The usual tour of Warsaw is limited to the historic places of the city center: the Old Town, the Royal Castle and the absurdly outsized Stalin-era Palace of Culture. It's all worthy fare, but for a different take on Poland's buzzing capital, hop over to the right, or eastern, bank of the Vistula River to explore the Praga district. The rough-edged, working-class neighborhood has recently turned into a funky haven for artists and a new focal point for the city's cultural and nightlife.
Spared the thorough destruction suffered by left-bank Warsaw in WW II, the area has preserved the 19th and early 20th century buildings not found elsewhere in the Polish capital. Under communism, it became home to the poorest of the poor, and its petty crime scared off most Varsovians.
With the onset of capitalism, Praga's main thoroughfare, Zabkowska, has been partly renovated, and young local artists have moved in, attracted by low rents and an abundance of postindustrial space. Now cool galleries and bars coexist with crumbling historic buildings that harbor Virgin Mary figures in their backyards.
Since Praga is rarely included in regular guidebooks, you might want to start with a visit to the Info-Praga tourist information center halfway up Zabkowska Street at No. 36, tel: (48-22) 67 00 156, www.infopraga.pl. "We advise tourists what to see but also which streets to avoid," says Julia Plachetka of InfoPraga. "Nothing bad ever happened to me here, but the legend of dangerous Praga is still alive."
A stroll down Zabkowska from west to east offers a blast of vibrant street culture, but be sure to peek into the quiet courtyards of the buildings that line it. At No. 13, for example, you can see an external wooden staircase dating back to 1870. Stop for Italian-style antipasti at Lysy Pingwin bistro, 11 Zabkowska Street, tel: (48-22) 616 02 56, or for a sandwich at the antiques-furnished W Oparach Absurdu café, which also has live concerts starting at 8 p.m. on weekends (6 Zabkowska Street, tel: (48-22) 660 780 319; www.oparyabsurdu.pl).
On your left you will pass the century-old red-brick Koneser vodka factory, 27-31 Zabkowska Street, soon to be turned into expensive lofts. The factory's vast warehouses are now a haven for art. The Luksfera gallery sells the works of local photographers, tel: (48-22) 619 91 63, www.luksfera.pl. At the Magazyn Praga store you can buy carpets, lamps and furniture by Polish designers, tel: (48-22) 670 11 85, www.magazynpraga.pl. The Bochenska gallery (tel: (48 22) 670 21 90, www.bochenska gallery.pl,) and the Wytwornia Theater (tel: (48 22) 741 23 05, www.teatrwytwornia.pl) both promote young Polish artists. You can also stop by a kiosk in the old factory that offers a large selection of -Polish quality vodkas.
Thus fortified, you can dive into another culture cluster further down the street. The Melon photography studio and café, and designer-clothes boutique Pracownia 3, are tucked into former warehouses at 3 Inzynierska Street, www.inzynierska.pl.
Continue down Zabkowska and you'll encounter the finest example of a former factory turned into an arts center at Fabryka Trzciny, 14 Otwocka Street, tel: (48 22) 619 17 05, www.fabrykatrzciny.pl. The place used to manufacture marmalade and shoes; now it houses an elegant bar and a fine restaurant with outside seating in good weather featuring such classic Polish fare as stuffed cabbage, and pierogi filled with sweet cottage cheese. A meal like that is one great way to crown a day sampling Praga's artful mix of old and new.
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