Warsaw, the iconic Eastern European city and capital of Poland. Picturing this metropolis invokes certain images that we imagine have to do with various shades of grey, giant, faceless buildings and a WWII or Cold War vibe. This sort of gloomy reputation is not entirely unfounded, but what might surprise you is that Warsaw is actually full of life, colours, design and a beautiful blend of Polish tradition plus retro- and Communist-cool atmosphere. There are plenty of things to do in Warsaw that you wouldn’t expect, so much to explore and lots of culture to settle into – it’s quickly becoming one of the hottest capitals in Europe.
Here are the top things to do in Warsaw as told by Warsaw locals:
1. Neon Muzeum
Warsaw has a long, proud history with neon signs; they are themselves a mini-tour through the 20th century. There’s no better place to explore this cultural richness than at the “Neon Muzeum”, which features original signs that used to pepper not only the streets of the Polish capital but many other cities as well. This museum’s collection, one of the world’s largest of its kind, evokes deep-seated emotions in many locals who often remember the times when the signs would shine brightly in their original locations. Visiting this museum is one of the best things to do in Warsaw, and one of the most memorable.
: Neon Muzeum Warsaw
Warsaw is one of the cities that was hit the hardest during WWII, but pictures and memories from the pre-war or the Interwar periods live on in this installation you would be excused to parallel with a glorified Viewmaster. Fotoplastikon aka ‘Kaiserpanorama’ does work in the same way as the (once?) popular toy, taking advantage of stereoscopic vision to create realistic, entertaining 3D images; in this case, however, these nostalgic, historical scenes are more than a century old. Warsaw’s Kaiserpanorama, which goes back to 1905 and is replete with pre-war elegance, includes shots from not only the Warsaw’s sights and Belle Époque atmosphere, but also close-ups of biological phenomena, photos of bus road-trips through Poland and more.
Wozownia, recently opened in June 2018, is the reincarnation of once-popular bar Koszyki, which closed in 2014. Its namesake is the old carriage house that it has taken over and transformed. According to the owners, this all-season bar aspires to emulate the feeling of Belgian bars, where young, old, tourists and locals meet under the same roof – or the same open skies. Their delicious cocktails and food include edible flowers and their prosecco (7PLN ~ $2) is probably one of the best deals in the beating heart of Warsaw. If you don’t manage to catch it at its summery best, the 80-meter-long carriage house itself will do nicely on cooler days.
4. Grizzly Gin Bar
You might not have thought that gummy bears and gin would make a good combination before reading this article, but that’s how innovative ideas work. Grizzly Gin Bar plays around with the concepts of gin and big bears, but the rest of their gin-tonic-based creations aren’t what you’d call boring either, with the likes of cucumber, cherry, elderflower, and even pepper as ingredients. The bar itself is spacious enough to host live music and has a dance stage. Look out for the decor: TVs from the times when TVs weren’t flat illuminate the dark bar with GIFs.
: Kasia Boni
Miejsce simply means “place”, but it could easily be “the” place. It’s located at the shore of the river Vistula and housed on shipping containers perched on floats. It has a reputation for having excellent beer, an invitingly cosy environment and great food – to give you an idea, the menu is divided into “here” and “now”, and the dishes on offer are inspired by world travel. In summer, all the windows are open, there are people sitting outside by the water and their philosophy (“it’s okay to be different, it’s great to exchange ideas”) all just make the cosiness feel even better.
6. Keret’s House
Etgar Keret is an Israeli writer who is very popular in Poland, best known for his absurdist short stories. He even owns an apartment in Warsaw. All that is perfectly ordinary, except this completely inconspicuous house holds the record for being the narrowest in the world. The odd pastiche that is Warsaw’s architecture inspired the architect Jakub Szcz?sny to fill out a 152cm (5’) gap between two buildings; the resulting apartment measures just 92cm (~3’) wide at its narrowest point. When the Israeli author isn’t at home, Keret’s House is used as a creative studio for artists – perhaps also as a claustrophobia simulator. Keep an eye out for Open House days.
7. Galeria Forty/Forty
Another Warsaw point of interest that could easily inspire other cultural specialists around the world is Galeria Forty/Forty, a hidden gallery in an abandoned fortress from the 1880s. Initially, the most famous Polish street artists were invited to turn this bastion’s old halls into real works of art, which they did. The difference is that this gallery has been purposefully left unsupervised and accessible 24/7, allowing the evolution, flow and change of the artworks themselves in a way that emulates the life cycle of street art out in the wild. Look at it a different way: what other galleries can bring beer to and throw a barbeque at?
8. Tamka street art
It’s not just in hidden forts where you can find the best of Warsaw’s street art: some of it can be found right at the busiest and best-frequented places. The Chopin Museum is obviously dedicated to one of the most famous Poles worldwide, and right across the street you’ll find a huge mural that could easily be part of the museum’s exhibition: created in 2010, it features many of the most important protagonists in the composer’s life. This artwork on Tamka Street is a nice opportunity to also go for a walk or bike ride through the green and still interesting neighbourhood of Powisle, despite its recent massive development works.
9. Poster Museum
Poles love posters – they have been popular and well-loved for decades and the Poster Museum is not only one of the most important collections of its kind, it’s the first one of its kind to open globally. The gallery is a branch of the National Museum and although it’s difficult to reach, it’s well worth it for appreciators of the medium. This summer they celebrate 50 years since their opening, focusing on the year 1968.
: Poster Museum
10. Bar Bambino
“Milk bars” are very popular in Warsaw: they offer cheap, traditional Polish food in a no-frills environment that harkens back to Communist times or sometimes are direct continuations of the original locales. Locals favourite Bar Bambino strikes the best balance between the authentic and the modern: their prices are not as cheap as the more modest milk bars, but the gorgeous food and central location more than make up for it. Plus: even though it’s possible to sit together with strangers at the shared tables, this restaurant is spacious enough to allow for more private lunch.
: W Wa Jeziorki
Picture yourself going to Warsaw; you will want to bring back souvenirs to eager friends and family. But the moment will come when you will have to decide between cheap, tacky trinkets made in some faraway land or quality items actually designed and made in Poland. Here’s where KABAK comes in. We bet you’d never thought of socks making particularly good gifts (they do have a reputation that leans in the other direction), but what if those socks had beautiful motifs, Polish or Warsaw sights on them and designs that blend the best of the local tradition with modern design? Your friends and family will be happy they got quality socks from Warsaw they’ll be proud to walk around in.
About the author
Dimitris Hall is the editor of Spotted by Locals, city guides featuring insider tips by locals in nearly 70 cities around the world. Half-Greek, half-Australian and an Athens insider (“Spotter”) himself, he enjoys writing about local travel, sustainability and where culture, nature and technology meet.