If you are looking for the grittier side of Warsaw and a place with a unique atmosphere you need to spend some time exploring the Praga district of Warsaw. Praga is a historic district on the East bank of the river Vistula. You will get a real sense of the history of the Warsaw of old , with run-down, pre-war buildings, courtyard chapels surrounded by real religious devotion and get to imagine what life must have been like for the ‘forefathers’ of Warsaw. If you want to get a real sense of the city, away from the glitz and the glam, then you should follow my walking guide of Praga Warsaw.
In Praga you will find quiet and deserted places, but also places that pulsate until dawn to the rhythm of clubs filled with tourists and locals. Here you will get a real ‘feel’ for the city. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture scenes from Roman Polanski’s ‘The Pianist’ and ‘Korczak’ by Andrzej Wajda. In fact both of these movies were filmed in Praga.
A word of caution about Praga though. You will stand out more as a tourist here. Described as ‘edgy’ at best and ‘dangerous’ at worst, Praga has long been considered to be off-limits to tourists. My advice is to spend a few hours exploring early in the day and leave the area before it gets dark. While we didn’t feel unsafe exploring here, we were certainly more aware of our environment and the deeper we went into Praga the more cautious we felt.
A walking guide of Praga
So here is my suggested walking guide of Praga. You can spend as long or as little time exploring as you like but I’ve tried and tested this walking route and it works really well. You will find a google map of my walking guide attached below.
The best way to get to Praga is to take a tram passing the Old Town and get off at the first Vistula River stop (Park Praski) or Metro line 2 and get off at Dworzec Wilenski.
1. Praski Park & Zoo
The best way to start the walking guide of Praga is with a visit to the Zoo. You can access the Zoo through Praski Park, the oldest public park in Warsaw which opened in 1871. During the walk you will see some interesting garden sculptures and may even catch a band playing a concert in the restored bandstand. If you don’t have time to visit the Zoo, you must at least see the much loved Praga Bears. The bears can be seen from the street a few meters from the tram stop.
Even if, like me , you are not a fan of zoos or confined animals, Warsaw Zoo has a fascinating history. The villa at the centre of the complex is where zoo director Jan Żabiński and his family hid over 200 Jews during WWII, ultimately saving their lives and risking their own.
2. Praga Cathedral
On the opposite side of the park you will see two tall red-brick towers, topped by copper covered roofs. This is the Cathedral Basilica of the Holy Martyr Florian and St. Michael the Archangel. This beautiful church was designed by Józef Pius Dziekoński in Mazovian Gothic style and was built between 1887-1904. The interior is finished in brick and decorated with figures of the temple patrons. The church is spectacularly beautiful all lit up at night.
3. Praga Courtyard Orchestra Monument
At the end of Floriańska Street is the sculpture of the Backyard Praga Orchestra, unveiled in 2006. It is a nice way to remember the authentic Praga bands. The sculpture is made of bronze and represents a violinist, accordian player, guitarist, banjo player and a drummer, as was traditional of the time. It was designed by Andrzej Renes. The band will actually play for you. You can choose one of the 100 songs in its repertoire and send a text message with your order. The full list of songs and instructions on how to order can be found at the monument.
4. The Praga Museum Of Warsaw
One of the most unique stops on my walking guide of Praga is the Praga museum. It is located in an old tenement house, the oldest in Praga, and is a unique journey through history giving you the perfect insight into both pre-war and post-war Warsaw. It used to be one of the prayer houses for the local Jewish community but it now contains exhibitions detailing the history of the neighbourhood through the ages.
5. Breska Street and Różyckiego Bazaar
If I am completely honest, this was the one area on the walking tour that made me feel a little aprehensive at first. Breska street is a strange place that does not enjoy the best reputation, yet it is one of the last remaining parts of the original Old Praga and is certainly worth a walk through.
I wouldn’t advise exploring this area at night, but during the day you will find backdrops that make for the most amazing outdoor photography. It is the perfect place to get a glimpse of local life in Praga. The gate house located near the entrance to the bazaar shows intriguing wall sculptures, and inside the backyard stands a Mary altar, one of the many you will find here in Praga.
