Warsaw can sometimes feel a bit of an inferiority complex about Poland’s second city, Krakow. Everyone’s always talking about how beautiful Krakow is, and sometimes Warsaw can feel left out. But Warsaw is just as cute as Krakow. Warsaw is just as smart as Krakow. And if you spend 24 hours in Warsaw, I guarantee you will totally like Warsaw just as much as you like Krakow. Let me prove it to you!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in Warsaw.
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24 Hours in Warsaw
Where to Stay
Warsaw is a fairly spread-out city with many different neighborhoods. It can take longer to get from place to place than in smaller Eastern European cities like Tallinn or Krakow. So I suggest picking a hotel with a central location. The tongue-twistingly named Mish Mash Nowogrodska couldn’t have been better situated. The private room was very affordable, and it was easy to get from the hotel to anywhere I wanted to go!
24 Hours in Warsaw
Morning: Warsaw From Above Tour
So Warsaw might not be as quaint and historic as some other cities that rhyme with Grakow. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have an amazing time exploring the city’s charms during your 24 hours in Warsaw.
When I arrive in a city, the first thing I like to do is take a walking tour with a local. As a solo traveler, it’s a fun way to socialize, especially when I spend weeks on the road at a time. But it’s also a good way to learn the hidden mysteries of a city. Urban Adventures is one of my favorite tour companies because they always have small groups, and the guides are local.
And if you want a different way to see Warsaw, try the Warsaw From Above tour! It will show you the finest views in the city! Just keep in mind that the tour only runs in the warmer months, so if you spend 24 hours in Warsaw in the winter, you’ll have to visit these places on your own. And without further delay…
approximately top 5: 24 hours in warsaw
1) palace of culture and science
Even though this tour is called Warsaw From Above, it’s not all views and tall buildings. There will be plenty of fun facts about Poland’s capital. (And not so fun facts because Polish history isn’t always a barrel of laughs.) But our first stop on the tour is the Palace of Culture and Science.
This building used to be called Josef Stalin’s Palace of Culture and Science because it was a “gift” from Stalin to the city of Warsaw. Poland was not part of the USSR, but it was a Communist country, so it was an ally of the Soviet Union. Anyway Stalin offered the city a choice between a building and a subway system. They chose the subway, but they got the building instead. Typical Stalin! Always giving people presents they didn’t ask for and brutally murdering political dissidents!
My guide, whom I shall call Justyna, said that some locals didn’t like the Palace of Culture because of reminder of Communist times, but now people are used to it. And as you can see, when you get to the top of the building, you have wonderful views of Warsaw. (As you cannot see from my photo, there’s also a Dollhouse Museum inside.)
Justyna said that Warsaw has changed a lot since the communist days. For example, more modern buildings are being constructed. But these buildings are sometimes controversial. When the Intercontinental Hotel was built, the neighbors objected that it would block the sunlight and disturb the local birds. So they built the hotel in a strange shape so the sunlight and birds could get through. And then the capitalists and the birds all held hands and sang Kumbaya!
2) statues of warsaw
I am always a sucker for a statue with a good story. The statue of Karl Malden in Belgrade, Serbia, the statue of Don Knotts in Morgantown, West Virginia…I am here for them all! But this statue of Copernicus, the famous astronomer, is one of the very few statues I know that actually stood up to a Nazi.
During the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, the Germans tried to pretend that Copernicus was German and made a sign saying that he was German. The Poles did not take kindly to that because they knew that Copernicus was Polish. So a member of the Polish Resistance removed the plaque saying he was German. The Nazis retaliated by hiding a statue of a Polish hero named Jan Kiliński, but the Resistance found that statue too and put up a sign saying where he was.
I wonder if at this point the Nazis realized that the Polish Resistance was making them look foolish. Probably not. I don’t think Nazis have a lot of self awareness.
Of course you can’t spend 24 hours in Warsaw without getting to know the Warsaw mermaid. She is the symbol of the city! Some local legends say that she was the wife of a fisherman named Wars. He fell in love with this mermaid, which is an occupational hazard of being a fisherman. Her name was Sawa, so if you smush their names together, you get Warsaw.
I’m sure someone out there is getting ready to type me an angry email that this isn’t actually the way Warsaw got its name. Suck it, Internet Pedant! I know mermaids probably aren’t really, but the story is very cute, which is more than I can say for you!
3) pilsudski square
Pilsudski Square is not terribly beautiful, but it is one of the most important squares in the city. And the reason it is not very beautiful is the same reason all of Warsaw is not as beautiful as it once was: the Nazis. The Saski Palace used to be here, but it was destroyed during World War II.
