I’m back in Warsaw, Poland’s capital, updating the upcoming 10th edition of our Rick Steves Eastern Europe guidebook. And I’ve gotta say — this city is just great. No, really.
I realize that Warsaw has a blemished reputation. Those who think of it at all, don’t think much of it. It’s synonymous with an agreement among an Evil Empire of nations who joined together to hate our living guts. And historians know that the city was brutally devastated in World War II. Even Europe completists think of Warsaw like taking their medicine: Well, I guess we have to go there…eventually.
But I’m here to tell you: Warsaw is fantastic. Yes, it lacks the romance of Prague or Kraków. But as a thriving, modern European capital — more on the order of Berlin or Athens or Budapest — it’s hard to beat. Just about any traveler can find something rewarding here. I think of Warsaw as Europe’s great “stealth destination”: It’s not on anyone’s radar. And then, even once you’re there, its charms sneak up on you when you’re not paying attention…until WHAM! — you realize you’re having a blast.
Here are my top eight reasons why Warsaw deserves to make the cut on your next itinerary.
It has an amazing food scene.
On my last trip to Warsaw, I enjoyed the best food tour I’ve ever taken. It was a revelation to see (and taste) the city’s explosion of creative culinary energy. Warsaw is one of Europe’s most unexpectedly interesting foodie cities, period.
On this trip, I decided to go all-in and booked a table at Atelier Amaro, which owns one of Poland’s two Michelin stars. Filling an unassuming little brick building at the corner of Łazienki Park, the restaurant has impeccable service and delectable cuisine.
The best restaurants are rooted to a place, and Atelier Amaro’s tasting menu of nine courses (ahem, nine “moments”) was a journey through Polish forests and farms. Earthy notes; foraged greens; ample but not overwhelming hits of dill and beet and berry; and innovative, New Nordic-inspired plating.
One dish, served in a tiny lidded bowl, appeared to contain only a blanket of clover. But punching through that layer of wood sorrel, my spoon found tiny wild strawberries marinated in bison grass oil, tomato seeds, and horseradish.
The wild duck was aged in hay, and smoked, and seared — but rather than tasting overworked, its flavors were perfectly balanced. And the best dish may have been a minuscule ice-cream cone with pungent chive ice cream.
The entire experience, including drinks and tip, came to $120 — a bargain for a meal of this caliber. Ten years ago, I would have laughed in your face if you told me I’d spend more than $100 for a dinner in Poland. Today, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Chopin is everywhere.
While I appreciate music, I’m not an enthusiast…except when I’m in Warsaw. There’s something about the music of Fryderyk Chopin that perfectly suits his hometown. While often thought of as being French, Chopin had a Polish mother, was born just outside Warsaw, and said that the music he composed sounded like the wind blowing through the willow trees of his native Poland.
On my first visit to Warsaw, my local friend Kasia insisted that we attend a performance in the concert hall at the Chopin Museum. Watching the pianist moved with profound emotion as he pulled out those notes, and seeing the dewy eyes of the otherwise-steely Varsovians all around me, I realized how large Chopin looms in the Polish cultural legacy.
Ever since, I’ve made a point to attend concerts each time I’ve come to Warsaw, including the summer-only Sunday Chopin concerts in Łazienki Park — performed in the shadow of a giant monument to the great composer. Varsovians show up in droves to pack around the fountain and feel their patriotic souls stirred.
On this visit, I enjoyed a salon concert at my B&B (more on that later). When the pianist entered, before taking her seat, she carefully adjusted the light that had been aimed at the keyboard — raising it to illuminate the portrait of Chopin on the wall behind her. I’ve come to learn that Poles revere the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, Jesus Christ, and Fryderyk Chopin…in that order.
The people-watching is mesmerizing.
