Europe's Most Underrated City Has an Amazing Christmas Market, Over 30 Parks, and Some of the World's Best Hot Chocolate
With a map of Warsaw clutched in one hand, I steeled myself against the December chill and stepped out into the night.
I couldn’t help but marvel at the city's vibrancy, the quiet thrill and verve of it. My hotel sat across from the Presidential Palace on the Royal Route, a popular destination for travelers and a 10-minute walk from the Old Town Market Place. On my way to the Christmas market there, I spotted a small number of people lined up outside a local restaurant, Zapiecek, known for pierogi. Dotting the sidewalks were impressive Christmas light displays: trains and trees, chairs and carousels, brightening the night in a festive show of holiday cheer.
The Christmas market was exactly what you'd expect to find in Eastern Europe: mulled wine and sausages, knick knacks and kitschy stocking stuffers, an ice skating rink smack dap in the middle of the Old Town Square. While a sizable number of people had turned up for Saturday's evening festivities, it didn’t feel claustrophobic. Missing were the hordes of tourists I’ve come to associate with popular events and big attractions in major cities.
When travelers think of Eastern Europe, they may imagine Prague and Budapest’s fairy-tale castles, Berlin’s eclectic culture, or Vienna’s commanding beauty. Warsaw, on the other hand, can go under-the-radar.
Warsaw has faced major setbacks, traces of which can still be seen and felt throughout the city. During World War II, approximately 85 percent of the city’s buildings were destroyed by Nazis, and reconstruction has given Warsaw a different aesthetic than many other European tourist destinations. Although the Old Town and Royal Route were reconstructed to resemble pre-war Poland, the rest of the city began to build itself up in the more modern, Social Realism style of the 1950s. The tallest building in Poland, the Palace of Culture and Science, was gifted to the city by the Soviet Union during this time: its 757-foot height impossible to ignore, the Stalinist architecture represents an era of socialism and is a reminder of Soviet occupation. Amid this backdrop, visitors to Warsaw will find a thriving restaurant scene, burgeoning art scene, and spectacular parks and recreation areas.
My ability to navigate the city with ease, coupled with the feeling I was discovering Warsaw on my own terms, continued throughout my trip. Yet, I feel this hidden gem-like quality of Warsaw won’t last forever — eventually, the world is sure to catch on. While I hopped from parks to museums to restaurants, the city stood out to me for its unique ability to appeal to all kinds of travelers, from outdoorsy types to history buffs.
If you're lucky enough to visit before word gets out, here's what to see and do in this under-the-radar corner of Eastern Europe.
With its vibrant atmosphere, live music, and exceptional Polish fare, Soul Kitchen rightly earns its place as one of Warsaw’s best restaurants. The dishes — from the steak tartare to the borscht, roasted duck, and raspberry meringue cake — are full of flavor. Some, like the steak tartare, are prepared right at your table. Make sure you bring your appetite, as the portions are large.
If you want to treat yourself to a top-notch meal, book a reservation at Dom Polski. The decor, with its linen tablecloths, floral wallpaper, and doilies, is like a grandmother’s living room, creating an at-home feel. Order Polish wine to start, followed by zurek, a sour rye soup. Follow it with a plate of pierogi and roasted duck for a taste of true Polish cuisine.
This local pierogi chain draws a bustling crowd of tourists and locals alike. The menu, featuring both boiled and pan-fried dumplings, includes savory and sweet options. While you can order a 9- or 11-piece plate of meat and cabbage pierogi, you can also choose to mix and match your dumplings. You’ll find other fare on the menu as well, like soups, Polish sausages, potato pancakes, and when it’s cold outside, mulled wine with vodka.
If you want to go where the locals go, head to Hala Koszyki, a massive food hall in a warehouse. Featuring a mix of bars, food stands, and restaurants, this trendy spot offers a range of cuisines, from curry and sushi to a chocolateria and tea shop. But Hala Koszyki isn’t just a place to grab a bite to eat — it’s a one-stop shop with a bookstore, drug store, and organic food market.
For fantastic hot chocolate, look no further than E. Wedel. The menu offers up five types of classic chocolates — and if you’re feeling extra indulgent, order your drink with one of seven unique flavors (like raspberries in wine, passion fruit, and caramel with sea salt). Can’t make up your mind? Go for the tasting menu, a hot chocolate “flight” offering a taste of the slightly bitter, milk, and white chocolate drinks.
For Nature Lovers
Royal Łazienki Park
The largest park in Warsaw, Royal Łazienki is home to lakes, monuments, cafes, pavilions, and palaces — including the park’s focal point, the Palace on the Isle, a bathhouse-turned-summer-residence for the last king of Poland in 1764. Even in December, I spent over an hour in Royal Łazienki Park, draped in snow and scattered with peacocks, its wintry beauty stark and captivating. Summer, however, might be the best time to visit: The park’s Fryderyk Chopin Monument offers free Chopin concerts, performed by world-renowned pianists every Sunday from May to September. Don’t forget to pack a picnic.
Vistula River Bank
The left bank of the Vistula is hopping with activity. From the observation terraces, food pavilions, and floating clubs on the Vistula Boulevards to multimedia fountain shows, a 19-mile bike path, and the largest science museum in Poland, there’s something for everyone. For incredible city views, head to a river jetty and hop on a breezy cruise down the Vistula. If you want to escape the hustle and bustle of the left bank, cross the river and unplug at one of the city’s beautiful urban beaches.
Make your way over to Skaryszewski Park when you need to recharge from a busy day or two in the city. Complete with nature trails, waterfalls, a lake, a rose garden, and historic monuments, the park’s gorgeous scenery will have you feeling relaxed in no time.
For History Buffs
Housed on the location of the former Warsaw Ghetto, POLIN gives visitors an intimate and in-depth look at the thousand-year history of Polish Jews, from their immigration to Poland in the 10th century, through the Holocaust all the way to the Postwar years. Poignant and important, POLIN won the European Museum of the Year Award in 2016, and a stop here is vital to understanding Warsaw’s culture.
Polish Vodka Museum
Since it opened in June 2018, the Polish Vodka Museum has been treating visitors to the exciting history of Poland’s national drink. Through interactive exhibitions inside the former vodka factory, you will learn the origins of Polish drinking culture, vodka’s role in politics, and the ins-and-outs of vodka production. Round out your tour with a trip to the Vodka Academy, where you can taste different types of vodka.
For Art Lovers
Quirky, bright, and colorful, the Neon Muzeum is not just aesthetic fodder for your Instagram. Featuring neon signs from the 1950’s to 1970’s, the pieces were borne out of an official Polish policy to light up the country’s streets in an effort to be more like its Western neighbors. While most of the neons were left to ruin during the post-Cold War era, photographer Ilona Karwinska and graphic designer David S. Hill managed to salvage over 200 signs, forming a collection that gives design geeks a taste of Poland’s neonization movement.
After a trip to the Neon Muzeum, check out the rest of Soho Factory, the post-industrial complex it’s housed in. A cluster of art studios, design shops, and restaurants, the eclectic space also offers up workshops on topics ranging from urban nature to design.