Get Your Ass to Warsaw

Four years ago, on a tour to see the interior of a dormant volcano in Iceland, I met a couple from Poland. After they expressed their admiration for Montana (I believe Legends of the Fall was their film touchstone), I mentioned that I wanted to visit Poland someday. The two men from Krakow told me that I absolutely should, but that there was no particular reason to visit Warsaw. “Nothing but concrete buildings and chaos there,” one said, before both argued that I needed to see southern Poland.

The two were perfectly lovely people, but they were liars. Warsaw is an incredible city to visit, and I absolutely urge you to get your ass there and see it for yourself.

Warsaw is a big, bustling, beautiful city with wide streets, pedestrian-friendly corridors, friendly people, excellent food, and more. Even though the public transportation wasn’t as eerily efficient as the system of Copenhagen, it’s easy to get anywhere in the city on the modern buses, trams, and metro. Add one of the top five museums I’ve visited, a poetic language that’s as lovely to listen to as to read, and stories of resilience that are sure to inspire almost anyone and you’ve got a city that can’t be missed.

Resilience was woven into the story of Warsaw from the beginning. The statue on this post is the mermaid who represents the city on its flag. Her story gives you a sense of how Warsawians view the world. The mermaid was captured in the Vistula River by a man who wanted to force her to sing. When the people of Warsaw felt pity for her confinment, they armed her with a sword so she could free herself. Grateful, she took the sword to the river, where, according to the legend, she continued to defend the city.

A tour of Warsaw’s museums and streets demonstrates the spirit of resilence that has been essential to the city’s survival. Divided by its powerful neighbors for centuries, invaded by Nazis and subjugated by the Soviets, the people of Warsaw resisted more forcefully than almost any other occupied nation. The heroic sacrifices of the two Warsaw Uprisings during World War II left a city so destroyed that the capital was nearly moved to Lodz rather than left in a city 85% destroyed.

Rather than let their city die and the capital move, the people of Warsaw rebuilt their city. Using the paintings of Bernardo Bellotto, they reconstructed an Old Town that today is a vibrant center of life in a city of two million people. Big, green open spaces provide islands of quiet in the city, with some of the parks among the most beautiful I’ve seen.

I only had 65 hours in Warsaw, and I’d love to come back some day to see more of the city. The compactness of the center and the excellent public transport make it easy to see so much in just a few days that Warsaw is great short visit, if that’s all you have time for. In my two and a half days, I was able to take three walking tours (Old Town, Communism, Jewish Warsaw), see the incredible Museum of the History of Polish Jews, attend a Chopin recital, compare the quality of pierogi preparation at three restaurants, wander the photogenic Old Town for hours, managed to order (and eat) at a milk bar, and experience the Praga neighborhood.

Praga has a bit of reputation for being a rough part of the city, but after one tour guide guaranteed a 99% chance that we wouldn’t be murdered or robbed there, I crossed the river one evening and wandered through some of area, where I saw clear reminders of Soviet architecture and had one of the best meals of my entire trip.

Get to Warsaw. You won’t regret it.

I’ll post a map with some of my favorite spots and some more photos once I get settled back home.