There are many cities such as Paris, Budapest and New York where individual districts are known for specific traits, and these play a major role in defining the city's character. Warsaw was once the same (and it may well be again) but at the moment the city's districts are in the process of renewal and modernization. How they will end up is anyone's guess, but the pace of development and change has been rapid and shows no signs of slowing.
Warsaw's districts suffered along with the rest of the city's inhabitants during the dark days of the Second World War. Completely flattened, most of the city was rebuilt at about the same speed and at roughly the same time, with architectural styles and trends appearing in every district simultaneously.
Starting from the north, on the left, and predominant side of the river, Warsaw has three main districts. They are Zoliborz (the most northerly), Centrum and Mokotow. The other side of the river (the east side) is referred to in its entirety as Praga. Within these areas, there are numerous smaller districts, whose nooks and crannies are usually only known by long-time locals. Some of these smaller areas are worth a specific mention though, and will be pointed out later.
Zoliborz, often called green Zoliborz, suffered less than the other districts during the war. In fact, this is where many of the participants of the failed Warsaw Uprising escaped to (using the sewer system) once they realized all hope was lost. In certain parts it retains a peaceful suburban atmosphere, with interesting-looking houses and groups of flats surrounding parks and open spaces. Zoliborz is also home to the grave of the now world-famous priest, Jerzy Popieluszko, who was murdered by the secret police in 1984 for his opposition to the communist regime. Old Zoliborz meets new Zoliborz at plac Wilsona, named for President Woodrow Wilson, which under Soviet rule following World War II was officially renamed the Square of the Paris Commune. However, none of the locals ever called it that: to taxi drivers and residents it always remained Wilson Square. Zoliborz is an extremely pleasant neighborhood with its large parks and leafy tree-lined streets.
Sródmiescie is the main area of interest for visitors to Warsaw as it includes the central business district, the fashionable shopping of Nowy Swiat , the Old Town and much of the Royal Route. The central business district, commonly known as Centrum, is a rushing hive of activity that shows the eruption of modernity in Warsaw in recent decades. Amid the skyscrapers you can still find history, and the best place to see it all is at the viewing terrace at the top of the Palace of Culture . From there you can see a birds-eye view of the city in its rushing madness below.
Marszalkowska Street, built in 1757, meets Jerozolimskie, at what could be called Poland's main crossroads. From there, the opera, theaters, shops and restaurants can all be reached by hopping on one of the many red and yellow trams that criss-cross the busy downtown boulevards. Further to the north, you will find Old Town (Stare Miasto) along the banks of the Vistula River. There you can experience the Warsaw of medieval times as you stroll within the walled city reconstructed according to historical records following its complete destruction in the Second World War. Leading up to the Old Town is the Royal Route, a beautiful stretch of wide avenue lined with villas and the high-end boutiques of Nowy Swiat marking the road the king used to travel to his summer palace in Lazienki Royal Park . Nowadays this park is not only incorporated into the city, but is a favorite spot in Warsaw for residents and tourists alike, as well as a glorious place to spend an entire day.
Continuing south, the next district is Mokotow. This large area has several different feels to it: some beautiful pre-war mansions still remain standing (now occupied by businesses or embassies), as well as some typically Socialist rows of dull gray apartment blocks. Five of Warsaw's institutes of higher education are found in this district, including the Warsaw Polytechnic University and the School of Economics. There are also large areas of green, including large parks that interconnect. Access to the city's single subway line is also here.
To the west of these three districts, still on the left side of the Vistula, you will find Wola. This district is predominantly the site of corporate office parks and emerging housing developments, but amidst these campuses you will find many historical sites worth visiting. Wola is primarily an industrial area that is seeing some revival. Amidst the old factories, you can find several museums such as the Warsaw Gasworks Museum , the Wola Museum , Museum of Industry and the must-see Warsaw Uprising Museum . This district also bears the sad history of being built on the site of the former Jewish Ghetto, where you can visit sites of historical tragedy such as the Jewish Cemetery (Cmentarz Zydowski) , the Monument to Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Umschlagplatz where a memorial stands to all Jews deported to Nazi extermination camps.
The other side of the river (the east side) is commonly referred to as Praga, infamous as the place where the Soviet Red Army was stationed and stood in wait as the Germans crushed the 63-day Warsaw Uprising and Hitler vowed to erase the city off the map in retribution just before the end of the Second World War. It was only after the Germans were defeated that the Soviets crossed over to reclaim Warsaw. For this reason, Praga was spared much of the war's destruction and a historical tension developed between the right and left banks of the river.
Praga has a slightly dubious reputation among locals for crime, dangerous streets, the Mafia, car theft and so on. Although this is true in large part in only a few specific areas, they have seen dramatic improvement in the last few years. Popular among artists for the low rent available in this district, Praga has become home to many studios and workshops for the new avant-garde. Cafes, pubs and clubs are popping up to cater to Warsaw's bohemian crowd. Saska Kepa is an upper-class haven running down to the riverbanks. Its narrow tree-lined streets are wonderful to walk through and admire the villas that were once home to Tsarist ministers. Now these structures instead belong to private owner, embassies and international schools.
Ursynow is another area that has gained a degree of infamy. A massive and sprawling example of Socialist planning, it emerged as block after characterless block of gray, dull flats. However, this area too is changing with the times. New shops and services are opening up, cinemas and entertainment complexes have arrived, restaurants and community centers are active and busy, and there are plenty new schools. This once depressingly gray and dull area is finally coming to life, and its future looks bright, especially since the metro cuts right through it.
