Anty-smogowa maska w moim carry-on baggage
A couple of days is sufficient though a few more will allow you to get to know Warsaw more intimately.
In this post I’d like to describe the final days of my 2020 tour of Poland which were spent in Poland’s capital, Warsaw. Once again, I’ll give my foreign perspective and philosophical musings on the city’s main highlights. On the surface, while its intensely modernised centre immediately wows, Warsaw may feel somewhat “sterile” and lacking a soul. I remember getting that impression. Subsequently though, my feelings when I reminisce over my days in this city have changed.
What must be remembered is that 90% of this city quite literally no longer existed in 1945. Maybe it doesn’t have that magical feeling that a city like Kraków evokes, but instead the entire city of Warsaw can be seen as a towering monument to Poland’s arising from the ashes after the Second World War.
what will you find out?
What to see in Warsaw?
Which musems are worth visiting?
What was Stalin’s “gift” to Poland?
The Old Town, museums, Praga and palac kultury
arriving in warsaw
Prior to Warsaw, I had spent a number of days in Zakopane, hiking through the absolutely sublime mountains and forests of Tatra National Park while mostly avoiding its ultra-commercialised town centre (but can I mention again how utterly magnificent the mountains are? The Tatras are the true heart of Poland! Go there now!). One bus to Kraków followed by a high-speed train thence later, I had arrived in the centre of the nation’s capital. What a contrast!
Now surrounded by skyscrapers instead of mountains, I was in a city akin to London or New York. Underneath the dazzling skyline with the plethora of bars, clubs, restaurants etc available, opportunities abound for a fantastic night out in the centre. Despite how enormous the city appears, a surprisingly large amount of it is very walkable.
Assuming you have strong legs like mine and like to admire the streets and architecture, to get to know the city you’re in somewhat, then you can definitely traverse a significant chunk of Warsaw in one day. Weak legs? Not to worry, Warsaw’s public transport network, comprising buses, trams and the metro is excellent.
The old town
My hostel, my base of operations in Warsaw, was located in the gorgeous Old Town. This Old Town is not very old at all, however. Destroyed after the Warsaw Uprising, it was then painstakingly and meticulously reconstructed between the 1950s and 1970s, based on the paintings of the 18th century Italian artist Bernardo Bellotto. What a job Varsovians did! Make sure you spend a few hours admiring the beauty of the streets and architecture, alongside the effort and determination of those who rebuilt it all from the rubble.
warsaw uprising museum
There are a number of fantastic museums in Warsaw, my first destination was never going to be anything other than the Warsaw Uprising Museum. Yet another example of Poland’s glorious museums, this one chronicles the Warsaw Uprising, one of the Second World War’s most tragically romantic events. In the summer of 1944, when it seemed as if the Red Army’s takeover of Warsaw was imminent, the Home Army and the people of Warsaw rose up against their oppressors after five years of suffering under the German occupation.
In the single largest military effort by any of the underground resistance movements during WW2, they hoped to liberate themselves and establish their own sovereignty before their old Russian overlords could “liberate” them on their behalf. Unfortunately, the Wehrmacht’s grip on Warsaw was stronger than first thought. After repelling the initial advances of the Red Army and Soviet-backed Polish First Army, the Germans set about crushing the Warsaw rebels with zero mercy. Meanwhile, after a quarrel with the Allies and the Polish government-in-exile, Stalin refused to give any aid to the beleaguered rebels. Ultimately, they only received a few airdrops of supplies from the Americans and British over the two months they held out. In the end, the Germans killed up to 200,000 Varsovians in their savage reprisals and systematically destroyed almost the entire city, block by block, in an act of sadistic revenge. This museum honours and documents everything about Warsaw’s heroism and sacrifice during its heart-breaking finest hour.
POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews
Being Polish during the 20th century was hard, that’s for sure. But without a doubt, being Polish and Jewish was even harder. My next destination, POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, made this clear. Built on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto, where up to 400,000 Polish Jews were imprisoned within a 3km squared area by the Nazis during the war, it faces the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes which commemorates the martyrs of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.
As well as the obvious information on the Holocaust, the museum doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to chronicling the anti-Semitism Polish Jews have also had to endure from a significant number of their own Polish brothers and sisters during the 20th century. The story of Polish Jews may have ended in genocide and exile, but it’s not all depressing. The journey along the way is just as important and indeed, the museum clearly shows that Polish Jews lived and thrived in Poland for centuries!
The third museum I visited was the Museum of Life in the Polish People’s Republic, highlighting Poland’s experience under the Iron Curtain. A pretty history it was not. The Soviet secret police infamously murdered over 20,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia in the 1940 Katyn Massacre while tens of thousands more Poles were killed in the post-war conflict between the Soviet/Polish authorities and “Cursed Soldiers”. Hundreds of thousands were imprisoned, tortured and deported to the Gulag during these years. Even once “peace” was established, the history of the PRL chiefly consisted of one economic crisis after another, the corruption of the ruling PZPR party, spying by the “Ubeki” secret police and the ever-looming threat of the tens of thousands of Soviet troops sitting in their various military bases.
