Looking for a quick précis of 20th-century European history? Few capital cities do it better

Why go now?

Why go now?

For those who like to spend their city breaks idling in a pavement bar, there will never be a reason to go to Warsaw - imagine something akin to Coventry, flattened by war and heavy-handed city planners, then run by a bunch of Rusophile totalitarians for 40 years (that's Warsaw, not Coventry), only to be invaded by neon lights and McDonald's outlets at the end of the last century. Yes, there is a gorgeous, albeit fake, old town, but the main reason to visit Warsaw is for the history, and what better excuse than the anniversary this month of the end of the Second World War?

Beam down

Lot Polish Airlines (020-7580 5037) and British Airways (0345 222111) have a comfortable duopoly on direct flights to Warsaw (four to five a day from Heathrow and one from Manchester), and will charge you some £200 for a weekend stay there during May and early June. You may save a few pounds by booking your flight through regional specialists such as Regent Holidays (0117 921 1711) or, if you're prepared to undergo a rather tortuous game of musical planes via Brussels, Frankfurt or Copenhagen, you may get something even cheaper (try City Bond Travel, 020-7408 1535). And take the shuttle or regular bus service (number 175) into town as the airport taxi Mafiosi shouldn't be encouraged.

Get your bearings

Arriving in the city you'll see the jagged ramparts of the Palace of Culture and Science, your ever-present reference point for the visit ahead. To its east, sandwiched between concrete and the wide Vistula river, lies the historic strip which stretches down from the reconstructed New Town to the leafy avenues of the Lazienki gardens.

Check in

The most stylish place to stay amid the city's dearth of quality accommodation is the late 19th-century Hotel Bristol, a trot from the old town on Krakowskie Przedmiescie (00 48 22 625 2525, doubles from £250). If you're looking for something cheaper and don't mind red polyester curtains, brave the Polonia (Aleje Jerozolimskie 45, 00 48 22 628 72 41, from £20) or the slightly cheaper Saski (Plac Bankowy, 00 48 22 620 4611). There's also a well-placed youth hostel 100 yards from the Powisle train station (Ulica Smolna, 00 48 22 278952).

Window shopping

Head down the city's show-piece street Nowy Swiat for a rather familiar range of perfumeries and fashion boutiques. Much more fun is the Stadion Dziesieciolecia across the river, where the best in smuggled Russian and Ukrainian goods are on sale in a former football stadium (open daily until around noon).

Lunch on the run

Head further down Marszalkowska to Café Brama for a well-priced selection of savoury sandwiches and pasta dishes in a contemporary atmosphere. Alternatively, if you want to sample the fast-disappearing Communist-era "milk bars", then perhaps first among these people's eateries is Bar Szwajcarski (Ulica Nowy Swiat 5), where you can queue with tramps, students and down-on-their-luck brokers from the Warsaw Stock Exchange across the road for such uniquely Polish delights as pierogi (pastry-enclosed globules of cottage cheese/cabbage/mushroom) or kluski na parze (sweet dumplings with a range of calorific sauces, yum, yum).

Take a ride

The 30th-floor viewing deck of the city's most indelible landmark, the Palace of Culture and Science, is open 9am to 6pm daily and is about the only place in town where you can't see this hideous present to the Polish people from Joseph Stalin. Designed by Soviet architect Lev Rudniev, the palace was erected in the early Fifties and in a hallucinogenic manner combines a Socialist-realist torso with "national" detailing. At 758ft high and with sufficient floor-space for 20 football pitches, it's nothing if not incongruous.

The icing on the cake

If you were captivated by the pithy moral tales of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue and wish to walk in the footsteps of Tomek, postman star of A Short Film about Love or Jacek, the taxi-driver assassin in A Short Film about Killing, make your way to Ulica Sebastiana Bacha in the Mokotow district of town (take the metro line to Sluzew).

A walk in the park

Unless you want to join the pious Catholics who pack round the back doors of the capital's over-crowded churches, Sunday morning is the time to head down to the former royal gardens, popularly known as Lazienki. Not only are there ducks, ponds and ice-cream on offer, but miles of water-edged paths, a miniature island palace, a wind-swept memorial to Varsovian-done-good Fryderyk (sic) Chopin, a neo-classical arena and - backing onto the park high up above the trees and avenues - the Belvedere Palace, the former official residence of electrician turned president Lech Walesa.

Bracing brunch

There's sadly very little physical evidence of Warsaw's thriving pre-war Jewish community. The heroic uprising in the Jewish ghetto - a month-long fight-to-the-death in 1943 by the ghetto's remaining population - very much takes a second seat to the Warsaw Uprising, while a sprawling series of high-rise residential blocks now populate the old Jewish quarter. You'll find the central monument to the Jewish uprising on Plac Bohaterow Getta. If you're looking for traditional Jewish food, the best option is the Ejlat restaurant at the start of Aleje Ujadowskie just south of Plac Trzech Krzyzy.

Sunday morning, go to church

You won't find many examples of Fifties architecture quite like Warsaw's Old Town (Stary Miasto) and the misleadingly-titled New Town to its north (Nowy Miasto). A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city's historic core was razed to the ground by the Nazis in the aftermath of the Warsaw Uprising but re-built almost brick by brick in the post-war years as Polish national pride and the Soviet propaganda machine found rare common cause. The almost is important: in re-constructing two of the Old Town's churches - Katedra Sw. Jana Chrzcicela and Kosciol Najswietszej Marii Panny - planners opted for a Gothic conversion as they strove for a more medieval look. The Royal Castle, meanwhile, is a Seventies re-invention.

Demure dinner

Top of the list for a good slap-up meal has to be the wonderful Qchnia Artystyczna, where you can dine on the absolute best in "post-modern" Polish cuisine for just over £10 a head - either in the imaginatively-styled interior of a genuine Polish castle or on the adjacent terraces overlooking Lazienki park. The menu includes some bizarre but surprisingly digestible combinations and the potato pancakes in dill sauce are recommended (Aleje Ujadowskie 6, 00 48 22 625 7627).

An aperitif

If the Palace of Culture wasn't enough to get you racing off to the Old Town for some quaint refreshment, hop on a tram from the Rondo Dmowskiego roundabout and take in the Bolshevik boulevard that is Ulica Marszalkowska, down to Plac Konstytucji where a bona fide socialist utopia awaits you in the form of the MDM (Marszalkowska Dzielnica Mieszkaniowa) residential area. The first thing to grab you will be the three gigantic copper-green streetlamps - austere and immovable obelisks, each topped with a decidedly non-monarchic crown of glass columns. The square was originally intended as a rallying point for the Partied proletariat, but in recent years has played host to a hoard of Vietnamese and Chinese box-bars.

Cultural afternoon

The Warsaw Uprising is absolutely pivotal to Warsaw and to Poland as a whole, being a richly symbolic tale of oppression, resilience and martyrdom upon which the nation fed during its long isolated period of communist rule. Some 250,000 Poles, most of them civilians, died during this failed attempt by resistance forces to liberate the city from Nazi occupation and the capital is strewn with candle-lit vigils to the dead gunned down on this corner and that street. The City Museum (Muzeum Historyczne Miasta Warszawy, open Sat and Sun 10.30am to 2.30pm), on the old town square, offers graphical evidence of the destruction wrought on the city during and after the uprising. Or, head to the New Town and explore the family home of Madame Curie, discoverer of radium and polonium. That's Pani Maria Curie-Sklodowska to the Poles (Ulica Freta 16, open Sat 10am to 4.30pm, Sun 10am to 2.30pm).