Warsaw is a city with a very tumultuous history. Once called “Paris of the East,” this was one of Europe’s most beautiful cities until it was flattened in World War II. Over the past decades, Warsaw has rebuilt itself, rising up from the ashes and emerging once again as one of Europe’s great cities.
Warsaw is well worth a visit on even the fastest itineraries through Poland. Walk through the historic old town, sample Polish food, and get an eye-opening history lesson at several world-class museums.
Here are the best things to do in Warsaw, with tips for planning your time and having the best experience.
A Brief History of Warsaw
Since its founding in the 10th century, Warsaw has been invaded and occupied numerous times, most notably by the Russians and the Germans. Just before the start of World War II, Warsaw enjoyed a brief period of autonomy.
That rapidly changed in September 1939, when the Nazi’s invaded Poland. The entire Jewish population of Warsaw was herded into the Warsaw Ghetto, cramming between 300,000 and 400,000 people into a 3 km² area.
Several years later, when ghetto residents learned about the order to exterminate the ghetto as part of Hitler’s “Final Solution,” Jewish resistance fighters launched the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The fighting was brutal and despite lesser manpower and artillery, the resistance fighters were able to hold out for almost one month.
The Nazi’s won the battle and nearly all of the resistance fighters were either executed or deported to extermination camps. In retaliation, Hitler leveled the city of Warsaw with systematic bombings.
From 1945 to 1989, Warsaw, and Poland, were under Communist rule. Many of the city streets, churches, and buildings were restored to their original form.
Since 1989, Warsaw has been undergoing a golden age. In 2004, Poland joined the European Union. Businesses came flooding back to Warsaw, along with artists, families, professors, scientists, and tourists. Warsaw may have a gloomy past but it has a very bright future.
Best Things to do in Warsaw
Walk along the Royal Way
The Royal Way is one of Warsaw’s most famous streets. Starting at the quirky Palm Tree in the south, this avenue heads north past some of Warsaw’s most important sights, ending at the Old Town. It is roughly 2 km long and it takes 30 minutes to walk the entire Royal Way, but with stops, it can take half of a day to walk the entire length.
This mostly pedestrian avenue has two sections. Nowy Swiat, in the south, is lined with small shops and restaurants. The street name changes over to Krakowskie Przedmiescie at Copernicus Square. It is at this point where the buildings grow a little taller and more colorful, a hint of what is to come once you reach the Old Town.
Sights to See along the Royal Way
A. Blikle and Bar Mleczny Familijny
These are two famous restaurants in Warsaw. A. Blikle is the place to go to satisfy your sweet tooth, with cookies, pastries, and coffee. Bar Mleczny is a milk bar, a cafeteria where you can eat cheap, Polish food.
Copernicus was born in Torun, Poland and went to college in Krakow. His statue stands in the center of Copernicus Square. Radiating out from the statue are the rings of our solar system.
If you want to visit the Copernicus Science Center, it is located just a few blocks away from this point, on the Vistula River.
Church of the Holy Cross
The exterior of this church was under renovation during our visit but we were still permitted inside. This church gets its claim to fame for housing the heart of Fryderyk Chopin. His heart is safely hidden away in one of the pillars of the church.
The heart of Chopin rests inside of this pillar.
Along the Royal Way are black marble benches. Each bench plays music by Chopin, just look for the button and listen closely…it can be a bit difficult to hear the music if it is noisy nearby.
Pilsudski Square and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Pilsudski Square is a large open square located just next to the Royal Way. A large plaque on the ground commemorates Pope John Paul II’s visit here in 1979.
If you take a very quick detour off the Royal Way, you can also visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This memorializes the Polish soldiers who fought and died in World War I.
This is the site of the signing of the Warsaw Pact in 1955. This pact united the Soviet satellite states (Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Albania, Romania, East Germany, and the Soviet Union) against NATO.
St. Anne’s Church
This church features a beautiful interior and if you get your timing right, you can watch a free organ concert.
Old Town Observation Tower
Located right next to St. Anne’s Church, climb 150 steps up to the observation tower for one of the best views over Warsaw. From here, you can look back down the Royal Way and overlook Castle Square and the Old Town.
Castle Square (Plac Zamkowy)
This large, open square is surrounded by more colorful buildings, cafes, and the Royal Castle. Proudly standing in the center of the square, on top of the column, is Sigismund III. Sigismund III was the Polish King who moved the seat of government from Krakow to Warsaw in 1596.
The Royal Castle
The large, reddish-pink building that dominates Castle Square is the Royal Castle. It looks rather plain on the outside but it is very opulent on the inside. If you enjoy touring royal residences and exquisitely decorated rooms, consider taking a tour of the castle.
Cost: 30 PLN, free on Wednesdays
Hours: hours vary; during the summer months, on most days the castle is open from 10 am – 6 pm; closed Mondays; check the website for updated hours and pricing
The Old Town and the Old Town Market Square
This is Warsaw’s most colorful, photogenic spot. Wander the narrow streets, go shopping, pop into a café for a drink or a snack, and take lots of photos.
This small area starts at Castle Square and encompasses the Old Town Market Square (Rynek Starego Miasta). Stroll through the streets (Piwna and Swietojanska were some of my favorites), see the unique Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, and say hello to the Statue of the Little Insurgent (Maly Powstaniec).
The Little Insurgent
Sitting in the center of the Old Town is the Old Town Market Square. This large, open square is surrounded by numerous restaurants. In the center of the square you will see the mermaid statue.
