Tales from Warsaw: Discovering Warsaw’s Hidden Secrets with Wendy
After almost a decade of teaching her way around the world, Wendy moved to Warsaw on our Freelance Teaching Program in February 2020. Now that it’s been almost a year since she started calling Warsaw home, Wendy shares her favorite hidden gems that the city has to offer.
The first time I came to Warsaw was October 31, 2014. I took a bus from near my hotel and remember getting off and seeing the Palace of Science and Culture. It was cold, grey and gloomy…the city looked as I expected an Eastern European city to look. Now that I look back on that, and I remember thinking that exact phrase about Eastern Europe, it sounds pretty, I don’t know, prejudice. So, I ask you, do you have a preconceived idea of an Eastern European country/city? Well I’ll be honest: I did.
But let me tell you my first impressions of Warsaw were totally wrong.
Also, Poland considers itself Central Europe, not Eastern. Not that I didn’t enjoy the 3 days I spent here, but Warsaw has so much more to offer than Old Town, the Chopin Museum, the Palace of Science and Culture, and the other touristy things I did during that trip. Don’t get me wrong, Old Town is amazing and even now I probably go there almost once a week.
The Uprising Museum is a must-see along with the Vodka Museum and the Royal Castle, Wilanow Palace, Lazienki Park, the Zoo and Botanical Gardens. I have visited all of those, but I also like to find unusual things to do. Of course, this isn’t always possible when you are under the time constraints of a holiday/vacation. Living in Warsaw, I have been able to seek out the unusual. So, with no further ado, here are some extraordinary things to do in Warsaw should you have the time. A couple only takes a few minutes while others a few hours.
Kilometer Zero – During my travels, I have discovered that many capital cities have a marker designating kilometer zero. This is a point from which distances are traditionally measured. One such marker, “Milliarum Aureum (Golden Milestone) of the Roman Empire is believed to be the literal origin of “all roads lead to Rome”.
I have been to kilometer zero in Madrid, Paris, Tokyo, Seoul, and Moscow so I needed to add Warsaw to the list. The kilometer zero in Warsaw is bigger than most and is more of a monument than a marker. It is found on the intersection of Aleje Jerozolimskie and Marszalkowska streets next to the Centrum Warsaw Metro station.
Stacja Muzeum – When you have a friend who worked for the railroad and loves trains so much that he has a miniature set up in his basement, you seek out interesting things about trains. When he also happens to be Polish, The Railway Museum in Warsaw, also known as Stacja Muzeum is a must.
My flat is next to the Warsaw Spire (currently the 2nd tallest building in Warsaw) and I discovered the Stacja Muzeum was a mere 10 to 15-minute walk from my flat. It is located in the former Warsaw Glowna PKP Station. The collection includes historic rolling stock displayed on the tracks outside the museum, including one of the few remaining armored railway trains in Europe. Inside the museum are several rooms filled with memorabilia, miniature train setups, a display of old uniforms, and even a library that houses books on the Polish Railways.
If you happen to stop in on a Monday (which by chance, I did) the normal entrance fee of 12 PLN ($3.25) is waived. If you have any interest in trains or the railroad, it is well worth a couple of hours of your time.
As a side note to the Stacja Muzeum in Warsaw, about 70 km (40 minutes by train from Warsaw Central Station) is the Narrow-Gauge Railway Museum in Sochaczew. This museum also has both indoor and outdoor displays.
The entrance fee is 12 PLN or 35 PLN for a family with 2 adults and up to 3 children. The entrance is free on Wednesdays. The unique thing about this museum is they offer a retro train on Thursdays- Sunday during the months of June through October. The 1.5-hour train ride takes you from the museum to the Kampinos Forest.
Here you can enjoy a picnic and grill your own sausages over a campfire or purchase sausages from the campgrounds. You can spend several hours in the forest and the museum organizes a scavenger hunt for the kids and they can also wade in the creek. My experience was fabulous. I think I was the only solo non-Polish speaker on the trip. The people and families on the excursion were so kind. Offering to share their picnic with me and doing their best to make me feel welcome in their country despite me not speaking the language.
Mur Getta – “Jewish Residential District in Warsaw” – was the largest of all the Nazi-controlled Jewish ghettos during World War II. It was established by the German authorities in November 1940. At its height as many as 460,000 Jews were imprisoned there, in an area of 3.4 km2 (1.3 sq mi), with an average of 9.2 persons per room, barely subsisting on meager food rations. From the Warsaw Ghetto, Jews were deported to Nazi concentration camps and mass-killing centers.
In the summer of 1942, at least 254,000 Ghetto residents were sent to the Treblinka extermination camp during Großaktion Warschau under the guise of “resettlement in the East” over the course of the summer.
