A £53 holiday to Warsaw
With my friend, Andrew, I set off to Warsaw again on Friday 26 February, enjoying three days and two nights in what has fast become my favourite European city. For good food, great value for money, some culture and a lot of history, Warsaw is a must-see city. Unfortunately, it’s a slightly misunderstood city and the rest of the world appears oblivious to all that it has to offer.
Whilst patiently stood in line at the airport on Friday, I was jokingly asked by another passenger, “why would you want to go to Warsaw?” as if to imply that’s it’s not somewhere worth seeing. Telling him I was visiting for the third time in six months quickly sent him on his way – no doubt to one of the ghastly Costa del resorts of Spain.
Since visiting Warsaw for the first time in August 2015, I have become fascinated by its history and my bookshelf has rapidly filled up with books about the Holocaust, the Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz. After reading one, I look forward to returning to Warsaw to see something that I have read about – whether it’s looking for what remains of a ghetto wall, identifying one out of 250,000 graves in a Jewish cemetery or seeing a church that appeared in a war film.
Rather brilliantly, this trip only cost £53 each, and that included a direct flight from London (well, Luton) to Warsaw and a two night stay at the very centrally located Novotel Warszawa Centrum. Being so cheap, a low cost flight was to be expected and we found ourselves flying with Eastern Europe’s Wizzair. Just like other low cost airlines, their cheapest fare gets you a seat and nothing more. The airline charges for absolutely everything else – a flight booking confirmation text message (€1.30), baggage (various prices, which fluctuate according to the time of year – including a charge for a large item of hand luggage and a charge for checked baggage), an on-time arrival guarantee (€20.00), priority boarding (€4.00) etc. You name it and Wizzair has a price for it.
Apart from raising some concerns about the aggressive attitude of one particular stewardess, the flight was uneventful. Without a screen above our heads, we had no idea of our whereabouts, and the flight crew offered no assistance – as there wasn’t a single word from them for the whole flight. The stewardesses 0ffered a selection of snacks for purchase at the usually high ‘low cost’ prices.
We took a taxi from the Warsaw Chopin airport to our hotel and it took around 20 minutes, costing just 33zł (a little under £6.00). The staff there quickly checked us into a twin bedroom on the 10th floor, which overlooked the Palace of Culture and Science.
The Novotel was said to be a four star and although it was all rather nice, with a very trendy lobby area, the room was a little dreary. Plain white linen on the beds, a single picture on the wall, a locked mini-bar and tea and coffee facilities requiring us to drink out of flimsy paper cups. Okay, so it was cheap, but I would have been disappointed if I had paid a four star price and in return expected four star standards. The hotel location, however, was spot on. The Novotel was very centrally located with very easy access to the central train station (3-4 minutes on foot) and with no end of quality shops and restaurants on its doorstep.
After dropping our bags in the room, we went in search of the only remaining part of the Warsaw ghetto wall. Google Maps showed us its approximate location and we set off during a short spell of heavy snow. By chance, we glanced into a car park and there it was. It was disappointing that something of such historical significance was acting as a boundary between an office block and a residential area. It was in a poor state of repair with some of the bricks crumbling and glass panels above it (presumably to prevent weathering) appearing vandalised.
We continued our tour of Warsaw on foot. Despite being Poland’s capital city, the main sights are easily reachable on foot, although public transport in the form of buses, trams, trains and the metro (underground) can be picked up easily and cheaply. Whilst there are a handful of hop-on-hop-off bus tours in Warsaw, they aren’t brilliantly cheap, there are few services during the winter months and they cover a very small area. For anybody considering using the service, instead put your money towards a good city map, put on some comfortable shoes and enjoy the walk! On our three day trip, we walked in excess of 20 miles and only once caught a tram – after getting distracted in the Jewish cemetery and letting time get away from us!
The Palace of Culture and Science (Pałac Kultury i Nauki) has to be one of the most recognisable and most photographed buildings in the city. With plenty of Polski Fiats and Ladas parked around it, there are lots of great photo opportunities here. Of a night-time too, the building looks rather special with coloured lights illuminating it.
