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For today’s Destination of the Week, TPG contributor Alex Schechter takes us to a land formerly hidden behind the Iron Curtain that has emerged in the 21st century as a gorgeous European destination well worth exploring thanks to its history, arts and architecture. We’re headed to Eastern Europe to visit one of the continent’s great capitals, Warsaw.
WHAT TO DO
You’ve probably been reading a lot about Warsaw recently thanks to international commentary surrounding the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, an important Holocaust event that saw resistance fighters take their first organized stand against the Nazis, back in April. To mark the occasion, the city is unveiled its Museum of the History of Polish Jews, a $70-million multimedia museum and cultural center built on the site where the actual uprising took place. The project was first announced in the late 1990s and is expected to attract 1 million visitors annually, so it’s sure to be a must-see stop on any itinerary here.
There are also plenty of other sights to see in Warsaw’s sprawling capital, and spring is a fine time to ride a bike along the banks of the Vistula River, stroll through the gardens at the Wilanów Palace, or hunt for antiques in Old Town.
Unlike Krakow, which usually gets touted as Poland’s hip, party town full of industrial-chic bars and trendy clothing stores, Warsaw offers a more dignified, highbrow experience—Fryderyk (also called Frederic) Chopin, one of Europe’s most famous composers, grew up here, and the city was beloved by the acclaimed Jewish-American author, Isaac Bashevis Singer.
A typical Warsaw itinerary usually starts in Castle Square, which marks the beginning of Old Town (a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1980). But before getting lost in the narrow cobble stone streets, or ducking into a restauracja for some pierogies, take five minutes to climb the bell tower at St. Anne’s Church. From here, the folks wandering around in the square below will appear as tiny dots and you’ll be able to gaze across to the other side of the Vistula.
Old Town offers a hundred little shops, boutiques, cafes, and, of course, old buildings to look at. Some favorite spots included Lapidarium, an antique shop jam-packed with old army memorabilia, clocks, books, vases, paintings, magic amulets and other odds and ends—you can find literally anything here as long as you have the patience to dig for it. Just across the street is Samy Fusy, an underground teahouse with brick vaulted ceilings and wooden tables fashioned out of tree trunks.
Finally, don’t leave Old Town without a quick visit to the Royal Castle, or Zamek Królewski in Polish. Though it was utterly destroyed during WWII, the main castle was rebuilt in the 1970s, offering a decent glimpse of how the original 14th-century structure might have appeared back in its heyday. Renovation work continues on the Kubicko Arcade and the Tin-Roofed Palace, though inside the castle’s ornate chambers and halls, you can browse permanent and temporary exhibitions, featuring two original Rembrandt paintings.
Of the three venues dedicated to Fryderyk Chopin, the most comprehensive is the Fryderyk Chopin Museum, housed in the former Ostrogski Palace, which contains over 5,000 objects and Chopin memorabilia, like autographed manuscripts, letters, antique pianos, and interactive audio-video features. Frequent concerts and recitals are staged year-round in the museum’s concert hall.
Towering 756 feet over the city is the Palace of Culture and Science, which was commissioned by Josef Stalin in the 1950s and stands out as Warsaw’s most iconic building. The 30th floor observation deck is a popular tourist attraction, offering unbeatable views of the city, while downstairs, the complex houses a 2,800-seat concert hall, a museum, a basketball court (which gets converted into an ice skating rink during the winter), a university, a nightclub, and a popular multiplex cinema called Kinoteka.
Plenty of green spaces can be found throughout the city, which, allowing for decent weather, make perfect excuses to explore Warsaw’s different neighborhoods on foot. In addition to two botanical gardens (Ogród Botaniczny PAN w Powsinie and Ogród Botaniczny Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego), the haunting Cmentarz Żydowski, or Jewish Cemetery, is located near the Warsaw Ghetto (just off the Dworzec Gdanki metro stop), and contains over 200,000 tombs.
Overlooking the river, the tranquil roof garden at the University of Warsaw Library is a lush, beautiful space, whose plants and flowers are divided into different sections according to color, scent and theme. Lastly, the massive Saski Gardens lead to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where you can watch the changing of the guard every hour on the hour.