The ghetto was demolished by the Germans in May 1943 after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprisings which had temporarily halted the deportations. The total death toll among the prisoners of the Ghetto is estimated to be at least 300,000 killed by bullet or gas, combined with 92,000 victims of starvation and related diseases, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the casualties of the final destruction of the Ghetto. (Wikipedia)
I currently live in the WOLA district of Warsaw, much of which was part of the Warsaw Ghetto. Fragments of the ghetto walls (mur getta) are fragments of the walls between properties or the walls of pre-war buildings marking the border between the Warsaw Ghetto and the “Aryan” part of the city. These fragments along with memorials can be found throughout my neighborhood.
I believe there are over 20 memorials throughout the former ghetto area. The memorials show the outline of the former ghetto which in 1940 had a total length of about 18km. There is also a line on the sidewalk or street reading “mur getta”.
I learned that if you can read the words straight on, you are outside the ghetto and if they appear upside down, you are inside the ghetto. It is interesting, but also sad and emotional to look for the different memorials and remnants of the wall. I do commend the people of not only Warsaw but the country of Poland for the way they have preserved their horrible history and continue to pay tribute to those that lost their lives during WW2 not only in the ghetto.
Neon Museum – located in the Praga district of Warsaw, this is totally off the beaten path. The Praga District has had a bad reputation. Described by some as edgy and dangerous (not sure why; I feel very safe everywhere in Warsaw), it is on the “wrong side of the river” and in the past was considered “off-limits” to tourists. What I have discovered is that the Praga District is undergoing a revitalization. I have spent some time walking around the streets, visiting some churches, enjoying street art, and touring the Vodka Museum which is in the area. I also happened to discover the Neon Museum.
The Neon Museum is dedicated to the documentation and the preservation of Cold War era neon signs and electro-graphic design. A small museum in an old warehouse-type building. It is worth a trip to the “wrong side of the river”!
The museum houses a couple of hundred signs, there is a short video to watch and a small gift shop. Several new cafes and restaurants are in the neighborhood and it is a short walk to the Vodka Museum.
U Fukiera – I don’t really know all the details as what it means to be a “Michelin Restaurant” other than if it is 3 stars it is excellent and probably out of my price range. As I was strolling through Old Town one day, I noticed a doorway that exquisitely decorated and took a closer look. I saw a sign above the door That said Michelin 2019. I didn’t see any stars, but I figured it still had to be pretty good.
As I perused the menu that outside, the menu and wine list were indeed impressive. Having just arrived in Warsaw and at this point without a job, it wasn’t in my budget for a meal. A few months later, the weather had broke, it was a lovely spring day and I again passed U Fukiera. There was a small sign outside that said 3-course meal for 35 PLN or about $9.25…what a deal. They offer this Monday – Friday during the lunch hour. Of course, by now I’m working, but this seemed too good to pass up.
U Fukiera is one of the oldest restaurants in Warsaw. Dating back to the beginning of the sixteenth century, Grzegorz Korab built a townhouse in Warsaw market square. He opened a wine store in its cellars. The Fukier family became owners in the early eighteenth century and over the years put aside the oldest and best wines. By the nineteenth century, it had become a collection of the oldest wines in the world. This came to an end in 1939 when Nazi occupiers stripped its cellars. After the war, the “U Fukiera” house was one of the first to be rebuilt. So if you would like a delicious Polish meal in one of the oldest establishments in Warsaw check out U Fukiera. Also, you can’t beat their weekly lunch specials.
Old Town Wishing Bell
Old Town Wishing Bell – As long as you are in Old Town, a bit hidden and off the beaten path you can find a large bronze bell cast in 1646. A much-overlooked relic from the seventeenth century it is a key feature in a fairytale with a tragic ending.You can read about it here at Atlas Obscura. The bell is located behind St. John’s Cathedral in Canon Square. Also, according to local lore, if you circle the bell while making a wish it will come true.
Mermaids of Warsaw
Mermaids of Warsaw – Her name is Syrenka, which means siren or mermaid. She is armed with a shield and a sword. Her life mission is to protect the city of Warsaw. Legend says Syrenka has a twin sister and they lived in the Baltic Sea.
Her sister made her way to Denmark and became the famous little mermaid of Copenhagen, and Syrenka swam the Vistula River and ended up in Warsaw’s Old Town.
Although she was meddlesome and freed the catch of fisherman, once they saw her and heard her song they fell in love. She was then captured by a rich merchant who wanted her as a prize. The fishermen rescued her from the greedy man’s clutches. She was so thankful that she promised to protect the fisherman and their families. That is how she became the guardian of the city.
The Warsaw coat of arms is a mermaid and her image can be found throughout the city, so keep your eyes open. The most famous is the statue in Old Town on the market square. Another statue is on the banks of the Vistula River and one on the bridge of the Stanislaw Markiewicz Viaduct. Whenever you are in Warsaw, keep your eyes open for mermaid sightings.
