Seven Reasons to Love Warsaw
Everything Old is New Again
Warsaw, like the rest of Poland, is moving fast toward a Western consumerist culture, including disposable products. But the old ways aren't giving up without a fight: it's still possible to repair a lot of things for less than the cost of a new item.
Whether it's shoes, clothes, furniture, electronics or something more exotic, there's probably somebody in Warsaw who can fix it up for you. Don't expect a lot of English to be spoken, but if you really want to try and save that favorite pair of shoes/overstuffed chair/laptop, there's somebody in Warsaw who can help. For shoes or clothing, try the kiosks in shopping malls or bazaars; for more complicated stuff just ask a Polish colleague or a long-term expat.
Like London (and a lot of other cities), Warsaw turns its back on the river. And also like London, there are sporadic attempts to bring cultural life back to the river's banks, particularly in the summer. The La Playa beach, the Cud Nad Wisla café/bar and the fountains by the Royal Castle are some of the latest attempts; the riverbank by the National Stadium may also turn into something quite pleasant.
On the wilder end of the scale, thanks to lower pollution in recent years a few families of beavers have moved back to town; if you're keen to spot them, take your binoculars to the concrete piers on the east bank, just north of the Lazienkowska bridge, at dusk (when, apparently, beavers are more active), and look north along the bank. Knowing a thing or two about the river, or at least its location relative to where you are at any given point, can also be helpful when looking for addresses…
If you're looking for an address and your sense of direction is any good at all, try to remember where the river is: on perpendicular streets, address numbers ascend as you move away from the river. So the National Museum is Al. Jerozolimskie 3, while the Marriott hotel is Al. Jerozolimskie 65/79. Trust us, this can come in handy. Unfortunately there's no equivalent system for streets that run parallel to the river.
The destruction of World War II, and the reconstruction by communist central planners, has left Warsaw without the clearly defined, compact center you'll find in many other cities (e.g. Krakow). Looking on the bright side, that culture and nightlife are spread out all over town, the scene is constantly shifting and wherever you are, you're likely to find something interesting.
As of summer and autumn 2011, the area around pl. Zbawiciela, extending up ul. Mokotowska to pl. Trzech Krzyzy, is on an upswing, with one stretch of Mokotowska getting quite gentrified indeed. Other hotbeds of activity can be found on and around ul. Chlodna on the east side of Al. Jana Pawla II, and along ul. Zabkowska and ul. Inzynierska in the Praga district.
Bits of History
If you're reading this, you've no doubt heard all about Warsaw's tragic history, and have had more than your fill of "phoenix from the ashes/indomitable spirit" clichés. Resist the urge to become jaded; keep your eyes open and you'll see bits and pieces of history all around you. As the city smartens up, the local government is making an effort to keep one eye on its history, including recent markers on city-center sidewalks of where the Nazi-built ghetto walls once stood.
The smartening-up process can also turn up all kinds of interesting things, like recently restored cisterns (at the Ujazdowskie Castle art gallery), a German bunker (discovered at pl. Zbawiciela during a recent repaving project) and lots of unexploded ordnance (just about everywhere - ok, maybe not everywhere, but more places than we like to think). Warsaw's street-level history is fascinating, but don't neglect the city's museums.
The opening of the Warsaw Uprising Museum in 2004 dragged our city (with a bit of kicking and screaming) into the 21st century (ok, maybe just the 1990s). With visually attractive, interactive (and kid-friendly) displays, the museum set a new standard for Poland. Since then, it's been followed by the Copernicus Science Center - a runaway success, with queues of two hours or more in 2011, the first summer after it opened.
Top tip: At the Copernicus a one-year pass, which lets you jump the queue, costs three times the price of a single visit. And you'll need more than three visits to take it all in. So drop by at the end of the day when the lines are shorter, buy your pass and a few for your friends and family (you'll need the numbers from their photo IDs, and don't forget to bring them along on the day you visit), then come back the next day - and throughout the next 12 months.
While Warsaw's shopping malls and high-end streets bring you all the international brands you could desire (even The Gap has shown up in the fall of 2011), the city's outdoor markets have a more down-to-earth feel. They're particularly good for finding fresh products and meat, and traditionally prepared sausages and smoked meats.
Outdoor markets can be found in most neighborhoods; two of the most centrally located are Hala Mirowska, on Al. Jana Pawla II just south of Al. Solidarnosci, and Polna Market, at ul. Polna 13, near the Politechnika metro stop. Hala Mirowska has more than 100 stalls featuring items like fresh fruit and vegetables, home-cured sausages, fresh lamb and even one or two places that carry sweet potatoes. Polna is more exotic and high-end - think prawns, exotic spices and cigars.