A city of conflicting identities, Warsaw is rather mysterious. Romanticism and communism are still very much evident in this proudly urban capital.
Understandably, the picturesque Old Town is the most touristic neighbourhood. It seems familiar but is still somewhat elusive; a semblance of Frankish medievalism seeps between the cobblestones and alleyways, while the colourful facades of buildings are reminiscent of Copenhagen. In fact, it is just that: a façade. The majority of the old town was demolished by Nazi bombs in the Second World War, however the reconstruction has remained faithful to its roots. This is evident in the Royal Castle: once home to the Kings of Poland, the Castle was rebuilt accurately and is now a top attraction in the city. Tip: go on a Sunday and you can take a free tour!
Completely different from the Old Town, the modern centre is a hub of urban life. Glass skyscrapers peek out from above shopping centres, cinema complexes and offices. The most impressive building is obvious: the Palace of Culture and Science. A gift from Stalin in the early ‘50s, the Palace is the tallest building in Poland. From far away the building seems gothic, yet a closer look reveals its utilitarian aesthetic. A tour lets you glimpse some of the 3000 lavish rooms, and the viewing platform on the 30th floor boasts a great view across the city. For many Polish people, the building is frowned upon: a demonstration of opulent wealth from the dominating USSR. Nevertheless, it remains impressive, containing a swimming pool, theatres, cinema, concert halls, conference rooms and the meeting rooms of the Communist party.
The legacy of Communism is obvious everywhere; huge, grey 1950s housing tenements still make up a large part of the city’s architecture. Don’t be put off by this though – not only is the enriched history fascinating (as told in the ‘life under communism’ museum), but it contributes to the enthralling mysterious nature of the city. Wandering from the top tourist spots, you immediately feel like a local.
The people of Warsaw create the core of the city’s vibe. For the music buffs, Warsaw is home to famous composer Chopin, and has a museum and statue in his name. The city is also famous for the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, when the citizens fought against Nazi occupation; and the Uprising museum and memorial, Warsaw Ghetto, and Jewish museum are fascinatingly rich in history and pride. Polish isn’t a requirement, as most people speak at least a little English, and the citizens are welcoming and friendly yet gentle, reserved, and deservedly proud of their strong city.
As a foodie, Warsaw far exceeded expectations! Mulled beer is even better than mulled wine (and comforting, as temperatures are often around -10 in winter!) and the vodka tastes refined and refreshing. Traditional Polish dumplings, usually filled with meat and cabbage, are delicious little parcels not too dissimilar to ravioli. Admittedly, the majority of main courses tend to be hearty winter grub; but summertime certainly wouldn’t disappoint as most streets are lined with at least a few ice cream parlours!
There is no student getaway better than Warsaw. Flights to Modlin airport are laughably cheap, and once you’re there the rough rule seems to be that everything is half the price of England’s standards. Do it: now is the time to visit. The inevitable tide of urban modernity is sweeping across Warsaw, and who knows, maybe the Communist relics won’t be around come the next 50 years.
Images: Emily Howard