Cmentarz Żydowski (Jewish Cemetery)
Cmentarz Żydowski (Jewish Cemetery) – Established in 1806 and covering 83 acres, the Jewish Cemetery of Warsaw is one of the largest cemeteries in Europe. There are 250,000 marked graves in the cemetery, along with mass graves of the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto. In 1914, the Jewish population of Warsaw numbered over 330,000. After WWII in 1946, this number was a mere 18,000. The cemetery is one of the few remaining pieces of material heritage of the Jewish people left in Poland.
Unlike other cemeteries in Europe, al the graves have their backs to the cemetery gate. This was because in 1819, a community member was buried with his head rather than feet facing the cemetery gate. To avoid embarrassment, the first Chief Rabbi of Warsaw ordered all future burials should be this way. The cemetery closed during WWII and was partly demolished. German forces used it for mass executions and the burial of victims of Warsaw Ghetto, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, and other mass murders.
It re-opened after the war but sadly was left to nature. There are currently about 20-30 new burials a year, but the cemetery looks mostly abandoned even though some renovation was started on the badly neglected cemetery by the Nissenbaum Foundation in the 1990’s. If you have any interest in cemeteries or Jewish history, it is well worth the 10 PLN or about $2.65 entrance fee to wander around.
Street Art and the Tibetan Gallery
Street Art and the Tibetan Gallery – One of the first things I noticed in Warsaw was the street art. I’m not talking about graffiti, although the graffiti is interesting too, but the art that takes up entire sides of buildings. There are even art walks available on the weekends.
Of course, the one I decide to take ends up being mostly in my neighborhood. Why did I choose this one? Well, I read the description incorrectly and they have different walks depending on the season. I didn’t pay attention to the dates and thought I was going on an art walk in the Praga District, but no, it was in Wola, my neighborhood.
There is an app called In Your Pocket, not only for Warsaw, but most major cities around the world. You can access the street art guide using this app.
I daily pass buildings covered in murals, but one day taking the bus to Blue City Shopping Center, I noticed an overpass that had several murals painted on the concrete stanchions. Taking this bus route several times, I noticed a mural of the Dalai Lama. My interest was piqued. I decided to walk the 2.5 km from my flat and check it out. I discovered an entire gallery dedicated to depicting the Tibetan struggle for autonomy from Beijing. There are currently about 30 murals in the collection which was inspired by the Warsaw Council’s decision to award honorary citizenship to the Dalai Lama in 2009. If you find yourself wandering around Warsaw, keep your eyes open for unexpected street art.
Night Market – If you are a food lover like me and find yourself in Warsaw anytime June – October make your way to the Train Station Museum (yes, the one I talked about earlier) on a Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday after 5pm.
Why? Because on the old platforms of the former train station you will find a foodie paradise. Started about 5 years ago, neon lights and music welcome you to kiosks, booths and food and beverage trucks with everything from Polish, to Vietnamese, Brazilian to Italian and everything in between.
Every type of cuisine you can think of and they often change throughout the season. There is a craft beer truck and a wine kiosk where you can sample wines from around the world including a nice selection of Polish wines.
Sometimes there is a DJ, sometimes live music, sometimes you can even get a touchup at the pop-up barber and after a few cocktails, you may even visit the tattoo kiosk. A fun atmosphere for families too!
Warsaw Palm Tree – The first time taking the tram down Aleje Jerozolimskie, I did a double-take and thought I was seeing things. There was a palm tree in the middle of the street. No, I wasn’t seeing things and no, it isn’t real. I later learned that Aleje Jerozolimskie translates to Jerusalem Avenue and the sculpture is the work of Joanna Rajkowska.
After a trip to Israel, she was inspired to bring some of the country’s sunny atmosphere back to Warsaw. Adding to the significance is that Jerusalem Avenue was the site of a Jewish settlement in the 18th century.
Interactive Museum of Pinball “Pinball Station”
Interaktywne Muzeum Flipperow or Interactive Museum of Pinball “Pinball Station” – Searching for something to do one day, I came across a story about a pinball museum. It ended up being walking distance from my flat so one afternoon I headed out to check it out.
For someone who was never really into pinball, I ended up spending 4 hours. Once you pay your 40 PLN entry fee ($10) and get your wristband, you can stay as long as you want and even come and go until closing time (10pm on weeknights and midnight on weekends).
The machines are set up for free play. The museum was established in 2016 by 2 hobbyists and collectors. They started with about 30 games and now the collection has grown to over 100 of which 60 have been restored and available for play. They even have a machine from 1933 which was left in Warsaw by the Germans after the war. It is called Bord-Golf and you can even try your skill.
They even have beer, soda and water for purchase. So, grab a group of friends and spend a retro evening at the Pinball Station.
There you have it…a few surprises in Warsaw if you find yourself in the city with some extra time. I always knew I would like living in Warsaw, but somehow it manages to surprise me every day.
This is Wendy’s first post in our “Tales from the Wizards” series, where our Wizards take over the blog and share their stories of life in Poland.
If you want to keep up with Wendy’s journey as an English Wizard in Warsaw, you can read more on her personal travel blog.