The Polish capital of Warsaw is an offbeat haven for counterculture and contrast.

This article appears in Volume 28: The Cities Issue

Turns out, it’s surprisingly hard to take the perfect selfie from several angles at once. I’m perched on the edge of a bathtub filled with bubblegum-pink balls and surrounded by mirrors, inside the bathroom of a pre-Soviet apartment block, having just downed the bartender’s heady riff on an old fashioned. Earlier that evening I’d sipped Polish rosé and dined on refined kopytka (potato dumplings) in a smart restaurant beside a dilapidated building pocked with bullet holes, following an afternoon spent winding my way past bronze-chested sunbathers in deckchairs next to neoclassical palaces. Anywhere else, this discordancy might jar – but this is Warsaw, where contrast is king and the unexpected bubbles up through the cracks of its fractured past.

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This is a city that wears its scars. Once said to have been more beautiful than Prague and nicknamed “the Paris of the North”, it was blitzed and bombed during the Second World War before enduring almost half a century of Soviet occupation. During the Warsaw Uprising, a 63-day underground movement against the Nazis in the last days of the war, almost 200,000 civilians died and 85 per cent of the city’s buildings were reduced to rubble. However, from this history of trauma and displacement, a culture of resilience and resistance was born that endures to this day.

Amid the crush of a 33°C heatwave I wander the jumbled jigsaw- puzzle streets past restored neoclassical buildings, looming Soviet architecture and soaring glass skyscrapers, a symbol of Poland’s economic boom since joining the European Union in 2004. Markets and “milk bars” (a relic of the socialist system, where you can fill up on traditional fare for a few zloty) mix with Michelin-quality restaurants, neighbourhood B&Bs rest within walking distance of opulent grande-dame hotels, and courtyards and residential buildings harbour humming, low-key bars. The result is a combination of brutality and loveliness that has earmarked Warsaw as one of Europe’s coolest “emerging” destinations, a place built on history, yet relentlessly new. For me, this dichotomy has an additional resonance – this is the city where my grandfather was born and, although we never met, it’s strange to consider how he would have felt about this barely recognisable modern iteration of his childhood home, which its residents tell me continues to evolve at a dizzying pace.

Most tourists focus on the “Royal Route” or linger in the Old Town, with its pastel-hued townhouses and cobbled streets strung with shops selling relics and Polish amber. Although I can’t resist pulling up a seat at a red-chequered table on the main square and ordering a plate of doughy pierogi (more dumplings, not as good as my grandmother’s), it’s in the districts outside of this somewhat synthetic toytown that modern Warsaw’s tendency towards the countercultural and anarchistic thrives.

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Autor Rooms

The independent design studio Mamastudio launched this characterful B&B, part of the Design Hotels group, to show how Warsaw had developed into a modern European city and indulge their love of interior design. The result is a cosy, art-centric residence full of a mix of old, new and specially commissioned art by Polish designers and the studio’s creative friends, with each of its four rooms following a different scheme. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself invited out for lunch or to a party by one of the founders.

PURO Hotel Warszawa Centrum

Emerald-green velvet chairs, potted fig trees and well-placed pink neons signal that you’re in Warsaw’s most millennially minded hotel, part of the Polish boutique brand PURO. Its breezy, minimalist rooms come with tablet-controlled lighting and incredibly comfortable beds, while the Prisma spa offers a range of “Flash”, “Glow” and “Lux” treatments using holistic products by Alba1913. Mingle with locals and travellers alike at Loreta, the fun rooftop lounge and bar with views of the downtown cityscape, before using one of the hotel’s custom maps to navigate further afield.

Raffles Europejski Warsaw

This sensitive restoration of the historic Hotel Europejski reinterprets 160 years of ballroom glamour for a contemporary crowd. Eschewing ostentation for emotional luxury, elements of the old Europejski have been repurposed, including golden swirls where the staircases once stood, “memory rooms” displaying artefacts from the hotel’s archive and a 1961 mosaic that was transferred piece by piece from the lobby to the spa. Drop by the Lourse patisserie for gold-dusted desserts and the Long Bar for a Warsaw Sling, the hotel’s tribute to its Singaporean sister.

Bristol Hotel

The Bristol has been Warsaw’s best hotel for decades. Located along the historic Royal Route, it has the most enviable location in the city and is just steps away from the Presidential Palace, Old Town, and Nowy Świat street. The legendary Café Bristol once served as a popular meeting spot for Communist Party apparatchiks, but now it’s just a classic restaurant serving excellent mushroom soup and fruit tarts.

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Mamaison Hotel Le Regina

An elegant boutique hotel nestled on the side of the Old Town. The unique location will give you direct access to one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, but you won’t be swarmed by crowds when you step outside your door.

H15 Boutique

Sitting in the airy lobby with its glass ceiling, you would never guess that this building once housed the Nazi forces during World War II. Today, the 19th century building is decorated with colorful contemporary furniture and graphic art. The hotel is situated on lively Poznańska Street, just a few doors away from some of the best restaurants and cocktail bars in the city. If you stay here, grab a drink at Bez Tytułu, which is just half a block away.

Loft Hotel Sen Pszczoły

This is the hotel for adventurous travelers on a budget. The rooms have odd names like “Sadistic Dentist” and are decorated with oversized murals, avant-garde furniture, and wooden pallets for bed frames. The highlight of this hotel is the industrial-chic shared kitchen.

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