Now Pilsudski Square is home to many monuments. There is the cross above, which commemorates when John Paul II, the Polish pope, spoke here in the 1970s. Back then Poland was supposed to be a Communist/atheist country, so it was a big deal for the Pope to speak here. There’s also a WWI-era Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. (You can find similar monuments in many European cities.)
A more recent monument is dedicated to the Smolensk Air Disaster of 2010. In this plane crash, the President of Poland, his wife, and almost 100 other people were killed. Justyna said this plane crash is still a controversial event in Polish politics because of various theories about why the plane crash happened. I can’t even imagine how many conspiracy theories we’d have in the United States if our president was killed in a plane crash on his way to Russia. That seems like the sort of event that would cause people’s imaginations to run wild.
4) breakfast polish style!
I’m kidding a little bit. I’m not 100 percent convinced that every Pole drinks vodka and eats raw meat for breakfast, although no judgement if they do. This was meant to be more of a little snack than a breakfast.
For those of you who have never eaten raw beef for fun before, it is more commonly known as steak tartare. I absolutely love it because if you have a good quality piece of beef, there’s no need to cook it. Just like an excellent piece of tuna, it will taste better raw!
But that’s no reason to not add a little flavor. It’s best if you serve it with chopped up pickles and onions on the side. And of course you need to put a raw egg on top of the raw beef, just in case you weren’t already risking food poisoning. Now dig in and prepare to feel just like Genghis Khan leading a horde of warriors across the plains of Mongolia!
5) holy cross church
You can’t spend 24 hours in Warsaw without encountering one of the city’s most famous sons, musician Frederic Chopin. (We’ll get to know him a lot better later in this itinerary.) Chopin was buried in Paris, but he insisted that his heart remained in Poland. So he figured out a way for his heart to literally remain in Poland.
After Chopin died, his instructions were that his heart be removed from his body and sent to Warsaw. His sister made sure his instructions were followed, and now Chopin’s heart is in its final resting place in the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw.
Of course because this is Warsaw, the Nazis have to make a terrible appearance again. They actually removed Chopin’s heart during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. And as if that weren’t enough, they made the playing of Chopin’s music illegal. That just shows how weak and pathetic the Nazis were that they were scared of a dead composer.
6) st anne’s church bell tower
We enjoyed our view from Stalin’s Wedding Cake earlier, but the surrounding area is not as beautiful as Warsaw’s Old Town. Fortunately you can get great views of Warsaw’s Old Town from the St. Anne’s Church Bell Tower. These buildings are not original because Warsaw was bombed to the ground by the Nazis towards the end of World War II.
Warsaw wasn’t destroyed by accident. The Nazis deliberately leveled the city out of revenge against the Polish Underground resistance movement for the Warsaw Uprising. In 1944, the Polish partisans attempted to take the city back from the German occupation. They were ultimately unsuccessful, and the partisans tried to hide for sanctuary in the Cathedral. But the Nazis just blew up the Cathedral as well as the rest of the city.
After World War II, the citizens of Warsaw rebuilt the Old Town just as it was before. They did such a good job that the Historic Center of Warsaw is a UNESCO Heritage site simply for being such a good example of historic reconstruction. The moral of this story is that Nazis never win.
24 Hours in Warsaw
Afternoon: Chopin Museum
All right, you met the man’s heart, now it’s time to meet the man himself. We’ll continue our 24 hours in Warsaw by heading indoors to the Chopin Museum. Unlike most museums, there’s a musical component because you can hear Chopin’s tunes, both famous and un, floating all around the museum. So even Museum Haters might enjoy the Chopin Museum more than others. And no trip to a museum is complete without…
three fun facts: chopin museum
1) how polish is chopin?
So being banned by the Nazis for being Too Polish isn’t Polish enough for you? I know Frederic Chopin’s name sounds very French, but that’s only because he had a French father. Chopin had a Polish mother, and he was born just outside the city of Warsaw. But the Chopins moved to Warsaw when Little Chopin was just a baby. So that makes him a Warsaw native in pretty much anyone’s book. You can see a little replica of the Chopin parlor above if you want to see what genteel poverty looked like in 19th century Warsaw.
Both of Chopin’s parents were musicians, but Chopin was clearly leagues ahead of them from an early age. He was a child prodigy who was composing music at an age when some kids are still learning to read. He was also an ardent supporter of Polish nationalism, and at the time Poland was not an independent country. It had been partitioned into three parts: one under Austria, one under Prussia, and one under Russia. Warsaw was in the part that had been taken over by Russia.
