Museums, galleries and restaurants are breathing new life into the most unlikely corners of the Polish capital, where Joe Mortimer finds a city bursting with a newfound lust for life
Take a walk along the left bank of Warsaw’s Vistula River on a sunny afternoon and it’s hard to imagine that just 75 years ago, the city lay in ruins. Couples whizz past on bicycles and electric scooters as families stroll along the promenade, and groups of youngsters pose for selfies in front of the floating bars that line the riverbank. The Copernicus Science Centre cuts a modern silhouette against the bright blue sky and the inviting murals of the Museum on the Vistula, Warsaw’s newest contemporary art space, reveal a playful and whimsical side to the city that was long smothered by Soviet rule.
It’s a peaceful and vibrant scene, one increasingly common in Warsaw, where a new generation are transforming the city into a hotbed of creativity. Here in the Powiśle neighbourhood, where new apartment blocks are rising up along the river front, the streets are lined with coffee shops, wine bars, design stores and vegan restaurants, and symbolic street art roars from the sides of buildings.
Looking out towards the far side of the Vistula from the garden-covered rooftop of the University of Warsaw Library, a sea of greenery separates the right bank from the Praga district, where pockets of prosperity are raising the profile of the long-neglected neighbourhood. Here, urban renewal projects are breathing new life into crumbling buildings that are now home to arts and cultural spaces, award-winning restaurants and world-class museums.
The same story is unfolding all over town. A cloud of cranes hovers on the skyline in the Wola district and new downtown hotels like the storied Raffles Europejski Warsaw and the recently opened Hotel Warszawa are paving the way for a wave of affluent international visitors. Though tourism is still nascent in this restive city of 1.77 million souls, visitor arrivals are on the rise, and it’s only a matter of time before that trickle becomes a deluge.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF OPPRESSION
Warsaw’s urban renewal is not simply a story of repurposing old buildings, but a continuation of the shift in values that began when the country became a democratic republic in 1989. Quietly and confidently, Warsaw has been adapting to independence for the past 30 years and, in doing so, coming to terms with its own identity.
To understand modern Warsaw, it helps to know a little about its past. Stanisław II Augustus was the last monarch to rule over the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which covered a sizeable part of central Europe from the 1300s until its dissolution in the late 18th century, when the territory was carved up between the Russian, Prussian and Austrian empires. Effectively, Poland ceased to exist from 1795 until the end of World War I, when the Second Polish Republic was formed and the country entered a period of rapid cultural and economic evolution: a golden era when businesses thrived and dancehalls thrummed.
Independence was obliterated again at the outset of World War II, when Germany and Soviet forces invaded and occupied the country. Following the unsuccessful Warsaw Uprising of August 1944, in which the Polish resistance attempted to seize control from Nazi overlords, the Germans drove the remaining citizens out of the city and began the systematic destruction of Warsaw’s buildings, which would lead to the obliteration of 85 per cent of the city.
Life didn’t get much better for the Polish people when the war ended. Though the government-in-exile attempted to maintain continuity of rule from London, the reality was that post-war Poland was very much under the thumb of the Soviet Union, which kept the country firmly behind the Iron Curtain until Poland achieved independence once again in 1989.
When the country joined the European Union in 2004, it kick-started Warsaw’s rejuvenation, and in the 15 years since, a new generation has begun to make its own mark on their capital. Though the scars of recent history remain fresh, young Varsovians are turning their attention to the future and reinventing the city’s cultural and social scenes.
FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD
Unlike other European capitals, you don’t have to battle with crowds of tourists in Warsaw. Major performances at the Grand Theatre and National Opera tend to sell out weeks in advance and the city’s top restaurants are often fully booked, but one can walk through the cobbled streets of the Old Town at any time of day and not feel overwhelmed by the volume of human traffic.
The Old Town is Warsaw at its fairy-tale best, a warren of narrow streets surrounding the charming Market Square, which was once the medieval heart of Warsaw. The 15th century buildings were rebuilt from scratch in the years following the war, using original materials salvaged from the rubble. Today, the rows of colourful townhouses surround the cobbled square, filled with ice cream parlours, souvenir shops and restaurants selling traditional Polish fare.
It’s hard to resist the rustic charms of local dining. Most of the restaurants in the Old Town tout their homemade pierogi – the ubiquitous fried or steamed dumplings packed with sweet or savoury fillings – or bigos, a rich and hearty game stew, usually served in a hollowed-out loaf of rye bread. These traditional dishes are best washed down with a flagon of wheaty Polish beer or a glass or two of Polish vodka, served ideally at six to eight degrees centigrade, as per the collected wisdom of six centuries of vodka production.