Sitting on any Warsaw bench, watching the world go by, you observe a perfect cross-section of Polish society. Grannies in track suits and tennis shoes, clutching humble flower bouquets, rushing to catch the tram. Tattooed hipsters with clean-shaven heads and long beards down to their perfectly sculpted pecs. Old-timers with Lech Wałęsa moustaches and faux-leather vests that are older than their adult children. Perfectly coiffed businesspeople, from all over Europe, deep in English conversation. Nuns and priests chatting on their cell phones. The Polish national weightlifting squad, out for an intimidating sneer. Husky brides and huskier grooms on a photo shoot at all the big landmarks. It just never gets old.
It’s infused with a surprising elegance…at budget prices.
Between the World Wars, Warsaw was one of Europe’s leading cities — cosmopolitan and genteel. While this was battered out of them in World War II, then through the slow burn of communism, Warsaw always retained a certain refinement in its DNA. Now that the city has rebounded, and has the freedom and wherewithal to pursue its true identity, Warsaw is putting on the dog once again. For example, the top-of-the-top Hotel Bristol, along the Royal Way thoroughfare, comes with a variety of exquisitely decorated bars and cafés (like the sumptuous Column Bar, pictured above) — as elegant as any grand hotel in Europe. If you want class, you’ll find it in Warsaw.
And yet, the city is remarkably affordable. While Poland’s economy is strong, it remains reasonably priced on a European scale. That Hotel Bristol? In most European capitals, I’d expect to pay $400 or $500 for a room there. On this trip, they quoted me closer to $200. A comfortable, midrange hotel is comfortably under $100. Yes, that fancy dinner I mentioned is pricey by any standard — but remember, it’s the most prestigious restaurant in the entire country. A delicious, memorable, foodie meal at an upmarket restaurant can run $15-20…half what you’d pay in London or Paris. As its economy improves, Poland is hitting the sweet spot of affordable elegance.
The museums are world-class.
If you think of Warsaw as the Washington DC of a nation of 40 million people (including their field-trip-crazy kids), it just makes sense that the city would have top-quality museums. And it does, in abundance. Poland does museums particularly well, and you could spend days in Warsaw’s — most of which have been upgraded over the last few years. On this visit, I made a point to walk through all of the big museums in town — and was blown away, again and again, by the quality, which goes toe-to-toe with any great city in Europe.
If you like Polish art (or think you might), hit the National Museum — with Matjekos, Malczewskis, and Boznańskas that’ll knock your socks off. If you’re into music, tour the Chopin Museum. History buffs hit up the Warsaw Uprising Museum, or the newly re-opened Museum of Warsaw. Palace aficionados are wowed by the Royal Castle. Parents with kids in tow head down to the Copernicus Science Center, with two floors of hands-on, interactive, educational exhibits. And my favorite museum in Poland — and perhaps Europe — is the exquisite Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened in 2013. This immersive, thoughtful museum delves deeply into the full breadth and depth of the Polish Jewish experience, in a way that’s illuminating to experts and novices alike.
It’s perfectly on-trend.
While most visitors stick to Warsaw’s staid, stuffy “Royal Way” spine — leading between the main boulevard and the rebuilt Old Town — there are countless outer districts of the city that are young and vibrant and exciting and amazingly trendy. Śródmieście (“Downtown”), just a 10-minute tram or Uber ride south of the tourist zone, is where Varsovian yuppies and hipsters mingle at colorful, creative cafés tucked under hulking Soviet-era arcades. The square called plac Zbawiciela — shaped like a Trivial Pursuit pie, with tram tracks running through the middle — offers a glimpse of this scene, with wine bars and posh coffee houses and Thai street food and hipster dives, all spilling out onto the square.
Just a few blocks away is my favorite discovery from this trip, the Hala Koszyki. This trendy food hall, which opened in 2016 in a renovated brick 1906 market hall, is your handiest one-stop shop for sampling Warsaw’s current dining scene. Outside — sandwiched between the two brick entrances — is a sprawling zone of al fresco tables tucked among trees strewn with twinkle lights.
