The colourful new face of Warsaw
Warsaw has a cheery new face but has not forgotten its dark history, making it a fascinating capital of many layers
Castle Square, Warsaw, Poland. Photograph: Getty Images
Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw
Before we begin: a little game. Close your eyes. What colour pops into your mind when you hear the word “Warsaw”. If the answer is grey, you are still a mental hostage of the Cold War and should keep reading.
I expected far more than 50 shades of grey when I arrived in Warsaw for the first time, late at night. It was 2001, I knew no one and had been parachuted in, with little preparation, to cover the general election the following day.
The austere facades didn’t disappoint in their greyness. The only colour on that trip came when the jubilant new prime minister, Leszek Miller, arrived in a Warsaw pub to enjoy a stout and sang the popular Polish ditty: I love you like I love Ireland.
Impressions of Warsaw from regular visits over the subsequent decade have merged in my mind like a stop-motion nature movie about a spectacular civic transformation. The colour palette has broadened and, on my last visit, my first as a tourist and not a harassed journalist on deadline, I felt as if I was watching a colourful butterfly emerge from a grey chrysalis.
The capital has undergone a massive civic face-peeling; stripping away decades of neglect to reveal hidden and revived splendour. There is an unmistakable whiff in the air that this great city, after pulling the short straw of history for centuries, finally has a great past ahead of it.
Veer off the main streets and you can still see old Warsaw – crumbling facades, washing lines, young seminarians hurrying around in cassocks – but on my recent visit, the city had put on a fresh face and happy families strolled along enjoying the ice-cream weather.
To orient yourself walk down the so-called Royal Route, beginning at Nowy Swiat (New World Street). An elegant stretch of low-rise city villas, this colourful strip of cafés and shops is one of the great European promenades and lends itself to strolling and people-watching. Though local stores are steadily being priced out by international brands, you can find local life by ducking into the courtyards: go through number 22 to find the Secret Garden area of dive bars – where vodka shots are 50 cent a go.
While most cities are a product of their past, Warsaw is a triumph over its troubled history. After six years of war-time occupation in 1945, the retreating Nazis obliterated the city street by street, building by building. The pre-war million-plus metropolis was left a smoking, haunted ghost town with fewer than 15 per cent of its buildings and just 1,000 people remaining.
Down but not beaten, the Poles gritted their teeth and rebuilt their city and history, brick by brick. For visitors, it is nigh impossible to believe that almost every old building you see – including the entire Old Town – is a loving post-war reconstruction of a pre-war original.
Not all post-war architecture was welcome: the 1945 communist takeover that made Poland a Kremlin puppet state saw Warsaw “gifted” with many monoliths of socialist architecture.
The little-loved Palace of Culture is a 234m high unwanted gift from Stalin and the pinnacle of bad taste. It looks like a communist crossbreed of New York’s Empire State and Dakota buildings and the best views of the city are from its 30th floor observation deck, where you can’t see it.
Once choked with traffic, city centre Warsaw is now a very walkable place. Under mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz pavements have been replaced and widened, trees and flowers have appeared, as well as dozens of welcome benches – including black marble ones that play the melodies of beloved son, Fryderyk Chopin. Music addicts should check themselves into the new Chopin museum for a further dose.
Anyone who visits Warsaw should make an effort to understand the unfair hand the Poles have been dealt throughout much of their history.
One atmospheric place to start is the Warsaw Uprising Museum, dedicated to the desperate, heroic 1944 attempt by Warsovians to take on the occupying Nazi forces, attract military support from the US and Britain and deflect the approaching Red Army.
No outside help came, they held out for two months and the uprising ultimately failed, claiming up to 200,000 lives and leaving Poland to Stalin’s not-so-tender mercies. The museum is brilliantly done but, a decade after opening, it is still pitched at clued-in locals. Until curators get around to putting up some panels offering historical background, you should do some quick reading before you go.
The other uprising Warsaw is remembering this year is the month-long 1943 revolt in the city’s Jewish ghetto. It, too, was put down, the population murdered and the ghetto razed from the landscape. Seven decades on, architectural miracle has just sprouted from the tainted ghetto soil: a new Finnish-designed museum dedicated to a millennium of Jewish life in Poland. Even before its permanent exhibition is finished early next year, the building alone is worth a visit.
One final tip for history lovers: the outdoor “Colours of Ruin” exhibition beside the Hotel Bristol documents, in before-and-after colour photographs, the unprecedented destruction imposed by vindictive Nazi generals on Warsaw’s landscape as they retreated.
After all that difficult history, pop into the Bristol’s tearoom on the corner for light refreshments. The century-old five-star hotel returned from decades in decaying limbo in 1993 and, since then, has been doing a booming trade. Anyone looking for something substantial should pop across the road to the closed Europejski hotel where, if you find the discreet door, you can get a bang-up meal in the hotel kitchens, prepared while you watch.
The lesson for anyone who visits Warsaw, one that Irish visitors will understand very well, is how to be more than just a victim of past wrongs. Like the Irish, the Poles believe in celebrating their culture with anyone who shows an interest. There is a massive opera house, world-class museums and, every Sunday afternoon, locals flock to free Chopin concerts in the lush Lazienki Park. Close your eyes, listen to the waltzes and mazurkas floating on the warm summer breeze and you’ll leave with a better understanding of the tortured, romantic Polish soul.
A final stroll in the Lazienki Park, among the proud peacocks and gleaming palaces, is the final proof that, for wonderful Warsaw, grey was yesterday.
Where to stay
Luxury: Hotel Bristol, hotelbristolwarsaw.pl
A stunning recreation with soaring bar and restaurant and pretty tearoom. Doubles from €130.
Midrange: Novotel Warszawa Centrum, novotel.com
A high rise with spectacular views, centrally located with double rooms from €75.
Budget: The Oki Doki hostel, okidoki.pl
Themed room names such as Communist Dorm or Realm of Narnia. Private rooms from €40 and eight-bed dorm from €10.
Where to eat
Europejski Hotel, U Kucharzy-ul. Ossolinskich 7 gessler.pl
In the kitchens, chefs cook to impress onlooking diners. Order steak tartare for a great show.
Pod Samsonem, ul Freta 3/5
Surrounded by tourist traps, this offers tasty Jewish cuisine to grateful locals. Try the pierogi dumplings.
Podwale Piwna Kompnia, ul Podwale 25, podwale25.pl
Loud Polish beerhall involving large hunks of roast meat and large beers.
Beach bars: from La Playa beach bar to BarKa barge bar.
Where to go
Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Anielewicza 6,
Warsaw Uprising Museum, Grzybowska 79, 1944.pl
Chopin Museum, ul Okólnik, chopin.museum
Copernicus Science Museum, ul Wybrzeze Kosciuszkowskie 20, kopernik.org.pl
Free walking tours: at noon, at Sigismund’s Column.