I’ve recently returned from a long weekend in Warsaw, Poland with a couple of friends – the same friends I’ve also enjoyed trips to Riga, Poznan, Cluj-Napoca and Vilnius with. My itinerary-style city guides that I’ve written for these other cities have done really well on the blog, so I’d hoped to write a similar post about Warsaw.
However, I hadn’t accounted for the fact that Warsaw is the eighth most populous city in the European Union and spreads out over a massive 516.9 square kilometre area within its city limits. Unlike many European capitals, Warsaw is definitely not a walkable city. Even in the same neighbourhood you could be covering well over a couple of kilometres of ground between two different sights on your itinerary.
Making the most of a long weekend in the city requires extensive research, planning and organisation, which – considering that Gloria, Kath and I make these trips with the primary purpose of spending some quality time together as friends – we failed to do in advance of arriving in Warsaw. Consequently we spent much of our first 24 hours in the city attempting to figure out exactly where all the places we wanted to visit were, what sort of distances were involved in travelling between them, and how best to make the journey either on foot or by using Warsaw’s network of public transportation options (which, incidentally, include the metro, trams, buses, electric scooters and Uber).
To save you from making the same mistakes we did, I’ve put together this handy little guide.
Deciding where to stay in Warsaw
As you can imagine for a city the size of Warsaw, its landmarks and points of interest are not all concentrated in one particular area of the capital. It is therefore impossible to base yourself close to all the major sights and attractions, because these are scattered across various different districts on both sides of the Vistula river. Warsaw is divided into 18 different districts in total, with the main central area indicated on the map below in blue.
If you’re only visiting the city for a few days, I’d recommend staying in one of the following districts.
Although Śródmieście looks like one of the smallest districts on the map, it actually incorporates seven sub districts (Stare Miasto (Old Town), Nowe Miasto (New Town), Muranów, Śródmieście Północne (north Śródmieście), Śródmieście Południowe (south Śródmieście), Powiśle, and Ujazdów), as well as Warsaw’s tallest building (The Palace of Culture and Science), its oldest university (1809), oldest public park (opened 1727), oldest secular monument (Siglsmund’s Column, 1644), and its oldest historical building (The Royal Castle, 13th century). It’s home to the majority of Warsaw’s noteworthy attractions.
It’s also where you’ll find the best transport links to the rest of the city, and the majority of Warsaw’s accommodation options. As a party of three, we found renting an apartment to be the cheapest option. There are lots available on either Airbnb (you can get £15 off your first stay using that link) or Booking.
Although we were tempted by a cute little apartment close to the university (around a kilometre south of the Old Town, within the north Śródmieście sub district), in retrospect I’m glad that we decided to base ourselves in the Old Town itself – in this amazing apartment. Although it’s not the most happening place for nightlife (especially after 11pm), everywhere in the Old Town is walkable, so it’s entirely possible to stumble home with relative ease after one too many craft ales at Same Crafty. It’s also a delightful place to wander around with no real purpose or destination. And although the Old Town is no longer very old (the majority of its original buildings were brought to the ground during the second world war and have since been reconstructed), it’s definitely the prettiest and most photogenic part of the city.
Until 1648, Praga was a small settlement on the east bank of the Vistula river that was completely separate from the city of Warsaw. Even once it had been granted a city charter, attempts to build a permanent bridge across the river failed and Praga continued to exist as a separate entity well into the 18th century. As a result of this, it remained relatively untouched during WWII, and nowadays it’s home to some of the oldest and best preserved buildings in Warsaw.
But, whilst the post-war development of Warsaw’s left bank saw the city begin to thrive once again, conversely its right bank was neglected and fell into disrepair. The people who could afford to do so, moved over to the left bank, leaving the poorest of Warsaw’s residents living in Praga, in houses lacking basic commodities such as heating and hot water. The district’s derelict streets were ruled by the criminal underworld, and even today tourists are advised not to visit the area (or at least, certain parts of it) after dark.
But if you’re thinking, ‘this doesn’t sound like somewhere I’d like to stay,’ bear with me, because Praga has a certain charm that you won’t find anywhere else in the city. Without the immaculate pastel-hued buildings found in the Old Town, and the skyscrapers that dominate the landscape of central Warsaw, the area feels somehow more authentic.