No wonder Poland isn’t particularly “ostalgic”. Still, the museum shows that dramatic oppression wasn’t entirely the sum of the PRL, there was indeed something resembling a “normal” side. Amongst the information and exhibits on display here showing the mundaneness but also the utilitarianism of life under socialism, I was reminded of Rammstein frontman Till Lindemann’s reflections on his youth in the DDR: “In East Germany there were very few things, but there was also a feeling of solidarity that no longer exists…Now before friendship, it is merchandise.” You can say that again, Till.
My final day in Warsaw was mostly spent across the Vistula River in Praga district. This district is the only major part of the city which wasn’t destroyed by the Germans, and as such is the most authentic part of Warsaw. It has had a rough reputation over the years, it certainly has that Katowice-esque graffitied “realness”. As happens though, this same rough reputation has led to an influx of bohemian, artistic types over the years. There’s plenty to see here including Praga park, a whole host of breath-taking murals by world-renowned street artists and Mała street, which has repeatedly served as a filming location for pre-war Warsaw.
If you’re a cyberpunk nerd like myself you’ll definitely also love the final museum I visited – the Neon museum. This museum dedicates itself to the documentation and preservation of the neon signs that once decorated Communist-era Warsaw. Being inside this museum feels like being in Ridley Scott’s classic “Blade Runner”. A short walk from here through Skaryszewski Park will take you to the Saska Kępa district, the most high-society sector of Praga. Prepare to be awed by PGE Narodowy, Poland’s largest stadium, standing in the distance as you enter. I was also amused to pass a monument here to the great slave-owning tax evader himself, George Washington (or “Town Destroyer” as the Iroquois Native Americans called him).
Stalin’s gift to Poland
Over the Vistula again, past Marshall Józef Piłsudski’s Municipal Stadium of Legia Warsaw and I was back in the city centre for my ultimate destination, the Palace of Culture and Science, Stalin’s gift to Poland. Almost everywhere you go in Warsaw, the palace is standing there in the distance, as if watching over you, and this is very deliberate. It was built in the aftermath of the Second World War, ostensibly as a “gift of socialism” from the USSR to Poland, to represent Poland’s post-war reconstruction. Divorced from its historical context and considered on its own merits, it’s probably the most beautiful skyscraper I’ve ever seen, but I am slightly crazy after all. Varsovians on the other hand have traditionally never appreciated this “gift” all that much, and it’s very easy to understand why.
As mentioned before, 90% of Warsaw was rubble after the Warsaw Uprising, the surviving Varsovians were living up to ten people per room in the few remaining liveable buildings. Housing was obviously a desperate priority at this point. Nonetheless, the 5 ft 4 Iosef dze Jughashvili decided that the construction of an aesthetically impressive but ultimately rather pointless skyscraper was the first priority, above all else. Polish architects tried to argue in favour of a metro system, modelled on the Moscow metro, at least. This would have actually served a practical purpose in the long run and even could have been portrayed as a genuine “gift of socialism”. But no – Stalin, Molotov et al made clear that they wanted a palace.
To add insult to injury, they actually demolished more of the city in order to construct it! It was decreed that the palace would be constructed in a very specific area of Warsaw. Why? So it could be clearly visible from every area of the city. There were already a number of surviving buildings standing in this spot, historical buildings with some of the most beautiful gardens in Europe and thousands of rooms which could have housed people. Didn’t make any difference, boom it all went. Concrete was then shipped from all over Poland to build this monolith. You can see photos from 1950s Warsaw in which ruined buildings are still being reconstructed everywhere while the Palace ridiculously stands in pristine condition in the middle of it all, taunting the city and its inhabitants. People become your enemies when you treat them like enemies, and thus the seeds of the 1989 Revolutions were sown.
More than a few Polish people have wanted to see the Palace demolished over the years but for now, I’m glad they haven’t done so. It offers extraordinary views of Warsaw, especially now that this monument to Stalinism is ironically surrounded on all sides by brightly-lit monuments to capitalist excess – shopping centres, office buildings, luxury apartments etc. It was a truly profound way to officially mark the end of my time in Warsaw and in Poland.
watch our video from warsaw
In conclusion, I implore you all to visit this spectacular city. A couple of days is sufficient though a few more will allow you to get to know Warsaw more intimately. In hindsight, there’s definitely more that I would like to have seen. For the more adventurous among you, considering a whole tour of Poland along the lines of mine, – I say go for it! Poland is a fascinating and exciting country, while the act of backpacking city to city for ten days was an utterly life-changing experience for me. Nietzsche famously said that: “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”
Speaking from my own experience – adventures like these won’t automatically fix problems you may have going on in your life, you have to do that yourself. These adventures may just give you the strength and determination to finally do that fixing, however. Nietzsche’s wording was possibly a little too pessimistic but nonetheless, I can tell you all that my adventure absolutely helped me to find more meaning in the suffering. Here’s to my next adventure, hopefully coming in late 2021!
my top 3 favourite places
Yet another example of Poland’s glorious museums, this one chronicles the Warsaw Uprising, one of the Second World War’s most tragically romantic events.
Almost everywhere you go in Warsaw, the palace is standing there in the distance
This district is the only major part of the city which wasn’t destroyed by the Germans, and as such is the most authentic part of Warsaw.