Warsaw has the cosmopolitan vibe present in all capital cities, but its layout and its history keep the cool feelings almost diffuse. There’s no proper main square like other major Polish cities. Of course there are Nowy Świat and Krakowskie Przedmieście, which are densely populated with restaurants, shopping, coffee shops and nightlife, but go one street closer to or away from the river and it’s almost quiet. Pop into a courtyard and find it hopping – leave and enjoy the silence.

What I have noticed over multiple trips to Warsaw that it’s not exactly easy to find the good stuff, but once you do, there’s hardly enough time to experience it all. Unlike Berlin, you can’t just go to one or two trendy neighborhoods and find what you want. Unlike Stockholm or Rome, it’s pretty glassy and tall. Unlike Paris, there are no great art museums. I see similarities to my home Chicago, but Warsaw is decidedly European. It’s a growing place that hasn’t quite figured out what it wants to be – and that’s what makes it great. You have the sense that if you keep coming back, it will keep changing and reinventing itself. So, what does a great weekend in Warsaw look like? Let’s call it Hipster-y History and Science.

Warsaw by Night

Warsaw City by Night by Radek Kołakowski / CC2.0

Warsaw wasn’t the original capital of Poland. No, Warsaw was the third choice – the first being Gniezno, near Poznań, from somewhere around 940 AD (this date is hard to pin down) to 1038 AD; and the second being Kraków from 1038 to 1569. Warsaw’s city center was almost completely destroyed in World War II, and they took the bricks from majestic buildings in Wrocław and other parts of Western Poland to rebuild. Although the rebuilt city looks beautiful, as a resident of Wrocław, I am still a little bitter. Now, Warsaw has entered the next phase of its development, as an international city of business and politics. The former Prime Minister of Poland, Donald Tusk, was chosen in 2014 to lead the European Commission, the first time that honor has gone to someone originating from a post-Communist country, and Warsaw is not only rebuilding the past but also building the newest skyscrapers in Europe. It’s a changing skyline to go along with a changing city.

General Recommendations

Going in the summer is the best time in Poland because the weather is generally great and the days are long. Winter can get a bit cold and dark, which is kind of a bummer for sightseeing. Early fall in Poland is the loveliest season, especially in Warsaw, which has a number of pleasant parks to take advantage of. There is a great network of trams and buses to get you around, but taxis are easy to come by. It’s well worth picking up an In Your Pocket guide from one of the hotels for recommendations beyond this post. They compile a seasonal events calendar and intersperse nice tidbits of Polish history into their publications.

As the capital, Warsaw is of course the hub of transportation in Poland. There are two airports – Okęcie (Chopin), which is very close to the city center, and Modlin, which is quite far away, but accessible by bus. The main train station, Warszawa Centralna, is in the center of the city, as is the main bus station. PolskiBus, one of the most popular coach lines in Poland, drops off at Metro Młociny, so it is also accessible to downtown from Warsaw’s Metro line.

A Weekend in Warsaw

A great weekend in Warsaw is full of learning and general nerdery mixed with food and drinks. Here’s how it can look in short:

Day 1 (Friday if you’re here for a weekend) – Curiosities and Cocktails: Niewidzialna Wystawa / City walk

Day 2 (Saturday) – Science and Nature: Copernicus Science Center / Parks / Palace of Culture and Science / Curie Museum or Chopin Museum (if time)

Day 3 (Sunday) – History: Warsaw Uprising Museum / Royal Castle / Powązki Cemetery

Checking In

Depending on your hotel preference there are a lot of great options at different price levels. Apartments are popular to rent and can be had at various levels of affordability as well. Some personal recommendations follow:

1/2$ Globetrotter Hostel (no private rooms)

$: Campanile

$$: Novotel

$$$: Polonia Palace

Day 1 (Friday)

Before you arrive, you’ll want to book a place for a Friday night entrance into the Niewidzialna Wystawa (Invisible Exhibition). Although it kind of sounds just like a dark room, it’s actually an insight into using your senses to guide you, as if you were a blind person. Since you’ll want to have all of your senses activated for the rest of the weekend, this is a great place to start your trip. The last trip goes at 18:45 on Friday nights, so if you don’t arrive before then, be sure to book a trip for Saturday or Sunday.

