Hack the Hidden City: Fall in love with Warsaw

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Warsaw is a city of a rich, yet difficult history. Almost completely demolished during World War II and rebuilt in communist times, has shaped a lot of the city’s character. Today, it’s a multi-faceted and exciting place. With this guide, you’ll experience different sides of Warsaw, away from the beaten path.

Do you want to visit museums for free, get to know more than the typical tourist attractions, eat well, and have fun, but avoid spending a fortune? We have tips from locals on how to get around Warsaw and discover its hidden gems! 

How to get to and around Warsaw?

Aerial view of Warsaw's Old Town, Royal Castle Warsaw is a city with a rich, yet difficult history. Not only the Old Town is worth exploring, venture a little bit out of the beaten path!

To Warsaw

As the capital city, Warsaw is well-connected. Check Kiwi.com for the best train, bus, or flight connections.

When getting your plane tickets, pay attention to the airport code. Chopin Airport, also known as Okęcie, is located near the city center. Public transport is an easy and cheap way to reach the central area from Okęcie. Some carriers, however, fly to Modlin, a town near Warsaw, and the journey from there takes approx. 40 minutes. 

Around Warsaw

Despite the jokes about its two crossing subway lines, public transport in Warsaw is well organized and cheap. A daily ticket for the subway (yes, all the two lines!), buses, and trams, costs less than 4€. Look for the vending machines at the stops and in most vehicles. Some newspaper stands also sell tickets, and you can use a mobile app like skyCash

Pedal your way through the city

Girl with a bacpack renting Veturilo public bike in WarsawExplore Warsaw on two wheels! Take Veturilo city bikes — rides up to 20 minutes don’t cost a thing. — Shutterstock

Don’t feel like sticking to fixed routes and timetables? You can also explore Warsaw on two wheels! A public bike will cost you only 10zł (2€) of the initial fee, and rides up to 20 minutes are free. The easiest way to rent bikes is through the app Veturilo  Also, guided bike tours can be really fun.

In Warsaw, there are many beautiful places for long walks  — from The Royal Route, through the Vistula Boulevards to numerous parks. The tourist attractions are quite scattered, though, so exploring them all just on foot can be a challenge.

The one and only — Palace of Culture and Science

Warsaw's skyline with Palace of Culture and ScienceThe Palace of Culture and Science houses Warsaw Tourist Information point, cinema, theaters, and museums — Shutterstock

You can love it or hate it, but you cannot ignore it. Until recently, the Palace of Culture and Science (PKiN) was the tallest building in Warsaw, and it still stands out in the capital’s skyline. Inspired by Moscow skyscrapers and a “gift from the Soviet nation to the Polish nation”, architecturally the PKiN is one of a kind.

Even though it is the most popular attraction of the city, even an alternative sightseeing route should include it. It’s such a unique example of architectural and technological curiosities from the communist era, with original interior design from the 1950s and a dozen cats in the basement of the Palace. You have read it right. The cats are just as much an institution as the place itself. Inside are movie theatres and the beautiful Congress Hall where both Marlene Dietrich and the Rolling Stones have performed.

It is useful starting your city tour from the Warsaw Tourist Information Center, that’s located in the PKiN. And if you want to see the whole Warsaw cityscape, you can’t skip the observation deck on the 30th floor.

Visit Warsaw’s museums for free

In the capital city, almost every museum offers free entrance on certain days. You can find a place with free admission almost every day. For example, on Tuesdays, you can visit the permanent exhibitions in the National Museum

There are interesting collections of medieval, Nubian, and 19th-century European art. In the gallery of Polish paintings, you can admire one of the largest paintings in the world — the extremely detailed battle work of Jan Matejko called “Battle of Grunwald”.

Thursday is a popular “free admission day”. For modern exhibitions, visit Zachęta — the largest contemporary art gallery in Poland. Sightseeing can be combined with a walk in the Saxon Garden. 

On Wednesdays, head toward the Royal Castle —  its numerous spectacular interiors are adorned with works of art and crafts from the 16th century. Most museums in Poland are closed on Mondays, the exception being The Warsaw Uprising Museum, which also offers free admission at the beginning of the week. 

POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, with free tours on Thursdays, presents the history of Polish Jews over the centuries through interactive exhibitions and interesting events. 

Cultural entertainment — music, movies, and more

Culture in Warsaw is not limited to museums. Inexpensive or free film and music events fill Warsaw’s calendar, especially in the summer. Every Sunday from May to September, you can listen to live Chopin recitals in Łazienki Królewskie, one of Warsaw’s most beautiful parks, for free. 

In the summer, you will also find open-air film screenings almost every day (or even several a day). Most of them are organized as a part of the Film Capital festival. They are spread out all over the city and you can find one in almost every district. True movie fans, however, should visit during the Warsaw Film Festival in fall and treat themselves to days packed with selections of great movies from around the world.

Besides festival events, small studio movie theaters, such as Iluzjon or Muranów are the places locals go for a good movie. The smallest one — Amondo is hidden in one of the downtown backyards. Vintage lovers’ hearts will melt when they see the VHS showroom and jukebox!

Summer is also the time for open-air concerts. Jazz fans should check the dates of the Warsaw Summer Jazz Days and Jazz in the Old Town. And the Orange Warsaw Festival showcases world-class pop stars.

Milk bars — not only pierogi

So-called milk bars are a phenomenon of Polish gastronomy. Thanks to state subsidies, these bars can offer simple, homemade dishes for a bargain. The name comes from dairy, as it used to be the base ingredient for most dishes. Their unsophisticated character, caricatured in popular comedies from the communist era, is now more of a memory. 

Many of them, like the popular Press bar on Marszałkowska St. or Gdański (Andersa St.), have already adapted to modern and mainstream standards. In the city center, stop by Bambino. For a more classic vibe check Rusałka, on the other side of the Vistula river. Familijny Bar on Nowy Świat street has become very popular among tourists now too. Traditional Polish dumplings or pancakes (similar to French crêpes) cost from about 9 to 11 zł — less than 3€. 

Note: the etiquette of milk bars might not be obvious. First, order the meal at the checkout. With a receipt or a number wait for your order to be called. You need to get it yourself from the “collection” window. If the place is packed, you can join someone’s table. The milk bar is not usually a place that invites you to linger. After eating, you should bring the dishes to the counter and free up the table for the next guests. 

Two sides to the Vistula River

Warsaw beaches are a place of relaxation, evening bonfires, and admiring the view of the city’s downtown Warsaw beaches are a place of relaxation, evening bonfires, and admiring the view of the city’s downtown — Shutterstock

The Vistula river is a phenomenon on (at least) a European scale. On the one end, it is wild, with natural beaches and lush habitats of protected species. On the other end, closer to the Downtown area, it’s adorned by boulevards with pavilions serving food from around the world. There, you’ll also find hip bars in containers.

Warsaw’s beaches on the Praga’s side of the river are a place to chill out, have a bonfire, and admire the city’s skyline during the day and at night. The Guardian, The Telegraph, and National Geographic even listed them among the most beautiful city beaches. Their natural, unspoiled character makes them unrivaled.

Vistula banks were also popular with party crowds because they were not formally mentioned in regulations that forbid drinking alcohol in public places. However, during the Covid-19 pandemic, it was banned temporarily on the local level. So even one beer outside the bars’ area may cost you a fine.

Feel the waves

Vistula is both an attraction in itself and a communication route. From May to September, free ferries with local bird names connect both sides of the river, operating from some main points of interest, such as the Royal Castle and the Warsaw Zoo, the Czerniakowski Peninsula, and Saska Kępa neighborhood, or the Poniatowski Bridge and the National Stadium.

Additionally, you’ll find a variety of private boats offering river tours — from traditional wooden ones to motorboats, and barges that can accommodate quite a party. They are popular as an attraction for special occasions, such as birthdays, bridal parties, or photo sessions.

If you are more of an active person. SUP and kayak rentals are waiting for you, as well as numerous kayaking trips organized by The KiM Foundation or the WAKK “Habazie” canoe club, to name a few.. 

Let’s meet in Warsaw, but where exactly? 

Statu of a mermaid with a sword, symbol of Warsaw, by the Vistula riverMermaid is the official symbol of Warsaw — try to count how many of them you’ll notice on your tour! — Shutterstock.

