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When Americans think about traveling to Europe, they often focus on Western Europe. We’ve found that oftentimes traveling through Eastern Europe can be even more rewarding.
Fewer tourists and every bit as much history and grandeur make nations like Poland a perfect choice. Our first father-son trip overseas, and we opted to peruse Poland.
Poland, once considered one of the wealthiest and mightiest countries in the world, appealed to my teenage son and I as we thought about where we’d like to travel for a father-son adventure. And what better place to start than the nation’s capital?
The express shuttle from Chopin International Airport to Warsaw’s Old Town offered a good orientation as we made our way through the City Center, where we saw the tallest building in Poland—Stalin’s Palace of Culture and Science—and the famously out-of-place palm tree at the center of a circle, an art instillation by Joanna Rajkowska called “Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue” that’s been standing there since the early 2000s.
The palm tree stands in the shadow of the former Communist Party Headquarters and within view of the Charles de Gaulle monument. Indeed, many corners of Warsaw seem to be a contrast of old and new—looking to the future but not forgetting their past.
From the city center, our bus took us down the Royal Route—the path kings used to travel at least twice in a lifetime: during their coronation march and funeral march. The Royal Route is now lined with cafes, restaurants, shops, museums, churches, former royal residences, the presidential residence, and Warsaw University.
The walk from the Royal Route into Old Town was stunning. In Old Town’s Palace Square, we marveled at the massive Zygmunt’s Column, topped by a statue of King Zygmunt III Vasa wielding a cross and a sword. The oldest secular monument in Poland, it was erected in 1644.
Old Market Square in Warsaw
A couple of cobblestone side streets and beautiful cathedrals beyond, Old Market Square appeared like an oasis before us.
The square bustled with street café umbrellas, people eating pierogis and sausages and drinking beer and vodka beneath sun-blocking umbrellas, street artists selling paintings and sculptures, and people strolling in all directions.
The square was lined with beautifully colored buildings of yellow and orange, green and red, with sculptures decorating the corners and facades popping with lions and servants, ships and flowers.
While many of the multi-storied buildings were homes and rentals, most of the ground floors were stores and restaurants, cafes and vendors, antique shops and a post office.
We’d only been in our home square for minutes, and we’d already spotted the best place to buy ice cream, beer, and the bell string for conjuring an old woman from a hole in the wall who sold hot, freshly-baked breads and pastries. In one corner of the square, an accordion player performed; in another, a three-piece string ensemble.
“Wow,” Alex said, “look at her!” He pointed to the middle of the square.
At the center of Old Town Market Square stood Warsaw’s protector: the mermaid. She’s been present on Warsaw’s coat of arms since the 1300s. People swarmed around the Poland statue, this being the most popular representation of her.
“She’s really cool,” I said. There would be plenty of time to admire Warsaw’s mermaid during our stay. She was right on our apartment’s doorstep.
New and Newer Warsaw
Warsaw sometimes gets a bad rap for Soviet-era dreariness. And it’s true that a half hour’s walk from Old Town brings you to soviet-era apartment buildings, complete with the same types of playgrounds, kiosks, and trams that you’d find in Russia.
But along with the leftovers from the soviet occupation—massive buildings and dreary ones—exists the beautiful buildings of earlier, Polish influence: breathtaking cathedrals, museums, and palaces. It’s all interesting, but the Old Town and Royal Mile sights were our favorites.
Not that they’re really that old. About 85 percent of Warsaw’s Old Town buildings were destroyed during World War II. But they were rebuilt after the war in the same style, earning the UNESCO World Heritage “Reconstruction Masterpiece” designation.
Our rented flat was on the top floor of one of the buildings overlooking Old Town Square—the perfect location with the perfect view. From our loft, we could look down on the bustling crowds and outdoor café-dwellers in the square, the mermaid standing guard, her back to us.
Beyond the buildings and churches of Old Town, we could see the taller buildings of Warsaw’s City Center, including the tallest building in Poland: the massive Palace of Culture and Science—which is known as Stalin’s “gift” to the Polish people, to put it kindly.
The more impressive palace, to Alex and me, was the Royal Castle in Old Town, just across from Zygmunt’s Column and about a 5-minute stroll from our flat.
Originally built in 1596, the castle was rebuilt between 1971 and 1988, keeping to the original Baroque style. Inside, the royal apartments, marble room, and elaborate craftsmanship make it feel as though you’ve stepped back several centuries. In Poland, they do make them like they used to.
You Won’t Be the Only Visitors
Poland knows what it means to live under the influence of Russia, having once been under Stalin’s thumb. Perhaps that is why the Polish government and people have been so kind to refugees from Ukraine.
Since Russia’s attack on Ukraine, More than 1.3 million refugees have entered Poland, many of them with the intention of staying long-term. A quarter of a million of them landed in the Warsaw region. A million and a half Polish families have invited Ukrainian refugees into their homes.
In fact, a recent study found that about 77 percent of Polish people have been involved in one way or another in helping refugees from neighboring Ukraine.
Our visit was before any of these changes, but even as visitors we were often invited into restaurants with open arms and enthusiasm. No doubt this is part of the culture, and you can expect to be treated kindly.
If You Want to Live in Warsaw
For long stays of more than a few days, we’ve had great luck renting well-reviewed apartments using Airbnb. For short stays, TripAdvisor and Booking.com offer spectacular deals on hotels.
Whichever route or combination you choose, be sure to consider the reviews along with location and price. Paying a little more to be in the center of the places you want to visit ends up saving time and money.
We made our home in Aga’s Old Town Square flat with the best view. Not the Hilton, but a very comfortable apartment with two bedrooms, living room, kitchen, bathroom, and a view of the square from one side and a view of the river from the other.
Author’s Bio: Eric D. Goodman enjoys travel as much as he does writing. He’s author of Wrecks and Ruins, a novel set partially in Lithuania, The Color of Jadeite, a thriller set in China, Womb: a novel in utero, Tracks: A Novel in Stories, and Flightless Goose (2008). His travel stories and short fiction have been published far and wide. Eric lives with his wife and children in Maryland, where he curates the popular Lit & Art Reading Series. Learn more at www.EricDGoodman.com or connect at www.Facebook.com/EricDGoodman.