After having your senses stimulated, take a bus or a taxi toward the city center. Aleja Jerozolimskie is long and not particularly interesting, so don’t spend a lot of time walking along it. For dinner, you should consider one of Magda Gessler’s restaurants – she is famous for “restaurant reinventions” in Poland, and it’s worth visiting one of her places to experience it. The best and most expensive is Michelin-recommended U Fukiera, near the Old Town Square, with other respectable options being Restauracja Polka (traditional Polish and reasonable prices), also near the Old Town Square, or Ale Gloria (fancy Polish, with higher prices), near Plac Trzech Krzyży. These recommendations are more expensive restaurants than I usually eat at, but since you are feeling so excited from your trip to the Invisible Exhibition, it’s worth having a nice meal afterward.

Warsaw Old Town

Warsaw Old Town by Alexander Baxevanis / CC2.0

Full of yumminess, it’s time to take a walk around the Old Town, which is largely a pedestrian area. If you’re already in the Old Town Square, you’ll want to head south toward the castle. If you are at Trzech Krzyży, you’ll head north toward Nowy Świat. It’s a few kilometers of exploration, but it’s well worth going up and back and checking out the side streets. There is life everywhere, especially in the hidden courtyards off the main street. In them, especially the area known as the Pavilions, you can find a whole other world of thriving clubs, restaurants and coffee shops.

My friends’ favorite place in the area is Klaps, a unquestionably weird bar. But it’s a place worth talking about, because it kind of suits the “what is this place?” vibe of Warsaw. The city sometimes feels buttoned-up and formal, yet there exist avant-garde art bars with boob sculptures on the walls…

If that doesn’t suit your interest, any number of great bars can be found along your walk, though my favorite cocktail in Warsaw was at Karmnik, a fabulous little place on ul. Piwna near the Old Town Square. They have seasonal selections and helpful bartenders.

Finally, after your walk, if you’re looking for something a little higher end, go to the rooftop bar at the Marriott Hotel, where you’ll be able to take in the city skyline at night and enjoy an overpriced cocktail. There, I feel like I’m at home – it’s not such a different situation than at Chicago’s rooftop bars; we just have more of them.

Day 2 (Saturday)

Saturday will be a busy day for us, so start bright and early with a tasty brunch at one of the many delightful cafes – Charlotte is a favorite, but you can also try SAM, Café Kafka or O Obrotach ciał niebieskich, which are all near our first stop, the Copernicus Science Center.

This center is a must-visit, and it is well worth the entry fee. I went with my friend a while ago and it was everything you would want in a science museum. There are naturally a lot of children on the weekends, but there is also an adults-only area. The museum challenges you to (again) use all of your senses, to interact with the exhibits and to learn science with hands-on (or ears-on) displays. Being from Chicago, I can say it compares favorably to the Museum of Science and Industry and at times is even more fun. We did not expect to spend as much time there as we did, and I had to run to catch my train because we got lost in discovery.

When you leave the Copernicus center, you’ll be really near the University of Warsaw Library, whose green roof provides some of the best views of the National Stadium (Stadion Narodowe) and the Vistula (Wisła) River in the city. Besides the novelty of climbing on the roof of a building, it provides a nice segue to the afternoon in the parks.

Warsaw: Park Łazienki

Warsaw: Park Łazienki by Alberto Carrasco Casado / CC2.0

There are so many lovely green spaces to choose from in Warsaw that it’s hard to pick just one. If you are limited on time, I would go to Park Łazienki. If the weather doesn’t suit a walk or a bike ride, then you can visit the Center for Contemporary Art or the Botanical Garden. If you aren’t limited on time, then Ogród Saski in the city center and the park next to the zoo, Park Praski, (or even the zoo itself) are lovely to visit.

[Aside: The zoo was a surprise because its layout was very different than American zoos. I felt like I was much closer to the animals, and I was doubly happy to visit it because the Warsaw Zoo was the setting for the fantastic World War II book, “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” by Diane Ackerman.]

