All of Europe is pretty historical, but the bright colors and chapters of history found in Warsaw are only two reasons to visit the Polish capital.
Living in Europe means you’ll get a history lesson, even if you aren’t looking for one. But the history of Europe is part of why it’s so cool to live there, right? I spent a semester volunteering with ILP, meaning I got to live in Europe for a whole semester, with free time each day to explore my city, and do quite a bit of country hopping on the weekends and on vacation days. And Poland was one of my favorite places I visited.
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You have a lot of places to choose to visit if you’re volunteering in Europe for a semester, but Poland is hands down one of the best places to see for yourself. While we love the adventures to be had in Krakow, a visit to this country without visiting Warsaw means missing out on a huge slice of what Poland is all about. The city center of Warsaw is hiding surprise on surprise under the beautifully painted facade ... like the surprising secret of the Old Town.
- A Smidge Of History
Can’t Miss Warsaw Adventures
- Nearby Adventures
Places To Eat
- Places To Stay
- Getting Cheap Tickets Here
A Smidge Of History
Has anyone else wandered around Europe and thought “I wonder what that statue is all about” but kept on walking? Warsaw is not a place to visit without a mini history lesson! You won’t appreciate half of what you see without knowing a few key things. It’s a melting pot of cultures and has a pivotal role in the events of WWII, but you'll want to know a bit more than that. Here’s a brief intro to the city’s history so you won’t feel so lost when exploring.
Warsaw and WWII
The Germans bombed this city in the fall of 1939, and soon conquered Warsaw — over 31,000 people were killed in the siege. Around this time, about a third of Poles were Jews and Germany concentrated on deporting them all to the Warsaw Ghetto, where more than 100,000 inmates died from starvation and execution. Later in the war, the rest of the Jewish inhabitants were shuttled off to various death camps or killed on spot. If you visit Warsaw today, you can see two memorials that commemorate the victims (more on those later).
As Germany realized they were losing the war, Hitler commanded Warsaw to be completely destroyed. About 85% of the city was destroyed including historic Old Town. Around 800,000 people — more than half of the city’s population — had been killed.
In 1945, Soviet troops entered the destroyed city and decided to rebuild according to the Soviet ideas. Warsaw was reconstructed with modern styles — except for Old Town. Years ago, artists like Italian Painter Canaletto had drawn Warsaw’s Old Town ... with a few improvements. He did add some elaborations to make the city appear more beautiful, and leaders reconstructed Old Town according to his (fake) drawings. You can hear way more about this by listening to this podcast (it’s fascinating). But the effect is really beautiful — Warsaw’s Old Town is definitely worth seeing.
Warsaw’s known as the Phoenix City because it was able to rise from the ashes and become the bright and busy city it is today.
Can’t Miss Warsaw Adventures
Castle Square (Plac Zamkowy)
It’s a hot spot of history and photo ops for the many tourists who stroll around this part of town. It’s a big open square (more of a triangular shape actually), lined with some of Warsaw’s most colorful buildings and the imposting brick of the Royal Castle. These stacked buildings are mostly four stories high, peppered with little rectangular windows against pastel colors, and topped with steep shingled rooftops. It’s a gorgeous slice of architecture. You’ll immediately notice the center of the square, where a towering and ornate column is topped by Sigismund III, the Polish king who decisively moved the government’s base from Krakow to Warsaw back in the 16th century.
This space is also peppered with cafes and has been the scene where some of the most important chapters of Poland’s history took place. President Clinton welcomed the nation as a part of NATO in this square, the site of several bombings in WWII and the ground where a handful of Russian sieges took place.
The “Chopin’s Heart” Church
Europe is full of churches, but not all of them house the heart of the famed composed. One of the marble columns in the Church of the Holy Cross safety keeps the heart of Fryderyk Chopin, one of the world’s most influential and famous composers. It’s an impressively built Roman Catholic Church, serving as one of the country’s most well-preserved and beautiful Baroque churches with roots stemming back to the 15th century. Chopin grew up on Warsaw, leaving his heart in this city, while the rest of his remains can be found in Paris. If you look carefully, you can see black marble beaches which play music by Chopin (it can be a bit difficult if it’s noisy during your visit).