It’s also finally undergoing a surge of regeneration. Parts of it could even be described as ‘hipster.’ Yes it’s got a long way to go, but it’s already home to a selection of cultural events, design shops, quality restaurants, and some incredible examples of street art.
Praga is divided into two ‘separate’ districts: Praga North (Praga-Północ) and Praga South (Praga-Południe). In the north you’ll find the city’s zoo, the Polish Vodka Museum and St. Florian’s Cathedral, whereas the south is home to the Soho Factory (incorporating the Neon Museum), and one of the city’s most desirable residential areas – Saska Kępa – which is as close as Warsaw gets to some of the ‘Little Village’ areas of London or Paris.
If you’re a fan of hostels, this one looks really smart and more like a boutique hotel than a hostel. It’s located in Saska Kępa, close to public transport links. If you’d prefer an apartment, we bookmarked this one for our stay.
Public transport in Warsaw
Public transport in Warsaw is cheap. It’s also, upon first glance, rather complicated. There are tram systems, two metro lines (M1 and M2), buses and local trains (oh, as well as Uber, and – for short distances – electric scooters). Trams run alongside local buses and you’ll often have to dash across the bus/car lane in order to board your tram. So, take care! Most transport lines run from between 05:00 and 23:00 hours. After those hours night buses run each route twice an hour.
If you’re visiting Warsaw over a weekend, the good news is that you can buy a weekend transport ticket for just 24 PLN (£4.84 / $6.24). This allows you unlimited use of the trams, buses and metro from 19:00 hours on a Friday to 10:00 hours on a Monday, which is an absolute bargain in my opinion – especially when compared to the cost of transport in England’s capital city.
As mentioned there are two metro lines: the M1, which runs from north to south, and the M2, which runs from east to west. However the M2 is unfinished, so the stops that are not marked with a bold red line on the map do not yet exist.
The metro doesn’t really serve the Old Town very well (the nearest station is Nowy Swiat Uniwersytet, which is still over a kilometre away) but it’s great for short hops across the river (or further afield) if you’re staying south of the Old Town, in Warsaw’s modern centre.
For a more thorough exploration of the city, you’ll need to use the trams and buses in addition to the metro.
Trams and buses
You can pretty much get to wherever you want in the city using trams and buses. Mapa Warszawy 360° feature downloadable maps of Warsaw’s tram network and Warsaw’s bus network, to help you plan your travels around the city.
Due to staying in the Old Town but wanting to sample some of the bars and restaurants scattered around other parts of the city, we often relied on Uber to transport us back to the Old Town late at night. The alternative was to use a combination of different public transportation options to get back, and no-one really wants to be bothered with that when they’ve had a drink or three and it’s cold outside.
We also used Uber to get to the airport on our last day there, because it was the cheapest and quickest option for the three of us. If you’re travelling alone though you’ll probably find that the tram or bus are cheaper alternatives.
Wherever you are in Warsaw, you won’t be far from a brightly coloured lime green and white electric scooter. These scooters are part of a mobility solution – designed to reduce traffic congestion and promote healthy living – run by a company called Lime, and all you need to do in order to use one is download the Lime app and register your debit or credit card.
Like Uber the app will show you where your nearest Lime scooter is located, and then all you need to do is scan the QR code on the scooter to unlock it.
Although I must admit that I saw far more abandoned on street corners (you can leave them wherever you happen to finish your ride) than I did actually in use, my friend Kath had a go whilst Gloria and I were on our street art walking tour in Praga, and says they’re really easy to use and great fun!
Planning what to see and do
This is the fun part! My best piece of advice is to make a list of all the sights and attractions you want to visit (including cafes, bars and restaurants) and then to group them by area, and concentrate on one or two different areas per day – depending on how much you want to see and do in any given area.
It’s also a good idea to make a note of opening times of attractions, because you don’t want to plan to visit a particular area on a certain day, only to discover that the primary attraction in that area closes on the day you’d planned to visit. We made a similar error when visiting the Panorama Sky Bar, not realising that it didn’t open until 18:00 hours.