Assuming you went to Łazienki, you’re perfectly situated in Środmieście-Południe (City Center-South), and you can stop at any café on ul. Wilcza (Wolf Street) – Wilczy Głód and Znajomi Znajomych are both great – or one of the cafes on Krucza or Mokotowska or off of Plac Zbawiciela. Plac Zbawiciela is something like the hipster heart of Warsaw – so you can’t go wrong with the food or drink there. After refreshing yourself, it’s time to head to our next learning experience.

The Palace of Culture and Science – recently eclipsed as the tallest building in Warsaw – was a “gift from the Soviet people to the Polish nation”. Now it houses many theatres (both movie and stage), museums and even a college. But while you’re there, you should definitely go to the panorama viewing deck on the 30th floor, and even consider taking in a show (if you want to test your Polish, that is). My friend recommends Café Kulturalna, located inside Teatr Dramatczyny for a kawa (coffee) and even the occasional concert.

If you aren’t exhausted from your walk in the park and discovery time at Copernicus Center (and if it’s summer), you’ll have just enough time for a quick visit to the Curie Museum. I suppose you might be tired of science at this point, but I learned a lot about her life as one of the pioneers who brought civilization into the atomic age.  If you are tired of science, stop in for more culture at the Chopin Museum, where you can learn about the famous pianist and listen to some of his music.

Depending on whether you’re feeling upscale or downscale after your day of science and culture, you can grab a burger at Town Burger or Brooklyn Burgers and Wings ($), you can head back toward Plac Zbawiciela and the surroundings, i.e. Montenegro, Before Bistro, or Rumburak ($$), or you can splurge in one of the restaurants on Nowy Świat or Krakowskie Przedmieście, i.e. Restauracja Koncept or Endorfina ($$$). Kita Koguta is great for a late cocktail.

Day 3 (Sunday)

Where Saturday was a day of learning and thinking about the future, Sunday is more focused on the past. We’ll start at one of the best history museums I have been to, the Warsaw Uprising Museum in the Wola district. Luckily it’s Sunday, so admission is free (though you should pitch in a few złotys for maintenance!). Here you’ll learn about the Polish Home Army resistance movement that culminated in a battle with the Nazis for Warsaw in August 1944. You can take a short trip through the virtual museum but it is definitely worth seeing the exhibits in person. Here you’ll actually get to see what Warsaw looked like at the end of the war and learn about people who fought to keep Warsaw and Poland free.

It’s really well done and your head will feel full of facts that are largely left out of Western history books (or at least, I don’t remember learning about them!). With a brain full of historic pictures, you can then head to Plac Zamkowy (Castle Square) and see what has since been rebuilt. You were already here on Friday night, but now you’ll go inside the Royal Castle. It’s not as majestic as Wawel Castle in Kraków, but it is impressive nonetheless. The most historically significant things to see are probably the exhibitions of the reconstruction of the castle and the Matejko rooms in the castle tour – Jan Matejko was one of the most famous Polish painters, who chronicled some of the most important events in Polish history using his paintbrush.

If you feel you are done with museums at this point, that’s OK – you can alternatively enjoy the afternoon at Powązki Cemetery, if you didn’t go yesterday, or go to the “Dancing Fountain” (the multimedia fountain), which is located just north of the New Town Square near the river.

Warsaw's Fountains

Warsaw’s Fountains by aNdrzej cH. / CC2.0

A great spot for lunch is Lawenda Café, near the castle, before the fountain. It is charming, with great sandwiches and salads and freshly squeezed juices. My friends and I stumbled upon it last summer, but it turns out to be highly rated on one of my favorite Warsaw food blogs, WarsawFoodie.

Finally, a trip to Warsaw wouldn’t be complete without some dessert. Two of the best – Kubek w Kubek for cakes and Malinova for ice cream – are quite south of the city center in the Mokotow district, but you can also get a decent ice cream cone from Lodziarnia Wojciecha Hodunia, on Nowomiejska 7/9, near the New Town Square.

With your belly and brain full, you are ready to head home to digest.