Warsaw, Poland: an up-and-coming European museum destination

European museum destination
As an EU member with a good exchange rate and low prices, Poland is becoming a popular tourist destination in Eastern Europe. Most of the love goes to Krakow, with its original architecture and “new Prague” charm, but capital city Warsaw has plenty to offer as a European museum destination. While much of the old town was leveled in World War II, the restorations have been painstakingly done and the tumultuous history makes for a great basis for museum exhibitions.

Like Berlin, Warsaw has embraced its past and given the visitor plenty to learn from and new investments mean state-of-the-art attractions and exhibitions.

Given all of the places to see, Warsaw could easily fill a week (or two) on a Europe trip. Here’s a look at some of Warsaw’s best museums.
Only-in-Warsaw

Warsaw (Up)Rising Museum – Warsaw’s proudest museum is a hi-tech interactive experience detailing the events of the two-month rebellion of the Polish people against the German forces as well as what preceded and followed. It borders on being overly comprehensive, the hundreds of artifacts can overwhelm, as can the crowds who line up daily. Be sure to follow museum signs as you walk through, as the chronological exhibit doesn’t necessarily follow the logical path.

Gestapo Headquarters and Pawiak Prison – Two of the city’s most unassuming buildings were once the most feared. Not as flashy as the Rising Museum but equally effective, the former Gestapo HQ contains a few stark cells that once held prisoners to be interrogated and often tortured before being taken to the prison, along with very professionally-done interactive displays telling the experiences of the poor souls held there. Most of the prison in the former Jewish ghetto has been destroyed, but dozens of artifacts and exhibits explain the prisoners’ conditions and attempt to describe the horrors that happened there.


Fryderyk Chopin Museum – Another hi-tech, multimedia extravaganza, this brand new space dedicated to Poland’s most famous composer goes beyond the usual exhibition with a fully customizable experience. Sample sounds from a rare score, read letters to the important women in Chopin’s life, and see a recreation of his Paris drawing room.

Palace of Culture and Science – Not so much a museum as a gift Warsaw can’t hide away, the tallest building in Poland was a gift from Joseph Stalin and it’s hard to go anywhere in the city without seeing the Soviet beast. Though the building is enormous, not much of it is open to the public. It’s worth a trip to the terrace for panoramic city views (see above photo) or spend an afternoon making sense of the bizarrely curated Museum of Technology.

Want more history? There are also museums dedicated to the Polish People’s Movement and Polish Independence, plus the many churches and monuments of the restored Old City and Krakowskie Przedmiescie street. Warsaw’s Jewish culture is also well-documented at the new Jewish Museum and Wola district historical museum.

Well-done in Warsaw


Center for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle – A few blocks away from the Gestapo Headquarters, the building has a history as a royal residence, medical hospital, and now modern art museum. Some of the most innovative artists in Poland and Europe are showcased here: November saw a show focused on Internet-shaped culture such as a scrolling display of Twitter results for the phrase “Best day ever.”


Warsaw Zoo – In addition to being a nicely-maintained habitat for animals, this zoo has a fascinating and heroic past. Diane Ackerman’s book The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the story of the zoo director who aided in war efforts and saved many Jewish Poles from the Nazis by hiding them in the animal cages.


Royal Castle and Wilanow Palace – Just outside the Old City, the Royal Castle was also rebuilt from scratch and houses a slew of antiques and artwork, as well as excellent temporary exhibitions such as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” and other treasures from other museums. If you visit in good weather, it’s worth a day out of town to visit the grand Wilanow Palace and gardens, the Polish Versailles.

Not exhausted yet? Small museums also specialize in collections of cars, trains, military weaponry, horse-riding, caricatures, and Polish physicist Marie Curie. See the In Your Pocket Warsaw guide for more info.


Zahi Hawass tells New York City: fix Cleopatra’s Needle or give it back

new york city, New York City, cleopatra's needle, Egypt, egyptThe Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities has become famous in recent years for his regular television appearances and tireless campaign to preserve his nation’s heritage. Dr. Zahi Hawass has gotten the Met to return stolen artifacts and severed ties with the Louvre until they coughed up some of their own ill-gotten gains.

Now the fedora-wearing Egyptologist has a new location in his sights–New York City. On his blog he says Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park has become “severely weathered”. He’s sent a letter to the president of the Central Park Conservancy and Mayor Bloomberg describing how some of the hieroglyphs had all but disappeared and that if they couldn’t take care of the obelisk, he’d “take the necessary steps” to bring it back to Egypt.

