It may not be high on everyones bucket list as an ‘ideal place to live’, but Warsaw offers an inexpensive, safe and cosy expat experience. To really get the most out of this city and country, you need to scratch the surface and dig a little deeper, but you will be rewarded. Aesthetically, it will not ‘wow’ initially, especially your route in from the airport through various industrial zones and building sites, but be assured it only gets better. Remind yourself that after WWII, Warsaw was left in ruins by the Nazis and about 80 percent of the city was destroyed. Next came the rather harsh Soviet rule for 40+ years. But Poland has picked itself off the floor and reinvented itself . No wonder the spirit of the locals is one of total perseverance, hope and energy.
One of the biggest hurdles in the first few months and indeed years is the language. Although more and more Polish people, especially in Warsaw, speak good English, there are many who do not. It is therefore worth taking time to learn the Polish basics to complement the hand signals, the pointing and the constant bleeting of ‘Nie mówie po Polsku’ (I don’t speak Polish). The Centre for Polish studies is widely used for Polish language courses www.learnpolish.edu.pl +48 22 826 19 04. Alternatively, look in school newsletters for private teachers who will often come to the house and make it a family affair.
Setting up your stall: A neighbourhood guide
Relocation agents, on automatic pilot, usually whisk expats off to the Warsaw leafy residential expat enclaves of Wilanow, Mokotow and further south to the city of Konstancin. The international schools are based within easy reach of these areas and have a large percentage of the expat population, so they are high on the list.
Although your Polish neighbours may not be at your door to welcome you on day one, you will probably find that relationships flourish between locals and expats, given time. Often Polish children in these areas go to the international schools so will speak good English and become buddies with the expat children. Once in the fold, your Polish neighbour will often be a great source of insight in to the Polish culture and local knowledge. From navigating markets, cooking traditional Polish dishes and where to escape for the weekend, they will all be golden nuggets.
Wilanow is a sprawling, leafy residential area around Wilanow Palace, the Royal Summer Palace. The area is a pleasant suburb and good for access to the British School of Warsaw (in Mokotow but on the Wilanow side), German School, European School and a whole host of very good pre-school options. The bus service does run from the city to Wilanow but it is advisable to have a car. Cycling is also on the up as new cycle lanes have now been introduced.
There are also distinct areas within Wilanow itself. ‘Old Wilanow’ is the area in the immediate vicinity of the Palace housing older style villas and a quaint row of shops and restaurants along the Palace stretch. Plenty of buggies and toddlers with ice creams can be spotted during the day here. At the restaurant Nowa Kuznia, there is even a beach set up for kids with diggers and slides.
New Wilanow is often referred to as the modern area with a vast and getting vaster array of modern apartments around the Medicover Hospital. Criticised at first for its lack of infrastructure and its building site appearance, this is improving and blocks are being finished - slowly but surely. Apartments here are generally smaller and less expensive than in some other areas of Wilanow.
The area of Wilanow near the river (Visla) is referred to as the ‘Syta’ or ‘Zawady’ area. This houses a number of modern compounds with large and luxurious modern houses. Expats wanting to have safety in numbers often huddle here and benefit from a truly international set (including the wealthier Poles) and good opportunities for car pooling to school.
Further south is the area of Powsin which is largely residential with older style family homes and close to a huge park and botanical gardens. It has a rural feel with good access to bike paths and the river. A new main road is under construction on the northern edge of the area for the next few years which may be great for access to other parts of the city but may cut its rural feel.
The Mokotow area lies directly south of the city centre with easy access to the business and shopping centres of Warsaw and has good public transport links. The British School of Warsaw (Early Years campus) is situated in Old ‘Stary’ Mokotow nearer the city centre and the main campus is in the Sadyba area of Mokotow. Another small but popular enclave of Mokotow is Stegny which also houses the popular pre school, the English Playhouse. There are good shopping opportunities in malls nearby notably Galeria Mokotow and Sadyba Best Mall. Expats get quite excited about the malls and their facilities, including kids centres which are a godsend when you have thick snow for months on end.
