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Why rent a car in Warsaw?
Both the capital and geographic center of Poland, Warsaw is a vibrant, metropolitan city. With the ease of getting around the city and the wide availability of parking, though at a cost, Warsaw is convenient to visit with a rental car. However, the real benefit of renting a car is the ability to immerse yourself in the history and nature of Poland outside of its capital city.
Top ways to enter Warsaw
Most travelers flying to Warsaw will arrive at Warsaw Frédéric Chopin Airport (WAW). The airport is the largest in Poland and is located just 8 km south of the city center. The rental car desks are located in the terminal, either in the public arrival hall or on the mezzanine level.
A smaller number of travellers may arrive via Warsaw Modlin Airport. This small airport, as is often the case with airports served by Ryanair, is not actually in Warsaw, but about 40 kilometers north of the center of the city. Currently, Ryanair is the only airline serving the airport. Rental desks are available in the terminal and it is possible to book you rental car online.
With trains arriving from across Europe, many travelers may also arrive at one of the city’s three main train stations. Most trains stop at all three stations. Warszawa Centralny is the largest of the stations. It is also where travelers can pick up their rental cars.
Useful city facts
Warsaw was originally founded at the beginning of the 14th century. Its importance would grow over the following centuries until it would become the Polish capital when King Sigsimund III Vasa would move his court from Krakow at the end of the 16th century. The city would come under Prussian and Russian rule until World War I. After the war, the city would once again become the capital of an independent Poland until WWII.
The Second World War would devastate the city after Germans occupied, created a ghetto for the Jewish population, liquidated the ghetto, and finally razed the city after the Polish Uprising. Almost 85% of its buildings would lie in ruble at the end of the war. The city was painstakingly rebuilt after the war with many buildings, particularly those in the Old Town, built using pre-war architectural plans.
Finally, the end of World War II would follow with a Soviet-backed communist government coming to power. After four decades of communist rule, Warsaw was finally once again the capital of a free and independent Poland in 1989. Poland would later become a member of the European Union, with Warsaw as its vibrant capital.
Warsaw experiences a contenetal climate. If visiting during the summer, travelers will experience warm to occasionally hot weather. Precipitation may be present, but most days will be sunny and dry. Travelers should pack summer clothes and a jacket for cooler temperatures after the sun sets. On the other hand, in winter, travelers will experience cold and, more than likely, snow. Travelers should pack warm winter clothes during this time of year.
Travelers should be careful when it comes to exchanging currency in Warsaw. Do not, if at all possible, exchange money at the airport. If you must, only exchange the amount you need before you reach the city center. The same is true for the train station. Wait until you reach the city to exchange money. The rates given in the city center are usually much better than those at the airport and train stations.
One must be careful with currency exchanges in the city center, too. Know the approximate exchange rate before arriving and search for an exchange that offers a BUY rate as close as possible to it. This is important, as some places will trick potential customers by listing the sell rate first. Some will also play a trick with zeros, for example quoting 3.080 instead of 3.80. If not careful, you could fall for this and lose a significant portion of your money.
Another common ripoff is the exchange rate conversion when paying with a credit card or using certain ATMs. When paying in a store or restaurant you will be asked whether to pay in polish zloty or have them covert the purchase amount to your home currency for you. You will invariably receive a better rate from your home bank than what they offer, and sometimes their offer will be far away from the actual exchange rate. You should therefore insist on declining any offers of conversion and pay in polish zloty (i.e., use the red button on the card reader).
Top destinations and activities
- Old Town - Originally built in the 13th century, Warsaw’s Old Town sits on a hill next to the Vistula River. It was initially partly destroyed during the German invasion of Poland in 1939 before being completely destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising five years later. After the war, the buildings were meticulously rebuilt, often with the original materials scavenged from the rubble. Today, the Old Town is centered on the Market Square, hosts the Archdiocese of Warsaw and offers visitors the opportunity to visit the Royal Castle.
- Royal Route - Starting in the Royal Castle in the Old Town and leading south to the Wilanow Palace, the Royal Route follows the route taken between the Castle and Palace hundreds of years ago. Visitors can retrace those steps. The route is about 10km long. Beginning from the Castle, travelers will go down Krakowskie Przedmieście and ulica Nowy Świat, the most interesting section of the route. Further along, visitors will be able to visit Łazienki Park and the Royal Łazienki Museum.Finally visitors arrive at the Wilanow linow Palace and Park, where paid parking is available for those who wish to make the drive.
- Copernicus Science Center - This science museum located along the Vistula River in the center of the city hosts educational exhibitions for both adults and children alike. Visitors to the center are able to conduct experiments and learn about scientific laws for themselves. The center also has a Planetarium with English and Russian translations of the shows.
