Warsaw’s Back. No, Seriously.

“How much,” I asked my travel agent in December 1990, “is a ticket to Warsaw””

She looked at me with an expectant grin and said, “I don’t know… . How much””

Back then, directly after the fall of the Soviet hold on Eastern Europe, traveling to Warsaw for pleasure was deemed as sensible as a current ski holiday in Sarajevo. But in the 2 1/2 years since, Warsaw and Poland have transformed to such an extent as to render them unrecognizable to returning visitors.

The bleak state-run shops half-filled with poor-quality foods have been replaced with sleek specialty shops offering inexpensive and high-quality products from Europe, Asia and America. The department stores, formerly unfilled with what P.J. O’Rourke once generously described as “Ken and Barbie clothes blown up to life size,” are now packed with the latest in European and, yes, Polish, fashions.

The buildings themselves are in the process of being cleaned and restored, bringing an instantly recognizable contrast to the dark, gray and dingy image that the name “Warsaw” conjured in post-war imaginations. And while Warsaw has not been known for its fine cuisine for decades, a proliferation of restaurants and cafes prompted even the normally reticent New York Times to run a recent article titled, “Dining Well In Warsaw … Yes, Warsaw.”

While it has improved to the point of being a viable and enjoyable tourist destination, it would be irresponsible to portray Warsaw as a beautiful city. True, the Stare Miasto, or Old City, was painstakingly and beautifully restored after World War II, but for the most part, Warsaw was reconstructed to the Soviet specifications that some would argue realized Hitler’s dream of forever eradicating the city from the face of the Earth.

Biting the Bullet
But walking through the Old Town, and witnessing the care and love that went into its precise reconstruction (teams working round the clock using original blueprints and even old paintings to match every detail as closely as possible), one can grasp a sense of the pride and love for a city that played such a crucial role in the Poles’ decision to “bite the bullet,” taking reforms in one fell swoop as opposed to the gradual measures employed in the rest of Eastern Europe and now in Russia.

It was as if no hardship could stop the Poles from reclaiming their city, even if half of it was not as they would have envisioned it. Once this is understood and felt, the visitor can see Warsaw as the sum of its parts and truly appreciate what the city has to offer.

Transformation
Today’s Warsaw is an exciting, vibrant city offering both cultural attractions and the draw created by its very transformation. And while some aspects of life here can still leave a Western visitor shaking his or her head and saying, “How can that BE”” these occasions are becoming rarer every day.

Service levels in hotels, restaurants, museums and shops are now essentially equal to those in their Western counterparts, and the currency is stable to the point that one will not be inconvenienced at all by the law requiring all transactions in Poland to be carried out in the zloty (while the country’s currency reform, which will slash four zeroes from the currency to put it on a parallel with the current deutsche mark’s value, has not yet occurred, the exchange rate hovers at a predictable level in the area of 16,000 zloty to the U.S. dollar).

Getting There
Warsaw’s brand-new and exceptionally sensible airport is served by almost every major carrier in the world, as well as by LOT, the state-run airline. LOT has now completely refurbished its transatlantic (and a good deal of its European) fleet with Boeing 767s, and in-flight service is quite good. Visas are no longer required for Americans (or almost anyone else, for that matter), so customs is no longer a lengthy procedure.

When getting from the airport to the city center, there are three options: Limousines can be booked inside the airport terminal at LOT Air Tours for about $50 U.S., taxis wait outside the terminal building in a line (average price from the airport to the city center is $15 U.S.) and for the more frugal traveler, a very reliable city bus makes the trip to the center every 15 minutes.

You must buy a ticket (billet) for each passenger and for extra baggage as well. They are available from the newsstand in the arrival terminal, and currently cost about 50 cents U.S. Walk outside the terminal, one lane past the taxi stand, and wait for bus 175. You must validate your ticket by placing it in the small, silver ticket punchers on the walls of the bus (Punch both ends). It’s basically the honor system, but plainclothes police officers regularly ask to see your ticket, and can impose an on-the-spot fine should you not have one.

Within the city an excellent public transportation network of trains and taxis makes car rental almost unnecessary. Bus maps are available at hotels and service is frequent and inexpensive. Taxis can be tricky, as most drivers don’t speak English and have been known to take advantage of a foreigner. Each of the luxury hotels has taxis with English-speaking drivers, but you will pay about double for the service.

If you know some Polish, or if you have your destination written down, getting a city taxi is very simple. All taxis are metered, but because of the collapse of the zloty, the number on the meter must be multiplied (currently by 600 times). Look for a sign on the dashboard indicating the multiplier to calculate your fare.

