What We Did
One of the first things we did in Warsaw was visit the Old Town (Stare Miasto) and Old Town Square (Rynek Starego Miasta). We took the city’s tram from our hotel and opted for a 24-hour fare so that we could use it throughout the day. The other option was for 20 minutes. We didn’t use it enough to make up the difference in cost, but it wasn’t a huge loss and it was nice knowing we had the option to hop on the tram all day if necessary. We found the tram’s ticket machine easy for tourists to use, including English directions.
Only about 15% of Warsaw was left unharmed by the end of World War II. The Old Town has been rebuilt since then to look as it did historically. It really has kept its old town feel and charm. We were there in February, but Christmas decorations and a small Christmas market with an ice skating rink were still set up in the town square.
We did not go into the Royal Castle, but we were in its vicinity at 11:15 when its trumpeter played the daily Warsaw anthem. It is played every day at 11:15 because that is supposedly when the clock stopped when the first bombs of World War II were dropped on it.
We also saw the old city defensive walls and tower, the Barbican. From there we walked to the Jewish Quarter.
We visited the Umschlagplatz, a monument marking the spot from which Nazis loaded over 300,000 Jews into train cars like cattle and sent them from the Warsaw Ghetto to death camps during the Holocaust. The monument is meant to resemble a freight car. It lists hundreds of the most popular Polish Jewish names as a way to represent the victims.
For me, the listing of names was particularly moving because, though the spellings were slightly different, I found both my name and my son’s name listed. This is not surprising since he was named after his Polish Jewish great-great-great-grandfather who managed to leave Poland before the Holocaust, and I knew my name has Jewish origins, but it is still intense to see them carved in stone with such heavy meaning behind it.
The monument itself, when standing in the middle of its large, gray stone walls, is ominous and looming. Streets and tram lines now run where I assume the train tracks once did, so you can conjure the image of being in a train car on the tracks. That said, from the outside of the monument, on the sidewalk next to it or from the street, it is completely unassuming. If you didn’t know what it was, you might miss it. There is no attention drawn to it. It blends into its bland, surroundings of communist architecture.
Life seemed to be moving past it without noticing. Literally, pedestrians, cars, and trams all passed us by while we seemed to be the only people observing the monument. In fact, we heard the horrible sounds of a car crashing into a tram while we were there. It made for a strange experience where I felt like we were invisible strangers observing one thing while the rest of the world around us was doing something entirely different. Oddly, this was not the only time I had this feeling in Poland.
I am glad we visited the Umschlagplatz before visiting the Polin Museum because it gave me a more tangible context for the sections of the museum that discussed the Warsaw Ghetto.
We visited The Polin Museum, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. It chronicles the 1,000+ year history of Jewish people in Poland. It also features a library and other resources for individuals conducting personal or family research.
We opted for audio guides which helped us navigate the large permanent exhibit. The exhibit had several kid-friendly, hands-on activities. At the beginning of the exhibit I also found some printed guides based on the topics, “Jewish Women: 12 Highlights” and “One Hour, Eight Highlights.” It is a large and detailed exhibit, so these focused guides may come in handy for visitors who are short on time.
Visiting this museum gave me background and context for all the other Jewish and Holocaust related sites we visited on this trip. Its coverage of World War II and the Warsaw Ghetto was powerful but done in a way that wasn’t scary or overpowering for our son. Its coverage of immigration, dictatorships, religious persecution, and genocide was disturbing in its historical context, and is also disturbingly relatable to current global events.
Ghetto Heroes Monument
Just outside the Polin Museum is the Ghetto Heroes Monument which honors the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943.
Also just outside the Polin Museum is a park with exercise equipment. We walked around this park for a bit and let our son play on the exercise equipment to get some young boy energy out. While there, we enjoyed watching a few different groups of dogs playing. The park seemed to be a dog walkers paradise. There were a lot of them!
Walking from the Old Town to the Jewish Quarter, and then around within the Jewish Quarter, gave us a chance to take in the harsh, Communist architecture still prevalent in the area. In contrast to the ornate Old Town buildings, this area was filled with row after row of apartment blocks, differentiated only by their color (sometimes). Considering it was a cold, gray, overcast, sometimes snowy day, the surroundings were really quite bleak. Some of these buildings are painted in bright colors. Is it an attempt to bring some brightness and joy into otherwise, forgive me, dull and depressed surroundings?
Our hotel was in this area and very close to two attractions we visited.