Konstancin is a small spa town in its own right, about 10km south of Wilanow. The American School of Warsaw (ASW) is situated here. ASW families often choose to live in the guarded compounds surrounding the school so that children (and their parents) can walk to school and socialise easily. Many families start off outside the ‘compound’ and move in at a later stage once they recognise the benefits. For some expats, Konstancin offers all they need with good supermarkets and ‘Stara Papiernia’, a small and attractive shopping centre in converted paper mill. Very much an expat bubble, but for some families that is exactly the ticket.
Other areas worth a look
Saska Kepa on the ‘left bank’ houses the secondary school of the French Lycee; therefore many of the French families settle here as well as the Polish politicians and the more arty and media types. It has a village feel with old villas nestled under the new National Stadium. It has one of the best strips of neighbourhood pavement cafes in Warsaw, on Ulica Francuska and a great park ‘Skaryszewski’. For access it is just a short tram or even walk to the Old Town of Warsaw; access to the international Schools in Wilanow and Mokotow takes about 20-30mins by car (traffic depending).
Śródmieście or downtown is often suited to those who want to feel the beat of their host city. Less suited to family life due to the absence of larger houses and gardens, many expats decamp here when they become ‘empty nesters’. It offers some modern apartments often in renovated older blocks and has great access to the parks of Lazienki for an evening stroll or Saski Park.
A few ‘home’ truths
Many expats are offered relocation agents as part of their initial package; popular options are Homeselect.pl and Homeone.pl. They are usually necessary to bridge the language gap between you and the landlord. Be prepared to negotiate and if the price is fixed try to push for the added extras.
· Mosquitoes are prevalent in Warsaw and the topic is discussed as much as Brits discuss the weather. Make sure your landlord fits insect screens particularly in the Wilanow area near the river.
· Getting internet at your home can be frustrating experience in your first few months in Poland. If possible, put into your rental contract that the landlord must set this up for you.
· Ask that the locks to your house are changed before you arrive and fit the house with an alarm. Although violent crime is rare, burglaries can occur when the expats decamp for the long summer break.
Landlords often manage their own properties so try and interview him/her on your visit. They will be your lifeline to getting any work done, information when (not if) there are power cuts, and for day-to-day enquiries typical with any new house.
Often the ‘good’ expat houses are passed on within the expat community through word of mouth. If you are looking to change your house in the future keep your ears open to who may be moving at school and leap in there.
Warsaw is very much a driving city wherever you live. Three lane highways link much of Warsaw and traffic is generally not too bad. Rush hour does present queues, but compared with the commutes of Moscow and London it is a breeze. On the downside, the country as a whole has bad reputation for dangerous and speedy driving and you do need your wits about you. Road furniture does not seem to be a barrier as cars overtake on the left and right, perform U-turns across pedestrian crossings and mount pavements. Shrines across the country demonstrate the scale of accidents so take care. A few tips:
· Carry your documents. The police do routinely stop cars and will ask for your documents. You should carry personal ID such as driving license and passport, vehicle registration and insurance.
· Do not drink and drive and be careful in the morning after a big night out. The tolerance level is much lower than the UK (0.2 milligrams per millilitre compared with 0.8 ). (If in doubt, grab a cab)
· On the minor roads particularly around Konstancin and Wilanow, watch out for horse drawn vehicles still very much used around harvest time; nearer the city, watch out for the odd drunk.
· Change your tyres ‘opony’. Winter tyres are required for the snowy conditions so book your car in to be changed with plenty of time (mid October).
Taxis are inexpensive and plentiful and well used by the expat community. Belt up and don’t be afraid to ask drivers to slow down when you are not comfortable.
