Poland’s capital is at its finest during late spring, when the cultural side of the city of Chopin is displayed to its best advantage.
Why go now?
Late spring is the perfect time to enjoy Warsaw’s parks, and visitors planning to arrive this month will discover that cultural diversions are an integral part of any visit to the Polish capital. This is, after all, the city of Chopin.
The main airline flying to Warsaw from the UK is Wizz Air (0906 959 0002; wizzair.com) from Luton, Doncaster-Sheffield and Liverpool. LOT Polish Airlines (0845 601 0949; lot.com) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) compete from Heathrow.
Warsaw's Frederic Chopin Airport is linked to the city centre by bus 175, which runs every 10 minutes. A one-way ticket for the half-hour journey costs 2.80 New Polish Zlotys (PLN) (60p). The ticket machines on the buses accept coins only.
Get your bearings
The airport bus terminates close to Castle Square, or Plac Zamkowy, which is overlooked by the rebuilt Royal Castle. This is just one of thousands of buildings in the Old Town (Stare Miasto), which were painstakingly reconstructed to their 17th- or 18th-century appearance after near-total destruction in the Second World War. Photographs and even artistic impressions by Canaletto, court painter in Warsaw in the 18th century, were used to rebuild the city. Large reproductions of Canaletto's paintings are dotted round the Old Town on angled glass plinths at his viewpoints. The quality of the reconstruction earned the Royal Castle and the Old Town protection by Unesco in 1980.
The main streets of Krakowskie Przedmiescie and Nowy Swiat form the northern part of the ‘Royal Route’ leading to the palaces in the park at Lazienki Gardens. Narrow streets to the north of Castle Square lead to the Old Town Market Square (Rynek Starego Miasta) where a tourist office at 19-21a is open daily 9am-9pm. A 24-hour Warsaw Tourist Card costs PLN35 (£8) and a three-day card PLN65 (£15).
Mamaison Hotel Le Regina at Koscielna 12 (00 48 22 531 6000; mamaison.com/leregina) is a stylish, modern hotel in a historic carapace in a quiet street in the New Town. It has an outstanding restaurant, La Rotisserie, and free Wi-Fi. Doubles from €236, including breakfast.
In a modern, centrally located building near the Palace of Culture, the Metropol Hotel at Marszalkowska 99a (00 48 22 325 31 00; hotelmetropol.com.pl) offers free internet. Doubles from €80, including breakfast.
Beside the Royal Castle, the Castle Inn at Swietojanska 2 (00 48 22 425 0100; castleinn.pl) has 22 individually styled rooms in a historic building. Doubles start at PLN222 (£50), including breakfast.
Take a hike
Start in the cobbled Old Town Market Square surrounded by rendered façades in ochre, olive green, sienna and pale yellow. Take Swietojanska — lined with antique and craft shops — to St John’s Cathedral with its unusual brick-pinnacled gable. As the most important church in Poland, it has many royal, political and clerical monuments and carved choir stalls.
Castle Square is the focal point of the Old Town. On the left in the broad, semi-pedestrianised Krakowskie Przedmiescie, is the Presidential Palace, built by a Lithuanian aristocratic family in 1643-5. It was the venue for Chopin's first public concert at the age of eight. The palace survived the Second World War, and the Warsaw Pact was signed here in 1955.
Warsaw's principal promenade continues along the broad plant-lined pavements of Nowy Swiat (New World), edged with small shops and cafès behind handsome restrained façades.
A short detour brings you to the recently rebuilt Fryderyk Chopin Museum in the Ostrogski Palace at Okolnik 1 (00 48 22 44 161 251; chopin.museum/en; noon-8pm daily, PLN22/£5). Touch screens allow different themes of the composer's life to be explored, such as his extensive tour of central Scotland in 1848. End the walk among irresistible cakes and patisserie in one of Warsaw's oldest cafès at Nowy Swiat 33; A Blikle was founded in 1869 and has an excellent delicatessen next door at No 35.
Next door to the main railway station, Zlote Tarasy at ul Zlota 59 (00 48 22 222 2200; zlotetarasy.pl) has become the city's most popular shopping centre, with water features and lots of greenery softening the granite and sandstone. Its wavy roof of more than 20,000 glass triangles covers more than 200 shops and restaurants; 9am-10pm daily (to 9pm on Sunday).
