“Before World War II, Warsaw was more beautiful than Prague, than Budapest,” said Joanna Maria Olejek, a translator living in the heart of the city. But then, of course, the Nazis came in and destroyed 85 percent of the city, pinpointing the most important cultural attractions. Stalin swiftly followed Hitler to clean up the mess and give the city a nice communist sheen. Look at the expanse of multistoried apartments, sprinkled with high-rise hotels, and you yearn for a more compelling skyline.
Seeing the city with my brother, Jim, last April after all the business was done and he had screened his latest movie at a film festival, I quickly learned the vitality of this city is best found at street level. Classy restaurants and bars beckon the growing number of international visitors who come to the city to make a buck. Property development looms everywhere, as evidenced by the number of cranes perching above high-rise condos and office buildings, some designed by world-class architects like Norman Foster and Daniel Libeskind. Best of all, Poland still uses the local currency, the zloty, and won’t change over to the euro anytime soon. So Warsaw remains far more affordable for Americans than Paris and other cities in the Eurozone.
When the Iron Curtain came down in 1989, most economists expected Hungary and Czechoslovakia to have the best chance of rising from communism to develop a thriving economy. Poland was lumped together with other Eastern European countries like neighboring Ukraine as risks for investment. Yet the country made a number of wise moves, like joining the European Union in 2004 and becoming a large trading partner with Germany. Now Poland boasts an economy three times the size of Ukraine’s; it was the only big economy in Europe to avoid a recession in the latest financial crises.
At The Warsaw Rising Museum, Jim and I observed exactly which plazas, palaces and centuries-old cathedrals Hitler’s troops blew up in late summer 1944. The Germans were in retreat on all fronts and Russia’s Red Army was in striking distance of Warsaw when Polish resistance fighters decided to tackle the Nazis head-on. The resistance lasted several weeks, but civilian casualties were heavy and the Russians never held up their end of the bargain, simply waiting for the Germans and Poles to fight it out before they entered the city. Hitler was so irate with the uprising that he ordered the annihilation of the city, dynamiting the most important cultural institutions one by one.
By 1944, Hitler’s lust for barbarism had already reared its ugly head in the nearby Warsaw Ghetto, where few of the 380,000 Jews survived the forced starvation or transfer to death camps. This neighborhood where some 750 Jewish fighters fought valiantly for a month to hold off the better-armed Germans now houses the new POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which made its debut in 2013. My brother and I were pleased to see the museum refuses to dwell on Nazi persecution or the Holocaust, instead celebrating the millennium-long history of Jewish life in Poland prior to World War II. When the Jews came to the country in the Middle Ages, they lived in relative tranquility, creating Yiddish-speaking communities. Prior to Hitler’s genocide, 3.3 million Jews resided in Poland. Today, there are fewer than 30,000 Jews, though the community is once again growing.
Miraculously, the pre-war Nozyk Synagogue still stands in Grzybowski Square and has been renovated thanks to the generosity of Ronald Lauder and other Americans. It remains an active part of the Jewish community today in Poland. Next door is a Yiddish theater, and across the square lies Prózna Street, home to one of the few remaining tenements found in the city. Not surprisingly, Roman Polanski used the burned-out brick façade as a backdrop for his film The Pianist.
Warsaw citizens have done their best to rebuild the city and reclaim a sense of history. They unveiled the Royal Castle in 1984, home to the Polish monarchy between the 14th and 19th centuries. The reconstructed chambers and hallways are filled with large tapestries, chandeliers and portraits of former monarchs. Be sure to stroll into the castle’s Lanckoroński Collection to view the two Rembrandt works housed there.
Also in the 1980s, the Old Town area made its debut, complete with cobblestone square and narrow side streets. Take in the masterly recreation of 17th-century painted merchant houses that line the square while stopping for a tall glass of local beer or a snifter of the honey-flavored vodka called krupnik. A much smaller version of Krakow’s heralded medieval square, this square was so faithfully rebuilt UNESCO designated it a World Heritage site.
Explore the finest boutiques in the city on Mokotowska Street, where you’ll find souvenirs like glass, amber, jewelry and hand-embroidered linen. Be forewarned: Most shops are closed Sundays. Head to Lilou (No. 63) for designer jewelry and Maciej Zien (No. 57) for home goods and linens.
Looking for a good lunch spot, Jim and I stumbled upon the restaurant Karmnik, popular with both locals and out-of-towners for homey Polish comfort food like pierogies, tasty herring in oil, lightly fried potato pancakes and stuffed cabbage in a tomato cream sauce that brought back memories of our grandmother’s cooking in a small flat in Brooklyn.
More upscale fare can be found at Atelier Amaro, the first Warsaw restaurant to receive a Michelin star. Needless to say, you must reserve a table well in advance. The cozy restaurant serves innovative fare like a creamy foie gras topped with tomato and verbena, venison tartare with pine nuts, and a sashimi-style trout. For a nightcap, grab a tatanka, a mix of apple juice and Żubrówka vodka, and set yourself down at one of the large tables at Foksal XVIII, an upscale club where the electronica is thumping and folks are jumping.
When the weather warms up, spend your afternoon walking down the wide, leafy avenues and picnicking under willow trees at the city’s largest patch of green space, Łazienki Park. Relax to the music of Warsaw’s favorite composer, Chopin, at free Sunday concerts held near his monument between mid-May and September. Listening to a talented pianist play Chopin’s divine “Minute Waltz,” you realize Poland’s capital, in spite of facing the worst of humanity, still shines. Warsaw has risen from Hitler’s ashes and finally shed its communist coat to become a cosmopolitan city in Eastern Europe that’s alive and well.
Warsaw Info to Go
International flights arrive at Warsaw’s Frédéric Chopin Airport, about six miles from city center and easily accessed by train, local bus or taxi. A rail link connects the airport’s railway station in Terminal A with city center, and a new bus terminal opened in front of the south pier on the arrivals level. Locate licensed taxis outside the terminal; the trip to city center costs about $11. Trains arrive daily in Warsaw from major European cities.
Where to Stay in Warsaw
Hotel Bristol Centrally located along the Royal Route, the Art Deco hotel boasts one of the most elegant interiors of any lodging in town. Originally opened in 1901, it recently joined Starwood’s Luxury Collection. Krakowskie Przedmiescie 42/44 $$$
InterContinental Warsaw Standing 43 floors above the city, the InterContinental features a pool on the top floor, the popular restaurant Platter and spacious rooms. Emilii Plater 49 $$$
Warsaw Marriott Hotel Perfectly positioned across the street from the main train station, the 523- room hotel features a fitness center that doubles as a health club for locals. Aerobics classes, Olympic-sized pool and requisite Nautilus equipment are all here. Aleje Jerozolimskie 65/79 $$$
Restaurants in Warsaw
Atelier Amaro The fixed-price menu of Polish masterpieces starts at 185 zlotys (about $50) per person for three dishes. Agrykola 1 $$$$
Karmnik This modern oasis in the heart of Old Town is known for its drinks and strong WiFi. Piwna 4A $$
Restaurant Stary Dom The cozy wooden interior and Polish comfort food found here will warm you on a chilly Warsaw night. Pulawska 104/106 $$$
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