A weekend in Warsaw and you’ll never go back to Berlin.
Looking for an actually alternative city break destination, and not somewhere where ‘alternative’ means there’s more than one cellar bar or a splash of bog average street art? Well, give Warsaw a look and I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
Note: I do really like Berlin, and if you’ve not been then it’s worth a look. But, Warsaw is exactly how I imagine Berlin was 20 years ago: Soviet-era concrete boxes beside construction sites promising new shiny skyscrapers, plus genuinely cheap but high quality beer served by bartenders with perfect resting bitchfaces. Not to say you can’t find those things in Berlin, but Warsaw is just different, and even the surliest service can’t help but charm you.
Here are 11 reasons why Warsaw should be on your weekend break bucket-list:
1. Flights to Warsaw are cheap
Ok, an obvious and albeit not really inspiring one, but it’s true. We got return flights from Edinburgh for about £70 with Ryanair through Skyscanner, not including extra legroom – so fancy! Flights to Berlin were about £125 return, just saying…
2. Everything is cheap
Beer is no more than a couple of quid a pint and it’s more than possible to have a lovely 3-course dinner for two (with drinks) for less than £30.
We got chatting to some locals in a rum bar and ended up shotting cherry vodka, forgetting the clocks went forward, leaving us only three hours sleep before our flight home. Yeah, Warsaw’s nightlife is a bit bat-shit…
3. It has some of the best museums
We visited two and spent a half day at each, but you could have easily spent the whole day in either one of them. The first was POLIN, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews (open every day except for Tuesday, free on Thursdays. 2016’s European Museum of the Year, inside this beautiful glass box you’ll discover the astonishing story of Jewish History in Poland and eastern Europe from the medieval period, right through to present day. It’s a momentous undertaking, and the museum is full of wonderful interactive exhibits that bring the struggles and triumphs of this incredibly resilient nation to life. Both an emotional and uplifting experience, for a full appreciation of Jewish History and culture, beyond what we’re taught about the Holocaust, this museum is a must.
The second was The Warsaw Rising Museum (also closed on Tuesdays). Dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 – when the Polish Home Army fought for liberation from German occupation – this is another ambitious museum that seeks to tell this equally heart-warming and heart-breaking story in full – and succeeds. Again, there are lots of interactive displays and even a movie theatre showing 3D films of bombed out Warsaw from the skies – I’d definitely recommend getting the audio guide to really get a handle of what’s going on.
4. The Old Town is a lie
Yeah it looks quaint and old and chocolate boxy, and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it was completely rebuilt after the 1944 Uprising. Sure it’s on the same site as the original thirteenth century market square, and some of the bricks used were from the original buildings, but the rebuild intended to ‘improve’ on the original design, so some of the motifs and pretty paintings you’ll see on the buildings have been shot through with a touch of artistic license.
The best hangover food ever. Stodge heaven. Can be stuffed with meat or cheese. Or both. Need any other reasons?
6. Warsaw’s nightlife is a little bit mental
One night we spent sampling U Kucharzy Restaurant’s famous steak tartare, then the waiter told us about a speakeasy down an alley, behind a door with a lion’s head on it and we thought it sounded pretty legit – we had been drinking vodka with dinner, we couldn’t break with Polish tradition… Alleyway found, lion’s head knocked, we walked though the entrance to a stairway lined with candles, a velvet curtain hiding the door at the top. We later found out that this place was called Charlie’s – it doesn’t exist on the internet, but I’m sure if you ask around someone is bound to know, the bar was packed and the cocktails delicious!
On our third night we booked an unlimited champagne dinner – little did we know it was a very intimate dinner, with only about another 15 guests, surrounded by nude photos of famous people. Then things got weirder when the sommelier whipped out a projector and started playing a film about a Napoleonic battle from the place the champagne was from, before inviting us to chop champagne bottles in half with a sword.
Then there was the night we got chatting to some locals in a rum bar and ended up on the cherry vodka, totally forgetting the clocks went forward and leaving ourselves with only three hours sleep before our flight home. Yeah, Warsaw’s nightlife is pretty fantastic!
7. Luxury hotels costs way less
After a slightly disastrous Airbnb incident (carbon monoxide alarm going through the night, no guarantee there wasn’t a gas leak) we got a refund and de-camped to Hotel Bristol, one of the fanciest in Warsaw. This isn’t a brag post, I’m sharing this because we managed to get a proper bargain (like 3100 off the prices quoted on lastminute.com) just by turning up on the night. It’s probably not the best way to plan you trip, and we were lucky that the hotel wasn’t at full capacity, so we were able to get a suite for a fraction of what the hotel would normally charge. But the great savings made me realise that there are some great bargains to be had in Warsaw if you can/need to leave it last minute. Plus you’ll get to say you stayed in the same hotel as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bill Gates and Yoko Ono, to name but a few.
8. Eating cake in bookshops is totally a thing here
My favourite spot was Wrzenie Świata (close to Nowy Świat Street) which serves up delicious coffee, sweet pastries and wine in the evenings, all with a solid side of non-fiction, photography books and biographies.
9. The coffee is excellent everywhere
Every cup was delicious and cheap – did I mention Warsaw is great value for money?! You’ll find the usual coffee chains, and then there’s Green Caffè Nero, the baby of Caffè Nero and Green Coffee. This place is way better than regular Nero (I’m not a coffee snob but I hate Starbucks coffee) and their cakes are insane – toppling stacks of sponge and cream icing, brownies bigger than my face.
10. Communist architecture is actually really beautiful
Just take a look at the Palace of Culture and Science, a ‘gift of friendship’ from the Soviet Union in 1955.
And this is the view from the top…
11. Because it’s acceptable to eat meringue for every meal
They love a slice of cake in Warsaw, and you can’t escape from gooey meringue cake, it’s in every cafe and restaurant, and it would seem locals eat it for every meal. My kind of diet, well worth leaving space for after your perogi.
Yeah there’s street art, cool music venues and independent design shops in Warsaw too, but for me, what really makes Warsaw different are the things I mentioned above, and not just the fact that you won’t find a Photoautomat here.
Give this under-rated capital a chance and see why city breaks in the east aren’t all the same.
And if I’ve not convinced you, then check out a few more of my top European city break spots over here.