Warsaw Uprising Monument
Unveiled in 1989, this monument commemorates those who fought and died during the Warsaw Uprising in World War II. It sits in front of the Supreme Court and to get here it is just a short walk from the Old Town.
Warsaw Uprising Museum
This is one of Warsaw’s best museums. In great detail you can learn about the Warsaw Uprising and its aftermath. Since this is such an important piece of Warsaw history, a visit to this museum is well worth your time while in Warsaw.
Cost: 25 PLN; free on Sundays
Hours: Saturday and Sunday 10 am – 6 pm; Monday, Wednesday, Friday 8 am – 6 pm; Thursday 8 am – 8 pm; closed Tuesdays
Website: check the official website before you go for updated hours and holiday closings.
POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews
This is another must-see in Warsaw. This museum tells the story of Jews in Poland from the middle ages to present time. It is a great history lesson in very modern museum.
The museum is free on Thursday so expect larger crowds.
Cost: 25 PLN; audioguide 10 PLN; free on Thursdays
Hours: Monday, Thursday, Friday 10 am – 6 pm; Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday 10 am – 8 pm; closed Tuesdays; last entry is 2 hours before closing
The museum recommends purchasing your tickets online in advance to ensure you get a ticket. You can learn more about this here. We visited the museum on a Saturday afternoon in July and had no issues getting tickets, and in fact, the museum seemed quite empty.
Jewish Ghetto Memorial (Pomnik Bohaterow Getta)
Sitting right in front of the Polin Museum is this large monument that commemorates those who fought and died during the Warsaw ghetto uprising. This monument and the Polin Museum sit in the heart of what once was the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto.
The Jewish Cemetery (Cmentarz Zydowski)
This sprawling cemetery is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in the world. It is estimated that there are over 250,000 graves here. It opened in the 19th century and it was used in World War II as a site of executions and for the burials of victims in the Warsaw ghetto uprising. About twenty to thirty people are still buried here every year.
Cost: 10 PLN
Hours: Monday through Thursday 10 am – 5 pm; Friday 9 am – 1 pm; Sunday 9 am – 4 pm
Where: enter on Okopowa Street
There is a second notable cemetery in Warsaw, Powazki Cemetery (Cmentarz Powazkowski), which is slightly older than the Jewish Cemetery. Powazki contains over 1 million tombs, some of them containing very important people in Polish history. Learn more here.
Lazienki Park (Lazienki-Krolewskie)
Lazienki Park is an enormous park located just a short distance from the Royal Way. With rolling hills, lakes, historical buildings, and gardens, it’s easy to spend a lot of time here. The centerpiece of the park is the summer residence of King Stanislaw August’s summer residence.
Chopin spent his first twenty years in Warsaw. This is where he went to school and studied music. Those with an interest in Chopin may want to spend an hour or two at this museum. Get updated hours and pricing here.
Copernicus Science Center
This is an excellent museum to visit if you have an interest in science or if you are traveling with kids. Exhibits include a planetarium, hands on science labs, and more.
The National Museum is Warsaw’s main art museum. It contains Polish art plus works of art from ancient Greece and Egypt as well as a private collection of European art.
Try Some of Warsaw’s Best Restaurants
Our favorite restaurant may come as a surprise. It gets decent reviews and it is somewhat touristy, but we had so much fun here the first time that we came back again the following day. Podwale 25 is a Bavarian style restaurant that serves Polish food. It’s a beer hall where you can dine on schnitzel, pork knuckle, and steak and wash it all down with a liter of beer. Our favorite thing on the menu…the homemade lemon vodka. Yum!!
If you want to try traditional Polish food, we had great experiences at two restaurants. Specjaly Regionalne is a small, traditionally decorated restaurant located right on the Royal Way. Stara Kamienica is a little bit fancier and more expensive and the food is delicious. This makes a nice spot for dinner. It’s located outside of the Old Town and the neighborhood is nothing special, but once inside, it is elegant and the service is impeccable.
If you are looking for a gourmet experience, have dinner at Polska Rozana. They are located south of the Old Town, so to get here you will need to take a taxi or use Uber, but they get rave reviews.
Plan Your Time in Warsaw
In one day, you can zip through the city and tour the main sights. Walk the Royal Way, stroll through the Old Town, and visit the Warsaw Uprising Museum and/or the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. End the day with dinner at a Polish restaurant.
With two days you can tour one or two more museums, visit Lazienki Park, and take a stroll through the Jewish Cemetery.
Where We Stayed
We stayed at Hotel Polonia Palace, a 4-star hotel in downtown Warsaw. This hotel is fancier than where we typically stay but it was perfect for our visit to Warsaw.
Hotel Polonia Palace has an excellent location, since it is within walking distance of the train station. It’s a 10-minute walk to get to the quirky palm tree at the southern end of the Royal Mile. You also have easy access to the trams and metro lines.
Rooms are large, clean and quiet and the Wi-Fi is excellent. The hotel offers a delicious breakfast (although it’s a bit pricey) or you can walk around the corner to Starbucks.
Lobby of the Hotel Polonia Palace
If you are looking for a cheaper place, the Apple Inn, which is located a little bit closer to the Old Town than Hotel Polonia Palace, also gets very good reviews.
See it All on a Map
Are you planning a trip to Warsaw? If you have any questions or want to share your experience, comment below!
More Information for Your Trip to Poland:
- 10 Best Things to do in Gdansk, Poland
- 2 Days in Gdansk: 3 Recommended Itineraries
- Auschwitz-Birkenau: How to Plan Your Visit
- Best Things to do in Krakow
- How to Hike Koscielec in the Polish Tatras from Zakopane
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