Get into museums for free, eat great food for cheap, and do some more unusual things that other tourists tend to miss. Check out these tips on how to get around and experience Warsaw like a local
Warsaw is a city of a rich, yet difficult history. It was almost completely demolished during World War II and rebuilt in communist times, and it’s these two events that have shaped a lot of the city’s identity. Today, the Polish capital is a multi-faceted, exciting place to be, especially in the spring and summer. With this alternative guide, you’ll catch the different sides to Warsaw — the grandiose, the quirky and the unusual — and discover how cheap it can be, away from the beaten path.
Getting to and around Warsaw
First things first: how do you travel to Warsaw, and what’s the best way to get around once you’re there? To answer the former, as the capital city of Poland, Warsaw is well-connected to many countries around the world. Head to Kiwi.com for the best train, bus or flight connections. Now, on the latter…
When getting your plane tickets, pay attention to the IATA (airport) code of your destination. Chopin Airport (WAW) — known as Okęcie by the locals — is located near the city center, and public transport is a cheap and easy means to get to the center. Meanwhile, some airlines fly to Modlin (WMI), a former village near Warsaw, and the journey to the city from there takes approximately 40 minutes.
Despite the jokes about its sole two crossing subway lines, public transport in Warsaw is cheap and efficient. A daily ticket valid for the subway (yes, all both lines!), the buses and the trams costs less than €4. Look for the ticket vending machines at the stops and on most vehicles. Some newspaper stands also sell tickets.
Rent a bike
Don’t want to stick to fixed routes or timetables? You can also explore Warsaw on two wheels! A public bike will cost you only 10 zł (roughly €2.15) initially, and rides for up to 20 minutes are free. The easiest way to rent bikes is through the app Veturilo. Guided bike tours can also be really fun.
There are lots of long, pleasant walking routes in Warsaw — the Royal Route, down the Vistula Boulevards, and around numerous pretty parks. The typical tourist attractions are quite scattered, though, so getting around them all just on foot would be challenging for most people.
The Palace of Culture and Science — the must-see of Warsaw
You can love it or hate it, but you can’t ignore it. Until recently, the Palace of Culture and Science (PKiN) was the tallest building in Warsaw, and it still stands out on the capital’s skyline. Inspired by Moscow’s Stalinist skyscrapers and described as “a gift from the Soviet nation to the Polish nation” as such, in this part of the world, the PKiN is one of a kind architecturally.
It’s the city’s biggest attraction, and even an alternative sightseeing route should include it. The Palace is such a unique example of architectural and technological relics from the communist era, still with its original interior design from the 1950s… and cats in the basement. That’s right — the cats are just as much an institution as the place itself. Inside, there are movie theatres, as well as the beautiful Congress Hall where both Marlene Dietrich and the Rolling Stones have performed.
It’s good to start your city tour from the Warsaw Tourist Information Center, which is inside the Palace. And if you want to see the entire Warsaw cityscape, you can’t skip the observation deck on the 30th floor.
Free museums in Warsaw
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In the city, almost every museum is free to enter on certain days, and so you’ll be able to soak up some culture for absolutely nothing pretty much anytime.
For example, on Tuesdays, you can visit the permanent exhibitions in the National Museum. Here you’ll find interesting collections of medieval, Nubian, and 19th-century European art. In the gallery of Polish works, you can admire one of the largest paintings in the world — the extremely detailed piece from Jan Matejko, The Battle of Grunwald.
Thursday is a popular free admission day for museums. For modern exhibitions, visit Zachęta — the largest contemporary art gallery in Poland. You can combine this with a walk in the nearby Saxon Garden.
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On Wednesdays, head toward the Royal Castle — its numerous spectacular interiors are adorned with works of art from the 16th century. Most museums in Poland are closed on Mondays, the exception being the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which also offers free admission on this day.
A final shout is the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. With free tours on Thursdays, it presents the history of Polish Jews over the centuries through interactive exhibitions and interesting events.
Eat for cheap at Warsaw’s milk bars
The so-called milk bar (bar mleczny) is a phenomenon of Polish gastronomy. Thanks to state subsidies, these bars are able to offer simple, homemade dishes at bargain prices. The reason they’re called milk bars is that dairy products are used as base ingredients for most dishes. Their unpretentious character, presented in popular comedies from the communist era, is now more of a memory.
Many of them, like the popular Prasowy on Marszałkowska Street or Gdański on Gen. Władysława Andersa Street, have more-or-less caught up to modern and mainstream standards. In the city center, stop by Bambino. For a more classic vibe, go to Rusałka on the Praga side of the river. Familijny on Nowy Świat Street has become very popular among tourists now, too. Traditional Polish dumplings or pancakes typically cost from 9 to 11 zł, which is less than €3.
Be aware that the way of doing things at a milk bar might not be obvious. Order your meal at the counter — you’ll then get a numbered receipt and wait for your order to be called. Once it’s ready, you should collect it yourself from a hatch. If the bar is packed, you can join someone’s table, but the milk bar isn’t really a place that invites you to hang around. After eating, you should take your dishes back to the counter to free up the table. Essentially, it’s a traditional Polish canteen experience.