SAWA: 022 644 44 44
Ele: 0 22 811 11 11
MPT: 22 1 9191
A good safe and reasonably cheap service runs throughout Warsaw although many expats do not use it extensively, as Wilanow and Konstancin are too far out to really benefit. Go to www.ztm.waw.pl to find bus, tram and metro schedules. Information about travelling by public transport available also at www.jakdojade.pl
Cycling is on the up. A few years ago it was a lottery as to whether you would arrive at your destination unscathed but now more and more cycle lanes are being opened linking the city. Warsaw has also introduced the public bike ‘Veturilo’ system so you can grab a bike and go – many do.
Saying that, bear in mind this is not The Netherlands and driver mentality is not necessarily bike friendly. In some cases bike lanes are not respected beware at intersections when the system sometimes goes to pot.
Although healthcare system in Poland is free, it often provides poor quality services and long waiting times. For those who prefer to avoid public hospitals, private medical insurances are the best choice. Even then, the downside is that the system is fragmented and appears a bit cobbled together until you get used to the process.
In emergencies, you are best to call the English speaking Medicover Ambulance Service on 22-19677 or Medicover Hotline on 500 900 999. If you have a medical emergency that is not life threatening, it is best to call the emergency number of your family practice. They can then direct you appropriately. It is not advisable to head to the nearest hospital as they may not be the emergency ‘receiving’ hospital that day and you may lose precious time. The ambulance service or your GP will find out which hospital you should go to. There are two childrens’ hospitals in Warsaw (Nieklanska in Saska Kepa and Litewska Hospital in the city centre). Again the procedure as above should be followed in case the hospital is not admitting.
Expats favour two practices which are both located in Wilanow. Dr Dorota Ossowska is a household name for expats. Her practice, Healthcare International Family Practice, has served the expat community in Warsaw since 2000. It is English speaking and very much replicates the UK GP service. You can usually get an appointment the same day, particularly for children.
For specialist treatment the practice will refer you to smaller specialist centres across Warsaw. It may seem like a wild goose chase just to have a few x-rays and tests but they are thorough and it works in the end. They offer direct insurance billing with the larger companies e.g Bupa and PPP. Address: ul. Chorągwi Pancernej 50 m, Warsaw 0228580101. www.health-care.pl. The other favourite, also based in the Wilanow area, is Dr Andrzej Gajer at the Wilanow Family Practice. Address: 37/90 Ul. Kosiarzy, Warsaw 0226427404. www.wilanowfamilypractice.pl
Damiana Hospital in Ul. Walbrzska 46 to the south of the Mokotow area. Tel: 022 566 2222. www.damian.pl. The building looks fairly grim and outdated but it houses a facility well used by expats for in house general surgery. Also a popular place for maternity needs.
Medicover however is the new favourite. The group is based in locations around Warsaw but the draw is the new state of the art hospital in the New Wilanow area. The entrance hall even houses a grand piano. Comprehensive medical cover for members and non-members with a variety of ‘packages’ available. The most popular services used by expats are the obstetric and gynecology departments and the department of childrens health (open 24/7) 022 857 20 00 www.medicover.pl.
Astermed benefits from a convenient location just opposite Sadyba Mall and a few minutes walk from the British School and the French School. Covers basic dentistry, orthodontics and implants. Expat children often opt for friendly and English speaking Barbara Montefka. 022 858 0354, www.astermed.pl.
Villa Nova Dental Clinic again conveniently located in Wilanow offers a full dental service with more glamorous aesthetic dentistry and full makeovers so that everyone can feel like a star. 022 651 66 22 www.villanova.pl
Getting connected can be a frustrating business. The websites are not in English and it can take weeks to set up and even then you may not be sure you have the right deal. The best option is to have your landlord get the ball rolling so that these services are ready to go when you move in.
Polish TV offers a wide range of public radio & TV stations as well as cable & satellite TV. Mass entertainment has reached Poland and versions of Masterchef and talent shows are big hits here. Expats looking for English speaking channels including SKY and BBC Sports packages usually opt for Sat Service www.satservice.pl. They are English speaking, efficient and will guide you through the best options for your home.