In 1830, there was a famous Uprising in Warsaw against the Russian occupation. Like pretty much every other uprising in Warsaw that I read about, it was noble and unsuccessful. So after 1830, Chopin spent pretty much all his time outside of Warsaw in Vienna and Paris. But as we have seen, his heart belonged to Warsaw.
2) what about the ladies?
Chopin, like most emo musicians, was pretty popular with the ladies. He was never short of lovers, female pupils, or female patrons of his music. But his most famous lover was a French writer named George Sand. (That was a pen name. Like George Eliot, George Sand was a lady. I’m telling you this in case you go on Jeopardy some day and there’s a category called “Ladies Named George”.)
If you are not familiar with George Sand, it will be a great pleasure to introduce you to this formidable woman. She wrote, she traveled, she took lots of lovers, and she even drew funny little cartoons like the one above of Chopin being emo and going up the stairs. Even though she and Chopin eventually split, he never forgot her. They say his last words were, “She promised me that I would die in her arms.” I just assume that will be the last thing that all of my ex-boyfriends will say about me when they die too.
3) how did chopin die?
No one is 100 percent sure. He suffered from health problems for much of his life, and he died quite young, before the age of 40. The doctors said that he died of tuberculosis, which is certainly a thing that plenty of people were dying of in the 1840s. But recently, they exhumed Chopin’s heart and learned that he might also have suffered from a heart condition that was exacerbated by tuberculosis.
I’d really like to know who volunteered for the job of examining Chopin’s 150 year old heart. Was that a highly coveted position, or did they have to draw straws?
Now any museum can be home to a 19th century celebrity’s death mask. But the Chopin Museum also has this creepy cast of his hand. I think someone should write a movie about the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, except Chopin’s ghost teams up with the partisans and using the death cast of his hand defeats all the Nazis. Make it happen, Quentin Tarantino!
24 Hours in Warsaw
Evening: Dinner at Platter
Ideally, I like to eat dinner at a variety of restaurants when I’m in a city. There should be a combination of street food, mid-range, and fine dining. That way I can truly experience the range of a city’s cuisine scene. Tonight we end our 24 hours in Warsaw with fine dining at Platter by Karol Okrasa. It is located in the InterContinental Hotel, aka the hotel that is friendly to sunshine and birds.
The tasting menu features upscale versions of Polish classics. Many tasting menus start with a raw fish appetizer. But how many of them feature cod in Polish beer?
Next we have scallops, which you can also see on many tasting menus. This was probably the least Polish dish on the menu because it was prepared with peanuts and maple syrup, neither of which I think of as being very Polish. But the sweetness of the maple syrup was a good match for the different sort of sweetness of the scallop.
Foie gras is another ingredient that shows up on a lot of tasting menus. After all, you want the people to feel that they’re getting their money’s worth! But the Polish twist here is that it’s served with a little Polish sweet cake. I’ve usually had foie gras served with sweet wine, but I never turn up my nose at either sweet wine or sweet cake.
24 hour treat
And now we’re getting even more glamorous with the world’s most upscale pierogi. Pierogi are yummy little Polish dumplings, and these were filled with meat. They were a lot lighter than the potato pierogi I had in Pittsburgh.
Next we have a Very Glamorous sour cabbage soup. I’m not sure what your average Polish peasant great-grandmother would make of this, but I ate every last bite.
At this point in the tasting menu, we usually get a fish main course, then a meat main course. The fish here is turbot with sweet pea, cauliflower, and tomato jam. Poland isn’t very famous for its seafood, but they do have local turbot from the Baltic Sea. Apparently turbot used to be The Fish to serve at fancy dinners back in the day. So maybe a wealthy older lady might have served this to Chopin if she was trying to get him to perform a private concert for her.
This tender piece of lamb was served with a beautiful sour cherry sauce. Sour cherries are one of those tastes I always associate with Eastern Europe. It takes a special kind of tough people to appreciate the taste of the sour cherry as much as the taste of the sweet cherry.
We end with a scrumptious chocolate cake served with buckwheat ice cream. I don’t need to tell you what the Polish twist is here, do I, Internet Stranger? Buckwheat is as Polish as Chopin and beautiful but doomed uprisings!
That’s a Perfect 24 Hours in Warsaw!
What would you do with 24 hours in Warsaw? Are you going to write me an angry letter to prove that mermaids aren’t real? And how big a hit would my Chopin’s Ghost Hand Beats the Nazis movie be? Please leave your thoughts below!