The Vistula is an impressive river, at least on a European scale. On one end, it’s wild, with natural beaches, greenery, and relative biodiversity. Downtown, it’s lined by boulevards with pop-up eateries serving different cuisines. It’s here that you’ll also find bars of the pop-up variety, largely in shipping containers.
Warsaw’s beaches on the Praga side of the river are, primarily, places to chill out by a bonfire, day or night, while admiring the city’s skyline. The Guardian, The Telegraph, and National Geographic have rated them among the best city beaches in Europe due to them being unspoiled and civilized.
The Vistula is both an attraction in itself and a channel of transport. From May to September, free ferries with local bird names connect both sides of the river, operating between some main points of interest: the Royal Castle, Warsaw Zoo, Czerniakowski Headland, the Saska Kępa neighborhood, the Poniatowski Bridge and the National Stadium.
Additionally, you can choose from a variety of river tours on private boats — from traditional wooden ones to motorboats, as well as barges that can accommodate a larger party. They’re popular for special occasions such as birthdays, bridal parties, or photo sessions.
Meeting points in Warsaw
By “Palma”, “Rotunda”, “Pekin”, or maybe on “Patelnia” (literally, “frying pan”)? The colloquial names of popular meeting points may seem strange at first, but if you meet up with Warsaw locals, you can expect directions to any of the following:
- Palma — an artificial palm tree on the Charles de Gaulle roundabout. It’s actually an art installation by Joanna Rajkowska entitled Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue, and it became a symbol of Warsaw almost 20 years ago. (Be aware that you can’t meet directly under the palm tree itself because it’s on a roundabout. The exact place to wait for your friends should be by the stairs at the nearby Empik store.)
- Pekin, Pałac, pajac — the above-mentioned Palace of Culture and Science. The place to meet is probably the square in front of the main entrance, between the Dramatyczny and Studio theaters.
- Patelnia — the square in front of the Centrum metro station. The surrounding walls are decorated with thematic murals.
- Rotunda — the recently rebuilt PKO bank building, close to the Patelnia.
- Zygmunt — Sigismund’s Column, a monument towering over Castle Square at the entrance to the Old Town.
- The Mermaid — this symbol of Warsaw is featured on its coat of arms and can be spotted at many places in the city (try to count them all!). This monument near the Świętokrzyski Bridge is the one people tend to have in mind when meeting on the Vistula Boulevards.
- Zbawix — Zbawiciela Square, a hipster’s mecca (more on this in a moment).
Going out in Warsaw
Warsaw is undoubtedly popular because of its nightlife, as well as its cafés and restaurants (including a good selection of vegan ones). Generally, it’s pretty affordable to go out on the town.
The hipster square and the hidden Pavilions
Among all the hipster spots in Warsaw, Zbawiciela Square — Zbavix for short — still comes out on top. It’s home to cafés like Charlotte and Coffee Karma, and the iconic pub Plan B. In 2015, the place lost one of its landmarks — an art installation in the shape of a colorful rainbow, a symbol that sadly, is still quite controversial in Poland.
Poznańska Street also attracts hip and trendy types — the mix of craft beer pubs, cocktail bars and fashionable restaurants does result in a particularly cool vibe. Middle Eastern restaurants like Beirut and Tel Aviv have been popular for years.
You also can’t miss Kulturalna, located inside the PKiN. They organize lots of alternative cultural events and often host live DJ sets.
The bar hub Pavilions at the back of Nowy Świat is popular among students. From the elegant promenade on the Royal Route, you just need to step through the archway to be greeted by the party buzz in the courtyard. Despite its relatively discreet location, Pavilions can’t be missed — just follow the tipsy crowd flocking from the Foksal bus stop.
In the past, Praga (not to be confused with the Czech capital) — a part of Warsaw on the eastern side of the river — didn’t have the best reputation. However, its unique character and the cheap rental prices have lured artists, alternative culture, and community projects. Praga became truly trendy, and now you’ll see things like local bands playing in garage-like bars next to expensive restaurants and designer boutiques.
As the only pre-war urban fabric that’s left undamaged, this part of Warsaw is full of original zests such as backyard shrines and madonnas. It is also a place that cultivates — or rather, brings back to life — urban folklore, the Warsaw dialect, and traditional music.
Unusual things to see in Warsaw: the post-industrial hype
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Lately, new loft-like places have been popping up in Warsaw like mushrooms. Former factories, breweries, and garrisons are being revitalized and rebuilt into modern cultural, business, and residential centers.
Soho Factory in Praga is known for the unique Neon Museum, which preserves treasures of an almost forgotten art of advertising. This is hands-down one of the most Instagrammable places in the city.
The former distillery Koneser is home to the Polish Google Campus, the Polish Vodka Museum, many restaurants, and a shopping center.
On the other side of the river, Elektrownia Powiśle — once a power plant — takes on a similar concept, but mostly with fashion outlets both from famous brands and Polish designers.
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The ways to explore Warsaw are endless! Discover it as Chopin’s city, immerse yourself in its parks, search for architectural gems, hunt down the best vegan burgers, and find many other things to do for cheap. When in doubt, just ask the locals!
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