Dr. Hawass also posted photos showing the weathering the monument has suffered. With the city’s variable weather and acidic pollution, it’s not surprising it’s suffered damage. Manhattan news service DNAinfo, however, talked to Jonathan Kuhn, director of Arts & Antiquities for the Parks Department, who said the damage was done more than a century ago and that there’s no significant erosion happening now.

Considering the level of determination Dr. Hawass has shown in the past, expect to hear more about this story in the future.

(As a side note, “Cleopatra’s Needle” is misnamed. It was actually erected by the pharaoh Thutmose III around 1450 BC, centuries before Cleopatra was born. London and Paris have similar obelisks.)

[Photo courtesy user Ekem via Wikimedia Commons]

Weekending: Sofia


Since moving to Istanbul, I’ve gotten the chance to travel to a lot of interesting destinations, from Beirut to Bosnia, that are much easier and cheaper to access from Turkey than America. For my first long (more than a weekend) trip, I went to Bulgaria for a week over US Labor Day and Turkish bayram (end of Ramadan holidays). Over the week, I traveled from the capital city Sofia to medieval hill town Veliko Tarnovo to Black Sea coastal Varna, and will explore the different flavors of each region in future posts.

The place: Sofia, Bulgaria
Travel writer (and Bulgaria fan) Robert Reid notes in his Lonely Planet Bulgaria guide that visitors to Sofia should not expect the “new Prague.” While Sofia may never compare to the Czech Republic capital in terms of the sheer number of historic buildings and monuments, you may discover a taste of Old Europe with the modern nightlife and budget prices that made Prague so popular in the past two decades. After the fall of Communism 21 years ago, Bulgaria developed steadily enough to join the European Union in 2007 (albeit as its poorest country), and hopes to join the Schengen visa zone next year. It’s now being touted as a destination for adventure and budget travelers with a small but growing amount of foreign visitors discovering its many pleasures.

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  • One of the major pluses for Sofia (and even more so in more rural parts of Bulgaria) is the price tag. Dinner for two can be had with a nice bottle of local wine for less than $20. High-end hotels that would cost hundreds of dollars in other European cities rarely top 100 Euros and many comfortable options can be found around 50 to 60 Euros (a Rick Steves tour group was staying at my hotel, the lovely but reasonable Arena di Serdica). Many of Sofia’s best sights are free, including the landmark Aleksander Nevski church (check out this link for photos of the beautiful interior, as cameras aren’t allowed inside and the postcard selection is lacking) and the daily markets are great to browse – try Aleksander Nevski Plaza for antiques of questionable province, Zhenski Pazar for Chernobyl-sized produce, and Slaveykov Square for books in various languages. Bulgarian beers and wine are generally 2-4 leva (under $3) and a generously-poured cocktail is only a few leva more.
  • Along with cheap drinks comes a fun, creative nightlife scene. While sipping wine in the candlelit converted barn bar Hambara, I wondered why New York doesn’t have cool spaces like that (answer: probably breaking a lot of building codes). Apartment (just down the road from Hambera on Neofit Rilski) is another well-known spot for travelers, expats, and locals, set in an old house with different rooms for different vibes. If you’re looking for something a bit more glam, Planet Bar de Luxe is delightfully over-the-top with purple tutu-clad waitresses and a gift-shop in the bathroom (and I thought Sarajevo had the best bar bathroom). Soviet-era dormitories have been converted into a hotbed of nightclubs and bars. Creativity isn’t just limited to the nighttime – great collections of art are housed in the National Gallery and the well-curated Sofia City Gallery, along with interesting graffiti and small galleries around town.

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  • Sofia’s vices and nightlife may not be for everyone. After five months in a country where alcohol is heavily taxed, low-priced and tasty wine is a big thrill for me, but not everyone has “cheap alcohol” on their vacation must-have list. Vegetarians may soon grow bored with pizzas (practically one of Bulgaria’s national foods, eaten with ketchup and mayo by locals – try at your own risk) and salads in Bulgaria include meat and cheese almost as a rule. Like in much of Eastern Europe, smoking is legal in most public places and quite widespread; a recent ban was overturned and replaced with a law barring underage from bars.
  • While the city center is easy to explore with plenty to do, it is small and once you leave the center, the abundance of Communist-era architecture may be less than charming. You can choose to embrace it and marvel at the seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-a-time Soviet monuments like the poorly-covered up Monument to the Bulgarian State or the huge National Palace of Culture (NDK) eyesore. If you’ve had enough urban adventure, Mount Vitosha towers over the city with outdoor activities year round.