Trade in the Bazaar takes place in metal booths, or simply hand to hand. During World War II, when food was scarce in Warsaw, everything was available in the Bazaar even guns and ammunition taken from the German soldiers. It might sound pretty crazy, but this place is a must see.
6. Ząbkowska Street
Ząbkowska Street is a busy place with many restaurants and bars. It is one of the oldest streets in Warsaw and is now a student, tourist and hipster friendly place. It is one of Praga’s most famous streets and has existed from the 16th century. After the fire of 1868 which destroyed the wooden houses, brick houses were built. Most of the buildings that we see today were built in the late 19th and early 20th century.
The area used to be inhabited by the Jewish community of Praga. A building worth noting is the tenement Yitzhak Hersh Jahrman at no.11. It is dated 1868 and housed a synagogue, which during the war was converted into a woodworking shop.
7. The Polish Vodka Museum
So I’m not going to lie, knocking back a shot of Polish vodka nearly burnt the chest off me, but, it was so fascinating to see how this national drink is brewed. Polish Vodka is inseparably connected with Polish culture and customs. The museum has five thematic galleries and a cinema room. During the tour and workshops, visitors will have the opportunity to discover the variety and differences in flavour and aroma of Polish vodkas made from traditional cereals and potatoes. It will certainly put hairs on your chest.
8. Street Art
Probably my favourite thing to do in Praga was go hunting for the infamous street art in Praga. Praga is an extremely artistic district of Warsaw with both artists and musicians alike prefering to live in this part of the city. Because of this you will find some of the best street art you will ever see.
One of my favourites is the piece known as Playground at Stalowa 51. Other pieces worth noting and photographing are Warsaw Fight Club at Srodkowa 17, Eastern Warsaw at Strzelecka 26 and the Floating Castles at 12 Miska. You really don’t have to go far in Praga to find the coolest street art so make sure to keep your eyes peeled!
9. House of the Mermaid
The mermaid has a huge significance to the people of Warsaw. You will find the mermaid on the city’s coat of arms and the statue at the centre of the Old Town Square is a mermaid. Legend has it that the mermaid decided to stay after stopping at a riverbank near the old town.
Fishermen noticed that something was creating waves, tangling nets and releasing their fish. They wanted to capture whatever was causing this but they heard the creature sing and fell in love. A rich merchant however caught and imprisoned the mermaid. Hearing her cries, the fishermen rescued her. Ever since the mermaid, armed with a sword and a shield, has been ready to protect both the city and its residents.
Another expansion of the legend is that the ‘Little Mermaid’ in Copenhagen is the sister of the Warsaw mermaid and that they went separate ways from the Baltic Sea. Whatever the reason there is no denying the importance of the symbol of the mermaid to the people of Warsaw and there are many carvings and monuments dedicated to it.
Turning the corner of The House of the Mermaid you will come across Mala street. Even though now, all there is to see, are cracked window panes and faded, peeling paint you can still get a sense of the beautiful art noveau grandeur that once was. Bullet holes are still visibily evident in the building facades and some streets are very much in the same condition as they were in 1945.
Apart from the satelitte dishes dotted along the buildings and modern cars parked in the streets it is just like stepping back in time. You can easily see why Roman Polanski chose both Mala and Konopack streets to represent the Warsaw ghetto in his film ‘The Pianist’. Praga remained intact during the bombing of Warsaw and has therefore maintained its historic appearance.
10. Orthodox Church of St. Mary Magdalene
Last stop on my walking guide of Praga was the beautiful Orthodox church of St. Mary Magdalene and the Aposotles. It is a Russian Orthodox church that was built on the site of a destroyed Cathedral to show Russian dominance over the Catholics.
It is built in my favourite Byzantine style. The interior, decorated with rich polychromes of Sergei Vinogradov retains its original decor with gilded altars. The church survived WWII without any major damage and is now a priceless Praga monument – proof of the multiculturalism of the district.
So here my walking guide of Praga comes to an end. I am certainly glad that I took some time to explore this part of the city as I got a real feel of what life was like in Warsaw both pre-war and post-war. The more touristy side of the city is fun to explore but we are often left wanting to learn more about the reality of life in the city. My walking guide of Praga will leave you in no doubt about what life in this city is really like.
Follow my google map to get the exact walking guide of Praga.
You can also check out my guide to Warsaw at Christmas.
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