- Address: Krakowskie Przedmieście 3, 00-047 Warszawa, Poland
Hours: 6:00 AM to 8:00 PM
Get The Prettiest View
If you’re looking for that perfect Warsaw picture, just climb the 150 steps up the Old Observation tower and you’ll be set. This viewpoint looks over the Castle Square and the Old Town, so you can get a shot of those pastel buildings. Find the Observation Tower next to St. Anne’s Church (which is also worth seeing). As a heads up, it does get very windy at the top if it’s breezy down below, and the tower tends to close when it’s raining or snowing.
- Address: (Of St. Anne’s Church: Krakowskie Przedmieście 68, 00-322)
- Cost: 6 PLN (Cash only)
May to October — 10:0 AM to 9:00 during weekdays, 11:00 AM to 10:00 PM on weekends.
October to May — 10:00 AM to 6:00 during weekdays, 11:00 AM to 6:00 PM on weekends.
See Old Town Via The Orange Umbrella
Visiting any European city's Old Town is kind of a must do, but we love taking a free walking tour of the city while in Warsaw. One ILP group mentions loving the tour offered by the Orange Umbrella (though your hostel will probably have a few recommendations if you want to check into those). They have a few tour options — and Old Town Tour, one focused on WWII, another detailing Jewish history, and another that hits the highlights of Warsaw. The tours are operated daily, and are free (though you're encouraged to tip your guide).
Get the tour schedule and other info here.
The Royal Castle
Something you can’t miss seeing or visiting in Warsaw is the Royal Castle. It’s more like a palace rather than a castle, serving as the home of Poland’s nobility in the 15th century. Visiting here means walking the halls where kings walked (after a hefty dose of restoration, that is). WWII brought this impressive building down to a pile of rubble which was meticulously restored to its former glory, sparing no detail or expense.
You can stroll through the ornate Great Assembly Hall with walls adorned with gold. Or the impressive gallery of paintings which houses a few works by Rembrandt. Oh and if the weather is nice, don’t skip out on a stroll through the Royal Gardens, designed in a classic French Baroque style.
- Address: plac Zamkowy 4, 00-277 Warszawa, Poland
- Hours: Vary widely. Check hours here.
Cost: 30 PLN, free entry on Wednesday. Get more ticket info here.
The Warsaw Uprising Museum
Warsaw hosts a whole collection of museums, but if you only visit one, make it the Warsaw Uprising Museum. Opening in 2004, 60 years after the historic events in 1944, it’s not one to be missed. It details the courageous uprising that occurred in the city and the devastating aftermath. The museums has loads of info, so one visitor suggested heading right to one exhibit first, a 3D film called “The City Of Ruins”.
Here, you’ll watch a short video full of aerial footage that shows the city reduced to rubble. It’s best to get there before the first showing of the day, then go back to see the exhibits you passed on the way to this exhibition. The museum is rather interactive, with sections replicating the radio stations, the sewers that created an escape route for some, and sounds that paint the picture of the chaos. It’s a well down memorial for the lives lost preserving the independence of Poland.
- Address: Grzybowska 79, 00-844 Warszawa, Poland
- Hours: Vary widely. Check hours here.
Cost: 25 PLN, free entry on Sundays. Book tickets online here.
Free Parks and Gardens and Cemeteries
Poland is a very affordable country to travel to, especially if you take advantage of the free things to do and see in this city. One ILP group mentions spending a lovely afternoon walking through Lazienki Park and the University Library Gardens.
The city of Poland has a rich Jewish community that’s been pillaged and brutalized throughout history. The city is home to some of the largest Jewish cemeteries in the world, with some 250,000 graves in the Cmentarz Zydowski cemetery alone. Now a place of peace and remembrance, it was once used during WWII for executions and irreverent burials for those who had died during the uprising. It’s still an active cemetery today, so please be respectful during your visit. It’s best to enter on Okopowa Street.
Another notable cemetery is also worth a visit, home to over 1 million tombs and is the final resting place for some of the most important figures who shaped Polish history. See all of this in the Powazki Cemetery (Cmentarz Powazkowski).
Big fan of this day trip option. Malbork Castle is actually the largest castle in the world, when measured by land area. It’s stunner to be sure, first built in the 13th century, but its claim to fame came later, in the 14th century when the castle was fortified and enlarged by powerful German crusaders called Teutonic Knights. It’s a living testament to the crusades which swept through Europe and wandering through the massive rooms and grounds gives you a taste at what life was like back then.
It’s about 2-3 hours away from Warsaw, easily reached by train. From Malbork, you’re just a 30 minute train ride to a nearby city we love, Gdansk. Get more info about your visit to Malbork castle here.
