There is something so refreshing about having no expectations for a place you’re visiting and being flabbergasted by everything you didn’t expect when you arrive. I’m careful to say “no” expectations in lieu of “low” expectations, because in planning my trip to Warsaw, Poland, I realized just how little I knew about the former Soviet bloc member—it wasn’t that I’d heard bad things about Warsaw, but it seemed to be overshadowed by it’s more polished counterpart Krakow. Having found an amazing deal on Ryanair, my friend and I packed our (tiny, Ryanair-approved) bags and headed to the capital city of Poland, without any idea of what to expect.
Budget travelers looking to splurge, but only slightly, on a hotel can find fantastic value at the Hotel Bristol, just steps away from Old Town. The Bristol boasts a 5-star rating and has the amenities and décor to match, but, like many destinations in Eastern Europe, carries a lower price tag than its counterparts in Western Europe. We arrived to find a delicate chocolate piano (an homage to Warsaw’s hometown hero Fryderyk Chopin) and a hand-written note welcoming us to the hotel. If you know me, you know I’m 100% supportive of hostels—but sometimes you really can’t beat those extra touches that make you feel more important than you really are… like a chocolate piano.
My favorite way to discover a city is to get recommendations from locals, and I just so happened to have the expertise of my close friend Zuzanna, originally from Warsaw, at my service. Never one to slack off, she wrote me a full, in-depth travel guide for her hometown, complete with secret bar neighborhoods and the baked treats we couldn’t miss. We did just what I love doing in a new place—mixed our local recommendations with the touristy stops we thought were important to understanding the history of the city— add in the fact that it was Valentine’s Day weekend, and we had the recipe for a perfect (chilly) weekend in Warsaw.
First-time visitors to Warsaw shouldn’t skip over the “Old” Town; it’s actually fairly new, having been the target of German bombings more than once during World War II. After the terror inflicted on the Polish people during the second World War, they passed into Soviet control, another era of difficulty and resistance. Even if you’re a non-museum-goer, missing the well-organized and powerful Warsaw Uprising Museum would be a huge mistake; I found myself dismayed that I hadn’t learned more about Poland’s part of World War II and post-World War II. The sad truth is, though we often learn about the heroic parts our own countries played in those wars, we don’t often learn about the times we left other countries behind to fend for themselves; Poland was one such country that was essentially left in the cold while Germany, and later the Soviet Union, used it for their own purposes.
Lovers of the outdoors shouldn’t miss Łazienki Królewskie (Łazienki Park), an expansive outdoor area that encompasses the Palace on the Isle, perched on the gorgeous lake brimming with swans and ducks, various guardhouses, barracks, an Egyptian temple, and a stylized monument to Chopin that is a wonder to look at. It may have been too cold a day for us to truly appreciate all the beauty of the park, but munching on my pączki as Chopin’s figure shadowed over me was a travel memory I’ll always remember.
Speaking of pączki: I couldn’t leave Warsaw without trying every culinary suggestion that came my way. Pączki are Polish donuts filled with every imaginable sweet filling, and I was told that A. Blikle had the pączki to put all others to shame. We tried one chocolate and one more traditional version, filled with wild rose hip jam, and enjoyed every last crumb of those delectable treats.
Something I admire to this day about Polish cuisine is that, like the cuisine of many Slavic countries, it’s rooted in hearty staples that have been mastered over years and years. Of course, I felt it was my duty to sample as many types of pierogi as humanly possible, and my travel buddy can confirm: I ate a lot. The chilled barszcz (beet borscht) was a perfect lighter balance to the piles and piles of dumplings I consumed that day.
Despite my deep enjoyment of all the meals I had in Warsaw, the best of the best wasn’t even Polish food, I’m only a little ashamed to say. My aforementioned local expert had directed us to hidden, trendy Italian restaurant Mąka i Woda, and we settled on that for our Valentine’s evening friend-dinner. Oh, did we appreciate that advice. The handmade pizzas are delicious and perfectly baked, but the show-stealer of the night was the raviolo filled with homemade ricotta and topped with a sage-infused brown butter. To this day, we both still talk about that magical pillow of buttery, cheesy, sage-y goodness. Washed down with some crisp Polish beer and one (or two…) apple-juice-and-vodkas (something that is socially acceptable to drink in Poland, which I’m really excited about), this dinner still remains one of the top 5 meals I’ve ever had. Just go. You won’t regret it, I promise.
I could write pages and pages about Warsaw and it’s unanticipated charm—but I honestly think it’s a place you have to visit to truly understand. The warmth of every person we met took the February chill right out of our visit, and I still labor in the kitchen trying to recreate the delicious home-cooked meals I enjoyed there. My best advice: Book a plane ticket and experience it for yourself.
Hotel Bristol, Krakowskie Przedmiescie 42/44, 00-325, +48.225.511.000, http://www.hotelbristolwarsaw.pl/en
Warsaw Uprising Museum, Grzybowska 79, +48.225.397.905
A. Blikle, Nowy Swiat 35, 00-029, +48.228.260.569, https://blikle.pl/
Maka i Woda, Chmielna 13, 00-021, +48.225.059.187, https://www.facebook.com/MakaiWoda/