Getting there

Small but serviceable Sofia Airport is served by flights all over Europe, including low-cost carriers Wizz Air and easyJet. Bulgaria also has excellent bus connections throughout the Balkans and Eastern Europe, with a clean and convenient bus station not far from the city center. Read on below for other destination ideas in Bulgaria.

Make it a week

There are multiple day and side trip opportunities near Sofia including Rila Monastery, one of Bulgaria’s best and most famous monasteries; the tiny wine town Melnik; and ancient Plovdiv. You can also hop a bus to venture into the Central Balkans or out to the Black Sea for beach time, as I did. Stay tuned for more on Bulgaria travel.

Read my previous Weekending trips from Istanbul here.

Photo of the day (8.5.10)

This photo by narinnr from Kagoshima, Japan (the Naples of the East, says Wikipedia) captures a Ferris wheel built atop a shopping center next to the train station. How fun is that? Imagine if you could kill time between trains at Penn Station riding high above New York?! I’m partial to the Gravitron when choosing an amusement ride, although spinning around against centrifugal force is probably not so fun before a long train ride.

Even more interesting are the statues in front of the Ferris wheel, part of the Satuma students’ monument, dedicated to 19 Japanese students smuggled into Britain in 1865 to learn Western technology. Imagine being the first in your country to study abroad and being responsible for the start of the industrial revolution. Kinda makes a semester abroad in Prague drinking as much beer as humanly possible seem a little weak.

Do you have a photo that will inspire many Google and Wikipedia searches? Or maybe an interesting monument or an unusually-located amusement ride in your travels? Upload it to Gadling’s Flickr group and we might use it for a future Photo of the Day.

Off the beaten path: Road trip to a rarely visited National Park

The big national parks are popular for a reason, but here are 10 other national parks and forests you may not have visited, and some fun activities to do while you are there. Consider one of these off-the-beaten-path parks for your summer round-trip:

Acadia National Park is a beautiful piece of the Maine coastline. Bring your alarm clock so you can wake early and hike to the top of Cadillac Mountain just before dawn. From this spot, you’ll be the first person to see the sun rise over the US!

The White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire has some of the most rugged hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Mount Washington is located here and has the highest recorded winds on the planet. Take the train to the top and check out the buildings that are literally chained down so they don’t blow away!

While the Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited national park, few travelers leave their car. Take a few days to hike the Appalachian Trail here. It bisects the park and delineates Tennessee from North Carolina. See if you can count the 100 tree varieties found in the region.

The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado, has the tallest sand dunes in the nation (Star Dune is over 750 feet). Bring your old skis or snowboard and spend a day sand-boarding!

The Bridger-Teton National Forest, in Wyoming, includes the Wind River Range. Don’t forget your fishing pole or your backpack. The high alpine lakes are home to world-class trout fishing and humans rarely venture to these parts.

In southwest New Mexico, the Gila National Forest encompasses the Gila Wilderness. The Gila was the first place to receive a Wilderness designation and for good reason. The hiking is epic and varies from high alpine forest to deep desert canyons. Be respectful, but look for the abandoned cave dwellings that you can still explore!

Dinosaur National Monument is in both Colorado and Utah. This area is famous for the hundreds of dinosaur skeletons excavated here. Raft the Green River on the “Gates of Ladore” stretch. It takes you through the confluence of the Yampa and Green Rivers and into the monument. The white water is exciting and the views are spectacular.

Arches National Park, located in southern Utah, boasts the greatest concentration of natural arches in the world. Bring your running shoes to do a short trail run in Devils Garden.

Also located in southern Utah, Bryce National Park is a chimneyed deep canyon. Travel via burro to the bottom of the canyon for a unique experience you are sure to remember!

Redwood National Park, located in northern California, has the tallest trees on the planet. Either bring your bike or a convertible because you will want to look up to this humbling experience.

This summer take a road trip and explore some National Parks and Forests. It is a great way to stretch your legs and see something new in the U.S.

Travis Crooke is a Seed.com writer.