After years behind the Iron Curtain, Warsaw is emerging as one of Europe's cutting-edge capitals.
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.
WHERE TO SHOP In the hope of cashing in on Poland's capitalist awakening, some of the usual suspects (Zara, H&M) have taken up residence on and around the three main shopping drags: Nowy Swiat, Chmielna, and Mokotowska. Others have opted for stylish boutiques in the Sir Norman Foster-designed Metropolitan Building (1 Plac Pilsudskiego). But it's the new generation of Polish designers, many trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in Lodz (pronounced "woodge"), who are driving a noteworthy homegrown scene. The men behind Paprocki & Brzozowski (17 Ul. Krucza; 48-50/169-5150; www.paprockibrzozowski.com) create provocative urban essentials such as sheer silk blouses and faux fur-trimmed hip-huggers. • At Pole (51-53 Ul. Mokotowska; 48-22/622-4867; www.pole.com.pl), designer Viola Spiehovichis renowned for her sexy, avant-garde suits, dresses, and jackets, favored by the nation's glitterati. • Those in search of body-consciouslines paired with eye-catchingfabrics flock to Kasia Piatek's atelier and shop, Eklkta De Lux (99 Ul. Raclawicka; 48-22/898-2828). • Run by a group of design school students and recent graduates, Polscy Projektanci (30 Ul. Chmielna; 48-22/828-9632; www.polscyprojektanci.com.pl) sells one-of-a-kind creations by Poland's rising stars, including Agnieszka Maciejak, a painter who applies her skills to create a textured, more feminine line of denim and silk clothing. • At Batycki (9 Ul. Zgoda; 48-22/828-2167; www.batycki.pl), Bozena Batycka has cornered the country's status-handbag market. Originally from Gdansk, a city famous for amber, she incorporates large pieces of the semiprecious gem in the handles of her sculpted leather purses.
ART SCENE Contemporary Polish artists are gaining an international reputation: Wilhelm Sasnal recently showed at London's Sadie Coles gallery; Monika Sosnowska was featured at the Venice Biennale. Back at home, their comrades' exhibitions are shown at the Center for Contemporary Art (Ujazdowski Castle, 6 Al. Ujazdowskie; 48-22/628-1271; www.csw.art.pl) and the Zacheta National Gallery of Art (3 Plac Malachowskiego; 48-22/827-5854; www.zacheta.art.pl). • But it's through the local gallery scene that the image of Polish art is taking shape. The curators of the Foksal Gallery Foundation (1A Ul. Gorskiego; 48-22/826-5081; www.fgf.com.pl) sponsor installations such as the Brodno 2000 project, in which artist Pawel Althamer used public housing as a canvas, convincing residents to synchronize the flicking of their light switches, creating various patterns. • Lukasz Gorczyca and Michal Kaczynski of the Raster Gallery (42 Ul. Hoza, Apt. 8; raster.art.pl), a cross between a gallery and a salon, recently moved to the top floor of an early-20th-century building that featuressofas, games, and art books. • The Twozywo Group (www.twozywo.art.pl), graphic artists who've reclaimed public space that was once used to spread party propaganda, have a permanent set of billboards on Ulica Kopernik and Ulica Koszykowa.
NIGHTLIFE While Warsaw is certainly busy by day, the city doesn't really come alive until after dark. NoBo (58A Ul. Wilcza; 48-22/622-4007), a lounge with an ambitious cocktail menu—there are 20 choices—is the preferred starting locale for fashionistas and celebrities like TV presenter Olivier Janiak and his supermodel wife, Karolina Malinowska. • Sister bars Szpulka and Szpilka (18 Plac Tzech Krzyzy; 48-22/628-9132) are stylized lofts located next to one another. • No one emerges before dawn from Warsaw's premier gay club, Utopia (1 Ul. Jasna; 48-22/827-1540). The door policy is notoriously hard to breach—so look your best or forget it. • The bed trend has even made it to Warsaw. Le Madame (10-12 Ul. Kozla) is an over-the-top fun house with feather-covered lamps, a dozen beds scattered around the industrial space, and risqué erotic images projected on the walls. • The down-home lounge Regeneracja (61 Ul. Pulawska; 48-22/845-4992) hosts weekend disco parties. • Labo Music Bar (11A Ul. Mazowiecka; 48-22/827-4557) scores points for its seventies retro-chic interiors, plus top house and techno DJ's imported from around the world.
KRISTINE ZIWICA, a former editor at T+L, is a freelance writer living in London.
Major airport Okecie, 20 minutes to downtown by taxi ($10) or 40 minutes by the No. 175 bus (80 cents)
Local currency Zloty
Essential reading Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland's Present, by Norman Davies
Most popular vodka brand Wyborowa
Annual consumption of vodka per person* 6.6 liters
Number of remaining milk bars 19
Actress, model, and the daughter of Poland's former Prime Minister, Jerzy Buzek
LOCAL DIGS "My favorite café is Lokalne [42 Ul. Rozana; 48-22/646-6985; lunch for two $16]. I know the owners and the regulars, so I am never alone."
PARK IT "There are lots of green spaces around town. I like to take my dog for long walks in Pole Mokotowskie, a park near my house."
AFTER DARK "I often go to Balsam, a club in Fort Mokotów [99 Ul. Raclawicka; 48-22/844-7485], which was used by the German soldiers during World War II. It has a modern design with lots of sixties furniture, and an excellent DJ."
CAR TALK "I love driving down Warsaw's wide-open boulevards after sundown. The city can be a little gray at times, but at night it always looks great."
Once synonymous with high crime and poverty, the easternmost suburb of Praga may be Warsaw's next SoHo. Local artists meet for live music at the Pracownia Krawiecka (1 Ul. Inzynierska; 48-50/616-3613), a café with flea-market décor. • A music enthusiast with a penchant for vintage vinyl opened the pub Lysy Pingwin (11 Ul. Zabkowska; 48-22/618-0256), with a menu of sandwiches and salads.• Koneser Vodka Factory is turning over some of its space to galleries such as the photo-centric Galeria Luksfera (27-31 Ul. Zabkowska; 48-22/618-5766; www.luksfera.pl). • Music labels and fashion designers throw glamorous parties at Centrum Artystyczne Fabryka Trzciny (14 Ul. Otwocka; 48-22/619-0513), which also doubles as a gallery.
For a crash course on the capital's past, visit one of these monuments and museums. At the Historical Museum of Warsaw (28-42 Rynek Starego Miasta; 48-22/635-1625), an exhibition shows the city's evolution over seven centuries. • The Memorial to the Heroes of the Warsaw Uprising in Plac Krasinskich pays tribute to the nearly 200,000 resistance fighters and civilians who died during the revolt against the Nazis. Their story, suppressed for years, is now told at the Warsaw Uprising Museum (28 Ul. Przyokopowa; 48-22/626-9506). • To honor Polish Jews who perished during World War II, there's the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes and the Umschlagplatz Monument, both in the former Jewish ghetto west of the Old Town.
The Polish word for "thank you" is dziekuje, pronounced "jen-koo-yeh"
The city's best tour guides are from Warsaw Trips (www.warsawtrips.pl)