Destination of the Week pieces are not meant to be comprehensive guides to destinations since we don’t have the time or funds to visit all these places in person and report back to you. Nor are they endorsements of all the hotels we mention. They are simply roundups of top destinations that we have specifically pinpointed for the opportunity they present to use your miles and points to get to and stay there. As always, we welcome your comments to help enrich the content here, provide opinions and first-hand experiences of these destinations.
Warsaw Chopin Airport (WAW) is located 6 miles south of the city center, and last June the city introduced three direct rail links (S2, S3 and KML) connecting the airport to the city center. The train takes about 25 minutes and costs 4.40 PLN ($1.38 USD). LOT Polish Airlines, is a member of Star Alliance and has the largest presence at Warsaw.
In 2011, the airport’s sole terminal (Terminal A) was expanded, and work is also continuing on “Chopin Airport City,” a giant mixed-use development that will contain office buildings, restaurants, galleries and a park. Last month, the airport installed a “multimedia bench” in the departures level where travelers can listen to the music of Chopin.
On February 6, Emirates launched daily nonstop service between Dubai and Warsaw, making it the first five-star airline flying to Warsaw Chopin Airport. Back in August, Qatar announced it would be flying four times a week between Doha and Warsaw, and that has since been increased to seven flights per week. Recent new service announcements have resulted in direct flights from Warsaw to Reykjavik, Milan, and Beijing.
Radisson Blu Centrum Hotel: As its name indicates, this 311-room hotel sits smack in the center of bustling downtown Warsaw, just a few minutes from the Palace of Culture and Science (not to mention the sprawling Centrum shopping center, if that happens to be your thing). The glass-wrapped facade gives the building a modern, business-y feel, and the spacious rooms include all the usual Radisson Blu amenities: free WiFi, individual climate control, and desks with ergonomic chairs. Additionally, guests can choose from three different room “themes,” including Maritime, Scandinavian and Italian. The buffet breakfasts are ample, and there is a top-notch fitness center along with a small but attractive indoor pool. Rates in May start at 200 PLN ($65 USD) or 38,000 Gold Points per night.
Club Carlson members can also choose to stay at the Radisson Blu Sobieski Hotel.
Hyatt Regency Warsaw: Opened in 2002, this property neighbors Warsaw’s Central Business District, making it a popular choice among meetings groups (the main city center is about 15 minutes away). Inside the 246-room hotel, you’ll find two restaurants: the glass-roofed Lazienski Lounge overlooking the lobby, and Ventitre, an Italian restaurant serving lunch and dinner with an adjoining outdoor patio. All rooms come with large desks, walk-in showers, marble tubs, bathrobes, and a modest white-and-caramel-accented decor, while Club rooms grant access to the Regency Club on the top floor, which offers complimentary continental breakfast, light snacks throughout the day, evening cocktails, and personal concierge service. Club Oasis features a spa, indoor pool, relaxation area, gym, aerobics studio, and saunas. Rates in May start at 270 PLN ($85 USD) per night. This is a Category 2 property and requires 8,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points for a free night redemption.
Hilton Warsaw Hotel and Convention Center: Though it’s slightly removed from the city center, this 21-story tower is modern and inviting, with friendly staff to boot. The 314 rooms come with floor-to-ceiling windows, 26-inch HD TVs and marble bathrooms with heated floors (handy during those bitter Polish winters); in-room WiFi costs 19 PLN ($6 USD) per 3 hours, but all public spaces offer it for free. A well-equipped business center overlooks Grzybowska St, and there is a 21st floor Executive Lounge with private check-in, complimentary breakfast, snacks, and city views. Pistaccio Lobby Bar & Lounge is a bright, airy space, while Meza Restaurant offers international and Polish cuisine (yes, pierogies are on the menu). A fitness center, indoor pool and casino are also available. Rates in May start at 230 PLN ($75 USD) per night. This is a Category 7 property and requires 40,000 Hilton HHonors points for a free night redemption in May (30,000-60,000 seasonally).
Warsaw Marriott Hotel: The attractive white-and-burgundy lobby at this centrally located hotel spans three floors, featuring marble columns, plenty of lounge areas and meeting space, and a lobby bar flooded with natural light during the day. Dining options include Vienna Cafe, Lilla Weneda, Champions Sports Bar (equipped with 37 TVs), Champions Restaurant, Parmizziano’s Restaurant, and the stylish Panorama Bar & Lounge—the latter is particularly impressive as it’s situated on the 40th floor and affords some of the best hotel views in Warsaw. The hotel’s 518 rooms (including 95 suites) are basic but spacious, offering king-size beds with pillow-top mattresses and desks with ergonomic chairs; internet costs 30 PLN ($9.50 USD) per day. The property features a spa, fitness center and indoor pool. Rates in May begin at 270 PLN ($85 USD) or 20,000 Marriott Rewards points per night since this is a Category 4 property.
