Have you ever thought about visiting Eastern Europe? Neither had we until about two weeks prior to taking off for our trip. Brittany was captivated by a podcast describing the world’s best European food destinations and we quickly rerouted our trip to bypass Germany and continue in Poland.
We needed to bookend this part of our trip between Gothenburg and Rome, arriving by September 16th to meet grandma. It only made sense to work our way north to south and take advantage of a steal of a flight to Warsaw for $18 a person. We tried to ease our budget by registering to teach English in Warsaw. We were accepted and they ended up not having space for us. So, on to Warsaw, we went with loose plans of Krakow, Slovakia, Budapest, Zagreb, and Ljubljana to follow.
The Palace of Culture and Science, a gift to the people of Poland from The Soviet Union.
WE MADE IT TO WARSAW
Arriving at the Warsaw Modlin Airport we immediately noticed a few striking changes to our surroundings. Unlike Swedish, Polish has no recognizable cognates with English. The climate is similar to home, just a little cooler. The price tag on everything was modest, not just compared to Scandinavia, but anywhere we’ve traveled.
Making our way from the city to the airport by train we were looking forward to meeting our first international Couchsurfing hosts. This lovely couple of natives, Marta and Łukasz, had also taken part in extended travels around the world and were perfect, kind hosts. Our first evening in Warsaw they shared a variety of local favorites, including perogies, beers, and bird’s milk. We talked into the evening about our travel experiences and families and Brittany and I quickly cozied in afterward.
A statue in front of The Palace of Culture and Science.
The following days in Warsaw went by too quickly. I suppose this is an aspect of travel we’re learning to account for- wanting to see it all but also taking the time to enjoy the moment. I’ll attempt to share in a more orderly fashion some of the impactful moments we experienced while exploring this city.
As I mentioned before, this was our first experience Couchsurfing internationally. Back in the states we hosted and surfed enough to be familiar with the platform, but hadn’t surfed through cultural exchanges. We’ve learned that this network has the potential to be amazing, but the catch is that you have to put in the work to get results.
When looking for a host, especially in large cities, you have to diligently send out personalized requests. You’ll inevitably receive disheartening responses of hosts that are currently too busy, as this has been the response from 98% of the people we’ve contacted. If you succeed in finding a host, the perseverance is worth it. Every host we’ve had has been a well of insight and perspective. We’ve learned that scheduling time with your host benefits all parties where a sharing, teaching, and learning through stories or gestures can transpire.
Our attempt at a good photo with Marta, Łukasz, and Gabor.
In the case of Marta, Łukasz, and their pup Gabor, we received so much more than we expected. These two shared home-cooked meals with us, hearty breakfasts, and Marta even drove us into the city center each morning. We learned through every conversation.
What really stuck with me were the stories Marta shared about her family history. She has parts of her family spread not only through Poland, but a substantial branch now lives in the US. Since WWII her extended family had been divided and only recently started reconnecting and meeting one another through reunions in Poland. Having never traveled to a former communist society or had my family divided by war, I was able to feel the power of these experiences through the emotions she showed.
Having such honest and deep conversations with people you just met gave me a new sort of confidence and perspective on the accessibility of true communication. While we are often meant to feel like outliers for choosing travel and experience, there are people out there with pursuits similar to ours and stories to be shared. Others are also seeking an understanding of community and an appreciation for what makes each place unique and special. I believe these experiences will help me be a better part of my own community whenever we return home.
Thank you for everything, Marta and Łukasz.
During our couple of days walking the streets of Warsaw Brittany and I were able to feel some of the histories that carry significant weight here. The contrasting views of Old Town next to modern structures are easy to appreciate. There is variability not only in the scenery but also the culture and interactions with locals.
We engaged with at least four different neighborhoods while exploring Warsaw on foot. Staying in a western suburb we saw the more peripheral residences. From Warsaw Central Station and the heart of downtown, we experienced the morning commute intertwined with modern industry and the surrounding downtown area. Heading northeast the city transitions into restaurants and retail before reaching Old Town. Finally, across the Vistula river to the east we explored Praga, showcasing a mix of residences, shops, and restaurants.
After ordering from Pierozki Gosi and communicating with the proprietor via Google translate
We found something to appreciate in each neighborhood, though by day Praga most suited our taste. Here you felt the breadth of generations, tradition, and hip modern shops and restaurants. Out of the tourist traps of Old Town and surrounded by locals, we were able to fully appreciate the nuances of the city’s heartbeat.
While in Praga we found a corner pierogi shop, Pierozki Gosi, all made in-house by the husband and wife owners. We expected to see perogies, often considered to be the dish of Poland, on every street. So we were surprised that this was the only homemade shop we came across. A note from Marta ad Łukasz— try the mushroom and onion.
Proces Kawki, a refined coffee shop located in what appears to be a formerly abandoned building with an extensive courtyard, was another favorite. One of the proprietors, Andrew C, provided us with the warmest hospitality and a little Cava wine to pair with our steeped beans. We enjoyed watching the locals interact and read while their puppies ran around the yard. At this point, they had only been open for 10 days, but Mr. C ensured us that the hospitality would not falter with age.
Catching a photo of the newly erected sign in front of Proces Kawki.
OLD TOWN AND MORE
If you’re drawn to history and beauty, Old Town is where your eye will take you. These beautiful streets and plazas give perspective on the history of the city and are also where you’ll find tourism in full swing. Expect to find a variety of shops, restaurants, museums, and carriage rides all happy to receive you. This would be a fitting place to take a walking tour for a history of the city if you have the time. Brittany and I only had time to walk the streets, giggle at the tour groups, and find Maryensztadt, a fitting place for another bit of pierogi and a few craft beers.
A peak at our walk through Warsaw’s Old Town
A walk along the new waterfront development with Łukasz gave us another look at how the city is working to cater to its residents by creating to public spaces. It seemed to be a meeting point for young adults and families to spend time and also drink a few beers.
My only regret is not having more time to appreciate and explore the city. I know there were countless gems we missed, museums we wanted to visit and people we would have loved to meet. We tried to visit the Museum of Polish Vodka, which had already booked out for the day by the time we arrived. It was also recommended to us to visit the Warsaw Rising Museum. We were sad to miss it but ended up having issues booking the train ticket we wanted to Krakow. So as a result, we left earlier than expected. While we were not familiar with the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, Łukasz was able to put it into perspective by sharing that the same number of people perished (150,000-200,000) in the uprising as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Not only would we love to return to Warsaw, but we can’t wait to see Marta, Łukasz, and Gabor again. It’s so refreshing to find the unexpected, extraordinary good in the world. You just have to get out there to find it. They definitely made us better travelers, and we’ll take a page from their book on hosting when we return home.
Enjoying a beer at a courtyard art cafe hidden in the nooks of Praga.
If you’re unsure of what you’re ordering, just go for it. You might walk away with Thai Ice Cream.
- A poor attempt at ordering in Polish will almost always garnish a smile or laugh.
- Google translate is the friend of all. Especially the cute older couple you’re trying to buy pierogies from.
- Not all saxophone players know how to play the saxophone.
- Know which bus line takes you home BEFORE you lose Wifi.