By the Palm, Rotunda, Pekin (which sounds like Beijing in Polish), or maybe on Patelnia (literally the word for frying pan)? Colloquial names of popular meeting points may seem strange at first but if you meet up with locals, you can expect to get these directions:

  • Palma — an artificial palm tree at the de Gaulle roundabout, is actually an artwork by Joanna Rajkowska entitled “Greetings from Jerusalem Avenues”. It became a symbol for the city of Warsaw almost 20 years ago. It is impossible to meet under the palm tree itself because it is in the middle of the busy roundabout. The real place to wait for your friends is by the stairs at the Empik store. 
  • Pekin, Pałac, pajac — the already mentioned Palace of Culture and Science, the meeting place is probably the square in front of the main entrance, between theaters Dramatyczny and Studio
  • Patelnia — the square in front of the Metro Centrum station, its walls are decorated with regularly changed thematic murals
  • Rotunda — recently rebuilt modernist building of the PKO bank, slightly above the Patelnia
  • Zygmunt — Sigismund III Vasa’s column, a monument towering over Castle Square, at the entrance to the Warsaw Old Town
  • Mermaid — the symbol of Warsaw can be found in its coat of arms — and obviously in many places in the city (try to count them on your trip!). This monument near the Świętokrzyski bridge is the one people have in mind when meeting on the Vistula Boulevards
  • Zbawix – Zbawiciela square, a hipster’s Mecca (we’ll get to it).

Places to go (out) to

Warsaw is undoubtedly popular because of its nightlife, cafés, and restaurants (with a huge variety of vegan ones!). Coming from abroad, you’ll find those pretty affordable.

Hipster Square and hidden Pavilions

Among all the hipster spots in Warsaw, Zbawiciela square is still in the top 3. It’s home to cafés like Charlotte and Coffee Karma, and the iconic pub Plan B. The official name of this place comes from the Church of the Holy Savior, but as we’ve mentioned it is often shortened to Zbavix. In 2015, the place lost one of its landmarks — an art installation in the shape of a colorful rainbow — a symbol that still is quite controversial in Poland.

Poznańska Street also attracts hipsters. Craft beer pubs, cocktail bars mixed with fashionable restaurants create a trendy vibe. Middle Eastern restaurants like Beirut, Tel Aviv, or Bez Tytułu have been popular for years.

You also can’t miss the Cultural Cafe and Bar Studio located in the Palace of Culture and Science. They organize many alternative cultural events and often are chosen as festival clubs. 

The bar hub, called 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 dive into the party buzz of the courtyard packed with small pubs. Despite the “hidden” location, this place can’t be missed — just follow the tipsy crowd flocking from the Foksal bus stop.

The right side of the city

Backyard srine in Warsaw's old tenement building i Praga districtAs the only original pre-war part of Warsaw, Praga still has a lot of characteristic shrines in the courtyards — Shutterstock.

In the past, Praga (not to be confused with the Czech capital), the right-bank part of Warsaw, did not have the best reputation. However, the unique character of the location and cheap rents have lured artists, alternative culture, and community projects. Praga became trendy. 

Now there are independent 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 the characteristic backyard shrines and madonnas. It is also a place that cultivates, or rather brings back to life, urban folklore, Warsaw dialect, and traditional music.

Post-industrial hype

Recently, 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 (Praga) is known for the unique Neon Museum, which preserves treasures of an almost forgotten art of advertising. That’s one of the most Instagrammable places in the city — you can’t miss that selfie opportunity!

The former distillery Koneser is home to the Polish Google campus, Polish Vodka Museum, many restaurants, and a shopping center. 

Elektrownia Powiśle (once a real power plant) on the other side of the river has a similar concept but mostly with fashion from Polish designers and famous brands.

Wola is a district that is growing into a new business center in Warsaw with its own brewery, Browary Warszawskie, boutiques like Fabryka Norblina and KinoGram, as well as BioBazar, an eco-market loved by Warsaw residents.

The ways to explore Warsaw are endless! You can discover it as Chopin’s city, immerse yourself in its parks, search for architectural gems or take a challenge to find the best vegan burgers. The best is to find your own way to discover this city, or just ask locals!

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