To witness Poland’s economic miracle in full swing, it’s worth spending a few hours exploring its vibrant capital Warsaw
Where to stay
With Warsaw attracting more executive travellers than tourists, it’s no surprise that the city does a nice line in business hotels. The Hilton Warsaw occupies a strategic location in the Wola business district, just 20 minutes drive from the airport (guests can free up time by using the digital check-in). Opt for a King room on the 20-24th floors, which offer floor-to-ceiling windows with sweeping views of the city.
With prices starting at 849 zloty (£146), its Polish touches at breakfast (Kielbasa sausages) are a cut above other hotel chain food. Budget-conscious travellers may prefer the utilitarian but comfortable rooms of Hotel Metropol – prices start at 176 zloty (£30) – next to Stalinist monolith the Palace of Culture and Science – Poland’s tallest building – and a quick stroll to Warsaw Centralna Station.
Where to eat
Fret@Porter sits off a shady square in Warsaw’s New Town and offers a contemporary take on hearty Polish cuisine, such as home-made pierogi (ravioli-like dumplings), pork knuckle baked in caramel and beer sauce, and crispy duck with wild rose and cranberry sauce.
First-time visitors to Warsaw are always surprised about how cosmopolitan the city is, especially its array of international restaurants, whether it’s Japanese (Tomo), French, Thai or even tandoori curry houses. It’s worth popping into one of Warsaw’s milk bars (‘bar mleczny’).
These canteens are hangovers from the communist era, and feature aproned grandmothers ladling sorrel soup and dumplings from steaming pots. Try the shabby-retro charms of Bar Mleczny Pod Barbakanem.
What to see
Poland’s capital was all but destroyed in the Second World War (only 15 per cent of the city was left standing) so architectural delights are few. However, strolling around the back streets and Battenberg-coloured tall houses of the Old Town (actually only 50-years old – it’s all restoration work) is a beguiling experience.
Confusingly, the bordering New Town – founded in the 14th-century – is the historic part of Warsaw, housing the Baroque stucco-and-gold delights of the Royal Castle. The main thoroughfares of ul Krakowskie Przedmiescie and ul Nowy Swiat are permanently abuzz with young, trendy Varsovians.
Poland’s often-tragic history can be explored via modern multimedia exhibits at the Warsaw Rising Museum – chronicling the struggle against Nazi occupiers in 1944 – or the compelling Museum of the History of Polish Jews. If you have an extra hour, Lazienki Park is crammed full of palaces and peacocks, and is well worth a lazy amble.
“This is not a Latin country where people greet you warmly,” says Robin Barnett, British ambassador to Poland. “It’s a much more British style – it takes time to get to know people…You can’t go wrong by starting formally.”
This Anglo Saxon-like reserve has been noticed by HSBC’s Adrian Leung who says: “Polish people can be very polite but also direct. The directness isn’t rude, but they do get to the point quicker.”
Meanwhile, Bob Churchill from Amec Foster Wheeler recommends congratulating Poles on the progress their country has made: “Many Polish people carry the idea that the western perception of their nation is an ex-communist, grimy environment. They’re very happy when we get there and compliment them on what they’ve achieved. That personal touch goes a long way.”
For the flight
As a boy living in 1940s’ Krakow, Roman Polanski witnessed his father being frogmarched to a concentration camp (he survived, but his mother perished in Auschwitz). The film director channelled these harrowing memories into 2002’s Oscar-winning The Pianist, a semi-autobiographical tale of life in Warsaw’s wartime Jewish ghetto.
This dark period in history is also explored in Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg) and Katyn (Andrzej Wajda), an account of the slaughter of Polish soldiers by Russian forces. Warsaw-born director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy regularly appear in ‘Films You Must See Before You Die’ lists, with the second film (White) partially set in his home city.
Writing in his native Yiddish, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel Shosha is an evocative traipse through 1930s Warsaw, while Tadeusz Konwicki’s communist satire A Minor Apocalypse focuses on a writer asked to set fire to himself outside Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science.
For a comprehensive understanding of Poland’s history, Adam Zamoyski’s The Polish Way: A thousand year history of the Poles and their culture is a good place to start. Lech Walesa’s The Struggle and the Triumph: An Autobiography charts the former Solidarity leader’s rise from shipyard worker to Polish president.
The lulling cadences of Poland’s most famous composer Frédéric Chopin make perfect in-flight music – even if it might bring back memories of Grade III piano lessons.