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TRAVEL STORY

Phoenix from the flames

Warsaw has risen from its war-torn past and, as Dan Stephens discovered, now stands as a vibrant and welcoming tourist destination

Not many people would place Warsaw particularly highly on their list of must-see European cities and you could be forgiven for harbouring a few post-Soviet dystopian preconceptions about the place. The reality is that Poland’s capital holds its own unique charm and has enough charisma to rival any of the continent’s metropolises. There is a refreshing vibrancy to the place and a wealth of fun and culture to absorb over a weekend break.

The Eastern European city has an unfair reputation for being less than aesthetically pleasing and while it doesn’t quite have the Gothic splendour of Prague this is simply not the case. The wide plazas and leafy parks of the city centre, as well as the cobbled streets of the Old Town district make Warsaw an attractive and cultured place to visit. The roots of the city date back into the pre-medieval period but heart-breakingly there is little but remnants left of the original infrastructure. Decimated in the Second World War by the Nazi occupation, much of the city centre has been painstakingly rebuilt and therefore the cultural landmarks are still an enticing proposition to tourists.

WHERE TO STAY

When considering accommodation, note that 5-star hotels in Poland might not be as far out of your financial bracket as you might expect. Le Royal Meridien Bristol for example is known as the most luxurious and princely hotel in Warsaw and rooms are available for as cheap as €60 a night. Other hotels to consider are the Marriott, located close to Central Station and the grandiose parliamentary building as well the Sheridan, which rivals the Bristol for opulence and status.

It’s always sensible to consider the Hotel’s location when choosing where to stay – the Sheridan for example is perfect because it is just a 15-minute walk to the vibrant Old Town district down a plaza littered with restaurants and bars, safe to walk down 24-hours-a-day. Youth hostelling is a cheaper option to consider and hostelsweb.com charts the best options. Highly-rated places include Hostel Kanonia, located in the middle of Old Town and the Oki Doki Hostel, which was one of ten top hostels worldwide for 2006 as voted by Hostelworld. Bear in mind that the majority of what you’re going to want to see is located on the western bank of Warsaw’s Vistula River when booking anywhere.

MEAT AND DRINK

Getting to grips with the bars and restaurants in Warsaw is probably going to be pretty high on anyone’s list of priorities and Warsaw is well stocked enough to satisfy the tastes of all its visitors. In terms of prices those thinking that the ‘Old Eastern Bloc’ means you can live like a king here for next to nothing will be disappointed. Generally Poland is not quite as expensive as Britain but the difference is not exactly cosmic. In fact, you need to be careful not to get ripped off since prices vary considerably. Beer for example can be as cheap as 7 Zlotys (£1.50) or as expensive as 22Zl (£4.70) so stick to the trendier bars of Old Town for the best prices. Molly Malone’s Irish bar is a great choice for a late night and despite the name doesn’t go overboard on the Emerald Isle novelty. It’s not a bastion of high culture but if you’re a football fan staying in Warsaw over the weekend you could a lot worse than to check out the Champions Sports bar. An affiliate of the Marriott, the bar is a fan’s paradise with 40 screens dedicated to beaming you the top matches from around Europe, meaning that you won’t miss an important game through being abroad.

There’s an array of eateries across the city with all the variation a modern capital would demand so you can eat high-quality curry if you don’t fancy the local cuisine. Many can be found along the Nowy Swait road directly south of Old Town. Alternatively, if you want to embrace Polish culture head straight down to the Bierhalle, which pretty much does what it says on the tin.

Consisting of an old-style restaurant and a microbrewery that serves lager by the flagon, the Bierhalle serves a menu of traditional Polish dishes such as schnitzel and pork and dumplings. Perhaps the best thing about the place is that all the food and drink is served by pretty waitresses in traditional rural Polish attire. The food is good but fairly heavy. If you’re not used to it it’s good to mix up your eating habits a bit. Definitely worth a visit is the Cwaniak Warszawski, which translates as "Varsovian Trickster". It’s a stylish eatery that combines a retro socialist vibe with a traditional Warsaw folklore feel – all set to traditional music. It serves classic polish dishes and also the famous ‘pork knuckle’ like many other parts of Eastern Europe. Again pricing varies from place to place but most will set a main course at between 20Zl and 35Zl depending on the type of food.

PAY YOUR RESPECTS

The ravages of war have taken their toll on the city but this has certainly shaped its character and this is important to remember when sightseeing. The first stop for most people is the ‘Royal Route’ starting in Old Town and leading south along Nowy Swait, taking in much of the premium architecture including the Royal Castle and the Saxon Park. The old Jewish Ghetto district is also a must for anyone interested in the history of the city. Part of the 10-foot wall the Nazis erected to contain the Jewish population is still present and the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes stands in the centre. Before World War II only New York was home to more Jewish people than Warsaw, but during the Nazi occupation the vast majority were murdered, starved or sent to concentration camps. The monument is a poignant reminder of these atrocities.

Further information on the plight of the city in the war can be found in the highly informative Warsaw Rising Museum that combines dioramas, photos and film footage to illustrate what city life would have been like in the war. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is another monument worth a visit. Located a few hundred metres out of Old Town the tomb is constantly flanked by two ceremonial guards and was first established in 1923 with the aim of commemorating unnamed Polish soldiers who had fallen in World War I.

WAGERS IN WARSAW

Despite a new clampdown on gambling laws in Poland there are still several classy casinos in Warsaw that could be incorporated into a long weekend. There are two main Polish chains – Orbis Casino and Casinos Poland, who operate two casinos each across the city. All four are located in major hotels including the Marriot close to Central Station and the Hyatt, which recently hosted the Warsaw leg of the Unibet Open. You can expect a range of classic games including baccarat, roulette, blackjack and slots. When it comes to poker, both cash and tournament formats are slightly pricier than you might be used to. Cash starts at 10/20Zl or 25/50Zl blinds. The cheapest sit-downs start at 2,000Zl, which equates to about £600 with options of 5,000Zl and 10,000Zl available if you’re willing to sleep in a Polish bus shelter for the rest of the holiday if things go wrong.

TRAVEL STORY ARCHIVE

City of light and love
Although there is never
6/2/2011
The Vegas of the Med
As a regular visitor
8/2/2011
Heading south
Got tickets for one
9/6/2010
Phoenix from the flames
Warsaw has risen from
10/5/2010
Melbourne bound
Poker travel agent and
24/3/2010
Best of Bohemia
Having busted out of
13/1/2010
Viva Sevilla!
Time for some culture
1/12/2009
Bier o’clock
Gambling editor Chris Lines
22/10/2009

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