This quirky attraction was a bit hard to find, but interesting to visit if you are into cameras, photos, and/or films. The Fotoplastikon is a late 19th century photo displayer, kind of like a giant view finder. It is a large circle and from seats around its outside, you sit at a viewer and can watch a show of 48 3-D pictures. It takes about 20 minutes per show. Apparently, it is the last of its kind in Europe.
On the day we went, the show was photos of mid-century Berlin. The attendant said they feature different slideshows of other cities on different days. A word of advice, once you find it, tucked away in the center courtyard of a building, go ahead and open its barred, double doors, even if they look closed and locked! It definitely looked closed to us, but we tried the doors anyway, and sure enough, it was open.
The Palace of Culture and Science
The Palace of Culture and Science, or PKiN, was a gift to Poland from the Soviet Union in the 1950s. It now houses museums, a movie theater, an observatory, and more. We visited the observatory for sky-high, 360-degree views of the city. It was a gray, snowy day with low hanging clouds, so the views were less than spectacular. With more time, a visit to the museums would have been interesting, but this was our last stop before leaving for Krakow and we decided to get on the road.
Where We Ate
We ate all our breakfasts and a couple of dinners in our hotel’s restaurant, the Metro Jazz Bar and Bistro. Breakfasts were included, so that was a no-brainer. Dinners there were out of convenience but did not disappoint. The Jazz Bar was listed on some sites I use to search for restaurants, and on one of the two evenings we ate there, we did enjoy live jazz music. Their menu included traditional Polish dishes. To be honest, we were lured the first night by the ad we saw in the elevator for the evening’s special, a pork chop dinner with a shot of vodka. We also tried the Polish sour soup, Zurek, and potato pancakes.
We enjoyed a great lunch at Zapiecek (they have multiple locations). They serve a variety of handmade pierogies. I tried some stuffed with cabbage and pork. My husband had some filled with cheese. They were all delicious, especially with sour cream, but his were better! Our son enjoyed their Polish sausages, white and traditional (the traditional was the best). I couldn’t convince him to like the sauerkraut, though, but that meant more for me. My husband also tried their hot beer, basically mulled beer which is apparently a thing to help you get through the cold Polish winter. My hot tea did the same for me. Zapiecek offers dumpling making classes for kids and adults which sounds like fun!
We had a carry-out dinner one night from Zapiexy Luxusowe. They serve zapiekanki, a Polish street food dish that gained popularity during communist rule, especially as an inexpensive “working man’s” meal. They can be described as open-faced sandwiches, or like French bread pizzas. They were good for a quick and easy meal on a night when we wanted to get back to the hotel room and relax. I hear they are also popular after a long night of drinking Polish vodka!
Where We Stayed
We stayed at the Metropol Hotel. The hotel was in a central location in the financial district of Warsaw. It is not far from the old town, though, especially by the city tram. The hotel is right next to a tram stop, bus lines, and the metro.
We had a great view from our hotel room balcony of the Palace of Culture and Science, except it was somewhat blocked by a Samsung ad hanging on the side of the building – a sure sign that commercialism has taken hold in Poland. Our booking included breakfast every day at the hotel restaurant, a nice buffet of traditional European breakfast foods. The room was large. The furnishings were basic, but everything suited our needs. Our son loved the shoe shine machines conveniently placed on every floor.
What We Missed
Though we walked by the Royal Castle, we didn’t go in for a tour.
There were a number of museums that looked interesting including the The Museum of Warsaw on the history of the city, the Warsaw Rising Museum on the fight for an independent Poland, the Neon Museum which focuses on Cold War era neon signs, and the Copernicus Science Centre which looks to be great for older children.
In the Jewish Quarter, there are Jewish Cemeteries that would have been somber but interesting to visit. I also would have liked to have seen the Footbridge Memorial* and the Jewish Ghetto Wall Fragment* that I have only learned about after our visit. (*a note on these two links: I found printed In Your Pocket (IYP) guides in Warsaw and Krakow and found them incredibly useful. I contacted IYP with grateful feedback and praise. I am considering an opportunity they offered me to contribute a post to their blog, but I share their links here without compensation or affiliation with them at this time, solely because I found them incredibly useful!)
It is quite possible that we walked right by these sites and didn’t notice. As I said about the Umschlagplatz, some of these monuments seem to blend right into their surroundings. I don’t know if that is intentional or just a result of their locations, but it is something to be mindful of when visiting Warsaw.
Overall, I thought Warsaw was an interesting city to visit. It felt more like a history lesson than a tourist destination for me, but I appreciate that about it. Poland is the furthest east we have traveled in Europe so far and is the first country we’ve visited with a history of communist rule. Its long and complex history, as well as my own family history with Poland, made this the most thought-provoking trip for me yet.