Warsaw Rising

You deserve a holiday, but we're guessing money's tight. With that in mind we stuck our Staff Writer on the cheapest flight we could find to see the sights, check out the culture and meet the people without spending all our cash...

Feature by Bram E. Gieben | 03 Sep 2013

Stepping off a £40 Ryanair flight into Warsaw's sweltering 40-degree heat, the horizon is dominated by glass skyscrapers – an ultra-modern cityscape, very different to the ubiquitous tourist shots taken in the Old Town (Stare Miasto). The Skinny's cab driver assures us this is the hottest summer since World War Two, establishing something of a theme for the break.

After checking in at our absurdly cheap hostel, we head out to Stare Miasto, all sun-bleached walls in pastel colours, slate roofs and church spires. Tourists applaud a newly-married couple walking the cobbled square, and local film-makers re-enact a scene from the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, running out of a building in period costume. If Stare Miasto resembles a film set, perhaps that's because of the history – established in the 13th century but razed and destroyed by the Nazis, Stare Miasto was faithfully rebuilt with its original stones, but it's a little too perfect.

The Palace of Culture and Science dominates Marszałkowska and the surrounding skyline. The 231-metre high tower contains two theatres, restaurants, a nightclub, multiplex cinema, two museums, and countless offices and conference rooms. The view of Warsaw from the 11th floor terrace is breathtaking, and a trip up will only set you back 18 zloty (about £3).

We head to Łazienki Park, a 76-hectare stretch of shaded walks, lush grass, former royal palaces and architectural extravagances. It's a beautiful place to spend a few hours, and the perfect place to go when you’re in a new town and don’t want to blow the budget. At Rozdroże, we try our first Polish cuisine. Red borscht – a spiced beetroot soup with meat pierogi, or dumplings – is absolutely delicious, while jadło drwala, a potato pancake filled with spicy ghoulash stew and topped with sour cream, is ridiculously filling, but probably better suited to a cold winter day than a 40-degree scorcher.

Keen to try something beyond the ubiquitous Zywiec (Poland's answer to Tennents) we go in search of beer with the help of some enthusiastic locals. Marcin, Asha, Boris, Marek and Bartos take us first to Beirut on Poznańska for delicious middle-Eastern tapas and drink Noteckie, an independently-brewed pale ale with some flowery notes. Opposite Beirut is Tel-Aviv, another restaurant – Boris says the the pair's close proximity tells us a bit about the Warszawa sense of humour. Then it's on to Koszynska, a former covered market converted into a bar. It's packed with a hip, young crowd; everyone seems to know each other.

The story's the same at Plan B, on Rondo Romana Dmowskiego, known locally as 'hipster square.' Drinkers lounge on the grass outside. A DJ spins hip-hop in the narrow bar, staffed by tattooed waitresses, the walls covered in graffiti and paste-ups. “I come here at 2 in the morning when I really need a beer after work,” says Marcin. “There's always someone to say hello to.”

Next morning, breakfast is at a boho, out-of-the way café, Posłaniec Uczuć, on Glogera Street. It's hard to find, but well worth it, with a great all-you-can-eat breakfast on Sundays for just 20 zloty (about £5). Equally tasty fare is available across town at Kawiarnia Fawory on Mickiewicza Street – paintings adorn the walls, and by night they put on bespoke gigs and serve Polish craft beer, like the delicious, dark-hued Juraskje, and wickedly strong imperial ale Pinta Imperium Atakuje. At just 10 zloty (about £2.50) a bottle, it's no more pricy than bog-standard cooking lagers like Tyskie. Then we move on to Bufet Centralny for modern twists on classic Polish fare, yet more beer, and vodka shots laced with lemon juice and sugar.

Appetite sated, it's time to tackle the city's often tragic history. The monument to the Warsaw Uprising, with its blocky, brutalist style, is incredibly kinetic – young soldiers burst from brick walls clutching machine guns and bombs, while in the foreground, priests mumble and pray. Across the city at the Uprising Museum (free entry on Sundays), we explore a three-floor examination of this complex and vitally important moment in Polish history, which saw the Warsaw people take on the better-armed, better-equipped Nazi occupiers.

It is a story of a fiercely proud, indomitable people, utterly essential to understanding modern-day Warsaw. As we watch a 3D-reconstruction of a flight over the bombed out city of 1944, the skyscrapers begin to make sense – this is a place whose destruction was almost total, and whose reconstruction was hard-won.

Later, as we sneak through narrow alleyways off upmarket Nowy Swiat, we enter a venal system of nameless bars with dim lights, graffiti-covered walls and a young, trendy crowd. Scratch beneath the surface, and you’ll see that Warsaw is a great place for a student holiday. It’s as exciting and cosmopolitan as Berlin or Amsterdam, it’s a city on the rise that’s strongly connected to its history, and appropriately for you students, it’s got its gaze fixed firmly on the future.

Flights found on skyscanner.net Hostels from £5 a nigh for a dorm bed on booking.com Best beer: 10 zloty (£2), Pinta Imperium Atakuje
Reading matter: China Miéville - The City & The City