the University of Warsaw campus. All the bright white buildings were brilliantly lit for the evening, making for an impressive stroll.
Explore Warsaw's New Old Town with a Free Walking Tour
The next morning in Warsaw, we got up bright and early for Warsaw's Free Walking Tour. Volunteers met us at Sigimund's Column in Old Town Warsaw (Stare Miasto) and the tour kicked off promptly at 10:30 am.
Before embarking on the tour, it's critical to know that more than 85% of Warsaw was destroyed in World War II and over 95% of Old Town Warsaw was destroyed. Nearly everything we would see on the tour was a faithful reconstruction. Warsaw's Stare Miasto has a very special feel. It feels old but looks fairly new and shiny.
After seeing a picture of the massive destruction of war, we were brought face to face with reality. Pse told us a legend about how bad times would befall Warsaw if the cross of Sigismund's Column were ever to touch the ground. The photo below is the original column so needless to saw, the statue touched the ground, an omen of the great and tragic destruction that would befall the city.
Warsaw's Old Town Market Square is also home to another of the city's famous residents: the Warsaw mermaid. Legend has it that the mermaid was swimming in the river and came ashore to rest. She fell in love with the city and decided to remain. The local fishermen in turn fell in love with her. To this day, armed with a sword and shield, the Warsaw mermaid stands ready to defend her adopted land.
Make a Wish
Just behind Sanktuarium Matki Bożej Łaskawej church sits a large bell, a wishing bell in fact. If you put your hand one top and jump around the bell on one leg (once for a small wish, three times for a big one), your wish will come true. I most definitely gave it a go. I'll let you know in a subsequent post if my wish comes true!
Walk Warsaw's Walls
Warsaw's Old Town is surrounded by a Medieval wall used to fortify the city. The town walls consist of an inner and outer wall for added protection. It's possible to walk both on the wall or between the walls. We climbed the walls to get an elevated view of Warsaw's Old Town around us.
Step Inside Warsaw's Jewish Ghetto
Warsaw also features a far more sinister wall. Warsaw's Jewish Ghetto Wall is commemorated around the city by a strip running through the sidewalk where the wall originally passed. One side of the wall represented freedom, the other side represented persecution by the Nazis and almost certain death to the Jews and other non-desirables rounded up by the Nazis and placed inside. The memorial to the wall is a sobering reminder of a darker time in Warsaw's history.
A small remnant of the actual wall still remains behind an unassuming apartment block not far from the Palace of Culture and Science. It's worth a detour to remember and pay respects to those that died too soon.
See Warsaw Old Town's Only Original Church
I mentioned previously that 95% of Old Town Warsaw was destroyed during World War II. Pse, our Free Walking Tour guide, pointed out Kościół Akademicki św. Anny (St. Anne's Church), an imposing Catholic church near Sigismund's column and plac Zamkowy. St. Anne's is the only original building we saw on our tour.
Touring the sumptuous interior, it saddened me to think of how many other historic interiors like this were lost during the war.
Meet Madame Curie, Another Warsaw Hero
Moving on, we transitioned from history to science to meet another of Warsaw's famous residents. Marie Curie, the double Nobel Prize winner and inspiration for women studying science and engineering worldwide (myself included) was born in Warsaw. A small museum remembers her life and inspiring achievements. You will also find monuments to Madam Curie dotted around Warsaw.
Explore POLIN Museum of History of Polish Jews
We spent nearly half a day exploring the new award-winning Museum of History of Polish Jews. The exhibits span over 1000 years of history and respresent a more comprehensive view beyond the tragedies of World War II. We even got to see a stunning reproduction of a Medieval temple.
Of course, there is plenty of heart wrenching coverage of the Holocaust and the profound impact of it on Polish Jews as well.
Take the Tram to Łazienki Park
Łazienki Park is a short tram ride away from Warsaw's city center and is worth exploring on a Sunday morning. When we visited, Colorful red lanterns hung along the path.
Also, keep an eye out for red squirrels. They are fearless and will come right up to you expecting to be fed. We saw a squirrel eating out of a little girl's hand.
Listen to Chopin in the Park
Our main reason for making the trek to Łazienki Park was for Chopin. A colleague who lived in Warsaw for a time gave me a heads-up that Warsaw puts on Chopin concerts every Sunday in the park from May through September. When we visited, Mika Okumura was visiting from Japan and gave the recital.
It was amazing to watch and listen to Chopin's beautiful music in the country of his birth under his very own watchful eye (an imposing statue of Chopin sits right next to the stage).
Get Above it All and Survey the Ground Covered
We finished our whirlwind visit to Warsaw back where we started, at the Palace of Culture and Science. This time, we bought a ticket and ascended to the viewing platform for a birds-eye view of modern Warsaw.
If the weather is nice, it's definitely worth getting above it all for a different perspective on the city.