- Bar Mleczny - Meaning milk bar in Polish, bar mleczny were cheap cafeteria-style places for workers to eat started around the turn of the previous century. While the food was primarily based on dairy products (thus, the name) other items were also available, such as pierogi (dumplings). With independence and the move toward a capitalist economy, most of the milk bars were closed. However, a few still exist as nostalgia and offer traditional polish food at low prices.
- Museums - Warsaw has a great offering of museums for tourists. One of the highlights is the National Museum hosting a large collection of artworks from both Poland and abroad. The Polin Museum is a museum dedicated to the history of the Polish Jews from the times when Jews immigrated to Poland fleeing persecution in Western Europe to the post-soviet state of the Jewish community today. Another museum certainly worth a visit is Warsaw Rising Museum which focuses on the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 along with the allied airlift during that time. In addition to these museum, travelers can find various others located in the city focusing on a wider range of topics.
- Palace of Culture and Science - Constructed during the rule of the communist government with support from the Soviet government, the Palace of Culture and Science is a Stalinist architecture building located near the central train station. A multiplex cinema, theaters, and even a swimming pool can be found in the tower. Tourists often visit for the terrace on the 30th floor offering a panoramic view of the city. Nowadays the tower is controversial with many citizens viewing it as a reminder of communist times and the Soviet-backed regime.
Traffic and parking tips
As the Polish economy has grown, so has car ownership. With more and more cars on the roads every year in Warsaw, congestion keeps getting worse. In fact, Warsaw is one of the worst cities in Europe when it comes to traffic congestion. It would, therefore, be best if you could plan your travel times to avoid rush hour. Expect long delays when leaving the city in the late afternoon or early evening, particularly on Friday.
As with any city its size, parking is scarce in the center of Warsaw. During working days, all on-street parking in the center is metered. Parking is free during evenings and on weekends. Meters accept credit card payments and Polish Zloty coins, however, no change is given. There is also mobile app for paying, but for travelers, it is almost certainly more trouble than it's worth to register for it. Drivers can also many parking garages in the very center of the city, particularly near the larger hotels.
While there are no toll road in the City of Warsaw itself, there are in other parts of Poland. Of most concern for travelers to Warsaw is the A2 highway which starts on the outskirts of Warsaw and goes to Berlin. Traveling the highway to the border with Germany, drivers will encounter a tolls totaling 87.9 PLN (around 20 €) . Luckily, there are no tolls from the border to Berlin.
Driving from Krakow to Katowice will set back drivers 20 PLN and from Katowice further to Wroclaw 16.20 PLN more. Finally, from Torun to Gdansk, drivers have to shell out 29.90 PLN.
All tolls in Poland are collected at toll gates. You can pay with a credit card or cash in Polish Zloty, Euros, or U.S. Dollars, though only bills are accepted for euros and dollars with change given in zloty. While electronic tolling is available, vehicles must still stop for a closed gate when using the systems. Therefore, renters should not worry if their car supplier offers electronic options and plan to just pay at the gates.
Ideas for a day-trip
- Malbork - One of the symbols of Poland and one of its most visited tourist sites, Malbork Castle is the largest Gothic castle in Europe. Located about 300km north of Warsaw, it is reachable via the S7 road to Elbag and then road 22. Originally built by the Teutonic Knights, the castle is a stunning example of a medieval fortress. Opening hours vary depending on the season. In summer, guided tours are available once a day in English, German, and Russian. Audio guides are available ther rest of the time.
- Wolfsschanze - Outside Ketrzyn around 260km north of Warsaw lies the Wolf’s Lair. Constructed before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the complex was Hitler’s first military headqauters on the Eastern Front. It was built with security zones surrounding Hitler’s bunker. He would spend around 800 days here. The bunker is also notable for being the location of the most notable assasination attempt of him. The site has a small entrance fee and a small fee for parking.
- Kazimierz Dolny - Following the Vistula River south from Warsaw, drivers arrive in this small hamlet of a town. Kazmierz Dolny is a popular getaway, especially in the summer, for Warsovians. Sitting on a hill overlooking the Vistula River, the city has amazing views. Up the hill from the main square lies a castle with a guard tower that can be ascended for the best views.
- Lodz - Not pronounced Lods, but Wooj, the city is about 130 km west of Warsaw along the A2 highway. Lodz is Poland’s third largest city and a former industrial center in communist times. Piotrkowska Street is the main street of the city, and with a length of 5km, is one of the longest commercial streets in the world. Another draw for tourists is sightseeing of old factories in addition to visiting museums. Lodsz is also known as the film center of Poland with the most prestigious film school located in the city.
- Treblinka - While Aushwitz west of Krakow is the most notorious of Holocaust sites, Treblinka, about 100 km east of Warsaw, was a camp in which more Jews were killed than any other except Aushwitz. Due to the destruction of much of the evidence, there is only a small museum with limited exhibitions. However, due to the lack of visitors, the experience of exploring the grounds can be much more personal.