To give you a little helping hand, I’ve grouped all of the places we had on our list (some of which we unfortunately didn’t make it to), as well as a few additional points of interest I’ve since been made aware of.
Below is a map showing all the sights and attractions we hoped to visit, and beneath that is a map showing all the cafes, bars and restaurants we bookmarked.
Sights and attractions are as follows:
- Warsaw Uprising Museum
- Communist Clothing Store (Pan Tu Nye Stał)
- Neon Museum
- Łazienki Park
- Palace of Culture and Science (amazing city views from 30th floor)
- Polin Museum
- Museum of Life Under Communism (now known as Muzeum Czar PRL)
- St. Anne’s Church (wonderful views of the Old Town from its tower)
- St. Florian’s Cathedral
- Polish Vodka Museum
- The Barbican
- The Royal Castle
- Saska Kępa (neighbourhood in Praga)
- Keret House (narrowest house in the world)
Cafes, bars and restaurants are as follows:
- Bar Prasowy (milk bar)
- Na Lato (late night food and cocktails)
- Warszawa Wschodnia by Mateusz Gessler (Polish and French cuisine in a former post-war factory)
- PiwPaw (bottle caps cover the walls, over 100 different beers on tap)
- Skamiejka (Russian and Polish food)
- Vege Miasto (vegetarian restaurant)
- Thai Me Up! (as the name suggests, they serve Thai food – and it’s very good)
- Kraken Rum Bar (serves a huge array of rum cocktails, and fish dishes)
- Plan B (alternative pub with studenty atmosphere)
- Karmnik (cosy bar in the Old Town, popular with locals, also serves food)
- Panorama Sky Bar (for cocktails with a view)
- Warszawa Powisle (bar that occupies a soviet-era ticket office)
- Bar Zabkowski (milk bar with English menu)
- Cafe Melon (art/photography gallery and cafe)
- W Oparach Absurdu (iconic bar-come-antiques emporium)
- Sklad Butelek (bar housed in a 1913 rubber factory – old furniture and candlelit corners)
- Feta Na Freta (cosy family-run restaurant just north of the Old Town)
- Same Crafty (tiny little craft beer bar)
And yes, I did notice that I seem to have more eating and drinking establishments on my list than I do sights and attractions. Hey, what can I say? I believe in full cultural immersion when visiting a new city 😉
As well as grouping the sights and activities by area, I’ve also tried to include a good mix of places in each group. For example, my Old Town group includes a couple of historical attractions, a religious building, a tower that offers some great views, a couple of places that serve food (one of which doubles up as a bar), and a craft beer pub.
Are there any tours that are worth looking into?
Although my usual preference is to explore a new city independently, I do believe that the right tour can really help you to get orientated with the city – which is especially good when you’re short on time. Local residents can introduce you to parts of the city that you may not otherwise have discovered, and provide you with insider knowledge and information about the areas you’re exploring. I especially love walking tours for this reason.
I can personally recommend the Warsaw Street Art Tour with Walkative. Our guide had a really dry sense of humour (which we liked) and we learnt so much not only about the artists and the stories behind the pieces they created, but also about the parts of Praga we were visiting (including some really interesting snippets of history). Walkative run a number of other walking tours as well – Communist Warsaw, Alternative Warsaw, Jewish Warsaw and Warsaw at War.
Before Gloria and I had decided upon the above walking tour, the three of us almost booked ourselves on an off the beaten path Warsaw tour with Adventure Warsaw. For 169 PLN (around £35) you get to ride around the city for four hours in a genuine classic Nysa 522 van from the soviet era, whilst learning a lot about Warsaw’s history along the way. You can book a similar experience through Get Your Guide (below).
I’d also wish we’d had time to take a food tour or a cooking class, because I’m a little bit in love with Pierogi.
So, there you have it: what started off as a ‘quick guide to navigating your way around the city’ has now turned into a ‘comprehensive’ one! I hope you’ve found it useful, but if you do have anything you’d like to add in order to make it better, please let me know in the comments 🙂
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