Warsaw is not the "new Prague"—the next cheap and chic Eastern European playground—and it doesn't want to be. The political and creative forces reshaping post-Communist Warsaw have no intention of cashing in on a tired marketing ploy. Instead, their goal is to establish Warsaw as one of the new millennium's preeminent cultural capitals. That's a tall order for a city that was almost completely destroyed by the Nazis during World War II. Lingering reminders of the past counterbalance the city's striking bohemian vibe: a restoration completed in 1953 earned the Old Town a designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and just a mile southwest of it, the Palace of Culture and Science, a Socialist Realist "gift" from Stalin, still dominates the skyline. Meanwhile, in buzzy neighborhoods like Praga, on the right bank of the Vistula River, which divides the city in two, and Mokotów, just south of the left bank's commercial hub, quirky cafés and galleries cater to the city's growing number of young artists and designers, for whom the restrictions imposed by Communism are all but a distant memory.
WHERE TO STAY After the Soviet soldiers decamped, international hoteliers wasted no time moving in. The 300-plus rooms at the InterContinental Warszawa (49 Ul. Emilii Plater; 888/303-1758 or 48-22/328-8888; www.warsaw.intercontinental.com; doubles from $150) embody the brand's contemporary look: dark woods and a color palette of eggplant, taupe, and light blue. • Dating back to 1899, Le Royal Méridien Bristol (42-44 Ul.Krakowskie Przedmiescie; 800/543-4300 or 48-22/551-1000; www.lemeridien.com; doubles from $210) was one of the few buildings to survive the Nazi occupation. The 205 Art Nouveau rooms, with their curvy lines and dueling floral motifs, reopened in 1993 after a much needed refurbishment. • The owner of the Hotel Rialto (73 Ul. Wilcza; 48-22/584-8700; www.hotelrialto.com.pl; doubles from $177), Warsaw's first boutique hotel, spent years scouring flea markets for original Art Deco pieces to decorate the 44 rooms in Belgian, African, and Viennese motifs. • The Hotel Le Regina (12 Ul. Koscielna; 800/525-4800 or 48-22/531-6000; www.leregina.com; doubles from $222), in the Old Town, has a more modern feel, with rooms done in muted taupe and brown textiles, natural stone, and Venetian glass mosaics; the Roman-style baths and courtyard have a peaceful, if monastic, feel. • Fans of socialist-style architecture love the Sofitel Victoria (11 Ul. Krolewska; 800/763-4835 or 48-22/657-8011; www.sofitel.com; doubles from $138) even though, much to purists' dismay, the 345 rooms have been renovated in an unimaginative style.
WHERE TO EAT Located in the Center for Contemporary Art, Qchnia Artystyczna (Ujazdowski Castle, 6 Al. Ujazdowskie; 48-22/625-7627; dinner for two $46)—the name translates into "artistic kitchen"—takes a creative approach to traditional Polish comfort food, turning out dishes such as wild-mushroom potato pancakes and nalesniki, crêpes stuffed with sweet cheese and seasonal fruits. • In a city devoid of celebrity chefs, Kurt Scheller is a notable exception. The culinary maverick serves up inventive dishes—green-pea "crème brûlée" with seared tuna and a spicy-sour grapefruit sauce—at his namesake Kurt Scheller Restaurant & Bar (73 Ul. Wilcza; 48-22/584-8771; dinner for two $198), located in the Rialto. • Sense (19 Ul. Nowy Swiat; 48-22/826-6570; dinner for two $66) and Cinnamon (Metropolitan Building, 1 Plac Pilsudskiego; 48-22/323-7600; dinner for two $80) are the city's nod to ultramodern Asian fusion. The former sticks to the classicswhile Cinnamon widens its mandate, pairing Thai coconut shrimp soup with prosciutto-and-arugula pizza. • Biblioteka (56-66 Ul. Dobra; 48-22/552-7195; dinner for two $97), on the ground floor of the University of Warsaw's library, is bringing wine culture to the city's loyal vodka drinkers. The game-heavy menu, including saddle of venison with juniper sauce, complements the 200-bottle wine list. • No trip to Poland is complete if you don't sample pierogi and borscht. For the best, head to the country-house rustic Polska (21 Ul. Nowy Swiat; 48-22/826-3877; dinner for two $50). • A holdover from the Communist era, the milk bar Pod Barbakanem (27-29 Ul. Mostowa; 48-22/831-4737; dinner for two $7) specializes in dairy-heavy entrées like breaded pork chops with cabbage and mushrooms in cream, served up in a spartan setting at affordable prices.
CULTURE CLUB When Warsaw's intellectual and creative elite emerge from their studios and ateliers, they congregate in the city's many cafés. A dozen large wooden tables line two floors of Miedzy Nami (20 Ul. Bracka; 48-22/827-9441; lunch for two $16), the undisputed casual hangout of the city's Warszawka, a bevy of beautiful people including fashion designers, models, and media professionals. • A bookish feel dominates Czuly Barbarzynca, or "Tender Barbarian" (31 Ul. Dobra; 48-22/826-3294; lunch for two $13), a bookstore and café serving coffee and pastries. The intimate space, crammed with novels, coffee-table art and design books, and Art Deco antiques, hosts regular readings by Polish writers. • Conceptual artist Anna Baumgart runs Café Baumgart (Ujazdowski Castle, 6 Al. Ujazdowskie; 48-22/628-1272; lunch for two $8) in the Center for Contemporary Art. The bric-a-brac furniture and clashing retro wallpaper are joined by an ever-changing display of local artists' paintings.