Shopping in Warsaw is very good and there’s no end of very familiar shops along Marszałkowska Street including Marks & Spencer, C&A, TK Maxx and H&M, in addition to many more at Złote Tarasy, which can be found next to the central train station. Whilst I didn’t do very much shopping on this visit, I did make a couple of purchases in TK Maxx back in December and found the prices to be around 10-15% cheaper than at home.
My favourite Warsaw restaurant is C.K. Oberża, which can be found on Chmielna – just seconds away from the Marszałkowska Street shops. Whilst the food here isn’t the cheapest in Warsaw, it is (in my opinion) amongst the best and that’s why I have visited on each of my three visits to the city. In the summer months, the restaurant installs a decked area allowing al fresco dining. The food here is very meaty (vegetarians steer clear!) and very stodgy. Portions too are extremely generous here and prove a test for those with the biggest of appetites. Expect to pay around £6-7 per head for a meal with soft drinks and beers charged at £1-2 per serving. The restaurant also applies an optional 10% service charge.
Sticking with the food theme, Warsaw offers no end of high end patisserie shops serving up a vast selection of sugary treats without breaking the bank. Although I have visited a few, my favourite place to pick up a sweet treat in Warsaw is Cukiernia Pawłowicz – also to be found on Chmielna. This takeaway cake counter offers a huge array of doughnuts for around 70p, each with a different filling. Just look for the yellow sign and the occasionally long queue outside!
One thing that I found a little unusual on the trip was that Christmas lights remained in the Old Town and many restaurants still had their Christmas trees outside. With a handful of ice rinks dotted around the city and plenty of wooden huts selling crafts, snacks and drinks, the city still had a very festive feel about it. And with a temperatures not hitting more than 5 degrees by day, it definitely felt Christmassy!
Down at Castle Square, we climbed to the top of the Taras widokowy – an observation deck offering great views over the Old Town, and, on clearer days, further afield as well. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t the best for us and low cloud and haze prevented us from seeing as far as we wanted to. Still, at around £1 for a ticket to the top, it was a worthwhile experience.
Continuing the history tour, we headed to Próżna Street, which contains some of the last remaining ghetto houses. Unfortunately for us, the one remaining building was covered from the first floor all the way to the top whilst undergoing some renovation works. The building opposite, which once looked identical, has been radically transformed and all traces of its former glory have gone.
On the day that we left to come home, we visited the Jewish Cemetery (or Cmentarz Żydowski). I have visited before and was overwhelmed by the size of this resting place. With as many as 250,000 people buried here, you can begin to appreciate its size! The cemetery dates back to the early 1800s and is still in use today and there were no shortage of new arrivals there since my last visit a couple of months ago.
The older graves sit towards the back of this enormous site in what is now a huge wooded area. Hundreds of trees have grown throughout the site – sometimes right through the quite extravagant memorials and sometimes lifting headstones out of the ground.
As you enter the cemetery, there is an information board giving details of the better known Jewish people laid to rest here. Unfortunately, limited signage meant that I was unable to locate Adam Czerniaków.
From our hotel, we walked to to to the cemetery, which was a little over 2.5 miles. Little did we realise but there was a direct tram from the Novotel right to the entrance of cemetery. Look out for the number 22 tram and hop off at the stop which shares its name with the cemetery. You will know that you have arrived when you see a brick wall that appears to run for miles and a large metal gate. You can enter through this gate.
We were a little confused about the trams and weren’t sure how we purchased tickets for them. On the newer trams, there are ticket machines on board, from which you can buy a ticket. Alternatively, look out for ticket machines across the city or purchase from any shop displaying a yellow and green RUCH symbol. There are plenty of Carrefour Express shops across the city and any of these will sell you a ticket. Just be sure to validate it in the machine as soon as you board the tram!
We returned to the airport by direct train from the central train station (around £1.15 one way and taking 25 minutes). This took us right into the basement of the airport. From here, we jumped aboard another Wizzair flight and set off for
Another great time was had in Warsaw. I can’t wait to go back again!