Take a Sunday stroll in the heart of Warsaw

Try a taste of traditional Polish cuisine or just wander with an ice cream, says Ursula Buchan
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The Independent Travel

C hoose Poland as a destination for a short European break and people will immediately think you're off to Krakow, the capital of the country for more than 500 years and a fine medieval city which survived the devastation of the Second World War.

C hoose Poland as a destination for a short European break and people will immediately think you're off to Krakow, the capital of the country for more than 500 years and a fine medieval city which survived the devastation of the Second World War.

The chances are that they will compare it favourably with Warsaw, citing the awfulness of the Stalinist architecture of the latter, exemplified by the ridiculous monolithic Palace of Culture and Science (a strange gift from the USSR to the people of Warsaw) and remarking how the Germans destroyed the city almost entirely after the 1944 Rising.

So they did, but what makes Warsaw such a fascinating place to visit is the way that the centre has been so meticulously and faithfully reconstructed. There are dozens of wonderful neo-Classical and Baroque churches and civil buildings, such as the National Theatre, stately thoroughfares including Krakowscie Przedmiescie and Nowy Swiat, and picturesque old squares, such as the mediaeval Stare Miasto. It is hard to credit how much was built from the ruins at a time just after the Second World War when both money and Communist control were so tight, and after Warsaw had sustained the loss of almost 300,000 lives.

Warsaw is bisected by the River Wisla (Vistula), with the most historic parts on the left bank: from the New Town and Barbakan at the north end, via the Royal Castle and Old Town along the so-called Royal Route as far south as Lazienki Park and Wilanow Palace. The frequently tragic history of Poland can be traced here in monuments, palaces, museums and a vibrant cultural life: the invasions by a succession of armies; the partition by foreign powers in the 18th century; the legacy of Poland's monarchy; its Jewish population, finally exterminated after the Ghetto Uprising in 1943, and the destruction of 80 per cent of the city after the Polish Home Army rose up against the Nazis in 1944.

Intermittently, over the past 500 years, there has been relative peace and tranquillity and this is exemplified in a number of fine 19th-century parks, notably Wilanow and Lazienki. The latter contains not only the small, old-fashioned but rather charming botanical gardens, but also fine parkland trees, up which red squirrels clamber, the Secessionist monument to Frederic Chopin and the Palace on the Water, which straddles a canal where fat carp lazily break the surface with their fins.

Although there is much to see, it is as much fun simply to enjoy a lazy Sunday as Varsovians do. First there is mass (churches are packed on Sundays, and I recommend the 17th-century Church of the Holy Cross in Krakowskie Przedmiescie where mass is recorded weekly for national radio, as demanded by Solidarnosc in 1981), then a stately wander, in the company of entire Polish families, through the Old Town, obligatory ice-cream in hand, before sitting in an open-air café on the square, in front of an Okocim or Zywiec beer.

And Poland is cheap. A first-rate meal without wine costs about £25 for two. "Without wine" is the mot juste, because it is nearly all imported and is comparatively dear in restaurants. Restaurants are a delight, especially those serving traditional Polish cuisine, such as Restauraca Polska (Nowy Swiat 33) and the cheaper and hearty Pod Sansonem, opposite Marie Curie's house in Ulica Freta, just north of the Old Town. Cafe Blikle in Nowy Swiat, first opened in 1869, with its restored Art Nouveau decor and delicious ice-creams and pastries, is uncharacteristically pricey but worth it for the atmosphere.

Getting around the centre of Warsaw is not difficult, although the harsh paving demands comfortable shoes. There are trams, buses and a metro, for which you buy tickets beforehand. It makes sense to buy them in multiples from the yellow-and-green Ruch kiosks, so you do not get caught without any at weekends when the kiosks are closed.

Warsaw is not yet served by budget airlines. But my ticket for a scheduled flight on the national carrier, Lot Airlines (Poland's national carrier) cost only £182 for a direct flight from Heathrow at a civilised time of day.

Poland is on the cusp of change: Western capital has poured in since the fall of Communism in 1989 and the country voted in a referendum this June to join the EU. Prices are bound to rise, and soon. If you are looking for an intense and very moving cultural and historical experience without breaking the bank, visit Warsaw without delay.

Return flights to Warsaw start at £140 in September with LOT Polish airlines (0845 601 09 49; www.lot.com). British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) offers return fares from £180. The Hotel Harenda (00 48 22 826 26 25; www.hotelharenda.com), at Krakowskie Przedmiescie 4/6, offers b&b in a double from 810 zlotys (£140) for three nights. English-language information sheets are available from the tourist office (00 49 22 9431) in Castle Square (Plac Zamkowy). For further information contact the Polish National Tourist Office in London (020-7580 8866; www.pnto.dial.pipex.com).