Inside you’ll find a dozen and a half entirely different eateries, covering all of the culinary bases: Spanish tapas, sushi, Indian, Latin American, Italian, Thai, hummus bar, beer hall, tea salon, gourmet chocolates, gelateria, and, of course, Polish. It’s anchored by the big bar in the middle, surrounded by communal seating. And tucked down a little side hall is the Bazar Koszyki — a tight row of nine different international street foods (udon, hot dogs, flammkuchen, pierogi, pho). The upper level, ringed by design studios, has quieter seating. They also have live performances (concerts for kids on Sunday afternoons, Polish stand-up on Wednesday nights) — check www.koszyki.com for details.
It’s simply enjoyable.
If you want corroborating evidence for your dated impressions of Warsaw — that it’s nothing but dreary concrete apartment blocks — you can find it. But the city also has verdant gardens, inviting squares, kid-friendly pedestrian zones, and parks you want to get lost in. For example, after years of turning its back on the Vistula River, Warsaw is now embracing it — with freshly landscaped riverside parks, manicured trails, and lively beach bars.
Whether you want to stick to the pretty-as-a-postcard Old Town, or bust out of the tourist rut and go hang out with the Varsovians in an overlooked corner of their city, there are plenty of ways to enjoy yourself in the Polish capital. And, like any vibrant, forward-looking, youthful city, Warsaw comes with surprises. Graffiti murals laugh down on commuters, playful fountains beckon to kids, and otherwise dreary buildings hide colorful cafés, artisan workshops, and boutiques in their cellars. If you sit on a bench and notice a button, press it…and you’ll hear Chopin music playing.
Creative entrepreneurs more than compensate for the rough edges.
When I was first writing my Warsaw guidebook chapter in 2003, I struggled to find hotels and restaurants I felt good about recommending to our Rick Steves readers. Varsovians — still recovering from the brutal communist experience — were, as a rule, gruff. But since then, a new breed of entrepreneur has hustled to overcome that image.
One of my favorite success stories is Jarek Chołodecki, who contacted me when he opened a small B&B many years ago. At the time, this concept was a novelty in a city of high-end business hotels and dreary old communist holdovers. But Jarek parlayed a stubborn pride for his city, and an understanding of what makes it special and what his guests want, into a big success.
His Chopin Boutique B&B has grown over the years (he just told me he’s up to 30 rooms, having now taken over the entire building). But he doesn’t just accommodate his guests — he takes pride in helping them fully experience all that Warsaw has to offer.
I always used to lament to Jarek that there were relatively few Chopin concerts in town; other guests did, too. So he started hosting nightly chamber concerts of Chopin piano performances in his B&B lounge.
On this visit, as I checked in after an overnight connection from Seattle, Jarek said, “Our concert starts in 10 minutes, if you’d like to join.” Jetlagged as I was, I dragged myself down to his little salon and enjoyed a delightful 50 minutes of music that put me in the perfect spirit to enjoy the next 10 days in Poland. He told me this was concert number 1,844 — that’s more than five years of nightly Chopin. And I imagine that thousands of Rick Steves guidebook readers have gathered at Jarek’s breakfast table over the years — all of them feeling lucky to have such a welcoming home-away-from-home in an intimidating city.
And that’s why I do what I do. Through our guidebooks, we strive to put our readers in touch with Europeans who will help them make magnificent memories. Jarek is just one of many smart, capable, visionary, and proud Varsovians who have transformed their city from a gloomy punchline into one of Europe’s best-kept secrets.
For all my best tips on Warsaw, check out our Rick Steves Eastern Europe guidebook; the updated 10th edition will be available in early summer 2019.
Rick enjoyed a trip to Poland a few years back. You can watch short videos he took at Kraków’s Rynek Underground Museum, Sanctuary of St. John Paul II, and Schindler’s Factory Museum; at a farmers’ market and milk bar in Kraków; in Warsaw’s Piłsudski Square; at Malbork Castle; and in Gdańsk.