If you would rather have a Polish service, NC plus www.ncplus.pl is the largest satellite provider in Poland following the merger of n and Canal Plus-owned Cyfra Plus. Based on a premium offering it appeals to sports fans.
www.cyfrowypolsat.pl is a one stop shop offering satellite TV, internet and telephone. Many expats combine with Satservice to be truly connected.
For the cable options Aster city is popular option again offering the media package of TV, internet and telephone services.
For fixed line telephone and internet services netia.pl is a common choice.
As mentioned before almost all cable TV providers offer also broad-band internet and telephone services. The biggest telephone network provider former public telephone company TP (Telekomunikacja Polska) offers its internet service Neostrada up to 20 Mb. Neostrada provides also satellite internet.
It is advisable to have a mobile as a comfort in a foreign city...with a Polish speaker you know on tap in case of any difficulties. Providers offer deals and it pays to shop around with most offering pre paid and monthly contracts are used. A good start is T-Mobile showroom at Marszalkowska 83 in the City Centre who can also arrange fixed lines or visit t-mobile.pl. Other choices include:
Plus GSM (plus.pl)
Many expats relish the abundance of keen, youthful and very reasonably priced nannies and cleaners. Many come from the Ukraine and Romania and may not have a great grasp of English but still often become core to family life. There are two main agencies in Warsaw which are readily used by expats. Nanny Express (www.nannyexpress.pl) and Pro Work (www.prowork.com.pl). Help will be fully referenced and you will pay a healthy premium for the introduction. Many expats prefer to have help personally recommended so look out for adverts on school notice boards, ask around or post a request on the ‘Mums and Tots of Warsaw’ facebook page. Its active members are very helpful in this field.
Often expat families move in the summer and like to depart on holiday to recover much to the dismay of the furry friend. Warsaw does however have some good options for pet boarding. The following come recommended:
First you have to cross the river and brave the bumpy road. If you do make it, it is very much a private house and not a centre for pet discipline. Dogs roam freely in the house and garden and sit on sofas. But pets are happy and Ewa is a trained vet herself and loves dogs. www.kothotel.pl. Ewas daughter Ursula speaks English +48 608 389 901
Hotel dla Zwierzat in Konstancin is a more traditional kennel set up and also has a vet office on site. +48 22 754 39 19
Adam (email@example.com) is household name for expats with dogs for boarding, walking and training but needs to be booked early. He often takes his canine ‘boarders’ off to the Mazury lakes during their stay. A real holiday for dogs so owners never feel guilty. +48 604 249 159
WILA-VET in Wilanow offers 24 hour vet care with English speaking vets. +48 22 642 77 55, ul. Kosiarzy 37, in Wilanow, www.wila-vet.pl.
Food Glorious Food
If you type Polish food in to Google images you will get a sea of yellow/brown pictures. This depicts traditional Polish food which is indeed plentiful around Warsaw taking the form of golonka, (stewed pork knuckle) pieroggi (dumplings), kielbasa (sausages)…all washed down washed down with a plentiful supply of vodka (wodka) or beer (piwo).
Rest assured that Warsaw lives up to its name as an energetic and moving forward capital city with the will to experiment. Many restaurants spring up every year, some close pretty quickly and some ‘wow’. In fact Warsaw now has 34 restaurants awarded a Michelin star.
Start with www.warsawfoodie.pl just to wet your appetite. Then head out to:
Butchery & Wine for top steaks and a kitchen clearly passionate about food. Expats will always see a friendly face dining here on weekend. Cosy in winter when most of Warsaw seems to hibernate. Top tip: begin your evening with a spectacular view and cocktail at the Marriotts Panorama Bar just a few minutes walk away. www.butcheryandwine.pl
With the sushi mania of a decade ago now waning, it is the burger joint which is now ‘on trend’ in Warsaw. Warburger is a hot favourite near the Early Years campus of the British School, feeding stylish burgers to large loyal following in a tiny cabin. www.warburger.pl.