- Kampinos Forest National Park - Located about 15 km from the northwestern edge of Warsaw, the Kampinos Forest is a protected natural area rich in flora and fauna. The park contains paths for walking, horseback riding and in winter, cross-country skiing. Tourists can also visit various sites of historical importance to Poland. A side trip to Żelazowa Wola may also be of interest as the locations of the childhood home of Frédéric Chopin.
Most popular rental types and cars
Given the crowded city driving (and small parking spaces), it is natural that renters prefer smaller cars in Krakow. The most popular class of cars is the Economy, like the Ford Fiesta, followed by compact, such as the Opel Astra. The third most popular class of car is mini, of which the Fiat 500 is a good example.
Poland shares a border with multiple countries. While it is possible to take a rental car from Poland to other countries in the European for an additional one-time fee starting around 50 euros, it is forbidden to take a rental car to countries that are not European Union members, including Belerus, Russia, and Ukraine. If you wish to travel to these countries, it is best to take a train or fly to them and rent another car there.
- Krakow - The jewel of Poland when it comes to tourism is just a three hour’s drive south of Warsaw. Krakow is steeped in history with it’s gorgeous Old Town. The Wavel Castle sits on the south of the old town and overlooks the Vistula River. The city is also popular for Holocust memorials and museums, including Schindler’s Factory (made famous by the Steven Spielberg movie) and Auschwitz located 100km west of the city.
- Lublin - Less than 200km southeast of Warsaw, Lublin is also a popular tourist destination with an impressive old town of its own. The largest city in Poland east of Warsaw, Lublin also serves as a gateway to the region, including the renaissance city of Zamosc.
- Gdansk - A four hour drive along the S7 north of Warsaw sits the former Hanseatic city of Gdansk (known as Danzig for much of its history). Its old historic center and port draw many visitors along with its museums and the beaches of the Baltic coast. Its old center was mostly destroyed in World War II, but was rebuilt superbly afterwards.
- Bialystok - Located 200 km northeast of Warsaw, Bialystok is a gateway to northeastrn Poland and its natural treasures. Branickis' Palace, built by the wealthy nobleman for which its named, is the prime tourist attraction
- Białowieża National Park - The last primeval forest in Europe sits on the border between Poland and Belarus. On the polish side, Bialowieza National Park protects the forest. The inner part is a sanctuary that may only be visited with a guide. The other parts can be seen independently by either hiking or biking on the trails. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll see one of the park’s bison, the only bison left in Europe.
- Zakopane - During both summer and winter, poles flock to Zakopane for hiking or skiing. Sitting just outside the High Tatras National Park, this city has long been the mountain resort capital of Poland. The town and national parks make for a great day trip for those short on time. Many routes can be hiked in a few hours, including making it to the top of Giewont which overlooks the town. Of course, those with more time available will want to stay in Zakopane for at least a few days.
- Torun - Just over 200 km northwest of Warsaw via the direct route, or 260 km via the quicker highway route (these sections do not have tolls), Torun sit on the Vistula River just like Warsaw. However, unlike, Warsaw it was not bombed during WWII and is a rare example of original gothic architecture. In addition to strolling around the Old Town, visitors can also see the house where it is believed that Nicholaus Copernicus was born and sample the delicacy of the town, gingerbread.
- Berlin - Thanks to the A4 highway, Berlin is less than a six hour drive away from Warsaw. The capital of Germany is drenched with history from its time as the seat of Prussian government to the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the same time, it’s restaurants, cafes, bars and clubs create an environment begging to be experienced.
- Wroclaw - Travelers can drive down the S8 for about four hours to reach another historic polish city. With a history dating back more than a thousand years and having been a part of various political units, it is unsurprising that the old town is the big draw for the city. Visitors can also enjoy a number of different museums, too. The Sudeten Mountains are not too far south of the city and make for a nice trip from it.
- Baltics - The Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia can be reached via the E67, unofficially known as the Via Baltica, from Warsaw. These three republics each have a long, independent history together with a shared recent history being occupied by the Soviet Union. Latvia and Lithuania have baltic languages while Estonian is closely related to Finnish. A long coastline, almost all of which is sandy, along the Baltic awaits visitors along with Old Towns and incredible rural experiences, as the countries are much less densely populated than the rest of Europe.
- Brest - The gateway to Belarus from Poland, Brest is located around 200 km from Warsaw. The best way to reach the city is via train, either directly from Warsaw or by changing to a local commuter train in Terespol. The prime attraction in Brest is the Brest Fortress, built in the 1800s by the Russain Empire and would later see fighting during a surprise attack by the Germans in 1941.
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