Where to Stay
Unlike many of its Eastern European counterparts, Warsaw is packed with hotel space, ranging from the downright cheap ($21 for a three-person room without bath in Hotel Harenda) to the spartan yet comfortable midrange ($50 for a double with bath and breakfast at the Hotels Warszawa, Metropol and Saski), to the frighteningly expensive (more than $1,000 for the Marriott’s Presidential Suite). The city’s luxury hotels, the Marriott, the Holiday Inn, the Victoria and the new Bristol, Sobieski and Mercure, offer Western service and appointments as well as fine restaurants, and all are equipped with satellite television and telephone. The Marriott and Victoria have been the hotels of choice for visiting businessmen for the last several years, but the Sobieski offers slightly lower prices and very comfortable rooms (double including breakfast, $226 per night). Reservations for these hotels can be made with the hotels directly or at U.S. offices of Orbis, the Polish State Travel Service.

Tourist Information
There are now two reliable English-language sources of tourist information and local news: The Warsaw Voice, a well-written weekly newspaper, and Warsaw What, Where When, a monthly tourist information magazine packed with practical information. Both are available in all hotels, and some restaurants catering to international clientele.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, and many organizations are offering tours of the Warsaw Ghetto; check with Orbis, LOT Air Tours or hotel concierges to find out exactly what’s on during your stay.

Warsaw’s main tourist attraction is the Stare Miasto, easily reachable by taking bus 175 to the end of Krakowski Przedmiescie. Maps of the city and the Stare Miasto are available in every hotel, and a full-color version is published every month in the centerfold of Warsaw What, Where When. The center of the Stare Miasto, the Old Town Market (Rynek Starego Miasta), is breathtakingly beautiful, and during the summer months the restaurants that line the streets spread out huge sidewalk cafes offering Polish specialties, good coffee and drinks.

Within very short walking distance of the Old Town Market square are castles, cathedrals, a synagogue and the Swientajanska Cathedral, which was spectacularly restored and houses catacombs that contain the remains of Polish royalty.

Walking from the Stare Miasto toward the city will take you down Warsaw’s most beautiful street, ulitsa Nowy Swiat, or “New World” street. This is a grand, gently curving boulevard that also has been restored to its pre-war splendor and is lined with fashionable shops, boutiques, restaurants and cafes.

Shopping
Right in the center of the city, near the widely despised Palace of Science and Culture (a “gift” from the people of the Soviet Union), is a huge market packed with kiosks, selling everything imaginable from clothes to appliances to bootleg cassette tapes of Western music. Off to the side of this market is an amusement park with kiddie rides and two giant bunkers that look like tennis courts, which house a Western supermarket and more kiosks.

If you’d like to buy some Russian souvenirs, be they military paraphernalia or Soviet-made appliances, head out to Ten Year Stadium in Praga (on the other side of the Vistula river from the center of the city), where tens of thousands of Russians gather in a makeshift market to peddle everything they own. It’s an amazing sight, and a visit will offer an insight as to just how desperate the situation in Russia currently is. In all major shopping markets guard your wallet: Pickpockets are everywhere.

The city’s major department stores are located right near the center on Ulitsa Marszalkowska, and all are well stocked with Western and high-quality Polish goods.

Warsaw as a Travel Center
Warsaw’s location at the border of Eastern and Western Europe makes it an ideal travel base for jaunts into Europe, Eastern Europe or Russia. Air fares from Warsaw to the rest of Europe are very reasonable, and there is daily service to all European capitals and many European and Eastern European cities. In addition, Warsaw offers a major rail link to Eastern and Western Europe, with daily train service to many capitals. The daily overnight rail service to the Czech Republic, Vienna and Budapest is charming and enjoyable, on clean, well-appointed trains. It is worth getting a first-class compartment, which comes complete with a sink and closet. Currently, an overnight ticket from Warsaw to Prague costs about $50 U.S.

Air tickets can be purchased at one of the city’s new privately owned travel agents, through LOT at the Marriott Hotel, or though offices of Orbis. Train tickets can be purchased at POL-RES on Jerzolimskie Avenue 44 (near the Marriott) or at the Warsaw Central Train Station, directly across the street from both the Marriott and Holiday Inn hotels. If you go to the train station, walk upstairs opposite the main ticket counters (you’ll see the crowds) and look for a sign saying Medzonarodowicz Billety. If you get hungry while buying your ticket, there’s a Chinese restaurant right next to the ticket counter.

Warsaw has indeed come a long way in the last three years; it is, despite its economic and political problems, a genuine success story in the transformation from a Communist to a free-market society. And the change in the people themselves is readily apparent to anyone who visited two years ago.

Shops and restaurants now welcome potential customers with a cheery “dzien dobry,” or “good day,” as opposed to the stone-faced looks one used to receive. When shopkeepers don’t have a particular item, they no longer say “nie ma,” or “there isn’t any,” before looking away and dismissing a customer, but now say, “I’m terribly sorry, but I don’t have it now.”

And Warsaw residents, always thoroughly proud of their city and their culture, seem visibly happier, now that they are once again able to show their city in all its wonderful, albeit somewhat scoffed, glory.