Mielzynskis wine bar in the north of the city has the cool warehouse in cool courtyard vibe and for a long weekend lunch it is a treat. Simple but good food with an amazing selection of wine to handpick direct from the crates. Often the legendary owner. Robert Mielzynski, will be on hand to guide you through the choices. www.mielzynski.pl
Papaya on ul. Foksal serves Asian food with a distinct Thai focus in one of the best locations to people watch and for a summery buzz in the hotter months. In winter the draw is the teppanyaki grill with all its theatre. www.papaya.waw.pl.
Just to sample that yellow food phenomenon, head to Zapiecek in various locations around Warsaw. The pierogi or dumplings here are the main draw as are the maids in traditional dress who serve them. If beer hall atmosphere is craved, instead try Podwale Piwna Kompania for huge wooden platters of polish food. www.podwale25.pl.
Flaming and Co is a Warsaw institution. Great throughout the day but a talking point are the indulgent breakfasts and beautifully white and stylish interiors. www.flaming-co.com
Brasserie Warszawska always ranks on the top Warsaw list. A classic in terms of food and décor and atmospheric restaurant with black and white checked floor high ceilings and red leather couches. www.brasseriewarszawska.pl
Aioli gave Warsaw the informal social hub it lacked with cantine, bar, café and deli all in one. www.aioli-cantine.com
For a neighbourhood café in the Sadyba /Wilanow area NABO offers a Danish theme, a clean and inspiring kids corner and plenty of opportunities to bump into expat mums. The entrepreneurial sorts also meet here so expect a colourful array of I-pads. www.nabocafe.pl.
Indulgent Sunday brunches are still an expat ‘thing’ in Warsaw. The all you can eat and drink buffet and entertainment for children can be a winning combination on a drizzly Sunday. Many school events for parents to meet are held at brunches with favourites being: The Hilton, The Sheraton, The Intercontinental and the Westin.
Obtaining your ‘Food Glorious Food’
Despite some very good and well established supermarkets and hypermarkets, there is a good chance that you will not find everything on your list from one place. Look upon preparing for a dinner party as a treasure hunt and enjoy exploring Warsaw through its food outlets. And if it all goes wrong and only home comforts will do, head to M&S in the Zlote Tarasy mall in the city centre or the British Shop around the corner on Emilii Plater 12 (www.britishshop.pl). They may be more pricey than the supermarkets but it will all seem like stepping in to Poundland if you have just moved from Switzerland!
In the first few weeks…
Online shopping: when Polish does not roll off the tongue and confronting a grumpy cashier is not the preferred route, there is the welcoming option of an online shopping service with a website in English. Well used, reliable and stress free. www.frisco.pl.
Online delivery: when you want someone else to do it for you can click on roomservice.pl for meals delivered to your door. Quattro Canti is also a well used pizza take out with neighbourhood restaurant in Wilanow 509 644 559, www.quattrocantri.com.
Supermarkets and Hypermarkets:
The higher end supermarket chain Alma has been multiplying across the city. Expats have been heard to call it their alternative to Waitrose in Warsaw with meat nicely presented rather than a display of roadkill behind glass. It has a boutique food shopping feel to it with good international sections. Popular Alma stores include Konstancin (Stary Papiernia), Wilanow (Al. Rzeczypospolitej 1 in New Wilanow) and across the river in Promenada Shopping Mall.
Piotr and Pawal, another high end (for Poland) store also is located opposite the American School of Warsaw in Konstancin. Carrefour in Sadyba Best Mall is also favoured as a reliable stop after morning drop off handily situated next to the French School and the British School. LIDL, in Konstancin a good option for stocking up and the odd cheap and cheerful purchase.
For a larger hypermarket experience there are a few good options to the south of the city. The most popular being E.LecClerc on Pulwawska Street, REAL on Pulwawska Street, Tesco in Ursynow, and Auchan in Piaseczno.
A few tips…
If you attempt to pay for your shopping with a 100pln note when the shopping is just a few pln, the cashier will show a face of extreme irritation. Try to keep a stash of small coins at the ready for such small trips. They may just shrug their shoulders and wave you away if they do not have change. Most shops do take cards but markets and smaller boutiques will only accept cash (and sometimes not the larger notes).
