ANCIENT AND MODERN WARSAW
Western Europe is typically at the forefront of American minds when planning a trip to Europe. We’ve discovered that trips to Eastern Europe often surpass the rewards of their Western counterparts.
Countries like Poland are ideal, as they attract fewer tourists but still impress with their grand past and architecture. Poland was the destination of our first international vacation as a father and boy.
When my son, then a teenager, and I were deciding where to go on a father-son trip, Poland came up a lot because it was once believed to be one of the wealthiest and mightiest countries in the world. And the nation’s capital is a fine spot to begin.
By taking the express shuttle from Chopin International Airport to Warsaw’s Old Town, we were able to get our bearings as we passed through the City Center and saw such sights as Stalin’s Palace of Culture and Science, the country’s tallest building, and “Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue,” a palm tree in the middle of a circle that has stood there since the early 2000s as part of an art installation by Joanna Rajkowska.
The palm tree is visible from the Charles de Gaulle monument and is located in the vicinity of the old Communist Party Headquarters. Many areas of Warsaw do seem to be a mix of the old and the new, embracing the future while honoring the past.
Our bus departed from the heart of the city and drove us along the Royal Route, a route once used by monarchs on at least two occasions in their lifetimes: during their coronation marches and funeral marches. Cafes, restaurants, shops, museums, churches, former royal homes, the presidential palace, and Warsaw University have all set up shop along the Royal Route in recent years.
The scenery on the way to Old Town from the Royal Route was breathtaking. The massive Zygmunt’s Column, atop which stands a statue of King Zygmunt III Vasa brandishing a cross and a blade, was a sight to behold in Old Town’s Palace Square. It was built in 1644, making it Poland’s earliest secular monument.
OLD MARKET SQUARE IN WARSAW
The oasis of Old Market Square, with its cobblestone streets and stunning cathedrals, suddenly emerged before us.
People were strolling in all directions as street musicians played, street artists sold their wares, and street café canopies shaded patrons as they dined on pierogis, sausages, beer, and vodka.
Colorful buildings of yellow, orange, green, and red surrounded the plaza, their corners adorned with sculptures and their facades bursting with lions, servants, ships, and flowers.
Many of the apartments and houses were on upper floors, while the shops, cafes, vendors, antique stores, and even a post office occupied the main level.
We had only been in our town center for a few minutes before we discovered the best spot to get ice cream, beer, and the bell string needed to summon the old lady who sold hot, freshly-baked breads and pastries from a hole in the wall. One part of the square featured an accordion player, while the other hosted a string trio.
Look at her, Alex exclaimed. He indicated the center of the rectangle with his finger.
The mermaid, guardian of Warsaw, located in the middle of the Old Town Market Square. Since the 1300s, she has been featured on the coat of arms of Warsaw. Since this monument of Poland is the most well-known, many people flocked to it.
I told her, “She’s really cool.” We could spend a lot of time gazing at Warsaw’s mermaid. She showed up on the doorstep of our flat.
NEW AND NEWER WARSAW
Warsaw has a reputation for still feeling stuck in the gloom of the Soviet period. And yes, if you walk for about half an hour from Old Town, you will reach apartment buildings from the Soviet period, replete with playgrounds, kiosks, and trams that are virtually identical to those in Russia.
Along with the massive and dreary structures left over from the Soviet occupation, there are also the stunning churches, museums, and palaces of the earlier, Polish influence period. It’s all fascinating, but we especially enjoyed exploring the historic district and the Royal Mile.
It’s not like they’re really ancient or anything. Eighty-five percent of Warsaw’s historic district was devastated by bombing during the war. However, they were rebuilt in the same manner after the war and now hold the title of “Reconstruction Masterpiece” on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
The apartment we rented was in a great spot, on the top level of a building that faced Old Town Square. The mermaid stood watch with her back to us in the loft as we looked out over the square below, which was filled with people enjoying the sunshine at outdoor cafes.
We could see the taller structures of Warsaw’s City Center, including Poland’s tallest structure, the massive Palace of Culture and Science, affectionately referred to as Stalin’s “gift” to the Polish people.
Alex and I found the Royal Castle in Old Town, across from Zygmunt’s Column and a short five-minute walk from our apartment, to be the more impressive castle.
The castle, which was first constructed in 1596, was rebuilt between 1971 and 1988 while retaining its signature Baroque design. Inside, the marble room, regal apartments, and ornate details will make you feel like you’ve traveled back in time several centuries. They are still produced traditionally in Poland.
YOU WON’T BE THE ONLY VISITORS
Poland has experienced life under Russian rule firsthand during Stalin’s reign. Maybe that’s why Poles have been so welcoming of Ukrainian migrants.
More than 1.3 million refugees have entered Poland since Russia’s assault on Ukraine, and many of them plan to settle there permanently. They arrived in the Warsaw area in the hundreds of thousands. Over 1.5 million Polish households have opened their doors to Ukrainian migrants.
According to a recent survey, nearly eighty percent of Poles have assisted Ukrainian migrants in some capacity.
While we were there before any of these changes took place, we still found that locals welcomed us with open arms and excitement into their homes and businesses. You can count on friendly locals because that’s just how things work there.
IF YOU WANT TO LIVE IN WARSAW
We’ve had excellent experiences renting well-reviewed apartments on Airbnb for stays longer than a few days. TripAdvisor and Booking.com both have great hotel discounts for shorter stays.
You should think about the evaluations, location, and cost of each option before making a final decision. You can save both time and money by spending a little more to stay in the heart of the attractions you plan to see.
We stayed in Aga’s gorgeous apartment overlooking the square in Old Town. A very nice apartment, not the Hilton, with two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom, and windows facing both the plaza and the river.