Wonderful Warsaw: Why now's the time to visit Poland's capital of cool
City breaks in Europe
From design shops to 'breakfast' at 3pm, Poland's capital is abuzz with creativity, says Travel Writer of the Year Yvonne Gordon.
"It's big - these places are really trendy," says Kuba Wesolowski.
We're standing outside two hummus bars. There are so many of these, my walking guide tells me excitedly, that newspapers regularly rank the 'best hummus bars' in Warsaw.
It's not what I expected on my first visit to the Polish capital, but this is only the start. Before arriving, I had a grey, austere image of Warsaw, so I was surprised to find a city full of colour and design trends, with an exciting, creative buzz. Even the first guidebooks I see, in design shop Pan Tu Nie Stal (pantuniestal.com), are 'alternative guides' to the city, with locals giving their own subjective take.
We stop at a café called Charlotte (bistrocharlotte.pl) and are lucky to get a table before a queue forms - and it's only mid-afternoon on a weekday. This is Saviour Square (above), nicknamed by locals as 'Hipster Square', although there isn't a man bun or beard in sight - Kuba explains that in Warsaw, a 'hipster' means a rich kid, with the latest Mac and expensive clothing with no labels (another trend).
People flock to Charlotte for its jazzy French music and playful vibe - on the centre of each table are three huge, old-fashioned jars of spread; white chocolate, orange and strawberry. Taking a big dollop of white chocolate for his croissant (we're having 'breakfast' at 3pm - another thing to do in Warsaw), Kuba explains how capitalism arrived in Poland, along with a slew of fast-moving trends, after Communism ended in 1989.
Food is a good example. "When capitalism came in, pizzas were thick dough with ketchup, always ketchup," he laughs. "That was the pizza trend. Then, when there was more money, it was sushi. Now, it's hummus or falafel in pitta bread. It's all organic, eco, Fairtrade and slow food."
After 'breakfast', we walk along the designer shopping street, Mokotowska - where small boutiques sell jewellery and high-end fashion. The cool labels here are Polish, not international, and most prices are in the hundreds rather than thousands. Fragrance shop GaliLu (galilu.pl) has hundreds of tempting bottles lined up on shelves, and between the boutiques there are salons, flower shops and patisseries.
Warsaw is a city where visitors can design things too. If you feel creative, at Mo61 Perfume Lab (below, mo61.pl) you can create your own perfume from hundreds of bottles of scents. Trained staff guide customers, starting with a base like sandalwood or white tea, adding a flower note such as daisy or jasmine, then an aromatic note like pink pepper or vanilla to give character. It can take from 20 minutes to two hours to make the perfect scent.
Elsewhere in the city, design and drinks mix at Pies Czy Suka (Szpitalna 8), where you can drink molecular cocktails that seem like chemical experiments, buy designer household items... or both. At the old-fashioned E.Wedel chocolate lounge (wedelpijalnie.pl/en), you design your own hot chocolate - picking a base of either milk, white or bittersweet, adding flavours like cranberry or salted caramel, and finishing with cream, ice-cream or alcohol.
It's refreshing to explore a city where, sometimes, what you expect to be a trend is the opposite. A flagship Burger King has opened at Constitution Square, with Communist interiors - marble walls and huge chandeliers. Meanwhile over at the Michelin-starred restaurant Atelier Amaro (atelieramaro.pl), where you'd expect chandeliers, I'm served a box of soil and an implement to dig- out my starter of garlic, sorrel root and Jerusalem artichoke (thankfully, most of the other delicious courses come on plates). Meanwhile the old milk bars -self-service canteens where you get cheap, plain food like soup and dumplings - are even having a renaissance.
Nowhere is Warsaw's mix of styles more evident than in its buildings. Shiny new glass and steel structures sit alongside huge, grey, Soviet-era blocks, while in the colourful Old Town, tourists admire buildings from the 13th century plus the old marketplace, Royal Castle and St John's Archcathedral, all painstakingly reconstructed after WWII damage.
A good way to appreciate the mix is the viewing platform of the Palace of Culture and Science. Skyscrapers like the 52-story Zlota 44 by Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind sit near the ornate older buildings along streets like Aleje Jerozolimskie. The Palace of Culture itself was a 'gift' from the Soviets in 1955 - though Kuba tells me it's still controversial; older people see it as a symbol of Soviet dominance but young people see it as cool.
Seeing the cool factor in something old is another trend. Designer Malgorzata Kotlonek-Horoch of Goshico (goshico.com) started designing felt bags using old Polish embroidery styles - they became so popular, a felt-bag trend was born. Now every shop in the city has copies.
Meanwhile, at Praga, a run-down suburb on the city's east side - formerly a no-go for visitors - old industrial spaces like Soho Factory are home to design companies, architects, the Neon Museum (neonmuseum.org) and cool dining space Warszawa Wschodnia (gessler.sohofactory.pl).
Even Google has a new Campus in Praga - in a former vodka distillery. But as any global company that moves here will find, this is a city that, rather than trying to follow any global trends, is most definitely setting its own.
Palace of Culture
Poland’s tallest building, this Socialist-Realist palace is home to four theatres, two museums, a cinema, two bars, a pool, two public libraries and more — take a tour to see the underground rooms, ballrooms and 30th-floor viewing deck (or you can just visit the deck without a tour). See pkin.pl.
If you see just one museum, make this it. Set over eight galleries, the Polin Museum tells the story of the history of the Jews going back 1,000 years, not just the Holocaust. Each gallery is different (one is even a street) and interactive exhibits will keep your attention. Fascinating. See polin.pl.
Worth seeing for its medieval architecture, cobbled alleys, city walls and moat, Warsaw’s Old Town was destroyed during World War II and rebuilt. The Market Place has 17th-century merchants’ houses and you can also see the Royal Castle. Walk from here along the Krakowskie Przedmiescie.
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies from Dublin to Warsaw Chopin Airport and Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from Dublin and Shannon to Warsaw Modlin. For more on what to see and do in Warsaw, see warsawtour.pl or for Poland info, see poland.travel.
Where to stay
With a central location opposite the Palace of Culture, the Polonia Palace (above) is one of the city’s oldest hotels and rooms are cosy but modern (doubles from 275PLN/€64; poloniapalace.com). Or book a trendy studio with kitchenettes at the H15 Boutique Hotel (doubles from 360PLN/€83, h15boutiqueapartments.com).
What to pack
Warsaw is quite casual, even in top-end restaurants. Pack comfy shoes if you'll be doing a lot of walking and appropriate clothing if visiting churches. Seasons are well-defined, but prepare for temperatures that can rise to 30°C or more in July and August, and drop to -3°C in winter.
Yvonne Gordon was named Irish Travel Journalist of the Year 2016 at the Travel Extra Travel Journalism Awards.