Check whether you need to weigh fruit and vegetables before you buy to avoid more cashier huffing and puffing.
Poland is also becoming eco friendly so take re usable bags with you. If you forget you can ask for a ‘reklama’.
Using the markets can take a bit of courage initially but try and find a friendly Pole – a parent from school, a language teacher etc... who can show you the ropes. They are messy, sometimes smelly (river fish rotting in buckets of water) but they are cheap, colourful and very much part of a local shopping experience.
A local favourite is Sadyba Bazaar next to Sadyba Best Mall which has some great fruit stalls and a destination bread stop.
The indoor Polna Market near the Politechnika metro stop was traditionally where the expats would head for some tastes of home. Today it hosts some good delis and also a famous Warsaw butcher who has now opened another door in New Wilanow. Pricey, but you can also bag a few exotic treats whilst you are there.
Hala Mirowska, an indoor and outdoor market north of the city centre is a part of real Warsaw equipped with elderly people chatting and known for its flowers and cheap fresh and seasonal produce. A must to visit in a slightly dodgy but slightly special way. Visit at lunch time and drop in to Asia Tasty in the back corner of the market for great and cheap Asian food.
And finally: toilet humour
Internationaly reknowned following a revamp for the European Cup in 2012, the loos in Warsaws main train station are light years ahead of anything you would expect from a station restroom. Worth a peek but remember, in public toilets, a circle symbolises a female and a triangle a male.
News and What’s on:
There is always something going on in Warsaw from the fun to the obscure and numerous festivals are held throughout the year with music, sporting and cultural themes (there is even a Labrador parade).
www.warsawvoice.pl English Language weekly newsletter.
www.wbj.pl English Language business weekly.
www.poloniatoday.com As it says ‘The World's Most Visited Polish American Website in the English Language.
www.newpolandexpress.pl. Weekly news, entertainment and sport – online.
www.warsawinsider.pl Get a printed copy (available from book stores, hotels, schools…). Consider this your bible to eating out and entertainment. When all establishments have been ticked off you have thoroughly ‘done’ Warsaw.
www.warsawfoodie.pl Food glorious food radar for Warsaw.
www.stationwarsaw.com City Tour Guides with a great blog page. Look here for up to date articles including 10 best summer beach bars in Warsaw.
www.spottedbylocals.com/warsaw Experience Warsaw like a local.
www.inyourpocket.com Easy to navigate essential city guide. Informative but not bland. Even gives you a guide to the best loos in the city.
Expat Clubs and Organisations
Both the American Friends of Warsaw and the International Women’s Group in Warsaw were set up to support expats, helping to create networks, arranging for opportunities to help the communities of Warsaw through charity and to help expats enjoy their stay.
www.afw.waw.pl American Friends of Warsaw.
www.iwgwarsaw.eu International Women’s Group in Warsaw.
www.mumsandtots.pl Active international community of mums and dads. A must for families with pre school children for the preservation of sanity in a new city.
www.warsawfrogs.com Warsaw expat Rugby Club accepting new and recycled rugby players of all skill levels and body types.
Tourism and Travel
www.warsawtour.pl Fall in love with Warsaw. The official tourist website of Warsaw. Warsaw Tourist Information provides very comprehensive information about the city and in particular what there is to do for children. All brochures are available to download from www.warsawtour.pl/en/brochures.
www.um.warszawa.pl Live, visit, invest. The official website of the City of Warsaw.
www.poland.travel What to see, where to go, how to travel. Even has a section on Polish manners.
www.ztm.waw.pl The place to go for information on buses, trams and the metro in English.
And when it gets to minus 20 and its time to leave the country:
The above fly from Warsaw’s easy and convenient international Chopin Airport. Ryanair flies from Modlin Airport a good distance north of the city. Modlin opened with a false start, a cracked runway and was followed by the desertion of some carriers. Both airline and airport may be improving but the combination is still not the best start to a holiday.