Warsaw bartenders will proudly explain that vodka was first invented in Poland (a fact hotly contested by Russia) and that Poland is the world’s fourth largest vodka producer. For a truly unique experience, connoisseurs should treat themselves to a glass of two of aged potato vodka or a good quality rye.
The Old Town’s streets are home to a trio of churches: the unusual façade of St. John’s Archcathedral stands next to the strawberry and cream-coloured Shrine of Our Lady Grace Jesuit Church. And a block away, the baroque façade of St. Martin’s Church overlooks the fortified wall that encircles this ancient enclave.
Walk towards the southern end of Old Town and you’ll come to the salmon pink Royal Castle, which serves as a reminder of the halcyon days of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, when the kings and queens of Poland ruled over a vast territory from this Warsaw residence. Painstakingly rebuilt between 1971 and 1984, the castle interiors contain royal chambers, elegant staterooms and reception halls, and a collection of art that includes pieces by Rembrandt and a 1685 Stradivarius violin (www.zamek-krolewski.pl).
From Castle Square, the so-called Royal Route extends for 11 kilometres through the city, past the glorious gardens of Łazienki Park and all the way down to Wilanów Palace and Park, the royals’ summer retreat and one of the most impressive buildings in Warsaw. Inside, visitors can explore the royal apartments, adorned with magnificent baroque art, elaborate wall tapestries and beautiful moulded ceilings, and view the superb art collection of Stanisław Kostka Potock, which became Warsaw’s first art museum in 1805. Antique treasures from Egypt, European ceramics and hand-made furniture from the Orient fill the salons, and works of art from across Europe continue to dazzle visitors now as they would have in the early 19th century (www.wilanow-palac.pl).
Some of the city’s grandest buildings line the upper end of the Royal Route. Take the time to wander past the Presidential Palace and the Holy Cross Church, where the heart of Fryderyk Chopin was laid to rest (his body is buried in Paris). Then admire the grandeur of Staszic Palace, outside which stands a monument to another of Warsaw’s favourite sons, Nicolaus Copernicus, whose 16th century research revolutionised our understanding of the universe.
A few blocks from here stands the Palace of Culture and Science, the divisive icon and lasting legacy of the communist regime that looms over the city. Today the hulking tower is surrounded by a collection of gleaming new offices and apartment buildings: some of the most expensive real estate in the city. The irony that this communist symbol, a gift from Stalin in 1955, is now surrounded by new towers born from free market capitalism is not lost on the population, many of whom think the palace should be torn down (www.pkin.pl).
Like it or not, the Palace of Culture and Science has become a symbol of the city. Locals jest that its 30th floor observation deck is the nicest spot in town, because it’s the only viewpoint from which you can’t see the building. But for visitors and locals alike, the colossal palace provides context for modern day Warsaw.
ART & IDENTITY
Relics of the Soviet era are met with mixed views in the city; some see them as a painful reminder of a dark past, while others accept their value as part of the Polish identity, for better or worse. For those in the latter camp, beauty can be found in the methods by which Warsaw creatives – artists, filmmakers and other artisans – found a means of expression in an era where individuality was quashed.
Polish poster art was born at the end of the 19th century but came into its own as a recognised art form in the interwar years from 1918 until 1939. Graphic artists and typographers embraced the medium, which was used to promote everything from agricultural products and dance halls to important meetings and tourism. Under communism, poster art was institutionalised and became an important propaganda tool, used to promote socialist ideals and political goals.
But it was in the mid 50s that the genre flourished, thanks in part to the film industry. Artists were given free reign to recreate posters for the state-owned film distribution business, using their own artistic license rather than images of actors provided by studios. Since posters were the only artistic medium permitted under the regime, their creativity manifested itself in magnificent works of art, many of which have found their way into museums and private collections.
The Polish Poster Museum at Wilanów, established in 1968 to preserve and display these unique works, contains a trove of 36,000 Polish posters and 25,000 foreign pieces, making it one of the largest collections in the world. Works by early masters of the genre, like Wojciech Zamecznik, are on display alongside other champions of what became known as the Polish School of Posters, and regular exhibitions are dedicated to individual artists or specific subject matter (www.postermuseum.pl).
Since freedom of expression and individuality were throttled in the soviet era, Polish poster art is one of the few genres to have existed in the 20th century and its value as such is priceless, regardless of its connotations. The same is true of neon lighting, an American advertising model adopted by the Polish People’s Party and used for propaganda purposes to promote state-owned enterprises and party-friendly institutions. Though its purpose was utilitarian, its execution was taken seriously, with some of the best artists in the land commissioned to create detailed neon signs for car factories, cinemas and libraries amongst other things. Though many of Warsaw’s most iconic neon signs were scrapped after the fall of communism, many have been salvaged and restored, and are today on display at the Neon Muzeum at Soho Factory (www.neonmuzeum.org).