Running alongside Ursynow, beside the river, is Wilanow. Most visitors to Warsaw will want to come out here to visit the renowned Royal Palace , built in the style of Versailles. The area around Wilanow is picturesque, especially the roads that lead down to the Vistula.
In a sense you really have to be a local to appreciate the subtleties that distinguish many of Warsaw's districts. With time, they are slowly taking on new character. However, Warsaw's original districts were a casualty of the Second World War. As the city continues the rapid development that began soon after the fall of communism and was accelerated by Poland's joining the European Union, its districts are coming back to life with a vitality that is evident to any visitor. Being able to witness the transformation is part of what makes Warsaw such an interesting place.
Warsaw has a very dynamic and fast-paced restaurant scene. New places seem to open weekly and the choice is considerable. Some of its restaurants have become well known abroad as well.
However, there was a time when a typical Warsaw waiter would tell you that none of the items on the menu were actually available! Another option was a Socialist-era "milk bar" where you were served cafeteria-style, sharing your table with a stranger. Fortunately, those days are long gone. Warsaw now boasts restaurants that make it into European top ten lists—and competition is fierce.
Everything from Chinese to Mexican, Italian to vegetarian is on offer. There are a lot of deluxe establishments, fast food places on almost every corner, as well as street stalls offering hot dogs, Vietnamese noodles and falafel.
Those seeking chic and trendy eateries will find that these are a Warsaw specialty. Restaurants are the place to be seen. One of the most stylish and hip places is 99 , which is a world-class restaurant. In the same category is the recently opened Boathouse . Similarly trendy bars are Zanzi Bar and Rabarbar . These all offer sophistication and exclusivity.
One of Warsaw's specialities is its Italian restaurants. The presence of a large Italian business community means that quality and standards are high. Some of the best Italian cuisine in the region is cooked up here. Venezia is locally famous and Balgera, a relative newcomer, offers exquisite northern Italian dishes. Chianti is one of the most romantic restaurants, while Roma Cafe is intimate and charming. Verona offers style and good food and Vera Italia attracts lots of Italians. Parmizzanos in the Marriott Hotel uses only the finest ingredients while San Marzano provides fast service and creative dishes.
If you're after a fun and festive atmosphere, Warsaw has that as well. Blue Cactus has established itself as one of the city's favorite get-together locations. Santorini , with its wonderful Greek decor is also lively. El Popo is close to several trendy bars and feels alive on any night of the week. Grand Kredens —decorated in an artistically put together mixture of styles—is also a great choice for a group. Bars with a similar atmosphere are Lolek , Klub Harenda and Lokomotywa .
If you like Asian food, Warsaw has a lot to offer. The Japanese restaurants are all excellent: Tsubame has style and great sake, Tokio is popular and flies in fresh seafood weekly, while Akasaka has tasty tempura and noodles. Dong Nam is a huge restaurant that offers several different Asian cuisines. Pekin is small and the food is great, while the Oriental (at the Sheraton Hotel ) is a popular business choice. Fans of Indian food will want to visit Club Tandoor , which has a dedicated following.
The Lebanese restaurant Le Cedre is one of the more interesting and delightful restaurants in the city. Vegetarians will love Nove Miasto - one of the most elegant and classy vegetarian restaurants in the world. Cafe Ejlat offers Jewish fare, while Varna has Bulgarian cuisine covered, along with some of the best wine bargains in town.
But what about Polish food? Of course Warsaw has that! Fukier , in the Old Town is a must for anyone who wants to experience traditional Polish cuisine. Also famous are Bazyliszek , Gessler and one of the most appreciated of them all, Restauracja Polska . Less expensive is Klub Aktora , a local favorite, along with Literacka and Kmicic .
In a league of its own is Belvedere , located in Lazienki Park . This is the destination of choice for presidents and the rich and famous - it's well worth a visit. Also unique is the Chef's Table , a private dining experience in the kitchen of the Sheraton Hotel.
If you're heading for the National Theatre , opera or visiting a gallery, La Boheme would be a fabulous choice. It mixes class and elegance with great cuisine. Also popular is Qchnia Artystyczna , one of Warsaw's true bohemian locales.
After your meal, you may want to visit the Column Bar in the Le Royal Meridien Bristol if you are looking for refinement and elegance. For an ongoing party try the Irish Pub or Morgan's . The Panorama Bar at the Marriott Hotel has the best views of the city. Prohibicja is fun and trendy, while the John Bull Pub is quiet but popular.
Warsaw also has some very special cafes. First among these is Blikle , one of the capitals most loved establishments. The Nowy Swiat Cafe is a beautiful Viennese-style establishment. Cafe Brama is hip, with excellent food and Cafe Europa is a pleasant place to stop for a break in the Old Town . The Cafe Bristol is wonderful. Still more fun are Miedzy Nami and the trendy Modulor Cafe. Local celebrity Stash Pruszynski has done extremely well with his recently opened Radio Cafe .
Whatever you're looking for, Warsaw probably has it. And if it's not there this week, it may well be there next! It's worth keeping your ear to the ground as new places are opening up all the time. Do make a reservation, as many places are almost always packed.
Warsaw now has some of the most contemporary and exciting restaurants in Europe. The places that you visit may well be famous in a month or two. It's a real thrill dining out in such a fast-paced and competitive restaurant environment. Bon Appetit!