Lunch on the run
In Zlote Tarasy is La Passion du Vin (00 48 22 222 0495; la-passion.pl) with a blackboard of changing dishes such as salad of roasted duck and raspberry sauce (PLN35/£8) and baked snails with cheese (PLN35/£8), as well as tapas from PLN5 (£1). Wines by the glass from PLN8-25 (£2-6).
It is hard to believe that the Royal Castle (00 48 22 355 5170; zamek-krolewski. com.pl) is a reconstruction, completed in 1980. Its gilded and marbled rooms are a symbol of Poland's determination to reclaim its heritage after the war.
Among the rooms are the magnificent Great Assembly Hall with its view over the River Vistula; the Knights' Room with scenes from Polish history; the Canaletto Room with paintings that have informed reconstruction of the Old Town; and the Lanckoronski Gallery, which includes two Rembrandts. The Tin-Roofed Palace has one of the world's finest collections of oriental carpets. Open 10am-4pm Tuesday to Saturday, admission PLN22 (£5), free on Sundays from 11am. The Tin-Roofed Palace is open noon-3pm daily except Monday.
Next to the Grand Theatre at Plac Teatralny is Antrakt, a lounge bar with an eclectic collection of prints and photographs, serving cocktails from PLN12 (£2), whisky from PLN14 (£3) and Calvados at PLN24 (£5). It also serves meals.
Dining with the locals
Round-arched stone doorways link the pastel-coloured dining-rooms within Polka at ul Swietojanska 2 (00 48 22 635 3535; restauracjapolka.pl). Among the Polish dishes are Polish steak tartare (PLN32/£7), pork loin with plums and served with rosemary sauce (PLN36/£8) and Polish-style potatoes (PLN8/£2). For dessert, Warsaw special sponge chocolate cake layered with cream and jam costs just PLN14 (£3).
Sunday morning: go to church
Beside the presidential palace is the 17th-century baroque Carmelite Church, which was the subject of one of Canaletto's paintings and a location where a young Chopin gave organ recitals. It was later given a neo-classical façade. It was spared by the Germans, making its opulent interior with rococo altar and gilding a rarity in Warsaw.
Take a view
The most unusual vantage point over the city and River Vistula is the roof garden of the Library of Warsaw University at ul Dobra 55 (00 48 22 828 6385; buw.uw.edu.pl). It is one of the largest roof gardens in Europe with different sections evoking different moods, partly through colour. Steel bridges cross glass roofs, sculptures break up the planting, and there is a pond that is home to ducks. Daily 9am-8pm, admission free.
Out to brunch
Le Mèridien Bristol Hotel at 42/44 ul Krakowskie Przedmiescie (00 48 22 551 1000; lemeridien.pl/en) was founded by the brilliant Polish pianist and post-First World War prime minister, Paderewski. Opened in 1901, the Art Nouveau-style hotel serves a vast brunch 12.30-4.30pm for PLN170 (£38).
A walk in the park
Situated at the end of the Royal Route, Lazienki Gardens(00 48 22 506 0101; lazienki-krolewskie. pl) was begun by a nobleman in the 17th century and bought by the last Polish king in 1764. The River Vistula was divided to create an island for the Palace on the Water. Its picture gallery contains paintings by Rubens and Rembrandt. It is open daily except Monday 9am-4pm, admission PLN12 (£3). Nearby is an amphitheatre where performances are staged. The park contains two other palaces: an Egyptian temple and the colossal Old Orangery built for Tsar Alexander II's collection of tropical plants. Today, lunches are served here.
At the south-western corner is the Belvedere Palace where a young Chopin played to sooth the nerves of the Russian Grand Duke Constantine, who had to flee the 1830 uprising dressed as a woman, never to return. Close by, there is a statue of Chopin sitting under a willow tree, typical of the Mazovia region where he was born. The original statue was blown up in 1940, but replaced in 1958 after the war.
The icing on the cake
The Palace of Culture and Science at Place Defilad 1 (00 48 22 656 7600; pkin.pl) looks like a giant wedding cake and was given by Stalin as a “gift from the Soviet Union to the Polish nation” in 1955.
Still the tallest building in Warsaw at 234m, it has 3,000 rooms for cultural, social and sporting activities, including Warsaw's first indoor swimming pool and a 6,000-seat concert hall. But the main reason for visiting is for the spectacular views from the terrace on the 30th floor. It's open 9am-6pm, admission PLN20 (£4.50), cash only.