We love the city of Krakow, and think you can easily spend 3-4 days here, especially if you’re looking to explore the nearby Wiezlicka Salt Mine (do it, I was totally blown away at this last minute choice to add this to my trip!) or step into the somber history unfolded at Auschwitz. Krakow is a beautifully historical city with a beyond beautiful and artistic Jewish Quarter and is officially home to the best ice cream I’ve ever had.
Krakow is about 2 hours away by train. Get all the things to do, places to eat, and places to stay in Krakow here.
Places To Eat
Um, yum? This dessert and cafe has been serving up tasty things to eat since the 1800's (don't you love Europe?). It's an old style cafe that does a bomb breakfast, but I'm always there for the desserts. Get chocolate glazed cakes, freshly iced donuts, cups of flakey pastry filled with thick vanilla cream and topped with sugared raspberries and more.
- Address: Nowy Świat 33, 00-029 Warszawa, Poland
- Hours: 9:00 AM to 7:00 PM
Bar Mleczny Familijny
If you're in the mood for Polish food for a good price, this is the restaurant to know. This is more like an old, canteen style place to eat, rather than a place with waiters. Ask for an English menu at the front, and sit down to piles of pierogis, warm soups, plates full of fried fillets with cabbage and potatoes, and lots of pasta.
- Address: Nowy Świat 39, 00-029 Warszawa, Poland
- Hours: 7:00 AM to 8:00 PM (closes at 5:00 PM on the weekends)
Another place where you can taste the local fare, you'll find creamy soups filled into bowls of bread, plates with cheese and cured meats, roasted chicken with local veggies, and pierogis of course. Check out their Facebook page for more info.
- Address: Nowy Świat 44, 00-363 Warszawa, Poland
- Hours: 12:00 PM to 11:00 PM
Places To Stay
One ILP group loved their stay here, mentioning the good location to Old Town and the overall feel of the hostel. There's a helpful staff who like to point travelers to favorite restaurants and things to do in the city. Dorm rooms are in the $13 range, book here.
A highly rated hostel that's a bit out of the way (around 3km from the Old Town) but with some perks like a helpful staff, group activities for those staying there, and in a good location (just not in Old Town). Dorms are around $13 a night, book here.
Other groups have loved finding a good AirBnB for their stay in Warsaw, saying that most of the more affordable options are tucked away in little neighborhoods that aren't right in the Old Town but close to everything you're going to want to see anyways. Check out Warsaw AirBnBs here.
Getting Cheap Tickets Here
Warsaw is incredibly well connected, with routes by train, bus, and flights from all over Europe. It’s common that volunteers who are in Lithuania find themselves in Warsaw to switch buses on their way to Krakow. Here’s a few recommendations based on some popular European destinations to help you get an idea of what’s out there. As always, our favorite places to check out buses and train routes are Flixbus and Omio, and we love looking at Skyscanner for flights.
- Podgorica, Montenegro — one-way flight from $57
- Berlin, Germany — 7 hour bus for $32
- Vilnius, Lithuania — 8 hour bus for $19
- Kosice, Slovakia — 9 hour bus for $12
Barcelona, Spain — one-way flight for $52
- Oslo, Norway — one-way flight from $22
- Brussels, Belgium — one-way flight from $31
- Milan, Italy — one-way flight for $31
- Kiev, Ukraine — one-way flight from $20
- Lviv, Ukraine — 8 hour train for $22
- Bucharest, Romania — one-way flight from $25
- Budapest, Hungary — one-way flight from $25
+ Getting Around Warsaw
You’re going to want to download the Jaktojade App, it’ll help you navigate all the buses, trams and metro line in Warsaw. With this app, you don't need to know any bus numbers, stop names, or city layouts. Just type in an address or pick a point off of the map and it’ll work out your route. For some routes, you can also buy a ticket right from the app. It’s a lifesaver. Get it free here for Android and here for IOS (There is a free version for IOS, but the paid version is more similar to the access you’ll get on the Android version. It’s $4.99 for the premium IOS version of Jaktojade).
Come live in Europe for a semester!
ILP's a USA-based nonprofit organization who sends college-aged volunteers abroad to teach English or help in an orphanage. You're set up with a group of volunteers to travel, teach, and explore with, so you're never alone. We have several programs all over Europe — come see which one is the best fit for you!