Soviet structures and gritty clubs: A week in Warsaw made it my favourite travel destination

Struggling to decide on your next city break? Here’s why it should be Warsaw.

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Warsaw had never been on my travel radar. But when my friend asked me to join him on a birthday trip, I thought why not?

One of his favourite bands was playing, the flights and hotels were affordable, and we figured that, if nothing else, there would be some good pubs and bars.

Truth be told, we were pretty clueless about the Polish capital. Friends who’d visited the country before had spent long weekends in Gdansk or Krakow. When we told them we were instead heading to Warsaw, their response was one of surprise.

Determined to make the best of our trip, we set off on a late-October morning, wrapped up and ready for what we envisioned would be a cold and grey week ahead.

Little did I know that Warsaw was about to become my new favourite holiday destination.

Soviet-era architecture layered with modern skyscrapers

We found out pretty quickly that our grey vision of Warsaw was wrong. The city centre is a beautiful mix of old and new with so much to see in every direction. And, perhaps most surprisingly, it felt warmer and drier than the UK we’d left behind.

The city was extensively rebuilt after World World II and has undergone major modernisation in recent decades. The resulting jumble of streets and buildings meant it wasn’t always easy to find our way around on foot. CityMapper was our friend, and there was no shortage of bars to drop into for a quick drink while we gained our bearings.

The public transport system was easier to get to grips with. There was a Metro station 10 minutes’ walk from our hotel, and from there it was a short journey to Warsaw Central.

This landed us right by the Palace of Culture and Science, the sixth-tallest building in the EU. I had been urged to see it by my girlfriend, who has a keen interest in Soviet-era architecture. Despite her enthusiasm, I wasn’t quite prepared for how impressive it was as a structure, standing tall and holding its own against the modern skyscrapers and shopping malls in the area.

We paid the small fee of 25 złoty (around €5.70) to go up to the viewing terrace, which towers 114 metres over the city with breathtaking views that were well worth the money.

We weren’t sure what Stalin would have made of the Green Caffè Nero that now greets you at the entrance, however.

A short walk away, Złote Tarasy shopping centre continues the capitalist shift with Polish and international brands, and major restaurant chains like Hard Rock Cafe and McDonald’s.

Warsaw’s historic Old Town offers a deep-dive into Poland’s past

Warsaw’s Old Town is small compared to those of many other European capitals – but it’s no less worthy of a visit. It was meticulously restored after WWII to revive centuries of Polish culture – an effort that has earned it UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Dominated by the stunning Royal Palace, the main square is a sight to behold.

We enjoyed checking out the inns and restaurants there, where we tried pierogi and delicious venison goulash washed down with beer. Though there are plenty of souvenir shops, it never felt like a tourist trap.

We visited the Museum of Warsaw, too, which reopened in 2017 and offers an invaluable insight into the history and development of the city and Poland at large.

From bougie brunches to youth subculture: Another side to Warsaw

Beyond the main tourist sights, Warsaw is a city vibrating with life – from the luxurious to the gritty.

We loved dining at Café Bristol, a Viennese-style brunch institution in the historic Hotel Bristol. Opened in 1901 and left almost totally unscathed after World War II, its elegant checkerboard dining room on the prestigious Krakowskie Przedmieście street is the perfect place to enjoy a breakfast of bacon, eggs, tomatoes and mushrooms with a brimming bread basket.

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On the other side of the spectrum, Hybrydy Klub – the object of our trip – offered an exciting glimpse of Warsaw’s alternative youth culture. Both a nightclub and a live music venue, it specialises in rock, and prices were cheap for somewhere in the centre of the city.

Both being football fans, we also decided to check out Warsaw’s teams. We headed to Polonia Warsaw, the oldest sports club in the city, where we kitted ourselves out with its black shirts and scarves.

Why Warsaw should be on everybody’s radar

My visit to Warsaw changed my perception of Poland as a place for rowdy stag dos, cheap beer and perhaps the odd Christmas market.

Packed with culture, the capital hits that sweet spot where the standard of living is high but the cost of living is low. So, things like eating out and going to bars don’t cost as much as they do in other popular travel destinations.

Warsaw is far from being undiscovered, though. In 2019, it welcomed around 10 million visitors – a fraction of Paris’s 38 million tourists, but still a significant number. In 2023, it was hailed as the best place to visit in Europe by the European Best Destinations index.

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With Poland’s economy on track to overtake that of my home country – the UK – by the end of the decade, according to comments made by Labour Party leader Keir Starmer last year, time could be running out to experience Warsaw on a budget.

Before then, I hope to take advantage of a new high-speed rail line set to link Warsaw with Lodz and Wroclaw as I continue my Polish odyssey.