Things To Do in Warsaw: a City Reborn
Following on from his visit to the POLIN Museum to learn about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Mark Bibby Jackson discovers the things to do in Warsaw, a city reborn.
Apart from visiting the POLIN Museum, the main reason for my visit to Warsaw was to see the industrial heritage of the city – to experience a city reborn not only from the rubble of the ghetto but also from its industrial past.
After POLIN, my guide Agnieszka takes me to the Norblin Factory, an old ironworks factory set in the heart of the commercial part of Warsaw.
Norblin was still a functioning factory in the 1980s and after that housed the museums of industry and printing. Now, it has been converted into a ‘food town’ with retail, commercial and residential spaces. Many of the buildings are listed. I like the way they have incorporated the original machinery into the design. It’s a really cool and vibrant area with lots of exhibits – certainly one of the liveliest open-air museums I have visited.
In the evening, I dined at N31 Restaurant. This elegant restaurant would stand comparison with fine-dining establishments with capital cities around the world. I started with a sea trout tartare with avocado and black caviar which was absolutely amazing. There was a lovely mixture of textures and a nice saltiness to it, that complimented the Polish Solaris wine really well. My main was octopus served with prawn and squid and a potato purée with a slightly spicy smoked paprika rouille. The restaurant had a great urban design, as well as impeccable service.
Warsaw City Tour and Chopin
The following day, Agnieszka meets me once more at my Chopin Boutique B&B, to take me on a city walking tour of Warsaw.
We follow the Royal Route along Nowy Świat and Krakowskie Przedmieście, which leads to the old historic centre. On the way we stop to grab some paczek, a Polish doughnut filled with rose petal jam. It really was great.
En route, we pass statues of two of Poland’s most famous sons, Copernicus and Chopin, as well as stop at musical benches where you can hear work by the latter composer played. An interesting diversion leads us to Piłsudski Square, which is the largest square in Warsaw, and was where Poland’s other famous son Pope John Paul II addressed the masses in 1989, when it was called Victory Square.
Next to the Square is the Europejski Warsaw hotel, now run by the Raffles Group. According to Agnieszka, this is where the Enigma Code was cracked in 1932, long before Bletchley. The other classic hotel in the area, The Bristol, survived World War II largely unscathed, as it was used by the Nazis as their headquarters. It has a café where you can see a plate signed by Picasso.
Our tour concludes in the historic part of the city, which dates back to the 13th century, and is now recognised by UNESCO as an “outstanding example of a near-total reconstruction”. Walking around the cobbled streets, it is hard to imagine that 85% of it was destroyed during the war. Our trip concludes with a visit to the interesting ‘Rising From the Rubble’ exhibition in the Museum Warszawy, which tells the story of how the city was rebuilt by men and women from 1945-9.
After a very pleasant lunch at Kuk, in the Hotel Verte, Agnieszka takes me on her final tour of Warsaw, once more to a great example of industrial architecture turned into a major retail park, followed by a stroll along the river.
Before that, we visit the Warsaw University Library. This wonderful building was created in 2000 as a greenhouse of books – the idea is that books are made of paper which comes from trees. The building’s brutalist architecture is dramatic. And on its roof is a garden, claimed to be one of the most beautiful roof gardens in Europe, where locals can sit to enjoy the views. This is a great example of how a building can transform a formerly run down and industrial area, turning it into one of the most desirable parts of the city.
The library was on land owned by the Powiśle Power Plant. Built in 1904, this was one of the largest power plants in the country.
It was here that the Kubuś, a small, armoured vehicle was constructed and used in the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944. Just like the Norblin Factory, part of the appeal of visiting Powiśle is to see all the industrial heritage incorporated into a modern retail complex, with buzzing bars on the ground floor and retail space above. It is a mightily impressive example of regenerative urban architecture.
Chopin and Cheese
There really is only one place to stay in Warsaw. The Chopin Boutique B&B is located in a building which largely survived both wars in tact before being taken over by current owner Jarosław Chołodecki 20 years ago.
It has some fame as the house where Władysław Szpilman, the central character in Polański’s film The Pianist lived. One of the rooms is named after him. There are also evening Chopin recitals. I was fortunate enough to be invited to one upon returning from Powiśle. These are relaxed informal affairs and a wonderful way to experience the Polish composer in his home setting. There is something relaxing yet melancholic about Chopin.
Jarosław has converted the hotel into a sustainable destination in its own right. He shows me the roof terrace where they are growing their own vegetables next to the beehives where their honey is produced. Afterwards, we enjoy a beer and some Baltic herring in the restaurant while one of his team roasts coffee in front of us. Few hoteliers have impressed me so much with their desire to do the right thing for both the planet and staff.
After the recital, where the performer combined Chopin with mindfulness in a unique performance, I walked along the street to Bursztynowa for an explosion of cheese, which started with a cheese soup with nuts, grapes and potatoes, and continued with a halibut served with potato and cheese balls in a cheese sauce on a bed of padrone peppers.
The cheese comes from the Spomlek Dairy Cooperative – it is all made by hand. The idea of the restaurant started as a marketing outlet to highlight the wonderful cheese you can find in Poland, which surprised me as much as the Polish wine did on the first night at N31. It makes for a wonderful conclusion to my serendipitous visit to Warsaw, a quite visionary and surprising city, which shows exactly how regenerative tourism should be managed.
Things To Do in Warsaw Poland
For more inspiration on what to do in Warsaw, visit the official Warsaw tourism website.