InterContinental Warsaw: One of Warsaw’s most impressive skyscrapers (and Poland’s tallest hotel), this 326-room, 45-floor hotel is located in the center of the city, with an unusual architectural feature that makes the top half of the building appear cantilevered over the bottom half. The lobby contains E. Wedel Cafe, a charming hideout with maroon walls, crystal chandeliers, handmade pralines, and arguably the city’s best hot chocolate; other restaurants in the hotel include +1 Bar, Platter, and Downtown Restaurant. Rooms feature wooden furniture, ambient lighting, separate bathtubs and walk-in showers, and complimentary coffee and tea making equipment. The Riverview Wellness Center, located on the 43rd and 44th floors, is the hotel’s most impressive amenity, offering an indoor pool, jacuzzi, gym, sauna, steam room, and spa, all with panoramic views of the city. Rates in May begin at 860 PLN ($270 USD) or 35,000 Priority Club points per night (Category 6).
Sheraton Warsaw: This six-story hotel is centrally located on Three Crosses Square, within walking distance of the acclaimed Chopin Museum, the National Museum of Art, and historic Old Town. All 350 rooms are clean and modern-feeling, with large bathrooms, individual climate control, and tea and coffee making equipment. Larger Club Rooms have access to the sixth floor Club Lounge, which offers private check-in, concierge service, complimentary breakfast, complimentary WiFi, and evening cocktails. The hotel’s four restaurants include InAzia, The Olive, SomePlace Else (which serves, oddly, Tex-Mex), and a lobby bar. Rates in May begin at 465 PLN ($150 USD) or 7,000 Starpoints per night since this is Category 3 property.
Westin Warsaw: Opened in 2003, this 20-story hotel is just a few steps from Warsaw’s Centralna train station, and its modern design features a vertical glass elevator tower and a glass spiral staircase. The hotel’s 361 rooms and suites offer the standard Westin Heavenly bed, bathrobes, individual climate control, and interactive LCD TVs; meanwhile, Westin Executive Club rooms are slightly larger, with free WiFi, lounge access and private check-in. The property features two restaurants, Fusion and JP’s Cafe & Bar, along with the Westin WORKOUT gym, Heavenly Massage Room, sauna, and a Kids Club. Rates in May begin at 190 PLN ($60 USD) or 7,000 Starpoints per night since this is a Category 3 property.
Starwood’s third property in Warsaw is the Hotel Bristol which is a Category 4 property requiring 10,000 points per night.
Amex Fine Hotels and Resorts
Fine Hotels & Resorts is a program exclusively for American Express Platinum Card cardholders, who are eligible for extra benefits such as room upgrades, free continental breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more.
Hotel Bristol: This 112-year-old landmark property sits right in the center of downtown Warsaw, and recently underwent a top-to-bottom renovation of all 206 guest rooms, public spaces, gym and swimming pool—even the antique brass elevators (which zip up and down the hotel like they were built yesterday) were restored. In addition to the acclaimed Marconi Restaurant, Column Bar, and Cafe Bristol, the hotel also added a new wine bar, Advinture, adjacent to the lobby. The revamped rooms and suites are elegant, with ivory wallpaper, bevel edged crystal mirrors, polished nickel bedside lamps, and marble bathrooms—well-known London designer Anita Rosato oversaw the redesign. Rates in May begin at 660 PLN ($210 USD) or 10,000 Starpoints per night. There’s no telling how much longer these cards will be around and available for new applications because of the Marriott takeover, so now might just be the perfect time to apply. Apart from hotel redemptions, you can transfer Starpoints to over 30 airline partners, and now also transfer points from Starwood to Marriott Rewards at a 1:3 ratio, opening up even more redemption options.
There’s no telling how much longer these cards will be around and available for new applications because of the Marriott takeover, so now might just be the perfect time to apply. Apart from hotel redemptions, you can transfer Starpoints to over 30 airline partners, and now also transfer points from Starwood to Marriott Rewards at a 1:3 ratio, opening up even more redemption options.