Over the years, Poland’s borders have been redrawn numerous times by encroaching conquerors, a fact manifested in a thought-provoking piece of artwork in the lobby of Raffles Europejski Warsaw. One of more than 500 pieces in the hotel’s collection, Borders, by Polish artist Włodzimierz Jan Zakrzewski shows how the Polish territory has transformed over time via series of jagged neon lights representing the outline of these endlessly shifting borders. Art has been an important part of the guest experience at Hotel Europejski since it first opened in 1857; a tradition continued when the hotel reopened to much fanfare in 2018. Today, its magnificent collection, some on loan from billionaire co-owner Vera Michalski-Hoffman, is perhaps the best showcase of modern art in Poland.
Throughout the Cold War era, artists found ways of expressing themselves despite the oppression. Filmographer Kazimierz Urbański, founder of the Film Drawing Studio at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, won acclaim for his documentary and educational films, commissioned by the Polish People’s Republic. But in his spare time, Urbański used footage and cuttings to create his own abstract works, which blurred the boundaries between film and art: borders categorically imposed by the state. Urbański is one of many Polish artists celebrated at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art, which celebrates contemporary art from the 20th century up until the modern day with a calendar of rotating exhibitions set in a spectacular 1900 neo-Renaissance style building. Situated on the southern side of the vast Piłsudski Square (home to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) and the beautiful Saxon Garden, Zachęta was one of the few buildings that survived the war, thanks in part to the fact that it was appropriated by the Nazis and converted into the House of German Culture for the duration of the occupation (www.zacheta.art.pl).
Along with the Museum on the Vistula and the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, Zacheta is one of the most important institutions in Warsaw for contemporary art. It is through art that many young Varsovians are able to express their feelings about identity and history, creating an important body of contemporary work that will come to characterise the first three decades of independent Poland.
A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT
If the reconstructed left-bank of the Vistula is a celebration of the glory days of pre-Partition Poland, then the right bank is the stage on which the future of this city is being choreographed. Towards the end of the war, the working class Praga neighbourhood was occupied by the Soviet army, so it was spared the wanton destruction rendered by the Nazis on the left bank of the river. Though the infrastructure remained largely intact, post-war investment focused mostly on rebuilding central Warsaw and Praga was largely forgotten. When director Roman Polanski sought a filming location to stand in for the Warsaw Ghetto for his film ‘The Pianist’, he found the depressing streets and crumbling tenement buildings of Praga to be the perfect setting.
But as the cost of living crept up in the centre over the past 15 years, artists and creatives made the move across the river to take advantage of cheaper rent and studio space. Today, Warsaw’s upwardly mobile are also drifting across and snapping up flashy new apartments and office space, in a rapid gentrification process reminiscent of Brooklyn in New York City or London’s Shoreditch in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The whole length of Praga’s Ząbkowska Street is now lined with restaurants and bars and the new Praga Museum of Warsaw is dedicated to the history of the area (www.muzeumpragi.pl). Further along Ząbkowska is Koneser (‘Connoisseur’), a major regeneration project that has turned a collection of former distilleries into one of Warsaw’s hottest urban lifestyle enclaves that’s home to the Polish Vodka Museum and a handful of upscale bars and restaurants. Across the railway tracks, investment has also breathed new life into Soho Factory, a collection of warehouses that are now home to fine dining restaurants, galleries and creative event spaces, as well as the excellent Neon Muzeum. New luxury real estate springing up in the area looks set to cement this as one of Warsaw’s hottest new addresses.
Whichever side of the river you look, the welfare of Warsaw’s population is front and centre of new development plans. Parks and green spaces cover a fifth of the city, which is criss-crossed with cycle lanes and a gleaming new Metro network which is constantly being added to. Black marble benches dotted around the city play Chopin concertos at the touch of a button and information boards in Polish and English tell locals and visitors what kind of flora and fauna to look out for in spaces like the riverside Discovery Park and other public areas. Locals are serenaded by free Chopin concerts in Łazienki Park every weekend during the summer, while the right-bank beaches are filled with healthy young Varsovians having picnics or practicing yoga.
Meanwhile, here on the left bank promenade, the waters of the Vistula continue to glide by, just as they have since time immemorial. The sun shines over the Polish capital and the people enjoy the simple things in life, like friendship, freedom and forgiveness. One thing is clear: after the long dark years of the 20th century, the spring has finally arrived – and Warsaw is rising again.